As promised, I am posting the interview I conducted with Juan Patricio's parents when they were in El Paso to attend a Mass commemorating their son's death at the hands of the Border Patrol.
Grief: An Interview with Cesar Peraza and Irene Quijada
I arrive at the downtown Travelodge for an interview with Juan Patricio Peraza Quijada’s parents on a Sunday morning. Later in the day, there will be a Mass on the street where their son was shot. Their visit to El Paso has been arranged by the Mexican Consulate’s Department of Protection, and Enrique Moreno, a prominent El Paso attorney who was recommended to represent the family’s interests by the Consulate in order to assist them with any legal or personal issues that might arise with regard to their son’s death.
They are expecting my visit. I call the room and inform Mister Peraza that I have arrived. “Si,”he says, “el abagoado nos dijo que querias platicar con nosotros.” He tells me they will be right down. And then he asks me, “Eres reportero?” I tell him I want to write a story on the death of their son, but that I am not a reporter. They take a while to come down to the lobby of the hotel. I pace and a series of questions run through my head.
When they step out of the elevator doors, for some reason I recognize them immediately—though I have never met them. In fact, I know next to nothing about them—except their names, Cesar Peraza and Irene Quijada. I know, too, that they are divorced. She lives with her current husband in Puerto Peñasco. He lives with his current wife in Mexicali. They both have children from their second marriages, and they make it clear that their younger children adored Juan Patricio.
“He was playful and affectionate, and not just with his younger siblings, but with everybody,” his mother says. “He was the kind of man that didn’t mind telling people he loved them.” His father nods. “Yes, everyone liked him. Everyone loved him. Just like he loved them.”
I learn that Juan was their second child, and their oldest daughter is named Maria del Rosario. They remind me that his older sister was devastated when she helped her father identify her brother’s body when the Fax arrived at the Consulate’s office in Puerto Peñasco. As they describe their son’s moving back and forth between their two separate families, I get the feeling that Juan Patricio was something of a symbol of unity between the two families—or at least, his mother and father saw him that way. They describe a young man, perhaps easy to love, but a young man who was independent and kept his distance, lived his own life.
As the conversation progresses, it becomes clear that Cesar and Irene have been divorced for a much longer time than they were ever married—yet, inexplicably, they appear comfortable in each other’s presence. Perhaps, today, the only important thing is that they share a loss. As we speak they do not argue or interrupt each other—at least no more so than any typical married couple. They are respectful of one another, and they appear, at times, a little confused by the whole turn of events. They are people of humble means and there is no guile in the way they speak to me. They hide nothing. Even here, in this ordinary hotel, they seem to be uncomfortable. This, for them, is almost lavish. I pretend not to notice their discomfort. I ask them if they would like coffee, make conversation as they study the breakfast menu. I ask them questions, not so much as a reporter would ask a question, but as an acquaintance who is about to show them around a new city. I decide I would make a much better tour guide than a reporter. They are quiet for a moment, tentative, but neither one of there two people are shy. It doesn’t take long for the conversation to get going
Cesar Peraza describes how he’s made a living over the years by selling tacos on the streets. He explains how he’s made a cart by using two bicycle wheels. He is proud of the business he has built up over the years. On a typical day he sells 120 tacos. He nods, saying it’s not bad considering that “Mexico horita esta muy empiojada.” An expression that refers to the current economic crisis in Mexico. “Pero siempra estamos empiojados,” he adds. He re-enacts a typical day, and recalls conversations with clients who refer to him as “Chaparrito.” He is, of course, a short man—though there is nothing frail about his sturdy frame. He has dark eyes, dark skin, a friendly voice. He seems happy with his work, and content with his life. He works hard, he goes home to his family. He provides for them. There is something very young about Peraza’s eyes. His face, for now, seems ageless. For all of the time and energy he spends selling tacos on the streets of Mexicali, he seems not all worn down or tired. He knows he’ll never be rich, but there is nothing despairing in his tone as he speaks of his life—except when he speaks of the death of his son. That is when his voice breaks. His ex-wife cannot bear to hear the hurt. She looks away.
Peraza recalls how Juan Patricio, at the age of nine, wanted to become a lawyer. “My son asked me if I would help him reach his goal. I told him, of course. I encouraged him to do well in school and he did. I told him that’s what he needed to do if he wanted to become a lawyer. He was smart. I knew he could do it. He always made nines and tens at school [I translate this to A’s and B,s in my head as he speaks]. He wanted to help his mother. He wanted her to have a more prosperous life.”
The first thing his mother, Irene, tells me about her son was that he was like all young Mexican men. “He wanted to come to the United States and make a good living for himself and for his family. That’s what all Mexican men want to do.” She says this and looks at me—as if she is also trying to make me understand that her son committed no crime. As if she wants everyone to understand. And not just me, but the whole country. The logic is so simple and clear. So obvious. Can’t you see? She keeps repeating her statement, and then adds that he was only doing what his uncles had done, what so many other young men had done before him. “Y luego lo mataron,” she says. But then she catches herself—as if it is too early in our conversation to be uttering such harsh accusations—though she herself does not seem sure as to where she should aim the anger she is trying to control.
She nods, then I ask her to tell me about her son. She begins at the beginning. Juan was born on October 23, 1983 at a hospital in Mexicali. She says he was a happy child, very intelligent, always made good grades. At the age of nine, he had decided to become a lawyer. “But he was only nine, but he was going to be something,” she says. “There was something inside him.”
They speak of many occasions, little things, small incidents that add up to a life. “On this occasion when he came to stay with me . . .” So that is the way it was. Juan Patricio constantly traveling back and forth between two families. Community property—belonging to everyone. Perhaps, belonging to no one. His father recalls, how he came to stay with him. On this occasion, Juan Patricio comes to work with his father. His father buys him clothes, and finds a job for him laying tile. With his first paycheck, he decides to buy his younger brothers, Cesar (12), Sergio (9) and Noe (7) a Nintendo game at the Flea Market. He spends almost his entire paycheck (700 pesos) on this second hand American game. “They played the game all afternoon. He made his younger brothers so happy. But it made me sad to think of it. He should have been saving his money to get into law school. But he wasn’t practical. He was playful and affectionate, and did things just because they entered his head.” Here, his father stops. He looks at me. “Do you know why they killed my Juan?” He looks at me. He wonders if I am on his side or on the other side, or anybody’s side at all. He knows I am a U.S. Citizen. I feel the weight of that citizenship.
He looks at me as though I must have an answer. I look back at him and tell him I don’t know. He looks back at me. I know he wants to believe me. We both turn our attention to our cups of coffee. I drink mine black. He takes his with sugar and cream. We live in different countries.
His mother smiles when she thinks of the promise he made to her. “I’m going to build you a big house.” At the age of sixteen he took up boxing. “He had a trainer and he got on a circuit and boxed in the area. He was good at it. He liked the money.” His father explains that he had thought of joining the Army when he turned 18. At least as a soldier, he could have a more secure life. In the end, he decided against the idea and returned to Mexicali. The phrase, “era muy inquieto,” comes up again and again. Restless. Always moving. But also always working at one job or another. For the money, but not just that, his father says. “He was good at everything he did—laying bricks, setting tile. And he was always helping someone.” He tells me stories, about this friend and that friend, about what he did for them. He has a list of examples of his son’s generosity. He becomes a trial lawyer wanting the jury to understand the worth of his son’s life.
“He was happy,” his mother says. “He was an entertainer. He wanted to make other people laugh. He liked to play practical jokes, he liked to dance. He used to love Cantinflas and he was well-liked by everybody. I think he thought of being an actor, but you know, well, that wasn’t going to happen . . . . I remember he told my sister before he left to the United States, ‘tell my mother I love her. Tell her I’m going to make it.’” She looks at me. “Does this man who killed my son, does he know what he has done?” His father nods. “No sabe,” his father says, “no sabe ese señor lo que hizo.” He nods. “I don’t say they’re all bad, the Border Patrol. In this country, because you have a democracy, it’s good. But there are bad elements everywhere. I don’t say they are all bad—but if they know of a bad one that is among them, well they must get the bad one out. And I keep asking why? Why? Why did they have to kill him? Why not aim for an arm or a leg? If he was surrounded, there was only a question of taking him down—but taking his life? Why? Why did they have to kill my son?”
“Yes,” his mother says.” The why will make me crazy.”
I take notes, I listen. We eat together. A simple, ordinary, typical El Paso breakfast. Irene Quijada eats menudo. He eats huevos con chorizo. They nod. It does not seem as if they enjoy their meal. The body needs sustenance, and so they eat. I asked to see them. They have done me the favor of speaking to me. But they need little prompting from me to tell me what’s on their minds. They seem glad and eager and relieved that someone is willing to listen. They have lost a son. They are poor. They are Mexicans. No, let me rephrase that. They are not just Mexicans. They are poor Mexicans. And they hope. That’s what the poor do, they hope. They hope that by talking to me that something will be different. But what? What can I do? I know that there are many unspoken hopes that are passing between the words we exchange.
In the end, they have more questions for me than I have for them. They want to know if justice will be done. They want to know why their son was killed. They know they have to wait for answers. But they are impatient. But more than impatient, they are numb. Grief is not difficult to recognize. “All he had was a dream,” his mother says. She looks at me. “You clipped the wings of bird who can no longer fly. Please don’t kill anymore of our sons. Don’t kill anymore Mexicans who only want to work.”