On Saturdays, when Alan’s father works a twelve-hour shift as a cook at a nearby restaurant, his best friend, Daniel, comes over to play. If it’s warm they run about, and if it’s cold they sprawl out on the mattress in Alan’s bedroom, which he shares with his parents and younger sister, and play video games. It is cold right now—two homeless men will be found frozen to death tomorrow in Brooklyn—so they are inside, and Alan’s 9-year-old face, normally gentle and wrinkle-free, is stuck in a grimace. He’s losing the fight.
Alan and Daniel’s favorite Sony PlayStation game is WWE Smackdown! vs. Raw 2006. Professional wrestling. Alan has chosen to be Rey Mysterio, a Latino wrestler who wears a hood like the Lucha Libre fighters of Mexico, and he’s getting pummeled by the much larger Stone Cold Steve Austin. On the television screen, Rey Mysterio attempts a kick, but Stone Cold catches and holds his leg. It looks like it might be all over. “He’s okay, he’s okay,” Alan insists between clenched teeth, pressing an assortment of buttons. Mysterio pivots and jumps, landing his free foot on Stone Cold’s face. “Mysterio is my favorite,” says Alan, as Stone Cold falls to the mat. “That move always works.”
Alan may have won this round, but Daniel is the undisputed king of PlayStation. (“Daniel has had a PlayStation for, like, forever—I only got mine last Christmas!” he explains.) So Alan looks to him for combat hints and other useful information.
“Was Mysterio born in Mexico?” Alan asks Daniel, as his character comes crashing down on the face of Stone Cold, elbow first.
“No, he’s from California. But his family’s from Mexico.”
“Oh,” Alan says, disappointed. “What about Eddie Guerrero?”
“Nah, he’s from Texas. It’s only his family that’s from Mexico.”
“I wonder if any of them were born in Mexico,” he says quietly, more to himself than to Daniel, “or if they all get to be born here.”
Alan pauses the video game, and his facial muscles finally relax. “I wanted to be born here,” he continues. “Because if you get your teeth all messed up and you’re born here, you get them fixed for free. But if you’re an immigrant, you have to pay. And I could go anywhere I want, ’cause I’d have a passport.” Daniel, who was born here but whose parents are from Mexico, nods in agreement without taking his eyes off the television.
Alan stretches his arms above his head and picks up the video-game controller. He directs Mysterio onto the top rope of the ring, where he lunges into the air, coming down with a violent crash but missing the opponent by several feet. “Oops,” he says, smiling. “I hate myself when I do that.”
Unlike his idol Rey Mysterio, Alan was born in Mexico. His hometown, Acatlán de Osorio, is in the southern region known as the Mixteca, which encompasses parts of Puebla, Oaxaca, and Guerrero. It is estimated that two-thirds of Mexicans living in New York originate from its remote farming towns, some of the driest and least arable areas of the country. Alan’s parents, Margarita and Rafael, weren’t poor by local standards—they helped run the family bakery—but in the nineties, several new panaderías sprouted up in Acatlán, and business slowed. In 1998, Rafael decided to follow the path blazed by his older sister, Elizabeth, who had moved to Brooklyn with her husband six years earlier.
“It was what a lot of people were doing,” says Rafael.
“He was just going to work in Brooklyn for a little while and then come home,” says Margarita, nodding. She was just 20 years old at the time, a striking girl with black hair she kept tied in a ponytail. As she watched her husband climb aboard a midnight bus from the central plaza of Acatlán, she carried Alan on her hip. He was just 16 months old.
A little while stretched into a long while, and in April 2000, after two years of washing dishes, cooking omelettes, and earning dollars rather than pesos, Rafael suggested that, rather than him coming home, his wife and child should make the 2,500-mile journey north.
Margarita knew the trip would be arduous, especially for a 3-year-old. “I didn’t want him to have to cross illegally and maybe get hurt,” she explains. To minimize the risk, she arranged for a coyote, or human smuggler, to obtain a birth certificate for Alan. This was the plan: Margarita would ride across the All-American Canal near Mexicali on an inflatable raft with five other migrants, and Alan would pass through the immigration checkpoint in Tijuana, about 50 miles away, with a smuggler who had the proper papers. The whole thing would cost $2,000, and Rafael would wire the coyote the money. The catch was that Alan had to remember to lie: If asked, he would need to say that his name was José, to match the birth certificate, and that the smuggler, Arturo, was his father.