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Alan, Alien

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Alan at 2 years old, before he crossed the border for the first time; below, at his grandfather's 52nd-birthday party in Acatlan in Osorio in 2003.  

Alan insists that he was never afraid of the Puerto Ricans, even when they ganged up on him, even when it was five against one. He is afraid, though, of Freddy from A Nightmare on Elm Street, Jason from Friday the 13th, and Chucky from Child’s Play. “Chucky is real, real mean,” he says. He vows to never again watch a Chucky movie. “Why would I want to? It’s not fun.”

He is also afraid of the police. “I used to have lots of nightmares. Like, there were lots of cops that were chasing me, and they were going to catch me and never let me go and keep me forever.” He explains this fear quickly, wanting to leave it behind. In some ways, it is a universal childhood anxiety—being chased and caught—but in other ways, it is Alan’s very own, a product not of an overactive imagination but of life experience.

In February 2003, Rafael’s father, Catalino, suffered a massive heart attack and spent four days in the hospital in Acatlán. Word came to Brooklyn that it didn’t look like he had much time left, and Rafael and his sister Elizabeth began to plan a trip home. “He was sick,” is what Alan remembers, “and I wanted to go to visit.” Although his parents knew that 6-year-old Alan’s return trip to Brooklyn would be costly and complicated, they agreed to let him go: It could be his last chance to see his grandfather, who had been like a father to him in the early years of his life, after Rafael left for New York. In March, the family flew to Mexico, a trip for which they needed only their Mexican passports. Margarita, who had just started a new job folding clothing at a factory, decided to stay behind.

When they arrived at the house, Catalino was sitting in a chair in the living room. Alan ran up to his grandfather, hugged him, and began sobbing. Soon Catalino was crying as well. “My father was the kind of person who almost never showed any emotion,” Elizabeth says of the event. “He never cries about anything, but he was crying when he saw Alan. They were very close because Catalino practically raised him; it was where he grew up. Alan always wanted to be with hisabuelo. Even after he came to Brooklyn, he would talk about him every day.”

Rafael had only a week off from the restaurant where he worked, so when his time was up, he left America and Alan with Elizabeth and made his way back to the U.S., flying to the town of Mexicali and then hiking for ten hours across the border into California. In April, Rafael’s cousin Salomon, who is a legal U.S. resident, flew from Brooklyn to Mexico to pick up America. Alan was furious that he couldn’t fly home like his sister. And the explanations he received weren’t convincing.

“I yelled at my tía about why my mom didn’t have me in America if it’s so important, and she told me that it wasn’t possible.” The logic escaped Alan: He had been well behaved on the airplane trip to Mexico, after all—much quieter than his sister. So when it came time to say good-bye to America and Salomon at the airport, Alan couldn’t stop crying tears of frustration and anger. “I guess they thought I needed a passport,” he says now. “Or maybe that I was a murderer?”

Either way, it was time for him to make the second illegal journey of his short life. The following week, he and his aunt Elizabeth said good-bye to his grandparents and got on a bus headed for the Mexico-Texas border. When they got to Nuevo Laredo, Elizabeth called her parents to check in, but no one answered. They were already at the hospital: Catalino had suffered another heart attack. Holed up at a border motel, Elizabeth kept reminding Alan that if they got captured by Border Patrol agents, he needed to remember to say he was her son, so that they wouldn’t be separated.

After two days of waiting, the coyote told them at dusk that they would be leaving the next day. Sitting in his bedroom with Daniel as a Spanish-language talk show plays in the background, Alan tells the story. Each of the seven people in their group was given a life preserver, and Elizabeth kept a firm grip on Alan as the two waded into the Rio Grande. “It was fun because I was in the water, like all over,” Alan says. “The water was dark green, really dark. I think it was fun ’cause it was my first time ever in a river. Even my arms were wet. And there were two men that helped pull us onto the other side.”


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