ILLEGAL – Chapter One – The Birth of an Identity

Lacing up his shoes; bringing down the house, Jose Pena tracked through the world of despair and hopelessness to leave a little truth and righteousness.  After the trouble, his academic career soared, but during those difficult times he thought himself to be a coward because he was not allowed to participate in the prevention and exposure of the heinous acts of violence set upon his family and friends.  He was too recognizable, too much of a target.  But after, he showed no mercy to those who made their life hell.  Those unknown kidnappings, rapes, murders, and acts of oppression came out and appropriate culpability identified.  What he accomplished, was the rooting out and exposure of hate groups all over the United States through his research.

This was the plan for his life and he knew that he would be successful in his efforts to right the social injustice around him. He was an academician and proud of it. Yes, he was a little eccentric.  But, that was all part of his charm, and Janie kept him grounded.  Thank god for Janie.  They were a team, and their children were definite reflections of the team in every way imaginable.

Jose “Rush” Pena was grateful for the acts of kindness shown him as a child and later this assisted in obtaining his coveted scholarships to Harvard.  As immigrants from Mexico, his parents only hoped for the chance to feed and clothe their children.  School was a happy byproduct of the American dream. His mind was always active, always looking at the conditions surrounding him and his family and neighbors, especially recognizing the inequalities because of the color of their skin.  Brown was a common skin tone in his hometown, but the people in power were white.  Their progeny were never taught the ideology of inclusive equality among all Americans, and it was easier to implement business as usual.  Mexicans were accused of crimes, stopped on the street for no reason, held back for employment promotions, and treated like second class citizens in school.  These were all injustices that Rush vowed to abolish when he could.  This oath was strengthened when he and his family endured brutal prejudice and the heartbreak of violence.

There was a span of time, from his age twelve to around nineteen, that Rush and his family suffered the most hateful acts Mexican-American immigrants and undocumented immigrants bear at the hands of vigilantes and bigoted hate groups.  In addition, the drug cartels from Mexico had a profound effect upon border town communities.  This trifecta created violent living conditions and increased poverty and despair.  Even though a common belief was that hate groups dominated the Southern states, Rush discovered that many of these prejudices prowled all over the United States and were not confined just to his part of the country.

His neighborhood was in the Mexican community of Laredo, Texas; a border town affected by the drug trade.  They lived and loved together and celebrations were a clear celebration of the Mexican identity.  The neighborhood Catholic Church was led by a Hispanic priest so all of the baptisms, weddings and sacraments were celebrated Mexican and the quinceanera was incorporated into the church landscape as if it were a sacrament originated by Jesus himself.  Our Lady of Guadalupe was its patron so her prominent image was present in most Mexican-American homes.

Rush’s most peculiar characteristic was his sense of style.  He loved the color red; like a red hot chili pepper.  Red tennis shoes, jogging shoes, running shoes, were his trademark, and oh, who cared, he loved them.  Owning seven pairs of various styles and brands, he jazzed through high school, college, and graduate school in his hot, red shoes.  Even when money was short, Rush found a way to buy his shoes.  Nothing, not anything could stop his soul’s eruption; a signal that a brilliant comet had arrived on the scene.

This mission to clarify his identity was what got him into trouble in the first place. It was this constant hustle to distinguish his essence that christened Jose Miguel Pena with the simple but appropriate name of Rush.  The development of his persona began after an encounter brought about by his own impatience.  He was twelve years old.  In the mall, the Footlocker had the juiciest, reddest, cross-trainers Rush had ever seen, and that lightning bolt appliqué on the side just sweetened the deal.  He yearned to own such a unique label of his bold and powerful personality.

The problem was they were $89.95 and a poor, twelve year old Mexican immigrant didn’t have that kind of money.  Selling blankets, his mama still worked a stand in Mercado Maclovia Herrera in Nuevo Laredo, and his father found work in Laredo as a janitor.  They managed to make ends meet without financial help from their children, and they were proud of that, and so was Rush.  He never felt denied anything, except when it came to his shoes.

He waited outside the Footlocker in the mall until near closing.  About five minutes before, Rush walked in checking the inventory out like a regular customer.  The clerks were already busy with counting down the cash drawer and cleaning the store for lights out. Rush found a way to slip into the stockroom and hide behind a stack of boxes.  When the lights went out and the store was locked for the night, he stumbled out of the back room, walking into counters and knocking over displays.  Man, its pitch black in here.  Didn’t think this through real well, now did I?   A startling oot-oot-oot pierced the unnerving darkness.  Footlocker had a motion detector.  Before Rush could think about an escape plan, the doors sprang open and two mall cops were all over him.  As he was dragged out of the store, he took one more longing glance at the red hot, hot-tottiest shoes he had ever seen.

Rush imagined his mama and papi; so ashamed of their middle son.  The mall cops put him in an unmarked car amid attempted explanations and pleas for reprieve.  The jig was up and Rush felt stupid.  His parents, man, oh, man – his parents were going to kill him.  It seemed like they drove forever before reaching their destination.  They pulled into a deserted stretch of land where the only building seen was a decrepit barn leaning in the moonlight.

The fake cops pulled him out of the car.  “Come on you illegal brat.  We’re gonna send you back where ya belong.  Can’t be here in our country, stealin’ and murderin’.”

“Hey, man. I’m not illegal; get your hands off of me.”  The cops threw Rush into a horse stall that was now a jail with bars and a lock, and one of them spit his direction.  Rush turned to see another boy around his age in the stall with him.  “My name is Rush.”

The boy spoke to him in Spanish. “My name is Jorge.  You speak English.  Are you from Mexico?”

Rush responded in Spanish.  “My papi and mama are from Mexico, but they immigrated to the States before I was born.  I am an American citizen.”

“Oh, this is not good.  You need to get out of here.  These men are very bad.  My parents sent my sister and me across the border to get away from the killing, and you know, the kidnappings in our town and we met our cousin, who was waiting for us and who is American.  These guys caught us and brought all of us here.”  As Jorge spoke, a girl’s blood curdling scream came from the other side of the barn.

“No, don’t, don’t do this. I am an American.  You have made a terrible mistake.” There was a struggle and screaming and the sound of clothes ripping and flying fists punching and slapping against human flesh.  The girls’ screams were chilling and desperate.  The beatings went on and on.  During this insanity, a girl shrieked in Spanish.  “Stop, stop it. She is not illegal.”  The cries and screams of both girls were deafening, but they dissipated into the barren, rural air heard by no one of consequence.

Rush sat frightened and stunned while Jorge shouted threats and obscenities until there was silence.  The men left and muffled sobs could be heard from the unseen girls.  Jorge called out, “Elena, are you alright? Are you conscious?”

“Yes, but I think Maria is not and she is so bad she might die.  Oh, god, she is not conscious … Jorge, you must help us.”

The men were outside the barn drinking.  Jorge knew that any minute they would return to inflict their misguided, drunken wrath on them.  He had to work fast.  As anger flared in Jorge’s eyes, he began to dig in the corner of the stall where he had already started a tunnel under the barn.  Rush, adrenaline pumping, scrambled to help him and together they managed to dig a hole big enough to squeeze through.  Tearing skin and snagging clothing as they wriggled under the rough barn boards, they crammed themselves one at a time through the small opening.  The boys ran as fast as they could and gained only the length of a city block ahead of heavy running footsteps behind them.  A gunshot echoed loud and threatening in the black night.  Jorge’s fleeing body dropped.  Rush surged on frightened as he ducked into a wooded area.  He wanted to turn around to help Jorge, but he couldn’t.  They needed help.  As he ran, he listened for the sound of those heavy running footsteps behind him, but instead two more shots rang out; then silence.  Rush’s heart hammered against his chest as he gasped for breath.  Terror engulfed him.  Blood pumped through his eardrums, but not far away he heard the voices of the two men.  Frantic, Rush found a tree to climb.  High into the atmosphere she cradled him in the sanctuary of her leafy bosom.  He prayed that she would keep him safe from the savage men still looking for him. Down below, the men came closer.  He held his breath and froze.

“Little bastard can really run.  No matter, the Alliance will catch up to him.  Let’s go.  I’m tired and hungry.”  They walked away sporting shotguns over their shoulders as if they were merely hunting coyotes.

There, nestled in the tree’s branches, Rush found asylum until he was certain the beasts chasing after him got into their car and drove far away.  He was hesitant to leave the security of the tree, but he forced himself to work through the fear and somehow climbed down and started his hike to the nearest road in order to report the murder of his new friend.  The brambles of the woods clawed at his ankles and the anxiety he felt labored his breathing.  It seemed he would never reach his destination, and after what seemed like hours, the two lane highway trekked by the fake cops on the way to his confinement appeared.  A truck came rumbling by and stopped when Rush flagged it down.  The driver was a young Latina, a reassuring sight after his visit to hell.

“Hey, Niño.  Aren’t you a little young to be out here so late?  Can I give you a ride somewhere?”  Rush looked straight through the woman and before he could speak, passed out on the side of the road.  When he came around, the woman was holding him and patting his face.

In shock, Rush tried to speak. “I’m sorry.  It’s awful.  We, we were chased by cops and they shot and killed Jorge and … help me, please.”

“That’s okay, Niño.  Maybe the best thing is to get you to a police station.  My name is Lupe, by the way.  Come on; upsidaisy.”  Lupe struggled to help Rush to his feet, but once in the truck he was able to tell her everything that happened.  After a while, Lupe picked up where Rush left off.  The burden of conversation was too much for him, so her incessant talking proved to be a pacifier.  He was lulled into a state of sweet boredom by her even Texan cadence.

At the police station, Rush sat bewildered.  He needed to tell them about the murderous jack asses, but did he have to admit his guilt in an attempt to steal those shoes?  As his chin hugged his chest, he knew that not only his parents, but his brothers would be so disappointed in him.

The door flung open to the interrogation room.  In walked a tall Latino man.  His demeanor was bold but calm.  “Hello, Jose. My name is Alex Jimenez.  I’m a detective with the Laredo PD.  You want to tell me about these murders?”

“I, I still can’t believe it happened.”  Rush told the detective everything about his capture, and about the shoe store and how the mall cops put him into an unmarked car and drove him out to that horror-filled prison.

“Boy, you were caught in a shoe store?  Why?  There was no money there, so what did you want from that store?”  Detective Jimenez loomed over Rush like God himself.  He was an intimidating man, but Rush believed that there was concern in his voice not blame.

“Shoes.  There’s this cool pair of red shoes with a lightning bolt on the side.  I just wanted them so bad and, well, I have no money.”  Rush did not look at the man standing beside him.  He was too embarrassed.  All he could think was that he was a Mexican thief.  Was he a murderer, too, just like those brutes?  But, what was most important was what happened out there in that desolate place under the moonlight.  “The shoes don’t matter anymore.  What matters is what those men did to those kids.  The boy’s name was Jorge, and the girls were Elena and Maria.  I don’t know anything more about them, but I can take you there.  The men said that something called the Alliance would find me.  Can they do that?  Can they hunt me down like that?”

“Slow down, Jose.  You are safe.  Are you sure they said the Alliance?”

“Yes, I’m sure.  I don’t think I will ever forget it.  What is the Alliance?”

“It’s an organization we have been tracking for a while now.  The full name is the Alliance Against Illegal Immigration, but what it really is, is a license to kill.”

Rush felt sick to his stomach.  After everything he had witnessed he still was just another Latino kid destined to be seen as a thief.  Stereotypes were to be avoided and he stepped right into a big one.  There was no room for childish mistakes in judgment.  Perceptions of Mexicans were unfair, and now he would be seen as lazy, not working for anything, and taking whatever he wanted.

“Really … red shoes.  Why?”  Alex scoured the boy’s expression realizing that there was more to this act of thievery than sheer greed.

“Look, are my parents coming?  They are going to be so mad at me.  I have never done anything like this before.  I, I don’t know what to say.”

“I’m sorry is a good start.”

“Yeah, okay.  I am sorry.  I don’t know what came over me.  Those shoes just called to me.”

“Why?  Why outrageous red shoes?  Some might think they are ugly.”

“No, man.  They are flashy and cool.  They make me want to go fast, run through life, you know?”   As he spoke, his parents burst through the door.

“Rush!  Are you alright?  It’s no wonder you weren’t killed, too.  What did you do?”   Mama Pena was shaken.  She had been wringing a hankie with one hand and holding her rosary in the other.

“Rush!  This is not the way of the Pena family.  You are an American citizen and you must be grateful for your freedom.  You have a responsibility to our culture.  What were you thinking, Nino?”  Miguel Pena was a stout man, and a righteous one.  He raised his children with calm and firmness and always included honor as part of the lesson.

“Mr. and Mrs. Pena, my name is Alex Jimenez.  I am a detective with the Laredo Police Department.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you, but I’m so sorry for the circumstances.  Rush is a good boy.  This is not like him at all.  And see what came from this?  Estupido!”  Rush’s father was mortified to the core.  His face was sullen, but he was upset by the thought that his son could have fallen prey to such horrific acts of terror used against undocumented immigrants.

“Let me tell you what is going to happen.  An attorney is going to be appointed on your son’s behalf.  Since it is his first offense, he most likely will be placed on probation.  More importantly, we want to nail the mall cops for the murder of those children.  If what Rush says is correct, one of the girls was an American citizen.  The other two were for sure murdered, and the men will face charges for that, but the case is strengthened if the one girl was American.  Then we can really go after them for murder here in Texas.  The only thing is that Rush must testify to what happened tonight.  Can you do that Rush?”  Rush nodded his head up and down furiously.  “As for the charges that will be levied against him for the attempted theft at the mall, I think Rush’s attorney can get the county prosecutor to drop them in exchange for his testimony.  Do you have any questions?”

“Wait.  Did you find the bodies?   Are they really dead?”   Rush wanted confirmation.

“As soon as you were brought in, the young woman who found you gave the police directions to where she picked you up and it was easy to find the barn you described.  It is the only structure for miles around – a good place for the Alliance to hand out their sanctimonious form of justice.”  Alex swallowed hard.  “I am sorry, Jose. The children were found dead.”

Rush felt sick and he now appreciated the enormity of the position he had been in and what could have happened but didn’t. “Did you find those cops?  They will come after me and kill me, too.  Did you find them … are they locked up?”

“We did find them, but let’s make one thing clear.  Those men are not cops, but sick, perverted bigots.  They were in a bar drinking and bragging about how they stopped three more illegals from entering the country.  Rush, those sonsa’ bitches are locked up away from decent people.  Now, it is your responsibility to put them away permanently with your testimony. Will you do it?”

Blood raced through Rush’s veins causing his head to pound with rage for the loss of three innocent children.  In other circumstances, they might have been his good friends. They might have laughed and shared stories and played games.  But, their lives were snuffed out – just like that.  He didn’t know them well, but he knew them well enough to conclude they didn’t deserve to die at the hands of those animals.  In a cold and determined voice Rush replied, “Yes, I will testify.”

“When does he have to go to court for his mistake?”  Mr. Pena’s voice was stern.

“They haven’t set an exact time, but within the next few days.  Since Rush has agreed to testify against those men, his appearance before a judge will be short and he won’t be incarcerated.  You can take him home after his initial appearance.  Mr. and Mrs. Pena, can I have a word with him alone?”

“Of course.”  Rush’s mother and father left the room feeling the burden placed upon their shoulders by a son they did not understand.

After they left, Alex said, “Rush?  Where did you get that name?”

“My mama always says that I am in such a rush to get places and to understand everything.  I guess I don’t stand still very much, so the nickname stuck.”

“Oh, I see. Well, Rush, can I call you that?”  Rush nodded.  “What do you think about all of this?”

“I want to make it up to my family.  This is not something that I ever thought about doing.  I’ve seen others in my neighborhood steal, but that was to survive.  Sometimes the old people will boost tomatoes from the market, or some fruit.  There are others who make a living from stealing, but those are gangs.  I’m not into that.”

“No one has ever asked you to join a gang?”

“Sure, plenty of times.  I try to stay away from their street corners.  Books are my thing.  I love to read about other cultures, other places.  I see how Latinos are treated.  It’s unfair. We just want a better life in America.  Someday, I am going to make a difference for people.”

“Yeah?  How do you think you can do that?”  Alex was starting to like him. Rush’s confidence in himself was inspiring and Alex could see why no one called him Jose.

Rush’s inner energy exploded.  “I don’t know.  I haven’t figured that out yet.  But I will.  It’s out there, somewhere.”  His face looked tired from the ordeal.  One he never expected to experience in his life, and one he never wanted to experience again.  He could not get the saying his grandmother used around the Day of the Dead out of his head, “Se me subió el muerto,” or, “the deceased climbed on me” (they really scared me).

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