LAX—The worst goddamn airport on the planet but the one with the best stories. And I am not talking about the fucking celebrities. I mean the stories about the people who make LA what it is and their struggles, aspirations and deprivations. Where else do you have an entire migrant smuggling operation go undetected for years right under the noses of racist ICE agents? Or the local unhoused population seeking refuge on those uncomfortable benches and inside unglamorous bathrooms?
Both speak to two basic human necessities: the need to migrate and the quest for home.
Let me tell you about my rancho ilk at LAX on their incessant pilgrimages to-and-fro our ancestral lands. We stick out like a sore thumb, even among the global tapestry of masses at Tom Bradley International Terminal. You shall know us by our saddles and our sombreros, sometimes stacked precariously three por cabeza. Other conspicuous items in our precious cargo include the harvest of chiles from back home and wheels of potent aged cheese. Our women’s arracadas—the customary earrings unique to my hometown—are like morning stars that orient me in this bewildering galaxy of weary travelers.
LAX is one of four international airports that connects the vast ecosystem of diasporas my people have built across the U.S. to our hamlets deep in the heart of north-central México. I like to imagine these nodes as invisible umbilical cords that crisscross the border, sustaining both ends of the migrant stream. My paisanos would much rather travel overland to the motherland—driving thirty plus hours straight—except the raging violence in México has made those endless road trips a daring feat, a near impossibility. Instead, those of us from Southern California must brave LAX at ungodly wee hours of the morning. That, and the monopoly of the sole Mexican airline that transports us and whose only professional training of its staff seems to be an exercise in good old-fashioned Mexican classism with which to denigrate and berate my humble fellow fliers. We endure it all to make it back to our tierra, nestled somewhere between Greater México and México profundo. And the tales my people share on those flights. I could write an epic saga. But, for now, you’ll have to settle for this short story…
As the crammed and aging plane begins rumbling down the runway for takeoff, a gusty wind jolts it, making it fishtail violently. One young man—visibly hungover—provides instantaneous comic relief shouting “¡anda pedo el piloto!”, reminding me of the endemic alcoholism that runs deep in our community. For the most part, on these flights I find comfort among the legion of migrant matriarchs, who pray and cross themselves solemnly in their seats. There is so much praying power on this plane among these fervently Catholic señoras—many of them returning for patron saint festivities in their native villages—that you get the strangely reassuring sense that they could blast away the world’s evil with one collective blessing. A group of them is returning to a rancho that just a year prior was entirely emptied out by the roving armed bands that haunt the region. The villagers fled overnight, taking with them the bare essentials and whatever prized possessions they could carry, among them the image of their beloved San Juanito, the patron saint that they now valiantly return to revere and celebrate.
Another woman cries silently, almost contagiously. She is on her way to bury her young son, who was not a victim of the violence but rather died doing what the men of this region consider their sport: climbing atop their trusty studs, galloping and bringing down runaway bulls by the tail. Except in a stroke of bad luck, this young man’s garañón tripped on its hind leg, tumbling atop its master, the blunt force impact instantly crushing him to death, leaving the rail thin charro’s body lying idle, limp and lifeless; surely the ghostly muse of a forthcoming corrido.
The man to my right has such a pronounced indentation on one side of his face and a glass eye that I try not to stare at that it seems to me he survived a mule’s kick straight to the head. When I finally muster the courage to ask him about his injury, he explains that it was the result of a vehicle accident in the 1980s, when he and other young migrants from his village were on their way to work in the fields of Northern California. A car blindsided them in the thick pre-dawn fog, killing all passengers instantly except for him. The bodies of his companions were repatriated en masse and now lay entombed in the cemetery that greets visitors at the entrance of their humble but prideful rancho. He was left in a coma and only awakened when he heard his fiancée’s voice as if in a distant dream, having miraculously made it to his bedside on a humanitarian visa. He eventually recovered and raised a beautiful family alongside his loving partner. The elderly patriarch in the row behind me is returning to inter the remains of his wife after a lifetime of his machista excesses, transgressions and humiliations against her. I wish I knew our journey was so finite, that weathered and now grief-stricken and guilt-ridden face seems to be saying.
By now we’ve made it across the Sierra Madre Occidental and are flying squarely above northern México’s arid central plateau, LAX behind us like a bad headache. As I attempt to peer out the window from the straightjacket of my middle seat, big, mushrooming, billowing clouds so bright that it hurts to look at them belie the rain-starved red earth beneath us, which stretches as far as the eye can see. A few rows ahead of us is a jubilant bride-to-be, her surreal Afro-mestiza curly hair screams to me that she is an outsider and gives her the appearance of a dancing dandelion in the godforsaken desert landscape below us. We are so inland and far away from any touristy beach destination that I am afraid she might find my homeland asphyxiating. I almost want to forewarn her not to marry into my tight-knit heteropatriarchal networks of extended family and fictive kin. By contrast, the young ivory-skinned rancho beauties on the plane, with their impossible cascades of waist-long raven hair always make me seriously question whether I should ever marry out of my incestuous clan. It seems my eternal existential dilemma has always been: how can so much beauty spring from a land so harsh? How can something so rich emanate from a place so poor?
As we begin to make our final descent, time itself seems to be slowing down, grinding to a halt as we break through the bumpy layer of clouds. The man to my left suddenly becomes chatty. He is a third generation herrero, shoeing horses for Mexicanos and gabachos alike across greater Los Angeles. He explains to me how his grandfather would determine when horses were ready to be broken in by expertly feeling if their leg joints had filled in. The leather morral which neatly carries his prized identity documents—his family name etched across it in capital letters—suggests to me that my paisano is from the indigenous highlands of our otherwise mestizo state, such a remote and rugged region that it’s the only mythical corner I have yet to visit. When I ask him what rancho he hails from and where it’s located, he tells me (without revealing its name) that it takes him an additional five hours to drive up unpaved mountain roads from our tiny international airport, which is now a visible spec among a map of dry arable fields. When it comes time to deplane from the backdoor—the only advantage of an airport without a proper jetway—I wait eagerly in line behind him, when he suddenly places his bag down at the rear exit to take in the landscape before us. In one big sigh, he exhales the ironic placename of this land, as if announcing his arrival: Ahhhh…ZACATECAS, his breath almost spelling the letters over the endless horizon.
I’ve never felt so landlocked in my life.
Or, so free.
Adrián Félix earned his PhD in Politics and International Relations at the University of Southern California. His research on the politics of Mexican migration, diaspora, transnationalism, race and citizenship has been published in leading academic journals, including American Quarterly, Latin American Research Review and Latino Studies. Prior to joining UCR, Professor Félix taught in the department of Latin American and Latino Studies at UC Santa Cruz. He is the author of Specters of Belonging: The Political Life Cycle of Mexican Migrants (Oxford University Press), which won the 2019 Best Book in Latino Politics Award issued by the American Political Science Association.