The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez: A Border Story

The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez: A Border Story

by Aaron Bobrow-Strain


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What happens when an undocumented teen mother takes on the U.S. immigration system?

When Aida Hernandez was born in 1987 in Agua Prieta, Mexico, the nearby U.S. border was little more than a worn-down fence. Eight years later, Aida’s mother took her and her siblings to live in Douglas, Arizona. By then, the border had become one of the most heavily policed sites in America.

Undocumented, Aida fought to make her way. She learned English, watched Friends, and, after having a baby at sixteen, dreamed of teaching dance and moving with her son to New York City. But life had other plans. Following a misstep that led to her deportation, Aida found herself in a Mexican city marked by violence, in a country that was not hers. To get back to the United States and reunite with her son, she embarked on a harrowing journey. The daughter of a rebel hero from the mountains of Chihuahua, Aida has a genius for survival—but returning to the United States was just the beginning of her quest.

Taking us into detention centers, immigration courts, and the inner lives of Aida and other daring characters, The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez reveals the human consequences of militarizing what was once a more forgiving border. With emotional force and narrative suspense, Aaron Bobrow-Strain brings us into the heart of a violently unequal America. He also shows us that the heroes of our current immigration wars are less likely to be perfect paragons of virtue than complex, flawed human beings who deserve justice and empathy all the same.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374191979
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 04/16/2019
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 80,772
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Aaron Bobrow-Strain is a professor of politics at Whitman College, where he teaches courses dealing with food, immigration, and the U.S.-Mexico border. His writing has appeared in Believer, The Chronicle of Higher Education Review, Salon, and Gastronomica. He is the author of White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf and Intimate Enemies: Landowners, Power, and Violence in Chiapas. In the 1990s, he worked on the U.S.-Mexico border as an activist and educator. He is a founding member of the Walla Walla Immigrant Rights Coalition in Washington State.

Read an Excerpt



AIDA AWOKE TO THE SMELL of homemade flour tortillas and the sound of her mother singing. Luz always sang the same song while she cooked — "Triste recuerdo" by Antonio Aguilar. Aida thought her mother sang beautifully. She poured out the long notes like honey from her brother's ranch on the outskirts of Agua Prieta. Aida was eight, and her parents were the objects of her deep affection and contemplation.

Aida loved to sit on the couch watching her parents in the morning before school. Raúl and Luz made a funny, mismatched pair. He was in his early fifties, short, and taciturn. She, almost twenty years younger, was tall, loud, and güera. Aida didn't understand her father's meetings, or his books, but she knew that he'd once talked with the president of Mexico at a summit in Nogales. Now he worked at a Japanese factory assembling something, Aida didn't know what. To eight-year-old Aida, her mother's work was more exciting. Each morning, after Aida and her sisters left for school, Luz would open the small video and convenience store she ran out of the garage. When school was out, Aida would spend hours sitting beside her mother, surrounded by shelves of snacks and the clatter of dubbed action movies.

Those days had a regular, sunbaked rhythm in Aida's mind. Agua Prieta was balanced on the northern rim of Mexico, tucked away from more important and populous parts of the country. In the 1990s, it had only just outgrown its cattle ranch roots. The city felt both small and large at the same time. Even on cold winter days, the sun was bright and Aida could play outside.

After school, Aida and her two sisters would come home and change out of their uniform skirts. They'd rush through homework under their mother's watchful eye and shoot across the street to the playground. Aida was the middle sister, between Jennifer, age thirteen, and Cynthia, age six. The unexpected new babies, Jazmin and Emiliano, born a year apart, were still too small to count.

Nothing had come between the sisters yet. They ran and swooped and played with abandon. Dizzying themselves on the merry-go-round, their legs sweeping the sky, they squealed together in pure joy. They shot hoops with older boys and climbed anything that could be climbed. They knew every jagged metal splinter, every missing guardrail, and every trip hazard in the playground. They lived for the flawless moment suspended in the air after leaping into space.

The three sisters would only sit still after they had scaled to the top of the monkey bars. Taking in the whole playground, they would perch together at the apex, inventing futures for themselves, their six knees waving in the air.

"I'm going to live in los Unites and have a hot husband and daughter named Samantha," Jennifer, the oldest, swore. The others agreed to follow her lead. To prepare for their future lives, Jennifer, Aida, and Cynthia practiced English. Usually this meant mimicking the sounds David Bowie made in Labyrinth, their all-time favorite movie. Sometimes they shouted the lyrics of "What's Up?" by 4 Non Blondes, which mostly consisted of the word "Hey" repeated a million times.

"When I'm older," Aida announced one day, "I'm going to live in a Big-Ass City. New York City." With her baby lisp, it came out "Nuyorthittee."

"Of course you are, little monkey," Jennifer answered. "We know you will."

* * *

SOME NIGHTS, Luz and Raúl attended a meeting of the Agua Prieta Search and Rescue Club. The girls would slip out to the playground after their parents left. While Luz and Raúl practiced searching for lost hikers with their club mates, Aida and her sisters danced under streetlights. Those forbidden nights on the playground all ended the same way: One of the other neighborhood kids would whistle a warning. Another would yell, "Hey, Hernandezes — your parents are coming!"

Aida and her sisters would rocket off the jungle gym in unison and hit the hard-packed dirt running. Aida knew the routine the way she knew the scars on her knees. She flew over the low fence and spun out of the park. She paused to help Cynthia cross the street, and then all three crashed through the metal gate of their house. Inside, skating across polished concrete, they landed on the couch — just as their parents' car pulled up.

Raúl and Luz let themselves into their modest government housing unit and put down their things. Their daughters peeked up from the video they'd flipped on and were pretending to watch. Their parents wore matching tan Search and Rescue uniforms.

"Labyrinth again?" Luz asked.

Some nights Luz didn't see through the act. On other nights she shouted until the house shook. "I thought I had girls. You don't act like girls," she'd yell on those nights. Girls don't scrape knees or play outside after dark, she'd scold. Then they'd eat leftovers from the day's big afternoon meal together, and Luz's consternation would fade.

Days, weeks, and seasons passed in much the same way, there on the northern edge of Mexico. School, playground, tienda. Homework, playground, tienda. The sisters took care of their new siblings and watched videos. They managed not to break many bones. And they imagined that life would continue this way, like their one brakeless bicycle. And it did, until the night Raúl asked his question and the world fell out of balance.

* * *

THEY WERE EATING SUPPER. It began like any other bit of conversation.

"Luz, I have a question for you. I want you to be one hundred percent honest with me." To Aida, it sounded ordinary, but Luz set her jaw into a ram.

"Girls, go to your rooms right now," she said, not looking at her husband. It was the first of many bewildering commands Aida would obey that week. Huddled in her room with Jennifer and Cynthia, she didn't get to hear the question or the answer. But she heard the recriminations and the screaming sobs that followed. The chairs clattering to the floor and ricocheting off the walls.

When the babies woke up crying that night, no parent came. Aida and her sisters got up instead and tried to hush them. They climbed together into one bed and pulled covers over their ears to blot out the sounds of fighting. Eventually, they fell into a ragged sleep, curled in one another's arms.

By morning, it all felt like a bad dream. Aida's parents got ready for work as usual. The girls got ready for school. March 8, 1996, passed like many other days.

At school, Aida was ready to learn. The teachers, though, were less than excited to teach. For many of them, teaching was a second or third job. If they showed up late or wandered away from class in mid-lesson to smoke a cigarette, it was only because all the other jobs they worked to make ends meet left them exhausted. Aida knew this because they didn't miss a chance to remind their pupils of how little the Secretaría de Educación Pública paid them.

The morning after the fight, teachers and students alike shivered. The temperature outside rose into the seventies, but the school's cement classrooms gripped the night's cold long after noon. Aida's teeth chattered as she tried to study. After last period, she ran outside to find her father, who always walked her home. Instead, she found Cynthia waiting. The crowded school divided pupils into day shifts and evening shifts. That year, Aida attended school in the day; her little sister went to class at night. Cynthia's appearance on the sidewalk as Aida got out was unusual.

"We gotta go," Cynthia said. She was worried.

To Aida's questions, she only replied, "Just come on. We gotta go."

As the house came into view, a wave of confusion rolled over Aida. Her parents weren't wealthy, but they owned a car. And yet there, idling in front of the house, was a dented white taxi like the kind poor people took when they couldn't use the bus. We never take taxis, she thought.

Luz emerged from the house and stuffed soft garbage bags of clothes into the open trunk, not noticing the girls.

"Mom, are we taking a trip?" Aida asked, thrilled by the possibility.

For the moment, Luz's too-big convenience store sunglasses hid the bruise spreading down the bridge of her nose.

"Mom, answer me."

Raúl appeared next. He called Aida and Cynthia in to join Jennifer, who stood shivering next to an electric heater in the living room.

"Girls, I need to ask you something." Another question from their father. "Girls, do you want to live with me here, or go with your mother?"

The question was incomprehensible. It might as well have been asked in English by David Bowie wearing Goblin King makeup. But Raúl, standing there spent and defeated, clearly expected an answer.

Cynthia looked up at Aida. Aida looked up at Jennifer. Jennifer was four years and seven months older than Aida. She knew everything.

Jennifer stalled, feeling the weight of decision land on her five- foot frame.

"Mom?" she said eventually. "I guess?"

It seemed logical. Girls went with their mothers. No one knew why. Aida and Cynthia nodded in agreement; they followed Jennifer in everything.

* * *

RIDING AWAY, the three girls knelt in a row on the backseat of the taxi, watching their father disappear. When he'd walked them to the taxi, telling them he loved them, he had still seemed like the solidest, most reliable thing in the world to Aida. Now he was a bent old man, sinking into the distance. Aida had never seen him cry before.

Aida wheeled on her mom. "What is happening? Where are we going?" she asked. But Luz just stared straight ahead through the cracked windshield. After a few minutes, the border came into view. Little more than a dry ditch and ragged chain-link fence marked the international divide in the spring of 1996.

"Mom?" Aida wanted an answer.

"Shut up, Aida," Jennifer snapped. "Just shut up."

No one spoke after the taxi dropped them off at the border crossing. The girls kept quiet at the port of entry, carrying their baby siblings Jazmin and Emiliano and their plastic bags of possessions. Luz displayed a card to the INS officer, and they hustled into a U.S. taxi waiting on the other side. The girls exchanged questioning glances. Anticipation poked in around the anger and confusion.

The taxi pulled out around the border Safeway and JCPenney. In those days, residents of Agua Prieta could easily obtain short-term border-crossing cards that allowed them to visit family and shop in southern Arizona. As a result, a significant portion of Douglas's municipal budget came from sales tax paid by Mexican shoppers. The girls had often accompanied their mother to Douglas on shopping trips or to see their U.S. citizen cousins in Arizona. Sometimes Luz dragged them on long, tedious visits to their family friend Saul's house. But this trip — with all their possessions crammed into a taxi — was clearly different.

The taxi didn't pull into the Safeway parking lot. It passed the street where their cousin Camila lived, and kept going. Soon it left behind the little bit of Douglas that Aida recognized. Against her will, Aida took in the new scenery with rising delight. Her sisters' faces told the same story: the fight, the rushed packing, the taxis — this was not how they imagined going to live in los Unites back on the playground, but the ride through Douglas still felt like the beginning of something new. The realization brushed up against sad memories of their father, but Aida and her sisters couldn't help feeling excited.

With a bump, the taxi pulled off the pavement into a dusty neighborhood of strange metal houses on cinder blocks. Aida had never seen houses made of metal before. They were going to live in America, she realized.

The taxi delivered them to a dirt-colored brick casita. It had a small kitchen, a bedroom, and a miniature bathroom for the six of them. A fridge and stove were the extent of its furniture. Eventually, a man arrived with two mattresses. The girls knew him well. They had played with Saul's children. They'd spent stifling hours waiting in his living room while he and their mother disappeared together.

"This is not right," Jennifer said. She'd put two and two together fast. Aida and Cynthia still didn't know what was happening.

"Fuck, no," Jennifer said.

* * *

THAT WAS HOW Aida came to live in the United States. Her new home was in Pirtleville, a dusty neighborhood on the northern edge of Douglas. Mexican American laborers had carved Pirtleville out of scrubland in the early twentieth century. Those original residents had done the dirtiest, most dangerous work at the Phelps Dodge copper smelter, Douglas's main employer at the time. And they did it for half the wage of their Anglo counterparts. The smelter's mustard-gray smoke would settle hard over Pirtleville in those days. It tortured throats and sooted laundry, but residents were proud and independent. For most folks, the sulfurous air smelled like opportunity.

Indeed, Douglas had been a relatively prosperous place during much of the almost a century between its founding in 1901 and the smelter closure in 1987. For a desert outpost whose population never exceeded twenty thousand, the town once had an almost cosmopolitan air.

This story began when the Scottish Canadian adventurer and metallurgist James Douglas journeyed from the East on behalf of the Phelps Dodge mining corporation. In the early 1880s, he worked his way from Albuquerque to Tucson leading a string of pack mules. Then he pushed on to Bisbee and Morenci, where he developed what would become two of the world's most productive copper mines. In the 1890s, he added to Phelps Dodge's growing empire by acquiring mine claims in northern Mexico. At that point, only one thing stood in the way of Phelps Dodge's ascendance as a global corporation: the company needed a smelter in the West and asked Douglas to pick a location.

He chose a spot at the bottom of the broad Sulphur Springs valley in far southeastern Arizona. The Gadsden Purchase establishing the border between the United States and Mexico in that stretch of desert was less than forty years old. The border still felt more imaginary than real in most places. At the time, binational bands of cowboys staged cattle roundups in the spot, drawn by its abundant ground and surface water. American cowboys called the damp oasis Whitewater Draw. Mexican cowboys called it Agua Prieta — "Black Water." The one thing they agreed on was that water aside, the location lay hundreds of miles from anything that mattered and would never amount to much.

James Douglas, on the other hand, saw great promise in the valley's strategic position extending out toward mines on both sides of the border. He gave his name to a burgeoning new town, and twin smelters rose from the desert. After Arizona gained statehood in 1912, a copper star blazed at the center of its state flag. A copper dome topped the state capitol, and Douglas's smelters poured a steady stream of the state's molten sustenance. By the 1920s, the town had nearly ten thousand people, and by the 1930s its smelters could pour almost a million pounds of blister copper a day.

Douglasites called the company PD — as if it were an impressive, benevolent relative known only by his initials. PD's copper built a library, a hospital, and schools. Workers could purchase just about anything they wanted on credit at a modern three-story company store. Copper attracted virtuoso violinists from France and ballet troupes from Russia. The Douglas High School band was big and well equipped. And when sports teams needed to travel to championships on either side of the border, Phelps Dodge covered the costs.

The culture of the company permeated the town built around it. PD's rules were the town's rules — not officially, but in effect. PD's shift whistle governed the rhythm of the town's days. The price of copper governed the rhythm of its years. When the price was high, Douglas boomed. When it fell, the town scrimped. During market gluts and strikes, PD idled its furnaces and the town languished.

In return for benevolent paternalism, the company demanded loyalty and gained a reputation for violent union busting. Not until after 1935, when Congress passed the first national legislation protecting the right to organize and strike, would unions successfully brave PD country. When they did, the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers led the way. Unlike many U.S. unions, "Mine-Mill" championed racial equality.

The union's stance was crucial in Douglas, where the PD smelter followed a two-tier wage system. Anglos received one rate, and Mexican Americans received another, about 50 percent lower for the same work. Race governed what jobs a man could get and how high he could rise in the company. It determined what bathrooms he'd be allowed to use at work and how doctors would treat his family at the PD hospital. Mexican American workers and small business owners in Douglas had long organized themselves in mutual aid societies. Now a national union would help them fight for safer conditions and an end to the two-tier wage system.


Excerpted from "The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Aaron Bobrow-Strain.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue: The Death of Aida Hernandez 3

Part 1 No Country for Young Women

1 Girl in a Labyrinth 11

2 English Without Barriers 21

3 A Sudden Storm 35

4 Miles of Wall and No Time to Sleep 51

5 The New Millennium, Her Own Quiet War 63

6 Better Living Through Border Security 71

7 Dance Steps 81

8 American Dreaming 93

9 No Country for Young Women 101

Part 2 Trauma red

10 Hunger Is Worse 117

11 Madera 127

12 Exile and Belonging 135

13 La Roca 145

14 The Railroad Yard 153

15 The Black Palace 159

16 Trauma Red 167

Part 3 Slipknot

17 Lucky Ema 179

18 All the Monsters at Once 189

19 The Healer 201

20 Leaving the World and Fighting to Rejoin It 209

21 The "Show Me Your Papers" State 219

22 What Care Can Do 229

23 Slipknot 237

Part 4 Going Away to Come Back

24 Etna's Journey 245

25 The Underworld 261

26 Aida's Voice 275

27 Aida and Ema 287

28 Going Away to Come Back 303

29 To Battery Park 321

Epilogue: The Life of Aida Hernandez 331

About This Back 341

Notes 357

Glossary 405

Explanation of Terminology 409

Acknowledgments 413

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