In line at the Great Wall

In no-longer-so-imaginary future, parents and children are separated at the border.


This is a short story, reprinted with permission from The King of Lighting Fixtures, by Daniel Olivas, 2017, University of Arizona Press.

Rogelio stood in the long line that snaked from the detention center’s barracks to the lookout point at the other end of the compound. He shifted from foot to foot, the heat making him perspire and feel lightheaded. He was a smart boy — one of the best students in Ms. Becerra’s fifth-grade class — so he figured that even though the cool winter weather still made San Diego’s evenings chilly enough to need a sweater, the lack of circulation combined with the body heat of thousands of children conspired to make the detention center’s air heavy and almost suffocating.

The guards strolled slowly up and down the lines in an attempt to keep some order. But the children had become so numb to seeing the green-clad, rifle-bearing men and women that the best the guards could hope for was an organized chaos as the two lines — one for boys, the other girls — inched forward to the dual lookout points. Rogelio could see his older sister, Marisol, directly to his right in the girls’ line. She comforted a younger girl, who wept silently into Marisol’s shoulder. Rogelio didn’t like crying in front of his sister, but right then he wished Marisol had an arm around him, whispering, “Don’t worry. It’ll be OK. We’ll see mama and papa soon.”

Above the din of the other children, Rogelio could make out the recurring audio loop of the president’s voice blaring over the intercoms that dotted the ceiling like so many menacing dark stars. He could almost recite those words from memory: “I will build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me — and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our Southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

Rogelio had never seen the wall except online and on TV. He thought it was ugly even though the president had it decorated with an ornate gold paint that swirled in strange designs along the wall’s top and bottom edges. Between the borders of gold paint were bas-relief scenes from the president’s life beginning from his childhood, through school, beginning careers in business and television, running for president, the swearing in, and the president signing executive orders.

A Mexican boy looks out from a detention center room in Brownsville, Texas.
Eduardo Perez/PlanetPix via Zuma Wire

The children who had already visited the lookout points — which were simply large rooms with the far wall made of bulletproof Plexiglas — said that it would have been easier to set up computer screens to say goodbye to their parents. But instead, the president’s executive order explicitly prohibited the expenditure of funds for such “niceties,” and, instead, ordered that the families’ farewell would be soundless, without the aid of microphones, with children on one side of the Plexiglas, the parents on the other.

Once in the lookout points — one for boys, the other for girls, as decreed by the president — the children would wave to their parents, who would be allowed to wave back. After a “humane” period of 30 seconds, the children would be directed out of the lookout point and back to their barracks to pack up their meager belongings for a new life with a relative or adopted family. Since these children had been born in the country, they were citizens. But their parents had entered the United States without documents, most with the assistance of well-paid coyotes. So, after the silent goodbyes, the parents would be ushered into a large black bus that would whisk them off to one of the reinforced gates in the great wall and back to Mexico, even if they had come from a different Latin American country. Neat, clean, fast and beautiful.

As Rogelio inched closer to the boys’ lookout point, his heart began to beat hard in his small chest. He willed himself not to cry, to be strong, to show his parents that he and his sister would be OK living with this aunt in Los Angeles who had become a United States citizen under President Reagan’s 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.

The guard’s loud “Next!” broke Rogelio’s reverie. He walked into the lookout point and stepped up to the thick, cloudy Plexiglas. Rogelio squinted. About thirty yards of open terrain separated the two detention centers and their respective lookout points. Where were his parents? Oh, there! He could discern his father, who was a hearty, large man, but who now looked so small. His father wiped his eyes with a crumpled white handkerchief and embraced Rogelio’s mother with his right arm. Rogelio’s sister must have already seen their parents since she had been just a bit farther ahead in the girls’ line. He wondered if Marisol had cried. But Rogelio promised himself that he would not. He waved to his parents as he forced a smile that looked more like a pained grimace. His parents waved back, also forcing smiles, but Rogelio could see that their faces were shiny with tears.

Before a guard directed his parents toward the exit, Rogelio let out a sob, his chest shaking without control. He told himself: Don’t cry, don’t cry. But now Rogelio’s tears fell freely from his eyes as a guard put a hand on the boy’s shoulder and gently guided him away.

Daniel A. Olivas is the author of nine books, including this year’s The King of Lighting Fixtures: Stories. He has written for publications including the New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books and Los Angeles Times. Follow @olivasdan

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