A Journey Across Borders with America's Mexican Migrants


From the book jacket:

We were nowhere—there was nothing around. We worried we had been betrayed, abandoned for reasons unknown. The desert sky was clear, and the temperature soon up in the eighties. All my clothing made me look sick, like an invalid—and, because of the way I sweated, I did indeed feel feverish.

‘You’re scared, aren’t you,’ said Jesús.

‘Scared?’ My companions were not always New Age males, admiring of those who shared their feelings and vulnerabilities. ‘No, I’m not scared. I’m just fucking hot.’ I thought that sounded convincing.

I asked, ‘You’ve been through this a lot. Don’t these guys ever scare you?’

Jesús shrugged. ‘Not too much. The money is the main thing. The gun is for that—to make sure we pay, after they do their part of the deal.”


New York Times Notable Book

Winner of American Library Association Award

“Ted Conover has written a book about the Mexican poor that is at once intimate and epic. Coyotes is travel literature, social protest, and affirmation. I can compare this book to the best of George Orwell’s journeys to the heart of poverty.”

— Richard Rodriguez

Author, Brown and Hunger of Memory

“Absorbing … sharply observed and sympathetic … Mr. Conover’s description of what would normally be a routine plane flight from Phoenix to Los Angeles becomes a perilous, frightening journey for these workers; and a cross-country drive from Arizona to Florida (without a map) similarly takes on the nervous coloration of a thriller. In relating these events, Mr. Conover combines a sociologist’s eye for detail with a novelist’s sense of drama and compassion … he has defiantly succeeded.”

— Michiko Kakutani

New York Times

“Honest, funny, touching and important … There is grace in this book, even more wisdom. What makes it really glow on every page is Mr. Conover’s realization that he is dealing neither with a crime nor a tragedy, but with another of those human adventures that make America a country that is constantly renewing itself … remarkable.

— T.D. Allman

New York Times Book Review

“Compelling, often funny, and suspenseful … He evinces a deep understanding of and feeling for the men who must take such risks to get mere subsistence money for their families…”

— The New Yorker

“A deftly written and compelling narrative … written with passion, wit and authority, Coyotes is … something to shout about.”

— Seattle Times


From Chapter 5, “In the Land of Avocados”:

The next weekend I was called in as a substitute during the last fifteen minutes of the Tecos’ game. A fortnight later the same thing happened, and a week after that, I got a spot on their relay team for the province’s annual “Marathon of the Mountains” footrace. Other outings cemented my friendship with Jesús, Tiberio, Conce, and Victor: an afternoon spent drinking the excellent pulque of Doña Rosa, a tough Ahuacatlán widow; flirtatious visits to the office of Elisa and Elena, young social workers sent from Querétaro City to minister to mountain folk two days a week; more nights in Pablo’s cantina; a tour to see the annual milling of sugarcane at Pepe Pacheco’s, where a horse tied to a beam walked endless circles around Pepe’s grinder and dried cane husks fueled a fire that warmed wide evaporation tanks. The rapping of pebbles against the windowpanes of my room was the invitation to another outing, and the days flew by.

Jesús in particular loved to talk about his experiences in the States, usually in the form of anecdotes. Learning English was one of his main preoccupations, and many of the tales concerned the obstacles he’d encountered along the way. One day several of us were seated around the huaracherí­a of Tiberio’s brother Ignacio, watching him and his assistants cut and sew the leather for sandals.

“Teo,” asked Jesús, “how do you say it when a girl is wearing perfume? What do you say to her? ‘I like your smell’? Is that it?”

“I like the way you sm—?”

“Yes, yes, that’s it, ‘I like the way you smell,’ “ he interrupted. “Well, you know what I said to my girlfriend there one night?”

Jesús had dated a number of American girls, none of whom spoke Spanish. I shook my head.

“We were driving in the owner’s car that old Cadillac he gave us and she smelled good, so I took her real close, like this, and I said, ‘Baby, I like the way you stink.’ “

I burst out laughing, and Jesús explained it to the others: in Spanish, you use the same verb for smell or stink, and Jesús hadn’t appreciated the difference. “Did she explain it to you?” I asked.

“Yes, but she was mad!” said Jesús “You know, she taught me some other words too. ‘Be nice,’ she used to say that’s when we were in the car, and, well, you know . . .”

Tiberio made the appropriate body language to describe what they had been up to.

“Ooh, but we made some big mistakes up there. Remember, Tiberio, in the Burger King? They asked if we wanted everything on it. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but no mustache.’ ‘What?’ she asked. ‘No mustache,’ I said. I thought I was saying ‘mustard.’ ”

Another time he had suggested to his girlfriend a dinner at the Pussycat—”Pizza Hut” he had meant to say—and yet another time, he had asked the foreman if he could borrow the “fuck you” from his trailer.

“What?” said the foreman.

“The fuck you,” repeated Jesús, a bit nervously—he knew the phrase had a bad meaning, but thought it also meant “vacuum.” The words sounded identical to him. So did “eyes” and “ice.” These confusions had gotten him into lots of trouble, he said, offering extra explanations to the others in the room so they would understand what he was telling me.

One of the most rapt listeners was a middle aged man squeezing rivets into straps of leather for the huaraches. “Ay, English,” he said. “They say it’s the hardest language in the world.”

“No, Chinese is the hardest,” offered Ignacio, also middle aged. As these men debated the point, I realized something extraordinary was happening here: these older Mexicans were listening closely to men barely into their twenties. Age was the traditional determinant of who listened to whom in rural Mexico, older men seldom having time for younger men’s stories (neither group, at least in public, appearing to have time for women’s)–but here, emigration to the States had the town turned around. The young guys were heading out, earning in a week up north what their fathers would toil months for. They returned to constitute a higher class of men, wealthier and more experienced, if less wise. Father Cano was right: in ways both subtle and obvious, emigration was setting Ahuacatlán on its head.

“English is a thousand times harder!” the older man continued, now rather heatedly.

“That’s not so!” countered Ignacio. “Chinese has thousands of letters, and difficult sounds. Who do you know that speaks Chinese?”

The debate was escalating to an absurd degree: Ignacio and the old man had put down their work and were now yelling. The younger guys were murmuring that perhaps I ought to offer an opinion and put a stop to it—but I didn’t want to take sides. Finally Tiberio stood up, interrupting them, and asked if we knew the joke about learning Chinese. Nobody did.

“How long did the Russian say it took to learn Chinese?” he asked the room. There were shrugs. “Five years,” said Tiberio.

“How long did the American say it took?” Again, shrugs. “Four years.”

“Okay, how long did the Mexican say it took?” Sensing that a punch line was imminent, men started smiling. “He said ‘ten years,” offered one. Tiberio shook his head.

“The Mexican said, ‘When’s the test?’”

It was a masterful move; in their laughter the older men forgot the squabble. Jesús nudged me. “That’s the reputation we Mexicans have—everything ‘mañana,’ right?”


Date: July 11, 2008 11:16:55 PM EDT
To: [email protected]
Subject: Ahuacatlan Qro. Tiberio Rivera Saludos

11 de Julio del 2008

Estimado Teo,

Hola! Te estoy escribiendo desde Mission, Texas. Aqui vive mi prima. No se si te acuerdes de mi: Soy Tiberio Rivera de Ahuacatlan de Gpe., Queretaro, Mex. Nos conocimos cuando indagabas sobre la trayectoria de los que cruzan la frontera.

Me acuerdo mucho de ti por todo lo que pasamos cuando viajamos por Sonorita. Estoy muy agradecido por todo lo que hiciste por nosotros. Espero que pronto puedas traducir Coyotes en español.

Solo estare aqui unos dias, (956) xxx-xxxx,

…pero si deseas comunicarte despues del 15 de julio puedes enviarme correspondencia a Ahuacatlan o puedes llamar al (441) xxx-xxxx a la casa de mi hermano Oliverio que vive al par de mi casa.

Te enviare esta carta por tierra al igual que por correo electronico.

Te envio un retrato de mi hijo y yo para ayudarte a recordar.

Tiberio Rivera

Tiberio and his son in Texas 2009

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