When Mario Lopez returned to his hometown by the sea more than twenty years after the guerillas had taken it over, he felt as if he were walking into a dream of the past. As he strolled into the town square of Playa Negra, his memory flooded with pictures of growing up, of the last time he had seen his father, of walking those same streets as a teenager. The palm trees lining the brick walkways of the square looked several feet taller, and the fountain in the middle had gotten a good scrub-down, but the ancient ceiba tree that gave a generous shade during most of the day stood strong and majestic, just as he remembered. Mario came up to the corner in front of the Church of Saint Joseph and walked a few steps to the old stone building where the Fisherman’s Coop Bank used to be. Then he stood there for a moment and recalled the last day he had spent in Playa Negra, the day when everything had changed in his life and his town.
The old stone building housed a big-name bank from the city now, with a shiny lobby and an ATM machine by the main entrance. When he approached the wrought-iron gate in front of the glass doors and touched the cold chiseled steel, he was transported to the day when he had delivered an urgent letter to Don Fernando, the bank manager, and set off the chain of events that later caused him such profound regret.
Now, after being gone for so long and having traveled so far, coming home was bittersweet for Mario. He had paid too high a price in pursuit of an ideal of freedom in the United States that never came true, and he was tired of running. He was tired of maintaining eight aliases in five different states and moving his family endlessly from one city to the next. He wanted to come home again, to stay there and feel certain he would never have to leave again.
The modern world arrived late in the town of Playa Negra, a small fishing village on the Pacific coast. By the turn of the millennium, cell phones and color televisions could be found in every home, yet despite the promises of countless politicians, a road to reach the town from the highlands had not been built. The only way in was by boat or on foot, on an ancient trail known as the Camino Real, and the few cars and motorcycles that rolled through the streets had been brought in by barge.
Mario Lopez, a tall young man with dark skin and broad shoulders, had recently graduated from high school and was making plans with his girlfriend to move to the city. He was looking forward to a new occupation, something other than the family business—a tough, often unwanted job that required brute physical strength and little intellect: he was a porter on the Camino Real, a trade that had been established in the days of the Spanish colonies and continued to thrive through countless generations, because of the road that had been promised for so long and never built. Mario had been doing this work since he was eleven years old. His father, Don Carlos, was the foreman of the porters.
That morning when Mario came to the Fisherman’s Coop to bring a special delivery was like every other, except for the letter he was carrying, which came from the bank’s head office in the city of San Andres. The manager read it quickly while one of the clerks signed off on it. Before Mario turned to leave, Don Fernando requested three porters to take him and some boxes to Minas, the next town over. This was an unusual request, but it was Mario’s responsibility, since he had returned to work full time, to take care of the mail and every odd job that came up throughout the day. He walked across the street to let his father know and then gathered the porters he would need from those standing nearby.
With a few minutes to spare, Mario decided to check in with his cousin about a money-making scheme they had going on the side. He jogged down the street toward the docks and took a left onto a promenade that ran alongside a black-sand beach and the Pacific Ocean beyond. In those days the street was lined with ice houses and boatyards and ended in a stone pier at the far end of the bay.
Among the noise and activity of more than fifty boats unloading fish from the first catch of the day, Mario found his cousin Felipe packing herring on the deck of a twenty-foot wooden boat with an outboard engine.
“Hey, Felipe. Are we still on for tonight? Were you able to get a boat?” Mario jumped onto the deck and lent his cousin a hand.
“Yes, but we need to make sure we bring it back in one piece. I borrowed it from Luis Cabas. His father doesn’t know.”
“That’s great. You paid him, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I did. And compared to what we’ll make tonight, it was nothing.”
Together they closed a full sack of herring and heaved it onto the stone pier. Then Felipe opened another sack, lined it with plantain leaves, and threw in a bucket of crushed ice from a barrel.
Mario tossed in a handful of fish. “That’s going to cut into our earnings,” he said.
“I know, but it’s worth it. And besides, I want to move to the city too, eventually. It’s going to be awful around here with you and Mercedes gone.”
“You know you can come and visit any time.”
“So have you guys set a date?”
“Yes, a month from now.”
“Does her mother know?”
They filled one more sack, and then Mario said, “I have to get back. See you at seven.”
He met the two porters he had hired in front of the bank, and when the clerk let them in, he asked them to wait near the back entrance. The clerk looked nervous and was rushing around distractedly; he showed Mario to the manager’s office and then returned to close up some boxes of documents.
“Buenas, Don Fernando,” said Mario, knocking on the open door. “What is it we’re carrying?”
The manager was stuffing sealed documents into a suitcase. The main safe was open and empty. He pointed to another, smaller safe that was closed and resting on the floor. “That, and six more boxes. Oh, and the suitcase.”
A job of this size could have used an extra porter, but there was no time; they needed to leave quickly. Mario placed the safe and two boxes on the back of the first porter and helped him adjust their weight on his lifting belt. Then Mario hoisted the suitcase and four boxes onto his own back.
Outside in the alley, they waited for Don Fernando to mount the back of the third porter, a ritual that had been performed for centuries, ever since the first slaves carried Spanish colonists on their backs up to the gold and silver mines in the highlands. The porter placed one knee on the ground to let the manager sit back-to-back with him on a wooden plank fastened to the lifting belt; then Mario assisted the porter back to his feet. Bernardo was a short mulatto, an older man, and even though at first it seemed that his legs were going to snap under the weight, once he adjusted the leather strap over his head and pulled the weight up with his hands, he was able to walk steadily, with quick, short steps.
The three porters walked from the alley onto First Street and headed toward the town square, where they joined a line of more than a hundred porters that stretched for over two blocks. The men all carried heavy burdens on their backs, mostly sacks of fish and produce but also parcels of all kinds, furniture, and home appliances. They reached the edge of town, then stepped onto the Camino Real.
Mario and his team picked up the communal pace of the group at the foot of the mountain, putting their feet in the same places as the porters before them and gripping the tree roots in the mud through their rubber galoshes. The path was lined with thick greenery and wildlife—three-toed sloths hanging from trees, hummingbirds darting across their path. They walked through ghostly forests draped with bearded moss, over high ridges and steep mountainsides, and as they climbed higher fog swept down from the highlands. The line of porters wound its way through a rich tapestry of sound from the birds and insects in the jungle, constantly present with its ebbs and flows, and the sweet smell of damp soil hung in the air.
At four thousand feet, after crossing a mountain pass, the porters reached the small town of Minas. They dropped their loads into assigned trucks parked in the town square. Mario’s older brother Gustavo directed the loading of the trucks, which were all leaving for different towns in the region, including the city of San Andres. Another brother, Raul, dropped off the mail and picked up letters and parcels bound for Playa Negra.
Mario and his team arrived late on account of their heavy loads and because Don Fernando had asked several times to stop, feeling sick from vertigo on the steep parts of the trail. As a result, the entire line of porters passed them by, going down, when they were just entering Minas, and they came into a nearly empty town square; the last truck heading to the city was just pulling away.
Mario couldn’t miss the army truck unloading soldiers on the other side of the town square, and he suspected that the two incidents, the soldiers’ arrival and his job for Don Fernando, might be connected. Guerilla activity had been rumored all over the region in recent days. He helped Don Fernando load the documents and the safe into a taxi-cab, and then he took payment and ran back down the mountain to Playa Negra with the two porters, making a mental note as he set out to mention the unusual job to his father.
He arrived at the town square with only ten minutes to spare: the third run of the day would set out at eleven. His brothers assigned new loads to the porters and helped the fishermen unload sacks of fish and ice onto the sidewalk. Within minutes, the line of porters was ready to go back up the mountain.
“All porters, load up!” cried Gustavo.
Mario hoisted two sacks of fish onto his back and took his place at the end of the line.
The heat and humidity that brought the town of Playa Negra to a standstill every afternoon was beginning to dissipate; the palm fronds that had drooped tiredly were stirred by a gentle breeze.
Mario stayed fast asleep in a hammock in his room. He was woken by Mercedes, his girlfriend, who had come looking for him when he didn’t show up to meet her after she got out of work at the drugstore. She was still wearing her blue polo shirt from work, along with cut-off jeans and sneakers. Her silky black hair was tucked under a baseball cap that shaded her delicate face. A small bump was beginning to show under her shirt.
Mario quickly got up from his hammock. “Sorry, Merceditas, I overslept.” He reached for a fresh tee shirt, then sobered when he realized the time. “I have to go. I’m leading the last porter run.” He leaned over and kissed her.
“It’s all right, Mario. You don’t have to rush out, there are still ten minutes left. Are you and Felipe going fishing tonight?”
“Yes, Felipe found a boat.”
“Hm. I was hoping you could come over to my place tonight.”
Mario led her out of the room and through a narrow hallway to a common space with several hammocks hanging from the rafters. “We’ll be making some good cash tonight, nena. Then we’ll have the rest of the week to ourselves.”
Mario’s mother, Doña Carmen, stood before a sink in the kitchen on the other side of the high deck—the house was raised on stilts. She had soft eyes and a pleasant smile, with long black hair braided down her back, and she wore a white skirt with a faded apron. “Well, hello there. I thought you were gone already, mijo.”
“Hi, ma. Sorry, I overslept.”
“Buenas tardes, Doña Carmen,” said Mercedes with a timid smile.
“Buenas tardes, Merceditas.” Doña Carmen turned to Mario. “You’ve been going out to sea at night again. You need to be careful. Remember, you have Merceditas here to take care of now. And that little creature that’s coming, too.”
Mario took a leather belt and a folded rope from a peg on the wall. “It’s okay, ma. Felipe knows what he’s doing.”
“I don’t know. He may be the son of a fisherman, but he makes me wonder sometimes.”
Mario took Mercedes by the hand, and they said good-bye to Doña Carmen.
In the gravel street below, Mario said, “I’m sorry we have so little time today, nena.”
“That’s okay. Soon we’ll be living together, so I don’t mind too much.”
Mario smiled. “I’m so looking forward to it. Just you, me, and that little guy.”
“How do you know it’s a boy?”
“I have a feeling.”
They walked over cobblestone streets into the colonial quarter. “Did you get a hold of your brother in San Andres?” Mercedes asked.
“I did. He said we’re welcome to stay at his house any time. It will be a little tight, but you’re okay with that, right?”
“Oh, of course. That is such good news. Thank goodness! Hopefully it will only be for a couple of weeks until we find a place for ourselves.”
In the town square about thirty porters were gathering. Mario’s father, Don Carlos, impatiently handed him the mailbag.
“Sorry I’m late, Padre. I overslept.”
“Can you excuse us, Mercedes?” Don Carlos pulled Mario aside and asked him in a low voice, “Did you notice the folks from the Savings Bank leaving on the third run?”
“Not really. I was so busy trying to get back in time after dropping off Don Fernando.”
“Was there anything strange about that job? Why did he need two porters?”
“Yes, I’m sorry, I meant to tell you earlier. We left with a safe and a bunch of cash, and they had boxes of documents and receipts. It looked like they were clearing out of town. And then I saw soldiers up in Minas. I think we should report it.”
“Already did, mijo.”
“Do you think it has something to do with the guerillas?”
“I’m sure of it. But keep it under wraps, we don’t want people to panic.”
Gustavo called for the porters to get ready, and Mario came back to Mercedes.
“What was that all about?” she asked. “Sounded serious.”
“Oh, it’s nothing, nena. Just work stuff.”
“All porters! Move out!”
“Well, good luck tonight, Mario. I love you.”
Up in the rarified air of the Chunco highlands, skirting the peaks that loomed over Galeon Bay and Playa Negra, a deployment of more than five hundred guerilla soldiers, armed and ready for battle, moved to their positions on a trail that cut through a wet tussock plain.
Under a misty rain at dusk, Comandante Once, a medical doctor by training and a veteran of the insurgent ranks for more than thirty years, ran past a line of soldiers moving along the trail, escorted by a radioman behind him and a personal guard in front. He was thin and wiry, a middle-aged man of medium height who possessed the gaze of a jaguar and covered his shoulder-length hair with a green canvas hat. He looked for his second-in-command as the troops came to a halt near a mountain pass. “Mocho! What’s the latest?”
“Mi comandante, I just checked with the fourth detachment on the southern trail. They’re in position to take the road to Buenavista and fall into town at your command. The third detachment will be in position at the Faro Point in about five minutes.”
“That’s fine.” The comandante looked behind him and saw the troops massing at the mountain pass. “We should keep things moving. What’s going on in Minas?”
“A platoon of soldiers was brought in this morning. The count is fifty-two. Most are positioned within the town limits.”
“What did they have, twenty-eight last night? I’m going to add one of my platoons to back you up—that will give you a four-to-one advantage. That’s two hundred and forty men to secure Minas; use them wisely. Adjust tactics as you approach, and remember: minimum casualties, few bullets fired. These are not hostile towns.”
“Si, mi comandante. Should we come down with your platoon to Playa Negra or leave it in Minas?”
“You can leave them there. We have enough men for Playa Negra. Just come down with a security escort when you’re done.” The comandante drew Mocho aside, out of earshot from the soldiers. “Now listen: I spoke with El Indio this morning, and he confirmed that all his labs and stash houses have been cleared. There should be none of his people around for the next five days. You know the reminder to your squad leads—no one, and I mean no one, takes a goddamn thing from those labs. If even a single coca leaf goes missing, you find out who did it and cut off their balls, you hear?”
“Mi comandante, you know you can count on me.”
“The last thing we need is for El Indio to sour on us. He’s letting us use his trails, and that’s a big advantage. Now get your men in position. Go.”
The comandante returned to the rearguard as the insurgent army continued their advance toward the towns of Minas and Playa Negra, moving as one, like a swarm of fire ants. As night descended, long lines of soldiers crawled on the hidden paths in the jungle and the coastal trails, ready to take control of the entire Chunco region with overwhelming force.
Later that evening, Mario and Felipe were rowing a ten-foot dingy back to Playa Negra over choppy seas, with a stiff breeze blowing in from the south. The moon’s silver light filtered through scattered clouds, and sheets of rain could be seen in the distance. With a hold full of bonitos and yellow backs, they had had the good sense to turn back, and they were nearing the edge of the coral reefs when Felipe noticed a flock of seagulls diving in the water, a quarter-mile to port.
“They’re feeding on herring. Let’s take a look.”
“Felipe, we can’t fit any more fish in this little boat. We’re going to start taking on water.”
“Let’s just fill one net and go. The boat can handle it, Mario.”
Mario agreed reluctantly, and they approached at a slow pace.
“You know the humpbacks are around, Felipe. We could get bumped.”
Felipe was already holding a small net in his hands, ready to launch it. “This will only take a minute.” He swung the net out, and it opened, landed in the water, and sank while more seagulls dive-bombed for herring.
“Felipe, there’s bubbles coming up. Let’s get out of here.”
“Okay, okay, I’m pulling in the net.”
But while Felipe reined in the heavy net and Mario leaned over to bring it onboard, a juvenile humpback whale, feeding on the school of herring, came up from the depths, its maw open. With a jarring crash the whale collided with the boat and turned it over. Mario and Felipe tumbled into the water, and around them their entire catch slid back into the ocean.
“Felipe, the boat!”
“Oh, no!” Felipe thrashed toward the boat, but it was too late. The prow of the boat rose up a few feet and sank straight down.
“No, Felipe! Wait!”
“Shit! We lost the boat! And the entire catch!”
Mario swam close to Felipe. “I told you we had enough—you’re always pushing your luck!”
“Hey, that whale could have come up any place.” Felipe looked around frantically for the black outline of the coast.
“Come on, Felipe. There’s bad weather heading our way.”
Mario set out grimly toward shore, and his cousin followed. Not only was he counting their multiplying losses, he also hated swimming in deep waters at night, for fear of sharks.
At a quarter past ten that evening, while most people in the town were getting ready for bed, Comandante Once gave the orders to begin the second phase of an operation that would take control of nearly fifteen hundred square miles of territory. No one heard the footsteps of the first fifty soldiers who crawled into Playa Negra, hiding in the shadows as they made their way to Camino Real Street, near the town square.
At the police station, ten insurgents suddenly burst inside with guns drawn, confronting the sergeant and three officers frozen in front of a flickering television. No shots were fired. Immediately afterward, one hundred and sixty rebel soldiers poured into the northern beach neighborhood from the coastal trail; one hundred and sixty more came in from the south to the front beach; and Comandante Once led one hundred and twenty men down the Camino Real trail with the rearguard detachment.
The town’s perimeter was secured in less than ten minutes. The squads in each platoon fanned out, following orders to evacuate every household, arrest every man and boy, and bring the prisoners to the designated holding grounds. The few bars and restaurants that were still open were quickly overtaken, and every patron was escorted out to the street. Even the local whorehouse was rudely invaded. Two men who tried to escape were shot on sight; another tried to shoot at the soldiers and was killed; one older man died of a heart attack.
“Afuera todos! Everyone out!” shouted the soldiers as they kicked in doors, shone flashlights on people’s faces, and pointed their weapons at petrified families. Methodically they separated young and old, able-bodied men and useful hostages, while mothers, sisters, and daughters wept in terror. All the women were ordered to remain inside and wait for further instructions.
“Esta bien, mija,” said Mario’s father from the gravel road to his wife and his daughter Margarita. “It’s okay. We’ll be back soon.”
The two women sobbed aloud, watching as Don Carlos and two of his sons, Gustavo and Raul, were lined up with their next-door neighbors. The men were ordered to form a single file and march to the town square, their hands bound with plastic ties.
For Carmen Lopez, seeing her husband and her sons being taken from their home like criminals was unbearable. “What are you doing?” she cried. “For the love of God, they’ve done nothing wrong!”
“Women and children, in your homes! Now!” shouted a squad leader.
“Ay, Dios mio, Margarita, what are they going to do to them? And where is Mario?”
“I don’t know, mother. Dear God, please look after Mario!” Margarita was trying to be strong for her mother, but she too was in despair.
THE FIRST LIGHT OF DAWN is a story of hope against nearly insurmountable odds, an action adventure about a controversial subject, and a novel tackling a complex social problem, illegal immigration. The protagonist, Mario, is a young father who dreams of supporting his family with honest hard work in his own country, and of watching his children grow up alongside his beloved wife. But in 1999 the social conflicts that have wrecked so many small nations sweep through Mario’s hometown by the sea, and his life is changed forever. Forced to flee to the nearest city after losing his father and brothers, he and his family arrive in a favela ruled by street gangs and drug cartels.
What follows is a period of tribulations in which Mario and his family are threatened daily by the street gangs. At last Mario has no other option but to separate from his wife and newborn child, in order to stay alive and find a way to support them. He chooses to go to the United States only after trying every other possible solution, and he makes the long journey unsure of what he will find, and unaware of how difficult it will be to get there. After being thrown off a ship on the high seas, chased by more street gangs, and harassed by the Border Patrol, Mario at last finds work at a produce farm in the States and begins sending money home. But he has paid a very high price for a very limited sense of freedom, and his troubles are far from over.
Mario’s journey embodies the struggles and tragedies of millions of people like him, human beings of many nationalities who live and work in the shadows of a modern system of oppression. This novel and its sequels offer not a top-down view of law enforcement but a view from below, through the eyes of an undocumented worker.
I was one of those illegal aliens, living for a decade with the fear of deportation. I was denied access to healthcare and education, not even considered a second-class citizen. The experience put me in close contact with migrant workers, volunteers who risk their lives in border towns, community lawyers who reunite children separated from their families, and hard-working men and women who are persecuted and jailed for the “crime” of finding work to support their families.
This novel does not propose a solution to the problem; it simply attempts to describe a reality that most Americans don’t get to see. I hope this story will reach those who oppose any kind of immigration, helping them to understand the issue in more depth, to let go of their harsh prejudices, and to embrace empathy.
H. Romero-Gomez is a civil-rights activist and educator who has been writing novels and screenplays for the past twenty years. Born in a country run by drug cartels and street gangs, he immigrated to the United States as a teenager and lived undocumented for ten years. Always a traveler and adventurer, he has set foot in every country south of the border and every state in the union. He lives in Belmont, Massachusetts, with his wife and two sons. For more information about him and his other novels, please visit www.hromero-gomez.com.
Embark, Issue 18, April 2023