By Susan D. Walter
In 1981 I had a Mexican American boyfriend named Martin. He wanted to be a pediatrician and specialize in the care of children of migrant workers, but couldn’t gain entrance into US medical schools. He applied for and was accepted to La Universidad Autonoma de Guadalajara’s.
I accompanied him to his initial interview. We returned to the US after learning there were a number of requirements for him. He needed 7 notarized copies each of his birth certificate, and several other papers. Then he left again to set up his apartment in Guadalajara.
I ordered the various documents Martin needed. Rather than sending them, I decided to deliver them in person. Unable to contact him, and without knowing his new address, I booked a round trip flight between San Diego and Guadalajara.
I had a contact in Guadalajara. He was Martin’s sister’s husband’s sister’s husband, Enrique Camarena, U.S. DEA agent. He’d just been assigned to investigate Mexico’s drug cartels. “Kiki” as he was called, had recently established a household in Guadalajara with his wife and sons. Martin’s sister Lissie did not know Kiki’s new address, but she did give me the address of one of Kiki’s relatives.
So I flew to Guadalajara, hired a taxi to take me to a hotel in the business district near the luggage store that the relative owned, and checked in to find it a rather dark and seedy place. I was starving. I left my suitcases on the bed, locked the door, went down to the street, found a mercado, got something to eat, and returned to the room within 20 minutes.
I had been robbed. My suitcases were open and their contents scattered about. They took a few items but most importantly they stole my AeroMexico return airplane ticket, which I had left in my suitcase. AeroMexico refused to cancel or refund my money. I figured I’d deal with the journey home later.
My biggest concern was getting Martin’s documents to him. Luckily, they had been in my purse which I was carrying when my hotel room was burglarized.
The next morning I located the luggage shop, and in my poor Spanish explained to the little lady I needed to contact Kiki. She said she’d send someone to him. I then went back to wait in my hotel room. About 4 hours later someone knocked on my door. It was Kiki’s chauffeur, with a DEA identification.
The chauffeur drove me to the Camarena residence. Mika, Kiki’s heavily pregnant wife, looked tired and flustered as she directed several women with mops and cleaning supplies among boxes and disarranged furniture. Mika was sweet, settling me amongst the shambles, and asking someone to bring me a cup of mint tea. I sipped it and played with her son until Kiki arrived.
He sent his chauffeur away, and he and I commenced the search for Martin, beginning at the student services and counseling office at the university to ask for Martin’s new address. Looking back, it seems amazing that Kiki dropped all his other concerns to help me out like this; but then, that was the kind of person he was. We drove all through the big streets of Guadalajara, and finally found ourselves in a neighborhood maze of tiny winding roads.
We chatted about his move, my trip, and Martin, but I never mentioned the stolen airplane ticket.
Eventually Kiki found the apartment. Martin had 2 other American roommates, and they’d recently adopted a small yellow tabby kitten they called MCAT – the abbreviation for the entrance and assessment test for medical students, i.e. the “Medical College Admission Test.”
“Surprise! Here I am. And here are your papers.”
Martin was very happy to see me; he had not expected that I’d bring this material to him in person. He’d assumed that I’d send the documents by courier.
After greetings and a small amount of catching up, augmented with warm thanks from both me and Martin for his help, Kiki left. Then I visited with the roommates; one let Martin drive me “home” to my hotel in his car.
I stayed a few more days, explored a bit, hung out with Martin, and made arrangements to take the train home. It was a lot less expensive than by air, but…
I’ll NEVER forget that journey.
Martin drove me to the train station, which was noisy and dirty, and left me because he had to get back to school. I boarded the train immediately, with my two pieces of luggage, but found no seats available. I put one suitcase on the floor and sat on it, and kept the other in my lap.
The train started about 3 hours late, a harbinger of rough times ahead. I soon learned there was no food served on board; you bought from vendors through the windows at the various lengthy train stops. The journey was augmented by the odor and leaking of the overflowing toilets at the end of the car, shitty water running up and down the aisle as the train lurched up and down grades.
By sundown, at one stop some other American tourists boarded, groaned “Oh no, oh no, no, no seats” and slouched into the next car hoping for better luck there. I already knew it was worse; I’d seen the overcrowded conditions there in the morning, and also learned then that I could sit in the aisle.
I wore hard contact lenses in those days, and did not have any glasses. Due to the lack of water, I did not want to take them out and put them back in with my increasingly filthy hands. So for the entire duration of this 36 hour trip, I kept them in, occasionally squirting saline solution into my irritated eyes to lubricate them.
As night passed, I struggled to stay awake, terrified that I’d either get flooded by excrement filled water, or that someone would steal my bags.
There was a nice young woman with three children on the benches next to where I squatted on my suitcase. After an initial wariness on both of our parts, we became friendly due to my enjoyment of her lively kids. The mom let me sit on the bench with them and told me she hoped to find the father of the baby in Mexicali, and marry him.
Because of several delays we arrived late, of course, to Mexicali. The weather was rainy, windy and cold. The little family disappeared into the dusk, and I boarded a bus. Only one seat was unoccupied and it had been urinated in. Disgusted, but resigned, amidst sympathetic grins from my fellow travelers, I sat in it anyway. It was a dark ride, and the driver seemed a lunatic, veering around on a road that was winding and desolate. Thank god there wasn’t much oncoming traffic!
After what seemed forever to me, as my entire backside became saturated with stale urine, we finally arrived to Tijuana. I swear this bus stop was the darkest place in all of Mexico, and the weather was still wretched.
Determined to get home that night, I boarded a taxi, keeping my little suitcases resolutely in hand. I utterly refused to put them in the trunk despite the cab being filled with 6 passengers. That god damned driver dropped off all his fares but me, and with a leer he turned around and told me he was taking me with him to “a nice hotel”. When he stopped at a red light, I stormed out, clutching my luggage, cursing, cursing, cursing him, and consigning him to hell and go fuck himself – and so on.
Two uniformed American service men witnessed me screaming imprecations and the taxi driver chasing me down the street and intervened. They showed me their military ID cards, and offered to drive me to the border crossing. Those poor Marines were probably glad to get rid of me as I was in a really foul temper, lacing my gratitude to them for saving and driving me, with furious threats if they didn’t take me to the border crossing as they’d promised. But they did.
There was a long, slow line, but finally with no further ado I walked across the border to the safety of the USA.
I needed a place to settle my nerves, and went to MacDonalds, which was only a few buildings from the border crossing. I noticed a starving little puppy in front of the place as I entered. First, I called my friend Mohsen to come get me, using a pay phone, then bought something to eat.
This next part has me baffled. I cannot figure out what my attraction was. I was tall and skinny. No makeup, limp long braids, disheveled, piss soaked jeans, hoodie tied around my waist, dirty extremities, purse slung around my shoulder, clutching 2 shabby suitcases.
After I sat down, some man slid into the booth across from me, and propositioned me. To say I was unreceptive is a gross understatement of my reaction. Among other things I need not elaborate upon, I told him to go away. When he did not, I moved to another seat. Unbelievably, another guy decided to try his luck, leaning over me and blocking my exit from the booth. Now guy number 1 was offended and confronted guy number 2. I pushed past both of them and moved as far away from them as I could, leaving them arguing. Guy 1 followed me, and I stood up, thoroughly disgusted and I screamed at him to leave me alone. Guy 2 rushed over just as guy 1 threw his strawberry milkshake, mostly missing me but dousing guy 2, who stood briefly, stunned, pink glop dripping from his hair and face. Well, next they began to pummel each other, as I cowered in a corner.
Suddenly two burly policemen arrived, and we were all questioned. Mercifully, I was coherent, though perhaps not entirely lucid. I don’t remember what the two dudes claimed. Identifications were exhibited. Then the MacDonalds’ staff was questioned and they corroborated my version of the events. So the 2 guys were arrested and were being lead away in handcuffs when my friend Mohsen arrived.
Mohsen was very upset when he saw the cops, but I mumbled I was pretty tired and would tell him the complete story later. You know, I think I was in a state of shock. At least I know I was completely exhausted, shivering, squinting through blood shot eyes, and smelled like filth and piss and I would not let go of my suitcases.
I asked him to collect the puppy, which he did wordlessly, and he drove me home, speaking soothingly to me, as dawn broke.
Mohsen had been my house sitter while I was gone. He let me in my house and watched me as I assessed the place rapidly. I found my cocker spaniel Penny, the cats, guinea pigs, chickens, fish and turtles all fine; but my finches were dead. Unloading my new pet, I now saw my poor bony waif of a puppy was completely blind. It knew what food was, though, and I tied it up outside and it was graciously welcomed by Penny; they slept together from that day on.
To Mohsen’s relief, I then scrubbed my hands – I think with Ajax – took out my contact lenses, collapsed in bed, and slept for 24 hours. Later Mohsen told me he had checked in on me, ascertained I was breathing ok, fed the critters, brought in the mail, turned off the phone, and let me sleep. I was entirely unconscious of him or any other presence.
When I told Martin this story he was agog and aghast, exclaiming, “Ah Susie, pobrecita.” Martin had been my sweetie for a couple years when this all occurred. But we drifted apart and I lost track of him and his extended family that had been such a central part of my life. I know he has been a successful pediatrician now for decades. I googled him, and I see he’s still a handsome man.
To my horror Kiki was abducted, tortured and murdered by the drug cartel a few years after this. The arrest and conviction of his murderers became a major point of focus to the American government and public.
You have heard of Enrique Camarena too; he is the man we remember with red ribbons every year. People always spoke of Kiki in superlatives. And I agree that is what he was like. My memory of Kiki was a warm, gentle, rather quiet man who was always kind and courteous to me. It was characteristic of him to take a personal interest and help out another person in need.
Kiki’s oldest son – Enrique Camarena Jr. – is now a judge here in San Diego, and known for his tough stance on drug dealers.
Susan Walter has lived in the South Bay for over 30 years. Her interests include ceramics, marine biology, books, and local history. She and her husband Steve are historic archaeologists. They have a daughter Rachael, and son Aaron.