by JULIA MARÍA SCHIAVONE CAMACHO
Anti-Chinese organizing in the US culminated with the passage of the
Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. This law barred Chinese laborers,
a category that included the vast majority of those trying to enter the nation;
after a series of renewals, the policy remained in effect until 1943.
Across the border in Mexico, anti-Chinese agitating peaked in the early 1930s,
when the northern states of Sonora and Sinaloa
drove out Chinese men and their families en masse.
TUCSON, ARIZONA. AUGUST 1933.
Rosa inhaled the smells of damp earth and wood as she climbed the steps to the train platform. A sea of saguaros, ocotillos, and mesquites in myriad shades of green stretched before her. The sky was a hazy pale peach. She turned and spotted Esperanza and Clemente, gazing at each other as they stood among the refugees down the platform, the immigration inspectors and guards nearby. A bird trilled. Fine grains of sand wafted in the air; her skin felt gritty. A gust whipped up, blowing her dark brown hair across her lips. The heaviness of pre-storm air felt like a caress and reminded her of Tonio. She tried to recall the expression on his face the last time she saw him, but couldn’t conjure it fully. She raised her hand to her chest, feeling for her locket.
A steam whistle interrupted her. Glimpsing the train on its approach, she hurried toward the exiles.
“Take good care,” she murmured to the first refugee she came upon.
“We will,” said the young woman, smiling and taking Rosa’s hands in her own.
Rosa went on to the next family. She wanted to say goodbye to everyone before she had to interpret for the inspectors.
It was her last chance to speak with Esperanza. Rosa should tell her the truth; she owed it to her. They’d become close, or as close as they could in their distinct positions. Of all the women who’d passed through the jail, Esperanza most reminded Rosa of herself when she was younger, before the mistakes. She should confess about Tonio, her father, everything, though she doubted she had the courage. It had failed her before, as it was failing her now. She had never admitted to any refugee that she was tied to their fate.
Picking up the twins, Clemente radiated happiness to be back with his family after many weeks at the men’s jail. His children giggled at something he said. Catching her eye, Esperanza rushed up and embraced Rosa. Clemente smiled and set down the twins, who toddled up and hugged her too, while their mother looked on, blinking back tears. The words started to form on her tongue. There was no time for the whole story, but she could say something.
The moment slipped away when the train’s horn blared, its wheels screeching, as it closed the distance to the station. The stink of exhaust began to overpower the aromas of moist dirt and creosote set free from the evergreens on an earlier shower or carried on the wind from elsewhere. Now she had to go and stand by the inspectors and do her job. Again she saw Esperanza and her husband looking into each other’s eyes and smiling tenderly. Longing for Tonio hit her like a hammer to the chest.
The inspector’s voice startled her. “Collect your children and belongings and form lines here.” He indicated two compartments assigned to the refugees. “Once you board,” he called out as steam hissed from the train, “you cannot exit until San Francisco. From there a steamer will take you steerage to China.” The refugees knew all this; Chinese Exclusion laws had been in effect in America for fifty years. As she interpreted his words, Rosa scanned the faces of the exiles, stoic or resigned or scared or relieved to be leaving at last.
Each time the other interpreter, a middle-aged Chinese man, uttered Cantonese sentences after her Spanish ones, she tried to remember how it had sounded when Tonio spoke Chinese to compatriots at the sweetshop, where she’d been a shop girl, in her hometown in Mexico. She strained again to picture him. His image remained indistinct, changeable as the thunderheads on the horizon.
Finally her task was done. She stood back as the exiles boarded, the guards following in their wake. An inspector glared as she bade her last farewells—they didn’t like it when she talked to the refugees outside of interpreting.
Soon the train jerked into motion, peeling away in bumpy lunges. She strode alongside, quickening her step as the train gained speed. She returned the waves of departing refugees, then caught Esperanza’s gaze, her big cedar-brown eyes impassive. Rosa smiled. But she couldn’t tell if Esperanza was looking at her or staring unseeing into the mist. Then Esperanza smiled and lifted her hand in a wave. Rosa smiled and waved back, her eyes fogging as she raced up the platform. Too soon Esperanza slipped from her sight.
As the train left her behind, she stopped to catch her breath. She glanced back, town people coming into focus down the platform: A couple she knew who doted on their son. An unfamiliar woman standing alone, drying her tears with a white handkerchief.
“Could I take you home, Miss Salas?” a young inspector offered as the train chugged away, leaving a trail of stinky coal smoke.
“No, thank you,” said Rosa, still a little breathless.
“It’s going to rain,” he insisted.
“I’ll be fine,” she said.
“All right, then. Take care.” He touched the brim of his hat. “We’ll see you soon.”
She nodded. It struck her there was something odd about the way he looked at her. Perhaps her friend Grace was right, but no, the idea was ridiculous, he was so much younger.
He and the other agents departed. She would be free until they apprehended more exiles in the desert and called her back to the jail. In the meantime, she would do piecework at home with her great-aunt, a welcome respite.
She walked to the end of the platform as it emptied of people. The train sliced through the desert. Beneath the plants the earth shone reddish-brown. Vacillating between light and dark, as clouds gathered and churned, the sky turned gold. The stench of fumes began to fade into the fragrance of the monsoons. Warm raindrops and a breeze caressed her cheeks, but she made no move to go. Wondering what kind of life awaited Esperanza felt like a fist to her gut. She never learned what became of the families after they’d been deported. At last the desert swallowed the train.
Suddenly she was aboard that train on a voyage with Tonio, in some dream world where a part of her still lived, but he was so close she could almost touch him. Almost.
She took off her locket, staring at it before making a tight fist around it. If only she’d been more like Esperanza in her youth. Esperanza and Clemente too had carried on in secret. But when her father discovered it and tried to sunder them, Esperanza stood up to him. Eventually her parents embraced Clemente. They’d even tried to shield him from expulsion.
Rosa glanced up as thunder shook the sky. It cracked open, grainy water drenching her skin, hair, dress. She sobbed into the whoosh and roar of water hitting the earth. The desert vanished into gray-brown sheets. Her tears disappeared into the rain, brutal and reprieving. She hadn’t cried like this in years.
After the rain ceased, she began trudging toward home. She should have told Esperanza how she’d lost Tonio, how her father’s lifework had been to expel the Chinese and their Mexican wives and children from Mexico. Perhaps then they could have become something more like friends.
She cut through downtown, with its cafés and taverns and shops interspersing businesses that had been abandoned since the Depression hit. She slowed her steps as the roads grew lonelier near the edge of town. It had been near here that she used to see the enforcer, with his three men in the automobile slunk low under their hats. She hadn’t known then who they were or that her father had sent them to wait for Tonio. Or the cruel lie her great-aunt would tell Tonio to try to save him.
Rosa turned onto the long dirt road that bisected the undulating landscape and led to her great-aunt’s house, her home since her father banished her from his house more than a decade ago. She caught her reflection in a puddle on the road and recalled how Tonio had looked at her once. The naked tenderness and yearning on his face had knocked the breath from her lungs. The terrain was higher and greener desert. A fat river gushed behind them. One of the times they’d snuck out to the hills behind her hometown, whether the first or the last she couldn’t say. But she remembered how she felt as he gazed at her, the fluttering of her heart, the warmth of his hand as it held hers.
She wished she could go back to the first night she had overheard her father and brother talking about the antichinistas. She’d run down the stairs and tell her father she loved Tonio. Perhaps it would have changed everything.
As she stepped over a gnarled tree root jutting out of the road—the root was like her regret or her cravenness—she resolved to tell the refugees her story, all of it, just as soon as more landed in jail.
Instead of going home, she drifted off the road, walking toward the distant mountains. Had Tonio believed her great-aunt’s tale—that Rosa abandoned him to marry another—and gone to China alone? Or had they gotten him? Her father wouldn’t admit anything, the enforcer and his thugs had long ago departed, their work done, and Tonio never returned. Did he ever think of her? By now he would have a wife, kids. If he was all right, everything else would pale. If only she knew.
She glanced at the purple mountains ahead. A mass of blackening clouds lowered over the peaks like a bonnet. The sky rumbled, releasing fat, steamy raindrops. I came for you, she heard him calling to her, as if from the rain-drenched hills. Her heart turned over. How she had struggled to recall his voice. Now his words, low and sultry, echoed again.
Julia María Schiavone Camacho
Julia María Schiavone Camacho is from Tucson and grew up traveling across the Arizona/Sonora borderlands. She is a historian and the author of Chinese Mexicans: Transpacific Migration and the Search for a Homeland, 1910-1960 (North Carolina, 2012). She teaches history, literature, and writing at Antioch College. This year, Antioch selected her for a Southwestern Ohio Council for Higher Education Excellence in Research Award. She has attended fiction workshops at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival and just finished writing a historical novel. Across the Pacific is about a Chinese-Mexican couple who yearn to reunite after being separated during a vicious anti-Chinese crusade in Mexico. “Monsoon Valediction” is an excerpt from the novel. Julia’s short fiction is forthcoming in a Latinx special feature in The Florida Review.