Years ago, in the trodden desert far west of Tucson, Morales and I arrested two men traveling along a remote trail north of the border. It was early March, and the nights were still cold. The men did not run, but fell quietly to their knees, their hands trembling above their heads in the pale orange from our flashlights. They followed our commands, nodding timidly. As we walked them single-file to the patrol vehicle, I observed their gait—heavy and sapped of purpose.
Outside the processing center, Morales and I talked with the men as we searched their belongings. They were my age, mid-twenties, and both hailed from the same mountain village in Oaxaca. One of them wore a baseball hat with the image of a marijuana leaf embroidered on the front. You think it’s cool to wear a hat with marijuana on it? Morales asked him. The man seemed confused. I didn’t know it was a marijuana hat, he said. It’s the only kind they were selling. His companion, small and potbellied, listened in, concerned. Is that what marijuana looks like? he asked.
Morales and I rummaged through the men’s backpacks, setting aside liquids, perishable foods, and anything that could be used as a weapon. In the bag belonging to the man with the hat, Morales uncovered a bag of thickly cut carne seca. The man smiled. I prepared it myself, he said, standing a little straighter. Morales looked longingly at the jerky. Have some, the man offered—no se echa a perder. No thanks, Morales said.
At the bottom of the potbellied man’s backpack I discovered a bag of grasshoppers and another filled with small dried fish. The man chuckled. Comida típica de Oaxaca, he said. Try the chapulines, he suggested, pointing at the grasshoppers. I shook some into my palm and glanced at Morales before tossing them into my mouth. The Oaxacans laughed. Not bad, I said. Tastes like salt and lime. The men looked at me eagerly. See if you like the charales, they said, gesturing toward the dried fish. I took one into my mouth, grimacing from the heavy salt. I dared Morales to do the same. Maybe I’ll try the jerky, he offered. For a moment we stood together with the men, laughing and eating, listening to their stories of home.
As Morales prepared to escort them into the processing center, I gathered up the items to be discarded. I was about to toss a small water bottle when the potbellied man whispered to me that I should not throw it away, that it held mezcal made on his family’s ranch. His father had harvested the maguey from the mountains around their village, he told me, and it had been aging for six months. It’s at its best right now, he said, take it with you. No se echa a perder.
Many months later, I moved into an old adobe row house in Tucson’s Barrio Viejo with my longtime partner. We hosted a housewarming party, inviting an assortment of old friends. That night, after only the hearty remained, we climbed to the roof dancing and shouting, young and free, our hands outstretched in the glow of a nearby streetlight. The alcohol soon ran out, so I fetched the bottle of mezcal. Before opening it, I gathered our friends and told them of the men from Oaxaca. I could see that they were uncertain, as was I, how to feel about drinking the toiled-over spirits of men waylaid on their journey through the desert, far from the rolling jungled mountains of their home. I drank first from the bottle. The mezcal burned, tasting of earth-smoke and wet volcanic soil. I held it out to my companions. It’s at its best right now, I said. Don’t let it go to waste. ✜
Francisco Cantú served as a Border Patrol agent for the United States Border Patrol from 2008 to 2012. The recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, his nonfiction has appeared in Guernica, South Loop Review, and is forthcoming from Ploughshares. He is a contributing editor at PublicBooks.org.