La Frontera means the border, or the frontier, in Spanish. In our neighborhood, The "Club Frontera" used to be a bar with sawdust on the floor that catered to Mexican men. It was on lower Main Street in Watsonville, the heart of central-coastal California.
The Santa Cruz County line is a block away from Club Frontera at the Pajaro River. Monterey County is on the other side of the bridge. The river also divides Watsonville from its poorer sister, the unincorporated community of Pajaro.
The Club Frontera was closed down a couple of years ago, after years of notoriety. The Watsonville Police Department Headquarters is located on the far side of the club's parking lot, about a hundred yards away from the front door.
You can picture Captain Renault, from Casablanca, making the final raid: “I’m shocked, shocked, to find that gambling is going on here, and prostitution, and heroin, and cocaine, and arms sales, and the fencing of stolen property!”
This story is by my friend Andy Griffin, the organic farmer whose brilliant newsletter about food, farming, ecology, and politics, is called the The Ladybug Letter.
On the other side of Club Frontera from the police station is El Pollero restaurant, a former drive-thru hamburger joint that now serves spit-roasted chicken. In Spanish El Pollero means “the chicken herder.” In street slang, a “pollero” is an ironic term for a smuggler who brings undocumented workers, or “pollo,” across the border— making the name of our chicken shack on lower Main a fowl-smelling pun.
Anyone walking down Main Street, seeing a Pollero next to a Frontera can hardly have any illusions about where our most important border is. It isn’t the dry riverbed that defines the county line. The real frontera lies eight hours to the south, and it divides our community everywhere we go.
But let’s change the channel from yesterday’s news and watch cartoons. Every Saturday morning at our house, Wile E. Coyote tries Acme-brand booby traps, Acme-brand dynamite, and Acme-brand H-bombs to sabotage the Roadrunner. And— Beep, beep!— every Saturday morning the Roadrunner escapes, leaving Wile E. to play the fool.
Wile E. is a Hollywood coyote. Real coyotes— the feral canines with dirty gray fur, bright yellow eyes, sharp teeth and street credibility— have to get their birds, or they won’t survive. Their range extends across mountains and deserts, from Chiapas to the Yukon.
There are human coyotes at home on the same range, so named for their cunning, their scavenging instincts, and their capacity to adapt to a harsh environment. In colonial Mexico, the Castilian grammar of the conquistadores imposed itself on the indigenous Nahuatl noun, coyotl, and a New World bastard-verb was born. The regular “ar” ending to coyotear, means to behave like a coyote. Yo coyoteo, tu coyoteas, el coyotea, etc. Such slinking behavior in a man is met with a mixture of disdain and admiration in Mexico. Coyotes are not heroes, but they are survivors.
Wile E.’s canine cousins have adapted to suburbia. They sip cool water at dawn from swimming pools on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Coyotes eat the cat food that’s been left out for Muffy, and they’ll eat Muffy, too, if they catch her, before they slip into the brush to sleep the daylight away. Suburban pet owners, who build spacious homes oblivious to their surrounding habitat, get outraged at this eruption of wilderness when coyotes stalk prey inside the city limits. But “crossing the line” is an abstraction to a coyote.
For the coyote’s human namesake, “going over the line” is a job. El coyote is the person who gets illegal immigrants under, over, or around the border. Pollero is a synonym for coyote. We all know how much a coyote enjoys a chicken dinner! Right now the price a coyote charges is about $2000 for a one-way trip from Otay Mesa or Mexicali to San Jose— more for women with infants or children.
Coyotes come in all shapes. Some coyotes are diversified businessmen who smuggle drugs across the border along with their human cargoes. “You want some coke with your chicken?”
Some coyotes are milder in spirit and guide their customers across the desert the way a hen guides her chicks. I knew a coyote once, a marimacha, or Mexicana dyke, named "Little Pistols," or María Pistolitas. Her husband was serving a life sentence on the Mexican prison island Islas Marias, for growing opium poppies. Maria worked to support her family as a lay midwife and curandera when she wasn’t smuggling immigrants. María was a sweetheart in a brassy, wise-woman sort of way, always ready to prescribe herbs and massages.
During George Bush Senior’s administration, the U.S. Mexico border was so porous that the price a coyote could charge a chicken fell precipitously. Business got so bad that one coyote I knew, Tío Raul, had to quit the life. He got a job pushing a broom around the Wrigley’s Gum factory in Santa Cruz. Tio Raúl had house payments, car payments, a wife, and two expensive teenaged daughters to maintain.
Luckily, for all the hard-pressed coyotes, President Bush was defeated by Bill Clinton. President Clinton threw a bone to his critics on the right and started “Operation Gatekeeper,” which promised renewed Federal attention to the border situation.
“Gatekeeper” placed almost all active INS officers on the international frontier. By moving I.N.S agents to the deserts, well away from any employers who felt harassed by onerous federal regulations, Clinton honored the needs of the business lobby, while managing to look tough for the press and the public. Bill Clinton is a man who knows how to conjugate the verb coyotear. Tyson Chicken, one of the biggest poultry producers in the world, is based in Clinton’s home state of Arkansas, and was one of his biggest political supporters. Bush Jr. knows the Tyson folks too.
Due to enhanced border enforcement, the cost of trespassing into the United States went up dramatically for the pollo. Darwinian logic meant that the marginal coyotes— the dumb, the unconnected, the unlucky— were hunted down by agents in lime-green four-wheel drive Broncos, and culled from the desert.
Smart coyotes were back in business. Borders move around, but there’s always a line to cross. What about Bush’s new fence? It was always dead on arrival; the real coyotes would've found ways to build that fence with undocumented laborers.
The way I see it, year after year we see the same cartoon landscape scrolling in the background— while in the foreground a bald eagle tries to solve social problems with Acme-brand dynamite. The varmint gets away in every episode. Beep, beep!—my "*". I can hear a coyote licking his chops right now, as he relishes another chicken dinner.
(c) by Andy Griffin, The Ladybug Letter. Photo of "Prima," Andy's new baby.