Photo by Ismael Cuevas Jr.

I am rushing back to my apartment in Pilsen, doing one last walk-through to make sure I didn’t forget my passport, wallet, or any other important documents. Like in Sandra Cisneros’ book Caramelo where Celaya “Lala” Reyes narrates her father and two uncles packing their cars to the brim as they embark on a journey from Chicago to Mexico City, my brother is double parked, rearranging our luggage to ensure his rear view visibility isn’t blocked by all the encargos we are taking. I rush back downstairs and bump into my neighbor, who asks me if I’m okay, and I look at him, nodding. He says, “you look scared,” to which I respond, “well, I am driving to Zacatecas right now.” 

“Ah, no manches, right now? Con razón, good luck and stay safe. They say the roads are rough down there,” he warns.

Originally, my brother Alberto and I were supposed to go on a road trip during the holiday break throughout the American Southwest, camping at various National Parks along the way. But a week before we leave, I get a phone call from my ninety-two-year-old grandfather, who, in a sad and teary voice, asks if we are going to visit: “Melito, ¿sí va venir para Navidad? Ya sabe que los extrañamos y no sé cuánto más vaya a durar en esta tierra.” I tell my brother, and he immediately responds, “we need to go to Mexico.” Excited to be reunited again, our cousins in Mexico give us very specific instructions: drive only during daylight hours, stay on toll roads, and don’t drive a flashy car.

My mom pulls up right before we are about to depart on our thirty-hour drive to Zacatecas. She hands us more encargos and with a worried look on her face tells us to be safe: “mijos, cuidense mucho, ya saben cómo está la cosa allá.” 

Driving to Mexico is no longer idyllic like in Cisneros’ Caramelo. The only things that remain the same are the landscape and the deadly vehicular accidents. Now paisanos have to deal with extortion, kidnappings, and cartel battles when driving back to their homelands. This, alongside a two-plus year global pandemic, in which the outcome is still uncertain. 

In July 2021, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico released a security alert rating Tamaulipas, the border state across from Laredo, Texas, as a “Level 4 – Do Not Travel” state due to the violence. It also included federal highway 85D between Nuevo Laredo and Monterrey due to an increase in criminal activity: the same road we would be on for three hours on our way to my birthplace of Fresnillo, Zacatecas.

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Photo by Ismael Cuevas Jr.

After spending a night in Memphis with a cousin and a night in Austin with some friends, we depart early to ensure we arrive at the U.S.-Mexico checkpoint in Laredo by 9am. My brother and I are surprised to see hundreds of SUV’s and new trocas del año on I-35 pulling trailers overloaded with Christmas gifts and household items like refrigerators, stoves, and kitchen sets. Either they didn’t get the memo or it’s part of the calculated risks that millions of mexicanos take when they drive across the border.

Right before we approach the bridge over the Rio Grande, we fill up the gas tank and I ask my brother to let me drive since I have crossed the inspection zone multiple times. Normally, there would be a traffic jam that lasted a few hours leading up the bridge, but after paying the $1.75 toll on the U.S. side of the Juárez–Lincoln International Bridge, we see “México” in big bright red letters. With our passports and COVID-19 vaccine cards in hand, I am expecting the Mexican customs agents to question us and inspect our vehicle. But we look around and there is no agent in sight. The checkpoints are wide open and we slowly cross, merging onto a boulevard taking us to the CIITEV, a module to buy a temporary vehicle importation permit that’s required when crossing an American vehicle into the country.

Alberto and I look at each other and wonder if this is how weapons get smuggled. Our suspicion stems from a tactic that was used by the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) which ran operations along the Arizona-Mexico border in the late 2000’s. They purposely allowed American-licensed firearm dealers to sell weapons illegally to straw buyers with the hopes that they could track the guns to Mexican drug cartels and make arrests. 

Operation Fast and Furious, as it was dubbed, led to one of their weapons being found at the scene of the murder of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry and crime scenes where at least 150 Mexican civilians have been injured or killed. Over the course of the operation, over 2,000 firearms were bought by straw purchasers and have been found in thousands of homicide crime scenes across Mexico, a majority cartel-related.

We pull up to a dirt parking lot where hundreds of American vehicles wait to receive their car permits. A makeshift taqueria stands in the center with Coca-Cola tarps providing shade from the intense borderland sun. Cumbias and corridos blast from the speakers as people order their tacos or huaraches de carne asada. Vehicles with license plates from Illinois and the Midwest and as far as Florida, Montana, and New York, line up along the Río as their passengers anxiously wait to depart so they could continue their journey inland. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation data, over six million passenger vehicles crossed the Laredo border in 2021, down from its peak of eighteen million in 1998.

I see a dozen federal police, national guard, and Angeles Verdes (Mexico’s public roadside assistance entity) arrive at the parking lot. Over a loudspeaker, a police officer announces, “La caravana migrante va a salir a las once de la mañana.” Two days earlier, the Federación Orgullo Zacatecano organized a vehicular caravan of 2,000 migrants living in the U.S. who were crossing the border south to be escorted by Mexican government agencies across the 400-mile stretch between Nuevo Laredo and Zacatecas. Given the insecurity on the roads, migrant leaders in the U.S. demanded that government officials in Mexico guarantee their safety as they traversed the country to their destinations. Through a program called Heroes Paisanos by Mexico’s immigration department, the Instituto Nacional de Migración, Mexican officials across forty agencies work to ensure a safe passage through Mexico during the holiday season. An hour later, my brother comes out of the module with our car and tourist permits. “Listo, vamonos!” he says with relief on his face.

We catch up with the caravan down the highway. Military and national guard trucks with soldiers atop, holding their assault rifles, were cruising at the speed limit as hundreds of American cars raced down the two-lane road. I tell my brother to stay alert as we are nearing the kilometro veintiseis. I am definitely hiding my anxiety from my brother but we both have a nervous and concentrated attitude to get through this stretch. In December, Todos Somos Uno, a collective of families searching for their loved ones, protested in front of the Nuevo Leon state capitol to demand investigations into mass disappearances. On the desolate desert section near the 26th kilometer point, over 185 people have been reported missing in 2021. Car jackings and harassment videos from delinquent groups have gone viral on social media.  

I look at the weather app on my phone. Sunset is at 6:30pm. As long as we arrive in Zacatecas before the sun disappears we will be okay.

We meet with my friend Octavio at a rest stop outside Monterrey so we can ride together. After passing Saltillo, and the Bienvenidos a Zacatecas sign at around 4pm, we fill up for gas one last time in Concepción del Oro. By this time, the thousands of vehicles have trickled down to less than a hundred. We pass a road sign that warns drivers they are entering a no-cell-phone-service-within-a-hundred-miles zone. The last stretch of road before arriving at my paternal grandparents house looks like Forrest Gump’s final running scene on the long uninhabited road near Monument Valley, Arizona. We catch up to other vehicles with American license plates, give each other a smiling nod in solidarity, and drive in a group of four cars all the way to Fresnillo. We race against the sunset. No one wants to get stranded on this carretera.

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Alberto knocks on the front gate with his car keys, creating the familiar clinking sound of metal echoing through her patio that I have heard since my first visit to her house in third grade after finally becoming a legal resident. The streetlight casts our shadows over the entrance as my grandmother opens the door. “Abuelita, ya llegamos!” we both excitedly announce as we embrace her. I hear my grandpa calling us from the kitchen. My grandma explains that he struggles to stand up and needs a walker, so we walk over to hug and kiss him. Within minutes, our three cousins who live next door walk in and tell us to get ready. They are going to take us to cenar since they don’t want my elderly abuelita to get tired by our arrival.

After dinner we go back to our grandma’s living room. My cousins Eli, Ceci, Eladio, and his girlfriend, update us on their lives. The conversation quickly turns into terrifying testimonies of their experience living in Fresniraq, a cartel warzone. 

Colloquially, Fresnillenses have referred to their 468-year-old mining city as Fresniraq for its bloody clashes between the Mexican military or militarized law enforcement agencies and cartel groups. I couldn’t stop thinking about Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” song where he popularized the term “Chiraq.” This nickname has since lost appeal, but it came about due to a statistic that indicated 4,265 people were killed in Chicago between 2003-2012 due to gun violence, roughly the same number of American soldiers who were killed in Iraq during that time period. 

Fresnillo, the world’s largest silver producer and the largest city in Zacatecas with 143,000 people, has been strategically important to the drug and firearm trade route since it has highways connecting to eight states, linking the Pacific ports to the northern region by the U.S.-Mexico border. Over the last few years, the Cártel de Sinaloa and Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación have been fighting over the plaza or turf of towns within Fresnillo and other pueblos in the county. 

In 2021, the state of Zacatecas recorded 1,464 homicides within a total state population of 1.6 million people. To put it in perspective, in 2021 Chicago had 836 homicides within 2.7 million city residents. The New York Times published a story last August calling Fresnillo the most terrified city after it sent a journalist and photographer to document daily life of zacatecanos who had lost loved ones to violence.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration released a joint intelligence report in May 2017 detailing the ways Mexican drug trafficking organizations are responsible for providing the majority of drugs to Chicago street gangs. The profits have enabled both cartels and gangs to operate in both countries and, as a result, influence the rates of violent crimes, the report said. Like Fresnillo, Chicago’s extensive transportation networks and connections to other cities make it an ideal hub to move drugs and money from the border. 

Abue takes us to my dad’s childhood room and indicates where the San Marcos blankets are located in case we get cold at night. After thirty hours of driving, physically and mentally exhausted, I stay up thinking about the way gun violence has been an everyday part of my life, whether on the South Side of Chicago or my hometown of Fresnillo. On this night the temperature drops to 27°F, the coldest this winter season. Our family jokes the next morning that we brought the Chicago cold with us.

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I feel grounded being back in Zacatecas. In the mornings I open the window and take a big breath of fresh cold semi-arid air. Alberto and I spend the next week visiting our maternal grandparents, aunts and uncles on both my mother’s and father’s side and meeting the young children of our cousins. I am excited to be called a tio even though I am technically not their uncle. Aunts from Mexico City and Los Angeles are also in town, so our nochebuena dinner no longer fits in the kitchen. We set up multiple foldable tables to accommodate the twenty-six members–three generations–of Reyes family. The other half can’t make it since they are in the U.S., but they aren’t far away as video calls are coming in and out throughout the festive Christmas Eve.

Before we come back to Chicago, my paternal grandfather wants my brother and I to take him to Ermita de los Correa, an hour south of Fresnillo–the birthplace of my father and his parents. After spending a few hours asking him about our lineage, I compile a genealogical tree using and find Cuevas’ in La Ermita going as far back as the 1700’s. My grandfather wants Alberto, my cousin Eladio, and I to find and locate his agricultural plots of land that he had purchased from his savings as a laborer in the American Bracero program. He tells us he wants us to navigate the rural backroads, since one day not too far from today he will no longer be on this earth. 

As we all get ready that morning, there is tense silence that permeates the kitchen while my grandma cooks frijoles con huevo. During the last weeks of the summer in 2021, groups of armed men came into La Ermita and hung up narcomantas–handwritten narco banners–throughout the village demanding that residents leave or die. According to local and international media, approximately 350 residents were forcibly displaced as nonstop gun battles between opposing cartels raged on for days. 

In rural areas, it is customary to wave at the occasional oncoming truck or at a tractor in the fields a few hundred feet in the distance. After all, the driver could be extended family. But this time, it is as if we are invisible. People turn away from us. Maybe they don’t recognize us or most likely they don’t want to attract any attention in case we are the bad guys. We make a right turn on a road next to a permanent Virgen de Guadalupe altar on the embankment. La Ermita is mostly empty. Bullet holes are sprayed onto humble single-story adobe homes. The Mexican Army sits in a temporary camp in the middle of the village observing everyone who comes through the town.

We stop to greet two sets of great uncles who weathered the battles in the village. They corroborate what we have heard in the news. All the younger people with children left, the elderly folks without resources or who had “nothing to lose” stayed. Many families sold their only assets: livestock or 110 lb. sacks of beans, soy, or animal feed. Much of our extended family ended up seeking refuge in nearby Jerez and some migrated to California.

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I call my mother as soon as we cleared the U.S. Border Patrol crossing on New Years Eve. “Má, ya cruzamos, estamos en Texas,” my brother had her on speaker. Our 3,600-mile road trip is near its end. A barrage of conflicted feelings overwhelm me as we drive back. During our stay in Zacatecas there was an average of three or four homicides per day in the areas we visited. But the warmth and loving embraces from each one of my grandparents, aunts and uncles, my cousins and their little ones, remind me of why I go to Mexico when the opportunity arises. 

It is no longer a hyperbole to state that the War on Drugs in the U.S. and Mexico has been a failure of epic proportions. Five decades have passed since U.S. President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse as “public enemy number one”. Since then, congressional legislation, prosecutorial practices, and law enforcement policies have resulted in disproportionate imprisonment of Black people. One in three African-American men in their twenties are currently in the criminal justice system. Across the river, sixteen years since former Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared a war on cartels, 300,000 homicides have been recorded, many of the victims from the poorest sectors in society. From Black Lives Matter and #NiUnaMenos movements, communities of both sides of the border have organized in different ways to resist and protect people from these systemic attacks.

In the United States and Mexico, political parties across the spectrum continue to egregiously kick the can down the road to make any meaningful changes to immigration laws, the criminal justice system, and even the basic process of asylum-seeking and permanent residency. For some of us, despite the risks of traveling to Mexico, we have the privilege of visiting our family and coming back to the U.S. Millions of people of Mexican descent worry about the fate of our loved ones even as they reassure us que todo está bien (everything is okay).

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Ismael Cuevas Jr. has written for the Weekly and recently published an article on the history of Plaza Tenochtitlan in Public Books. He has a M.A. in Mexican American and Latina/o Studies from the University of Texas at Austin.

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