From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

A Bridge to Freedom

I change myself; I change the world.

Gloria Anzaldúa

I must have crossed that bridge a hundred times, but it took the words of a stranger to show me what it really represented. Before our encounter, it was just a bridge, a way to get from one place to another. The stranger showed me that it was really a link between two worlds that were physically close, yet completely different. In one direction was a land of opportunity and freedom, while the other pointed to a land of hardship and pain. In all my crossings, I had never really thought of the old bridge that way, but this time there was this man standing on the Mexican side of a chain-link fence. He opened my eyes.

Dark, with Indian features, he had eyes like black pearls and hair like charcoal. His high cheekbones and elegant, strong nose told me that he had once been a proud man. But his hands were weathered, and time had not been gentle to him. In his arms, he gently held a peacefully sleeping baby swaddled in a multicolored rebozo. There was something about this man that moved me.

It wasn’t as if I had never seen people begging on the border before. You know the ones I mean. I am ashamed to admit it, but sometimes I pass by and pretend that I don’t see them. But I noticed this man in a different way. He stood on the other side of the fence as I began to make my way back to the bridge that would lead me to the states. My grandmother once told me that a healthy Mexican man would rather cut off his right arm with barbed wire than go out and beg in the streets. That’s what got my attention. He was healthy and strong, yet he stood there begging, with his baby girl in one arm and a white paper in his hand.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“We come from Puebla,” he said. “We saved all of our money so we could come to the United States to look for work, but my wife fell gravely ill. We spent our savings on the doctor and a place to stay and eat. Please help us! I can’t afford to buy her prescription.” He waved the doctor’s order in his hand. “I can’t find any work here, and we don’t know anyone. Please help! We come from Puebla. My wife is gravely ill.”

His words were like bricks that weighed heavily on my chest. My heart sank, and his sorrow moved me to dig into my pockets and pull out what I had. He held out a large brown hand, callused from years of hard labor under an unforgiving sun, extending it through one of the openings of the chain-link fence. He didn’t look at me, and I understood why.

“Gracias, que Dios la bendiga,” he said softly. I could feel that he spoke from his heart.

I wanted to ask for his name, but I knew not to. I didn’t even look back. I wanted to leave him with his dignity. As I crossed that bridge back to the states, I knew that I would never know his fate. Tears filled my eyes, and I wondered why he had risked everything, including the lives of his family, to embark on such a perilous journey.

The currents of the Rio Grande moved swiftly beneath the bridge that day, ready to devour anyone who dared cut through its harsh waves. Yet in the distance, I could see people hunched in the bushes, waiting for the right moment to brave the strong waters. On the other side roamed the light green 4x4s, waiting to capture the members of the masses who might set foot on their shores. And I understood why the man behind the fence risked so much. He held the answer in his arms. For it wasn’t too long ago that my grandmother, heavy with child, braved the same harsh river currents to get to the place where I grew up. But things were always so easy for me that I took that place for granted and never spent any time thinking about how difficult it had been for the others before me to get there.

My arrival home was bittersweet, as I had been touched and changed by what I had seen and experienced. I realize now that freedom is selective, and not everybody gets to taste it. Sometimes I look up and hope that there will come a time when the Earth will be like the clear, open sky, an immense space without man-made boundaries.

I found more than sombreros or trinkets that day on the bridge. I found a new understanding of what it means to be free and of what it means to wish for the well-being of all of God’s children.

Jacqueline Méndez

You are currently enjoying a preview of this book.

Sign up here to get a Chicken Soup for the Soul story emailed to you every day for free!

Please note: Our premium story access has been discontinued (see more info).

view counter

More stories from our partners