Jackson Heights Chronicles: When Crossing the Border Isnt Enough

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Every now and then he received visits like this, from young filmmakers interested in documenting the plight of the Colombians who arrived in New York as lethal suitcases, those who lost their lives when a capsule of cocaine exploded in their intestines. Invariably, however, the filmmakers were a flighty bunch who eventually disappeared along with their fanciful illusions of Oscar-winning films.

Their interest in the Latin American immigrant drama always seemed to vanish as rapidly as it appeared. I want to make a movie about how they make the trip from Colombia to Queens, answered the gringo, in his almost passable Spanish. I just want permission to come here to your office and watch you in action. I know what an important figure you are in Jackson Heights, and I think you could be a main character in the story.

So all I ask, really, is your permission to hang around here, observe, and take notes. Fernando was well aware that once someone sat down in that chair at the other side of his desk, there was no way he could refuse a request. He had known this for a long, long time now. And this young man seemed like a nice kid; Fernando felt it right from the start.

Jackson Heights Chronicles: When Crossing the Border Isn't Enough

And anyway, he liked the idea of helping someone make a film that would tell a story that he knew so well. Fernando had always felt that it was important for people beyond the confines of their little neighborhood to hear about his compatriots and the hardships they endured.

He wanted the whole country to know about it. But he also knew that it had to be told in a way that would reach the great American public. A movie, even one made by a student, sounded like something that could do that. With this in mind, Fernando told the young man—Matt Schneider—what everyone in Jackson Heights already knew: the cocaine so casually sniffed in luxurious corporate bathrooms and between cocktails at glittering SoHo lounges had reached them via the warm belly of a terrified mule.

One of the mules who had swallowed the capsules, collected her payment, and started her life over in New York. Pausing for a moment, he closed his eyes and whispered, But Angela, she was different from the rest of them …. Matt said nothing for a few moments.

Jackson Heights Chronicles: When Crossing the Border Isn't Enough

I have to get back to my day job…. These people have been waiting to see me for hours. Matt returned the following evening, this time waiting patiently until Fernando said good-bye to his last client. After the door closed the two men sat down, face-to-face, and Fernando began to tell the story of the mule who had made it. With a vague, slightly lost look in his eyes, Fernando recalled the story of Angela: the myth and the woman…. A kind of Robin Hood of the mules, she was the topic of endless anecdotes that the middle-aged dope pushers told over and over again, though nobody ever really knew what was fact and what was fiction.

She was barely eighteen when she lied about her age to take her first trip. Who cared whether she was eighteen or twenty-one? Her new passport would have to be tailor-made anyway. A life of hard knocks had forced her to become a good deal sharper than most people twice her age. She took advantage of the passport-forging procedure to change her name.

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God only knows what she must have left behind—a violent home, hunger, abuse—when she invented the new identity with which she would start her new life in New York, made possible by that blessed harvest inside her belly. The old drug pushers loved to regale each other with stories about how she made more trips than any other mule—more than several mules put together, even—in the course of her professional life.


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Though none of her twenty-something colleagues believed the stories, the old men all swore up and down that they had met her at least once or twice, and they all talked about how her black eyes glittered with flinty determination. You could see in her face that she was absolutely certain that nobody in this life would ever get the best of her. Once they almost stopped her at JFK, but a crooked friend at the immigration checkpoint managed to slip her through, just seconds before she would have had to face the dreaded X-ray test.

Unlike the other successful mules, Angela never spent her earnings on drunken sprees and weekend escapades, nor did she ever once dip her nose into the cocaine, wrapped tightly in condoms, that she had swallowed on so many occasions. She just kept on traveling back and forth, hedging her bets against the laws of probability, carrying the poisonous capsules in her expertly silent stomach, and depositing money in the bank for her retirement.

Jackson Heights Chronicles by Orlando Tobon - Read Online

Then one day it happened: one of the condoms exploded. Myth or reality? Who knew? Cojo Cabrera, a retired hit man paid off by one of the local strongmen, and who used to pick the big boss up from school when he was a kid, claimed to have been in the 84th Street apartment the morning Angela arrived to unload her cargo. According to him, her face was greenish, and her forehead was bathed in cold sweat: the unmistakable sign that her life was very much in danger.

As soon as she walked in, said Cabrera, she went straight into the bathroom, and when she finally emerged, a long while later, she dangled a broken capsule before his eyes. Cabrera concluded the story by explaining that Angela always carried a powerful dose of laxative in a little bottle of fruit juice. She knew things could go wrong at any moment, and her ability to react instantly was what had kept her alive during so many years of perilous service. Exhausted from recounting so many memories, Fernando took a sip of the coffee that he had purchased hours earlier on his way to the office, now ice cold.

Matt pleaded with Fernando to allow him back, so that he could see how he dealt with things on a day-to-day basis. Fernando said yes. He would arrive quietly, courteously say hello, and then, failing to understand any of the jokes people cracked, he would head over to a little corner of the office that he quickly made his own, propping his old backpack, filled with pens, slips of paper, his handy notebook, and some book or other, against his chair. A small bottle of water sat next to it.

From this vantage point, he observed everything, capturing the spontaneity of all that was said and done in the detailed notes he scribbled down in his little spiral notebook. The vice-consul showed Matt the letters he had received from Colombia, from the distraught families of the poor young men and women who had left home without a word and whom Fernando often sent back, either in a coffin or a little container of ashes, no bigger than a shoebox.

But he always ended up talking, quite a lot, because Matt was a charmer, and a very insistent one at that. Only with Fernando did Angela feel comfortable enough to liberate the confessions, memories, and adventures that she had kept locked away in her heart during all her years of silence. Enabling JavaScript in your browser will allow you to experience all the features of our site. Learn how to enable JavaScript on your browser. NOOK Book.

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Overview From his small travel agency tucked away in an area of New York City known as Little Colombia, the "Godfather of Jackson Heights" does far more than make travel arrangements. Tax accountant, job hunter, fund-raiser, and missing persons detective are just some of his roles. Fernando also earned the title of Undertaker for the Mules after helping families repatriate the remains of the dozens who die every year smuggling drugs into New York when drug-filled capsules in their stomachs explode.

The riveting experiences shared in this collection of connected stories are based on the author's life. Product Details About the Author. He lives in Jackson Heights, where he continues to work out of his travel agency and aid immigrants. Show More. Average Review. Write a Review. Related Searches. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.



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