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SPECIAL EDITION: WORLD on the MOVE : SNAPSHOT : The Ride North: 'One Never Knows if One Will Ever Return Home Again'


SAN DIEGO — They slip into the yard furtively, preferably beneath the protective cover of darkness, bolting fences, dodging guards and eluding 200-ton locomotives in a perilous dash for that most elusive of prizes: a free ride to the north.

"To be truthful, I have no idea of precisely where this train goes, other than it takes us to el norte, " says Jose Flores Osuna, a sage, unflappable veteran of almost three decades on the migratory circuit-- la aventura, as it is known to immigrants who follow the harvest and job cycles in the north.

On this balmy summer morning, Flores is among a dozen men--all illegal immigrants from Mexico--gathered along a vacant track between two lines of boxcars in a Santa Fe yard near downtown San Diego. The cargo haulers, now eerily quiescent, await the giant engines that will pull them and their loads north toward the Los Angeles Basin, that immigrant beacon, and, beyond, to Barstow.

Here, just north of the U.S.-Mexico border--one of the great terminals of human migration--every mode of transport is dragooned into service for the relentless trek in search of employment.

Each morning, scores of recent border-jumpers--mostly Mexican nationals but including Central Americans and others--try to hitch rides on boxcars and gondolas, flatbeds, auto-carriers and other forms of railroad conveyance. (Once sanitation-conscious authorities had to destroy a hopper-car filled with flour after someone stowed away in it.) Riding the rails is a thrifty--albeit extremely risky--option.

"We are the international work force and should be treated with respect," says Gustavo Sanchez, 20, a carwash jockey in Los Angeles' Koreatown. "Thanks to the Latino hand, this country is rich," says Sanchez, who volunteers that he and a colleague had been visiting friends in Tijuana. On the way back to Los Angeles, he says, their remaining cash was stolen by knife-wielding thieves at a San Diego trolley stop. "We suffer from California to Oregon, and what do we get for it? What would Los Angeles be without us? I reject the term illegals. "

But it is the men's indocumentado status, combined with a lack of cash, that dictate the lure of the freight stop. It can be a hazardous enterprise, as was demonstrated most dramatically in July, 1987, when 18 Mexican men suffocated inside a sealed boxcar in the high desert of West Texas. More recently, on July 11, Alejandro Hernandez Martinez lost his grip as he attempted to hop a Santa Fe freight that was chugging through a yard in Oceanside. The 24-year-old died beneath the unforgiving steel wheels of the last car, which crushed his chest and sheared his left arm.

"Yes, it's dangerous, but Mexico offers us nothing but misery," says Luis Lopez, one of three headed for the cherry orchards of the Pacific Northwest. Back home, he says, a day's wages for repairing vehicle tires, his profession, fail to generate enough income to buy a pound of meat or a pair of pants.

He and his two companions are seasoned freight-hoppers, wary of the hazards and alert to the best opportunities. They go for open-top cars--the better to avoid both peril and capture. "You can die of hunger inside a closed car and no one will know," says Jose Corrales, a gaunt father of three from the western state of Sinaloa, whose bloodshot eyes betray the fatigue so common among these men.

In the sprawling freight facility, a Steinbeckian aura of great displacement predominates. The travelers huddle around makeshift campfires amid metal drums, rotted railroad ties and other debris of industrial society, resting in the hollow of concrete pipes and inside junked transformer cabinets. At quiet moments, they speak of home, of loved ones left behind.

"I never told my mother that I was leaving," says baby-faced Jose Lorenzo Reyes Jaramillo, at 19 the youngest in the group. He's a first-time sojourner to the north who left his job in a multinational soap and toothpaste factory in Mexico City for la aventura. "One never knows if one will ever return home again."

Reyes' gaze wanders toward the glistening towers in downtown San Diego, a flourishing city boastful of a prosperous, laid-back lifestyle--a concept foreign to these men who toil in field and factory, restaurant and construction site.

"I've worked in cherries, asparagus, strawberries, tomatoes, cleaning wheat. . . ," says Flores. At 47, he is the oldest of the men, a grandfather. He speaks easily of his former existence as a hell raiser in his hometown of Mazatlan and of the brawl two decades ago that left his body riddled with nine bullet holes. "No man controls his destiny--not even el gringo, " he says.

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