“Flor Salcedo’s ‘Pan Dulce’ is a glimpse into the split-screen reality that is adolescent life in America. The back and forth across the border from El Paso, Texas, to Juárez, Mexico, is the same duality knocking around in young Rosas mind—her conscience serving as border patrol—as she navigates her friendships, boys, and all the recklessness that comes along with being a teenager, coupled with the harsh reality of whats at stake. Salcedo wove a complex story that captivated me with its textured language, both narratively and culturally, and left me wanting more. Oh, and it left me wanting... pan dulce. Seriously.”
—Jason Reynolds, New York Times bestselling and award-winning author

Something bad is going to happen to you someday.

Mom’s words burrow into my consciousness. I’ve been trying to shake them off since yesterday, and how the line in between her eyebrows deepened as she spoke. But I’ve been trying to shake off a lot lately. In a matter of a few high school years, I’ve realized people are fake. Friends talk behind my back, my parents—and even my friends’ parents—are suddenly not who I thought they were. It’s like everyone is lying to themselves, or each other.

Tonight, I’m just going across the border for a night of dancing. It’s no big deal, even if Mom thinks otherwise.

During my hasty getaway, I almost take a dive on my front porch stairs. I manage to catch myself with one arm like a stealth ninja. I double over, holding in a gurgle of laughter so Mom doesn’t catch me making my escape. That was close. Scuffed knees are so not cute.

A light layer of sweat coats my arms by the time I trek the hill to Aida’s house at the foot of the Franklin Mountains, the sierra around it splattered with a symphony of dry shrubs. The party crew of three is hanging out in the front yard. Aida sits on her porch painting her nails, blowing on them, and then holding them up to the sun. Zulema sits in the passenger seat of Aida’s brown Nissan Sentra with the door open, her legs partially out of the car, looking into the visor’s mirror while applying makeup. Belen stands between them, watching over the beauty production with one hand on her waist and hips cocked to one side. My gears get cranking again, my thoughts moving to the possibilities of the night.

I was hoping it’d only be me and Aida, but she says she doesn’t know her way across the border well, and Zulema is the one with the friends from Mexico, the so-called hotties we’re meeting up with in Ciudad Juárez, the city just a hop over a bridge from El Paso, Texas. Zulema is unquestionably not my friend. The other two might or might not be. They might be playing the game of fakes, too, or we might be playing it with each other.

Aida is the first to notice me. She eyes me up and down but smiles. “Look at you, Rosa,” she whoops. “Sexxxy.” She follows it with, “Biatch, you better not take any guys I like away from me tonight.”

Zulema pauses applying eyeliner to her left eyelid to look up. “Ugh,” she says loudly and shoots me a blunt look. I ignore it and instead smile back at Aida.

I knew Aida’d have something to say about me wearing my jean miniskirt and cutoff top. She’s sporting white dressy shorts that make her dark legs really pop. Aida’s dark, golden complexion has always been so pretty to me. She looks like her mother, who still looks like she could be in her twenties and the boys at school say is hot. But despite all her beauty, Aida’s poor mom has to pretend her husband isn’t having an affair at work. Aida thinks her mom tolerates it for Aida’s sake, to avoid a divorce. Faking the marriage now, I suppose. Sad.

My stomach grumbles. I was so darn ready to get to the fun and dancing—and to avoid Mom—I skipped dinner.

“Sorry I’m late,” I say. “Had to wait for Mom to go watch her novela in her room. She’s been lecturing about not crossing the border.” I peer behind Aida at her house.

“Dad’s not home yet,” Aida says as if reading my mind. “And Mom don’t care,” she says matter-of-factly.

“See! I don’t know why all the fuss,” I harp.

All teens go across to party. Yesterday, Mom also tried to scare me with doom talk about feminicidio after she overheard me on the phone making plans to go across the border. “You think you know everything,” she said in a quiet, spooky way. I’m not a smart aleck, I don’t think I know it all. But I do know about feminicidio. A few years ago, a bunch of women disappeared in Mexico and turned up raped, beaten, and dead. But it’s 1998 now. Besides, they go after the local women because they know their routes and habits and then leave their bodies out in the desert. I know that’s really horrible stuff, but just because Mom never did anything fun when she was young doesn’t mean the world is out to get me because I do. Just because she found her eerie religion and lives in a phony reality doesn’t mean I shouldn’t get to be a normal teen.

Zulema’s tricolor hair from faded color treatments blows against the headrest, the tips bleach blond. She’s the lightest of us because her dad’s Anglo and her mom’s a light-skinned Chicana. Zulema probably made Aida turn the car on and leave it running to blast the air conditioner at full power so her three layers of makeup don’t melt off. It’s technically night already—8 p.m.—but in the El Paso summer, it’s still 95 degrees and the sun is brightly lit over our desert. It’s not called the Sun City for nothing.

Zulema shifts her face to sweet-devil after her initial mad-dog stare. “Just kidding, flaca.” I despise it when she calls me skinny and she knows it. She continues in a sneering tone, “You look alright, never as good as me, though. I don’t have sticks for legs.” She pauses for one beat. “You finish all your homework before Mommy gets mad?”

I’ve hardly ever had a conversation with Zulema, so I’m still not sure why she hates my guts. I wish she hadn’t found out I’m into school. I breathe in and bite my tongue, then turn to Belen.

Belen shifts her weight to the other hip. Her skin-tight cloth pants leave nothing to the imagination. I flick my head her way. “Wasup?”

Belen makes snapping, slurping sounds as she chews her gum. “’Sup,” she replies and gives me her signature glittery-eyeshadow wink.

I definitely put Belen in the Peculiar Department. She was with Aida last time I saw them, at a classmate’s keg party. My drunk boyfriend was being a jerk so I broke things off and Belen saw the whole thing. “Heh heh,” she snickered, yelling “Sás¡”” as she put a palm in front of her and slammed her other palm into it. “You tell him, girl.”

Aida was refilling at the keg, stumbling and slurring. “Hellllo there, my fellow benchwarmer—I mean teammate.”

Aside from being in the same art class, the main thing Aida and I have in common is that we both suck at basketball. Not many tried out, so coach got stuck with us. I’m usually set up as point guard or shooting guard since I’m five foot nothing, but I can’t dribble or catch for shit. I’m good at three-pointers, though. Aida dribbles her way out of anything, but for some reason can’t make a free throw to save her life.

I ended up laughing the night away at Aida’s antics and overly dramatic reactions to everything. Meanwhile, Belen, less drunk, came and went, announcing odd scraps of information no one cared about. Like, “Dudes, the neighbors have some kind of giant rodent looking out the window.”

Zulema arrived an hour later and immediately cut me with her stare. “Who’s this?” But drunk Aida walked away. All night I continued running into the three girls—kept laughing it up with Aida and Belen, and getting dissed by Zulema.

Aida and her smart-mouthed cronies together are something else, but I like Aida and I haven’t gone out in a while.

Aida rummages through her purse and whips out her fake ID. “Ha! I just turned eighteen so I don’t need this shit in Juárez no more.” She chucks it out with a satisfied grin. “This is it, girls, you all ready?” she hollers and wiggles her shoulders. “We’re gonna party it up with older guys at the disco,” which she pronounces “theesco.” Aida is the only person I’ve heard call the nightclub such an old-fashioned word—disco, short for discoteca. I could never figure out if Aida is Mexican American like me. She’s about three shades darker than me, with superbly full eyebrows and large eyes. We pronounce her name in English, though, so who knows. Not that it matters what anyone is, but sometimes I’m just curious. Of course, I’d never ask her about any of this. That’d be weird.

Aida prompts a flurry of checking for fake IDs from the rest of us since we’re seventeen and do need fake IDs to get into the clubs and drink in Juárez. Inside the Sentra, Zulema slips her hand into her bra, pulls out her fake out-of-state ID, and quickly bra-pockets it again. She adjusts herself, pushing up her big boobs so they show even more over the top of her low-cut top, and then continues messing with her eyeliner in the mirror. Even Belen, who pretends to be too cool for worrying, slips her hand in her back pocket for a quick check. The bouncers rarely check our IDs, but if they’ve gotten raided recently, they’re going to be uptight about it.

“Woo-hoo,” Aida snickers at Zulema. “Mirá, mirá. Look who’s getting all ready to roll in the sack with Mauro.”

“Hmph.” Zulema shrugs. “It’s not like we haven’t done it before.”

Aida’s and Belen’s eyes light up. I suppose they envy Zulema for sleeping with a nineteen-year-old. I don’t really care, especially since the guys are fresas, preppy kids from rich Mexican families. The word fresa literally means strawberry though, and I never understood why people call them that. These guys know English because they learn it in fancy schmancy schools in Mexico, but I know they won’t really speak it around us even though their English can be better than that of some native El Pasoans’. I don’t hate fresas or anything, but some of them annoy the heck out of me when they flash their wealth around.

Aida, the only one of us with a car, slides into the driver’s seat. Zulema immediately swings her legs inside the car and slams the door shut. Belen and I file into the back like kids about to be taken to the amusement park. On my seat is a bigger-than-any-size-I’ve-had-at-my-house rectangular Tupperware container with a red lid. I put it on my lap, wondering why she has this in her car.

“Be careful with my Tupperware,” Aida snaps as the wheels crunch the dirt at the end of her driveway.

We drive by hordes of kids running around front yards and across streets, yelping out jolly laughter, falling over, and blasting each other with garden hoses or water balloons. It’s El Día de San Juan! Of course, I forgot that was today. Aida’s radio is playing rancheritas, Mexican folk music. “Can we change the station, Aida?” I ask.

“Yeah. Look for something fun for us, Rosa.” Aida pops her head back and forth as if she’s already listening to the awesome dance music I have yet to find. I lean forward from the back, sticking my head in between the two front seats, and reach for the dial.

I have just touched the dial when, out of nowhere, Zulema cusses loudly right next to my ear, making me jump. “Hey, pendeja! Where are you going, Aida? You’re driving to the pay bridge. We’re not taking that one, remember? It’s faster to Alejandro’s house if we take the free bridge.”

Aida makes a know-it-all face. “Well, if either of you was listening to me when I three-way called your asses last night, you would know I have to stop for some pan dulce from Bowie Bakery for my grandma first.” She’s talking about the three of them. I wasn’t a part of last night’s party line, but I’m new to their clique, so it’s no biggie that I wasn’t in the know.

Our group makes a collective mmm sound. No one can object to pit stops for the delicious sweet bread from the most famous bakery in El Paso, especially if she’s taking it to her dear abuela.

In my mind, I give Aida a point. So I still don’t know if she really wants me as a friend, but she goes out of her way for her grandma. That puts her in the Considerate Department.

“Yo, is your dad at your grandma’s? Don’t want to have any run-ins with the law,” Belen proclaims with a raised, over-plucked, and penciled-in eyebrow.

Ay, ay, Belen. You’re so ghetto,” Aida shoots back. “Stop acting like you’re some kind of gangster. We all know the only thing you’ve done is gotten kicked out of school for absenteeism.”

Aida and Zulema burst into laughter, but I only chuckle slightly because Belen’s right next to me.

“Pfft, whatevs.” Belen crosses her arms and leans back, pouting her heavily lipsticked, red lips.

At Bowie Bakery, Aida jumps out of the car with the huge container and hands it to the lady behind the counter to fill with pan dulce. Even though Aida’s the only one buying, we all go in and stand by the glass displays to gawk at the pastries, mouths watering as an infusion of smells fill the air—cinnamon, powdered sugar, freshly baked bread, and … fulfillment. When we walk back to the car, Aida plops the plastic bin on top of her trunk and opens it. “Surprise, bitches. You all get to pick one!”

Aida can be dramatic sometimes, but she instantly racks up major points in the Cool Department.

Belen immediately reaches for a roll with a reddish filling oozing out and sprinkled with coconut shreds. Aida slaps her hand. “Oh, not that one, that’s my grandma’s favorite.” Belen quickly moves on to a second choice. Zulema picks out one of the smallest items, a cinnamon and sugar sprinkled bizcocho cookie. I pick out a marranito—ginger and molasses hard bread with a glossy glaze, shaped like a pig. Aida grabs a fluffy concha—a conch shell-shaped bread covered in soft cookie crumb topping—and hands it to Zulema to hold for her.

“Don’t you manhandle my concha, Zulema,” Aida warns as she seals the Tupperware, opens the trunk, and puts the container of sweets inside. Zulema holds the concha delicately with two fingers in one hand as she bites into her bizcocho from the other hand. The extra-soft cookie sprinkles onto her blouse.

Aida’s eyes bug out. “You all are gonna clean up your crumbs if you get ’em in my car. My dad’s moto busted yesterday, and he’s already borrowed my car once. Don’t wanna hear him give me crap about how badly I take care of the car he’s still paying off.”

When we arrive at Aida’s grandma’s place, she zips into the house with the Tupperware and zips back out with it still half full of pan dulce.

Ten minutes later, we approach the bridge, beaming eagerly as the U.S.A. flag waves goodbye to all of us border crossers while the eagle on the Mexican flag welcomes us.

It’s finally dark. The sun is well hidden below the horizon by now, and I’m hoping it won’t take forever for the temperature to drop. Everyone on the streets or in their cars is preoccupied with their lives—parents crossing the street while holding their kids’ hands, people chatting, driving, trying to get home. It’s just another normal night, a nice time to be out. We turn down a narrow street and I hold on for my life as cars whiz by, inches from the side mirror. Exhaust fumes overwhelm the air. I roll up the window, but roll it back down minutes later when we pass a taquería so that the porky smell of carnitas can drift in. Belen and I ogle the people sitting on the sidewalk tables, laughing and munching on their tacos like they’re the best thing ever. I bet they are.

After about thirty minutes of pothole hell on some of the roughest streets in Juárez, we finally drive into a neighborhood with perfectly smooth streets. It has large, white adobe houses and professionally manicured lawns for as far as I can see.

“Man, these guys live far,” I say.

“I don’t see your imaginary car taking us elsewhere, Rosa,” Aida says, but flashes me a giant smile in the rearview mirror.

“I just said they live far,” I defend myself.

Finally, we pull in front of a house with an arched front door almost as wide as three of my front door put together. Zulema does one more check in the mirror before practically falling out of the car. Three guys saunter out of the house, and Zulema tosses herself into the arms of one of them, like in a movie.

“Pshht,” Belen says while smirking, and Aida giggles as they follow Zulema out of the car.

“I thought we were going straight to the club,” I whisper out the window to Aida and Belen.

“Not yet,” Aida says.

I wait there, hoping the guys will hop into their car and follow us to the club. After they all continue chatting long enough—and I feel stupid to still be sitting in the car like some ginormous, impatient jerk—I take a deep breath and go out to meet these “wonders” the girls gloated about on the drive here.

The boys’ eyes immediately laser in on my legs. I feel a pang of self-consciousness but push it away and keep walking up like I didn’t even notice. I like wearing miniskirts and going out and feeling sexy. They can ogle all they want so long as they keep their hands to themselves.

But I’m not prepared for the intense, sleepy-seductive eyes that Mauro, the guy Zulema is slobbering over (almost literally), directs my way. He keeps flicking his head to move his shoulder-length, brown hair out of his face. It’s captivating. So much so that I can make myself overlook the tight jeans, polo shirt, and overly cologned air around him. The girls jibber jabber like a flock of glamorous birds—vogue outfits, lips shining, skin glistening, bangles catching the moonlight. They go on about all the fun we’re going to have and all the booze were going to drink. The other two fresa boys, Beto and Alejandro, look smug, but Mauro’s eyes flit about aimlessly, only occasionally stopping for a few seconds on me.

I fiddle with the collar of my blouse. Mom’s warnings slide back into my mind. Could these guys be the “bad” that could happen to me? My stomach knots up. I can’t even have fun comfortably anymore. Thanks, Mom.

“Hey muchachos, I got some pan dulce,” Aida announces louder than necessary.

Alejandro perks up. “Haber, give it here.”

Aida obliges. The boys dig their hands into the popped-open trunk.

While the boys are busy munching on the bread, Aida pulls me aside ever so obviously and semi-whispers, “So what do you think, girl? You want Beto? Cuz I got me Alejandro. If you do, I’ll tell Belen you called dibs on Beto. Otherwise, you’re gonna have to wait to see if there are any cuties at the disco.”

I want to ask Aida if she’s sure it’s safe to be with these guys, but I don’t want to be such a square. Instead I smile and say, “And mess up the A + A and B + B couples action?”

Aida gets a blank look on her face.

“You know, the first letters of your names.”

Her mouth drops open. “Holy crap, I hadn’t even caught that,” she says, chuckling. “I sometimes forget you’re like a total nerd at school, not just a wannabe ballplayer like me.”

I love Aida’s expression right now. She’s giddy and awestruck over the coincidence I caught. I relish this little back and forth we’re having. I’m hanging out, talking smack, and even being clever. I like being smart, but I don’t really want everyone knowing about it so much. People sometimes treat you differently once they realize you have any brains. Not Aida, though.

I give her a playful smirk and turn slightly to observe Mauro standing stiff, while Zulema holds onto him, arms around his neck and rubbing her boobs all over his chest. He catches my eye and stares. Zulema grabs his chin and turns it back to her.

Aida shakes her head. “Oh, I see what’s up. No. Way. Bitch. Zulema would kill you. She’s been obsessed with Mauro for like a year now!”

“What, are they like boyfriend-girlfriend?” I ask.

“Nah. Though Zulema likes to pretend so. They’re just each other’s booty call.” Aida twiddles a strand of black, wavy hair in her finger. “Though Mauro’s not calling so much no more. Well … I guess if you can get him away from her…”

Zulema’s a big jerk to me, and he’s clearly not that interested anymore. In that instant, it turns into a challenge. This guy’s got me good with me thinking of challenges and what not. And then there’s him being a fresa. There’s a first for everything, right?

Alejandro invites us inside his freaking mansion and the girls happily follow. I tug at my necklace and lag behind.

Inside, the boys break out the beer and music. The rowdiness begins and I try to relax but keep my eye on the boys and take small sips of my beer. Soon my shoulders start loosening. There’s no way these guys could be killers, I tell myself. Beto can’t even open a beer bottle, for goodness’ sake. My body sinks a little more into the velvet chair.

They joke and chat while I sit quiet in my little corner, pathetic as hell. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if I disappeared. I mean, who am I trying to fool? I’m probably the biggest fake of all, trying too hard to make friends. If I can’t dance, I might as well get back to my homework and college planning. But if I just left this world, my parents wouldn’t have to worry about how much of a black sheep I am, how much energy they have to spend trying to raise a difficult girl with a strong head and a mouth to match. I shake when I realize how morbid my thoughts have turned.

Zulema’s whining tone snaps me back. “Why are you taking so long, Mauro?”

Relájate, aquí estoy.” Relax I’m here. There’s exasperation in his voice.

And it goes on all night, Zulema talking to Mauro in English and him answering in Spanish, even though Zulema speaks Spanish just fine. Belen pokes fun at Beto in a flirtatious, Belen-type of way. Beto’s goofy grin says he’s eating it up. I’m becoming more convinced these guys just want to get lucky. Mauro is probably sick of Zulema and only agreed to let her keep coming around so he could help his boys out.

I’m itching to escape to the dance floor. To let the bass travel from the floor, through my shoes, into my bones. To pulse with the vibrations … oohm, tss, oohm, tss, oohm…

Aida walks to the restroom and I jump up from the couch and conveniently have to go, too.

I whisper to her while we wait in the hallway for Belen to come out of the restroom. “Aida, it’s getting late. We’ll be at the club for less than two hours before we have to leave.”

Aida has been having a little too much fun curling up to Alejandro, who’s been flashing a proud, wide smile all night. But I know Aida loves to dance.

A techno-pop cumbia starts playing on the radio, and Aida and I simultaneously gawk at each other. Aida takes to head popping and taps her foot. My hips begin to sway, and my hair tickles my waist. Soon we’re full-on dancing and snorting out laughter in the hallway. Beto and Alejandro, on their way back from the kitchen, stop to catcall and banter. I catch Mauro craning his neck from his spot on the couch.

When Aida comes out of the restroom, she marches to the living room. “Alright guys, let’s get going to the disco,” she yells over the group. “Vámonos a bailar,” she sing-songs.

The group replies with a collective let’s just hang out here in both English and Spanish.

Aida shrugs and gives me an I tried look. My spirits tank.


* * *


An old grandfather clock in Alejandro’s living room announces it’s 1 a.m. Zulema, who drank the most, is fighting to keep her eyes open. She falls asleep, leaning on Mauro. He inches his way from underneath her, replaces himself with a pillow, and leaves her lying on the couch. His eyes meet mine. He lifts his eyebrows and nods toward outside.

Mauro walks out and I follow. Aida, now in Alejandro’s arms, giggles when we walk past her.

Outside, we lean against Aida’s car.

Que bonito cabello,” Mauro says in a dreamy voice. What beautiful hair. “Y largo.” And long.

Y el tuyo,” I reply. And yours.

What? So we notice each other’s hair. It’s a hair-person thing.

Me gustan las chaparritas,” he says.

I laugh because I have no reply to his thing for short girls.

He switches to English. “Rosa. Pretty name.”

All right dude, stop the compliments while you’re ahead.

He moves closer and his soft-looking lips are irresistible. I lean in. But just as he moves in, there’s movement to the right of us. Zulema has woken up and she’s stomping our way. I brace myself for whatever garbage is going to spew from that mouth of hers, because it’d be hard to miss the compromising position Mauro and I are in. Instead, my mouth drops when she digs her fingers into his arm. “I was looking for you,” she growls, dragging him away.

Mauro looks torn but lets himself be dragged away.

I’m left alone in the ultra-quiet neighborhood. What am I doing out here? Trying to get with a jerk when I really just came to have a night out with the girls, that’s what. The magic bubble pops in my face—the one that must’ve been surrounding the guy. No amount of gorgeous hair, lips, or eyes is going to take that pitiful scene out of my mind. If I’m a big faker, this guy here says move over.

Heat builds up on my neck and rushes to my face, some kind of shame for being so gullible, I guess. It feels almost like whenever I see that look in Mom’s eyes. She truly believes that I’m lost to this world, convinced she can be saved from whatever pain and suffering she’s ever gone through. I try not to be hard on my mom. It’s so unfair, though. Why does she have to fall into something that mandates blind obedience, even when it’s clearly not right? Why does she have to start morphing into the exact opposite of who I feel I am?

I suddenly feel really tired. I’d rather be home now. We’re obviously not going to the club anymore.

Aida comes out of the house with wide eyes and a question-mark face. “What happened?” she asks. “Zulema’s in there yelling her head off at Mauro.”

I shrug. “She came and dragged him away.”

“Oh, snap!” Aida shakes her head. “He doesn’t even want her anymore. How embarrassing. Que vergüenza for her.”

To me it’s Mauro who needs to stop being so wussy about telling this obsessed girl the truth. Gosh, she is totally obsessed. And, as Aida mentioned, she does look so bad doing it. Meanwhile, Mauro was out here all sneaky trying to get with me. My stomach knots again. I feel kind of bad for Zulema now. “I’m done, Aida. Ya vámonos.” Let’s go.

“Okay, okay.” Aida shakes her hands in front of her. “I’ll make the girls leave.”

I pop open the trunk to grab another pan dulce while Aida goes back into the house.

“Let’s go, bitches!” I hear her shouting inside, using her signature musical tone. It’s followed by boos and something unintelligible from Zulema.

There’s only one lamppost out here so I pull out the Tupperware from the trunk to get a better view of what’s left. In the moonlight, something gleams inside the trunk, something nestled inside the hollow of a tire that the container was resting on. I move my fingertips in to touch the tip that juts out and feel cool metal. My arm jerks back and a strange half-squeal, half-squawk escapes me. Like a lurking crocodile, there lies a rifle—a gun inside of Aida’s trunk.

A chill races over my body in spite of the heat. I take a step back and look around me. Does Aida know?

The realization hits me like I’ve been slapped. My parents were talking about this last month as the news ran on their usual Spanish network. The newscaster on Univision spoke about people in trouble for carrying a gun into Mexico. I only remember bits of their conversations, something about a new law or stricter laws, not sure. But there was jail time involved.

Mom’s voice booms in my head. “It’s getting more dangerous across the border,” she’d said, worry creasing a storm on her face. And then there was yesterday’s sermon about something bad happening to me if I kept acting like a wild child.

“Crap,” I mutter and my surroundings start to spin. I could be at home asleep. I could be finishing up an extra-credit assignment and then waking up to the smell of chorizo and eggs Mom makes on Sunday mornings. I think of my cat that’s probably curled up on my bed, waiting for me at home right now. Mom let me keep her when she showed up at our door, begging for food. Mom has always let me keep animals and bought me plenty when I asked. Even back when we were so poor that we had to get help from the government to have food to eat. I bet every bag of food for my many cats, guinea pigs, lizards, hamsters, hermit crabs, fish, turtles, and rabbits—even though she bought the cheapest kind—was hard for her to come by.

Instead of snuggling with my cat tonight, I might end up in jail. Great. Just great.

I hold on to the car while the world comes back to focus. Aida walks out with Belen. Zulema is behind them, pulling Mauro along. I open my mouth to tell them about the gun, but then stop, not sure if Aida will freak if she isn’t aware of it. I push the rifle down, deeper into the tire center and slam the trunk with shaky hands, then hop into the back seat.

We wait in the car while Zulema continues showering Mauro with kisses outside. I’m not even annoyed anymore. That smooth metal is the only thing on my mind. My heart palpitates in my chest.

Zulema slurs. “Promise you’ll call.”

Sí, mujer, yo te llamo,” Mauro replies with stiff lips. Yes, woman, I’ll call you. He nudges Zulema inside the car.

Adiós, chicos,” Aida says, gliding her hand back and forth theatrically as we drive off.

“Can’t believe you made us leave so early, Aida.” Zulema’s like a lethargic, fire-breathing dragon. If it were winter, the window that she’s mean-staring out of would be fogged up. “Next weekend, we’re coming back and getting here earlier,” she proclaims.

Aida rolls her eyes. “We can’t all get home past 3 a.m. like you.”

As we get closer to the border, we go through streets so dark they feel like tunnels, weak little lampposts flickering at their ends. I almost expect el Cucuy to jump out of a corner and get us and never let me get back to my friendless but safe existence back home.

“Man, it’s scary on these streets,” I whisper.

Belen punches my shoulder semi-playfully. “Stop scaring me and shit.”

Nearing the bridge, the street vendors push their two-wheeled carts mighty close to the cars.

“Call one of them over so I can buy some Chiclets,” Zulema says.

“No way. You buy from one and we’ll be mobbed by the rest,” Aida hisses.

Belen the gum expert jumps in. “Why you even like that gum? That shit’s nasty. It gets rock hard after like three chews.”

“Yeah, but those three chews are the bomb,” Zulema answers.

Secretly, I like Chiclets too. I even like how the gum becomes hard for some reason. I want to buy some, but, by the way Aida’s hunching over the steering wheel and revving it up anytime a vendor gets near us, I dare not ask. The vendors continue flashing their boxes of gum, salted pumpkin seeds, chili-powder-sprinkled fruit, and more, right up to the windows. My puppy eyes follow their tasty treats as we roll past.

With all the grumpy Zulema, scary streets, and vendor drama, I almost forget about the gun. A prickle runs through my spine as I imagine it there, simmering in the darkness of the trunk.

“Aida, would your dad freak if he had to come get you in Juárez?” I ask.

Aida grimaces. “What? That came out of nowhere. What are you talking about?”

“I mean, I was just wondering if he’s all strict cuz he’s a cop and all.”

Aida eyes flicker. “Well, duh. Yeah, he’d whoop my behind.”

I go silent. Maybe I messed up majorly by not saying something about the weapon back at Alejandro’s house. I had panicked. But the car pulls up to the bridge and it’s too late.

My heart races out of control as Aida drops coins into the pay booth. The guard lifts the crossing gate, she drives the car onto the bridge, and the eternal wait begins, prolonging my desperation. I just want us to be on the other side now and safe. Inch by inch, the line of cars moves toward the citizenship-checking station.

Zulema tries sleeping, but Aida shoves bottled water onto Zulema’s lap. “Drink this. I ain’t carrying your ass to your door. You better be able to walk.”

Ahead of us, cars are already shuffling, trying to move into the quickest lane. I peer at the dashboard. The car’s fuel gauge is dangerously low. A rush of sweat drenches my armpits.

Two cars before it’s our turn, Aida starts straightening up. She glares at Zulema. “Don’t even open your lips. And try not to have drunk eyes.”

Zulema takes another sip of the water and straightens up as well. We know intoxicated underage teens get detained sometimes, and their parents are called before they’re allowed entrance into the U.S. The immigration agents at the bridge let a lot slide, unless you’re slurring heavily or falling over on your ass, but not always.

Aida rolls her window down and we all say “American” loudly when the agent looks in. The pudgy man bends down and leans into Aida’s window. His gaze jumps from face to face, finally landing on Aida. I swear if he pays attention, he’ll see my heart trying to rip out of my chest.

“You ladies live in El Paso?” he asks. Since it’s not really ideal to try to distinguish U.S.A citizens from non-citizens based on looks on the border, sometimes they ask extra questions to make sure you’re not a passport-less or permit-less Mexican citizen trying to sneak over.

“Yessir, just going back home after a night of partying,” Aida cheeps in a perfect Chicana accent. We find it’s quicker to get through if you’re honest.

He speaks through a lazy yawn. “Pop your trunk open, please.”

I just about pass out. Inspection of the trunk is occasional. They’ll either search it if you look suspicious, or randomly—about one in every five cars—just so no one tries to smuggle drugs, people, or restricted items.

Aida pulls the lever and sighs deeply, looking very bored as the trunk clicks open. The flow of blood booms in my ears. I look through the rearview mirror, at the agent standing behind the car. Even though I’ve crossed the border hundreds of times, my mind spazzes and I can’t remember whether food can be crossed into the U.S. Or is it only some types of food that are restricted? If he doesn’t lift the plastic bin to search underneath it, he might take it out completely to dispose of the bread and see the weapon. My knees clack together.

“What’s wrong with you?” Aida narrows her eyes so much, they almost disappear behind rows of thick eyelashes.

“Nothing. I just … it’s just…” I turn to my side and roll the window down, pumping my arm frantically at the manual lever. My head and shoulders come out the window. “Please don’t throw away our pan dulce, sir. We bought it at Bowie Bakery but forgot to take it out before we left home,” I holler. “You can have one, though,” I say and wink at him.

The girls go into a fit of roaring laughter. “Geez, you love that bread, Rosa,” Aida snorts.

The agent walks back to Aida’s window with a bizcocho in hand, beard dusted with sugar. His previously stern face has produced a small grin. “Move it along, ladies. Drive carefully,” he says and waves us ahead.

Chica, I didn’t know you were hilarious,” Aida exclaims.

We drive away, the girls still cackling, while I slump and hold onto my stomach.

We’ve just crossed a gun across the border and an agent had his hands inches away from it. The bread I ate tries to come back up my throat. Don’t, please don’t, I plead with my body.

Aida’s smile drops. “Hey girl, you alright?”

“Just … keep … driving,” I say, out of breath. We’re still too close to the agent station. If we stop suddenly, there’s no telling if they’ll send a patrol after the car to check us out.

“That’s what too much pan does to ya,” Zulema tsks. “Especially when it’s got nowhere to go on that skinny body.”

I breathe in and out deeply and look up to the car ceiling. After another four blocks, I throw the door open.

“¡Ayy!” Aida cries out and pulls over. “What are you doing?”

My vomit splatters onto the pavement while the car rolls to a stop.

Aida goes off as I wipe my mouth. “This bitch. Seriously. Warn me!”

I take a few more breaths and look up at her with watery eyes. “There’s a gun in your trunk.”

Aida blinks. “What?”

“There’s a gun in your trunk, under the pan dulce.”

“Oh,” she says. “Is that why you’re acting all sorts of weird? It’s just my dad’s hunting rifle he uses to shoot rattlesnakes in the mountains.”

Belen, who unsurprisingly has unusual tidbit knowledge, jumps in. “Dude! They’ll fucking jail your ass if you cross a gun into Mexico. Haven’t you heard? It’s all over the news. This guy from Lubbock, and some other people from Ohio or somewhere like that, crossed over with guns and were in the Juárez slammer for like months, or a year!”

Aida squints. “Seriously?”

“Does it look like I’m kidding?” Belen replies, opening her eyes wide.

“Oh,” Aida says again. “Well, we are technically in the U.S. side now. If anything, when we crossed over to Juárez, or on the way back at the pay booth while we were still in Mexico, is where they could’ve gotten us. Maybe.” She stays quiet for a few seconds before speaking again. “It probably would’ve just gotten me in trouble. You all are under eighteen. Or my dad maybe, since it’s his car and gun. I dunno.”

I blow air out. She might be right. And I feel really stupid for not having thought this all through more. The thing of it is, Aida has always been smarter than she gives herself credit for. Either way, I don’t want any of us in trouble. I’m just glad we’re almost home.

Aida has a faraway look now, like she’s not here in the car. Around us, the dim streets are quieter than the desert before a thunderstorm and the air is heavy with the bittersweet scent of mesquite trees. Aida turns to Belen at a red light. “So why is Mexico not allowing guns in?”

Belen shrugs. “It’s like some new ban. The drug cartels are going crazy, killing each other even more or something like that.”

Zulema whips around looking spooked, and I get a heavy feeling from head to toe. Mom wasn’t just worried about the disappearing women. There was so much more.

“You watch the news?” I ask Belen, thinking about how much my parents like to watch their nightly news.

“Sometimes,” Belen admits sheepishly.

We ride quietly with only the radio playing dance music that doesn’t seem so fun right now.

“Drop me off last,” Zulema orders.

In the rearview mirror, Aida’s eyes look back at me. She makes another turn before speaking. “Nah. Rosa’s gonna stay at my place for a bit. Don’t wanna send her home sick.”

I don’t see what kind of face Zulema makes, but her body shifts in place.

Aida drops Zulema off first. She teeter-totters to her door without saying goodbye, her blouse pulled up and scrunched up all wrong. Next, it’s Belen. “Later, losers,” she chirps and makes a peace sign with her fingers before running to the side of the house, pushing a window open, hoisting herself up, and sliding in. I chortle.

“You alright to go home?” Aida says. “I just had to get Belen home and Zulema out of our hair first. But we can hang if you want.”

“Eh, I’m good. It’s late enough as it is.”

We cruise down to my house—only a two-minute drive from Belen’s—and Aida pulls the vehicle up in stealth mode.

“Hey, you wanna go to one o’ one next Saturday?” Aida asks as I get out of the car. 101 happens to be one of my favorite dance clubs here in El Paso.

“You’re not going with the girls to Juárez next weekend?”

“Nah.” Aida follows me and we stand by her trunk. “Belen will be fine. She doesn’t need to hang out with me every single weekend. And I’mma gonna avoid Zulema all week like the plague.” She laughs, each ha increasing in pitch. It reminds me of Woody Woodpecker.

I chuckle until she adds, “It’s not like I haven’t been hanging out with Zulema since third grade.”


Here I am trying to make new friends while Zulema is trying to keep the one she’s had forever. She must feel like I’m stealing Aida away.

“Maybe … we can invite them?” I say.

Aida gets a thoughtful look and her voice gets pitchy. “Weee could…”—then her face morphs to sly and she belts out, forgetting all about being quiet—“Maybe some other weekend.” She snorts out giggles, elbowing me, and I crack up too.

I wipe away laugh tears. “Alright, cool. See you Monday at basketball practice.”

Aida has officially entered the Friend Department. I’m certain we won’t have to play the game of fakes anymore, if we were even playing. But honestly, no one can be completely real all the time. Being a little guarded is okay. I mean look at me. I have to stop getting paranoid and jumping to conclusions before knowing about situations better.

I’m walking up the concrete stairs to my house when Aida whisper-yells, “Hey, biatch.” I turn just in time to catch the concha that’s flying toward my face. “Good catch,” she squeals, like a pet owner praising her dog for going poop. “You earned a pan dulce for the road. Also, I’ll make sure to tell Coach your reflexes are improving.”

Smiling, I jog the last steps to my door. I’ve never craved my soft bed so much and I’m thankful Mom gave me a key. I’ll be sure to make myself get up early tomorrow … err today, to have breakfast with her. The key goes into the lock, and I take a bite of the soft bread as I walk inside.


Though this is fiction, it’s representative of real conditions at the border in the nineties. Many U.S.A. teens crossed over on foot or by car to socialize in the numerous bars and nightclubs along the Mexican border. When one is young, we tend to think we’re invincible, untouchable. I realize now how fortunate I am to have gotten back home each time, how insensitive and ignorant I was to the disturbing happenings that turned El Paso’s sister city of Ciudad Juárez into a war zone, how lucky we were to be able to cross back and forth while most Juárenzes couldn’t reciprocate. As grim conditions continued across the border, many of us watched helplessly and our visits to Mexico slowly faded, leaving a gap in our core that’s still there. This story only touches the scale and seriousness of the matters in Mexico at the time. Instead, through Rosa and the group of girls she teams up with for a night of fun, I aimed to drop the reader into a time of innocent youth in the nineties of the El Paso/Juárez area and take them along on the thrilling ride.

{ Edited by Alexa Wejko. }
This new voice is sponsored by David Levithan.