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Under arrest for busking Mexico’s semáforos


We had played only three semáforos and collected 21 pesos when the men arrived. They were dressed in dark trousers and jackets, with no official markings but an unmistakably official look. One of them tapped Hele on the shoulder just as I came back from doing the charol.

‘Passports?’

‘Sorry?’

‘We are from the immigration police of San Luis Potosí. Your passports, please.’

We looked at each other nervously.

‘We don’t have them with us. We left them at our friend’s house.’

‘You are supposed to have them with you at all times.’

‘We’re very sorry. We can go and get them if you like.’

They conferred quickly in whispers.

‘Come with us please.’

By now Trico had hopped down from his unicycle and come over.

‘What’s going on?’

‘You are the friend of these girls?’

‘Yes.’

‘You are Mexican?’

‘Of course.’ Few people looked more Mexican than Trico.

The man turned back to us.

‘Is this the friend who has your passports?’

‘In his house, yes.’

‘Go and bring them,’ he told Trico.

‘Where are you taking my friends?’

‘To the immigration centre of San Luis Potosí. You know where it is?’

Trico gulped. ‘Yes.’

‘Is there a problem?’ Hele asked.

‘No,’ the man told her, unconvincingly. ‘Just a routine check.’ We glanced at Trico for guidance.

‘You better go with them,’ he told us, adding under his breath: ‘Be polite. La migra have more power than the police round here.’ Then, out loud: ‘I’ll bring your passports.’

The immigration centre was within walking distance. There was a white bus parked outside, with bars across the windows. It did little to calm our nerves. We were led through a gate into a courtyard, and up a shallow flight of steps. Now that we weren’t keeping warm with exercise, the night air prickled our bare arms with cold. We sat on the steps, hugging our knees.

A while later Trico was back. He wasn’t allowed to enter the courtyard or talk to us, merely ordered to hand our passports through the gate. It didn’t seem like a good sign. Two more men came out of the building, joining the first two to examine our passports.

‘You have here tourist visas.’

‘Yes.’

‘Not work visas.’

‘Do we need work visas?’

‘You were working, weren’t you?’

‘Not really. We were in the semáforo.’

‘You were taking money?’

My alarm mounted. I knew they had seen me going round the cars.

‘I was collecting money, yes. My friend was on his unicycle; he couldn’t reach down to the windows. I was helping him.’

‘You know it is illegal for a foreigner to earn money in Mexico without a work visa?’

‘We knew it was illegal to have a job in Mexico, but we didn’t realise that it was illegal to do street performance. People only make donations if they want to, and we’re not taking employment from Mexicans.’

I thought of all the foreigners working cash-in-hand in bars and language schools across the country, taking jobs that could easily have been done by local people. I had never heard of anyone getting in trouble for it. I had a strong suspicion that our current predicament had less to do with visa regulations than it did with the instinctive mistrust that exists between authorities and itinerants across the globe.

The men conferred in whispers again.

‘Come inside.’ The two men who had come outside turned and walked back in, taking our passports with them. The two remaining men indicated to us to follow them.

‘Excuse me?’ Hele asked one of them, with careful politeness. ‘Can you tell us how long we will have to stay here?’

The man shrugged.

‘A few days, maybe.’

‘A few days?’

‘Or a week. Quién sabe?’

I felt panicked tears prick the corners of my eyes, and struggled to hold them back.

‘Can I – can I say goodbye to my boyfriend, please?’

He looked at me, a little oddly.

‘Is that man with the very large bicycle your boyfriend?’

I resisted the urge, drilled into me by Trico, to explain the difference between a bicycle and a unicycle.

‘Yes.’

A nasty smile curled the corners of his mouth.

‘Don’t worry,’ he told me. ‘I’m sure you’ll find another one in the next country.’

The bureaucratic procedure in the centre seemed to go on for hours. Our details were recorded by a toad-like man wedged uncomfortably behind a white table. He filled in the relevant forms with the meticulous but shaky capitals of a child just learning to write. Squinting at the code strip along the bottom of the photo page of my passport, he carefully recorded my surname as ‘G B R R A I N S F O R D’. I was about to point out that ‘GBR’ stood for ‘Great Britain’ when Hele nudged me sharply under the table. I saw her point. If I was going to be arrested, it probably wasn’t a bad thing for it to be under the wrong name.

We were both biting our tongues, trying to follow Trico’s instruction and remain polite. The effort lasted until they started to ask us ‘medical’ questions.

‘When did you last have sex?’

‘Neither of us could be pregnant, if that’s what you’re asking.’

‘I am asking when you last had sex. Was it last week? Last month? Yesterday?’

‘That,’ Hele spat, ‘is absolutely none of your business.’

He smirked across the table at her, apparently taking the response as an admission.

‘I would like to call my embassy,’ Hele told him icily.

He thought about it.

‘Do you know their number?’

This caught her off-guard. ‘Not from memory, no.’

He looked smug.

‘Then how do you propose to call them?’

After an explosion of indignation from both of us, he eventually promised that we could call them on Monday morning. Finally, our pockets were emptied out, our jewellery and shoelaces removed, and we were led through a heavy door into a cramped antechamber. The guard locked the first door behind us before opening the second and ordering us through.

The space we entered had a concrete floor and walls, and an iron spiral staircase like a fire escape that led up to a concrete balcony. It was partially open to the sky, but with a heavy iron grille over the opening. One bathroom and four cell-like rooms faced onto this space: three onto the bottom level and one onto the balcony. During the night, inmates were locked into these rooms, where they slept on blue mats on the floor, but during the day the doors were opened and they were allowed to mingle. There were about 25 people in there: mostly men, but also a handful of women and two small children. Hele and I were instructed to go up the stairs to the room on the second level, where the women and children slept. Two young women were sitting on the mats, talking quietly. They looked up as we entered. There was a pause.

‘Hi,’ one of them said, with a small smile that managed to convey just the right balance of welcome and commiseration. ‘Is it your first time?’

‘Sorry?’

‘It’s my second time. I’m not going to give up, though. I’m going to keep trying until I make it!’

We blinked at her stupidly, too distracted with worry to work out what she was talking about.

‘Where are you from?’ she asked.

‘England and Estonia.’

She looked confused.

‘Isn’t that in the United States?’

‘No, Europe.’

‘You mean near Spain?’

‘Sort of.’

‘Oh. But don’t they give you visas to the States?’

‘Yes, usually.’

Her confusion deepened.

‘Why are you here then?’

We explained what had happened. She started to chuckle, unbelievingly.

‘So you’re not trying to get to the States?’

‘No.’

‘You want to stay in Mexico?’

The two women were Hondurans. They had been caught on the highway to Monterrey when their bus had been stopped in one of the random searches conducted by the immigration police to catch illegal immigrants from Central and South America on their way to the US border. Like most of the other inmates they were disappointed but resigned to their failure, and already planning strategies for the next attempt.

‘Fucking typical,’ said Hele bitterly, as we sat glumly out on the balcony, watching the men milling around the cells below. ‘I’ve spent tens of thousands of pesos in this country, maxed out a credit card, and they’re gonna deport me for earning seven fucking pesos in the semáforo.’

Catriona Rainsford’s book on her two years in Mexico is brilliant. Read the rest of the Urban Circus by buying it.

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