‘Slip Soul’ Chapter 1: Otay Mesa Detention Center

‘Slip Soul’ Chapter 1: Otay Mesa Detention Center

Slip Soul by Taylor García

Chapter 1 – Otay Mesa Detention Center—San Diego County

TONIGHT, I CANNOT SLEEP. Around me, is a sea of men—some sitting up, others laying, talking, whispering, laughing, snoring—each of us floating on a cot, two feet apart from each other, enclosed by a chain-linked fence. My slow breathing won’t calm me, won’t trick me into sleep and off to the world of dreams where I might find Joanne, the last person I was with—my last hope. Praying and begging to Our Lady for some rest feels useless.

The officers come through once, twice, and three times, shining and waving their torches over our bodies as though they’re blessing us with holy water. The light splashes on our chests, heads, and eyes while the other men say, “ais, ais, ais” as a warning. After the officers’ last pass through, the sea calms and the other men fell asleep. For me, still nothing.
I still feel cold even in my new orange suit with the word “DETAINEE” on the back. Some men have a blanket or a tin foil over them. I’m too new, and even though I’m older than most of the men here, there is no pity on me. Earlier, when I first arrived, the officers told me to strip the clothes Hugo López had given me the day before. They told me to pull down my underwear and squat so they could shine a light up me, but they didn’t help me stand, not knowing how my knee and hip ache at my age.

The warehouse is both dark and light, and the only way I know it’s morning is when the large lamps high above flicker on. Their brightness makes the room feel like a hospital in the middle of the night. With no windows, there is no sun, and with no sun, no life.

On the first morning, after a breakfast that consisted of an apple, a cold piece of sausage and a slice of white bread, I’m then assigned to work in the bathrooms. I learn that we can change jobs after a while, after the new detainees come in, and others leave. We can mop the floors, empty out the garbage, clean in the kitchen, or work outside. I was once told that those jobs are not easy to get. Just a few days ago, I was frying totopos at Sea of Cortez Mexifresh Cantina y Cocina. I pray I could go back there. I’d be happy to eat their salty black beans again.

My first day turns into another one, and another, and another. At this point, I’ve lost count because every day is exactly the same. The only difference is my body gets more tired and sore. I asked for a pad for my knees for when I scrubbed the floors and an agent said he would check, but that was a few days ago. At work, there are groups of us—four or five—each on a task. Everyone shares how long they’ve been here, and where they are in the process. The ones who have been here longer say which agents are more human than others, but they say almost all of them are evil in their own way. I realize I cannot listen only to these conversations. I must talk to the other detainees if I’m going to wake from this nightmare.Sometimes, when it’s quiet and when the agents have left, everyone stops working. I, however, keep scrubbing in between tiles. That’s how everything feels—in between. Purgatorio. Not here, or there. Like Pablo from Joanne’s book. Not dead or alive.

A young man I see every day comes closer to me, reminding me of my grown son because of his age. His features are different, he has a stronger jaw and working hands. Felipe took Teresa’s round face, and her thinner frame.
We give each other quick head nods, to let each other know that we are people, and that we’re not forgotten.

“Slow down,” the young man says. “No one’s watching.” He’s already like a friend by the time we gather the mops, brushes, and cleaning solutions, before we march off to our stations.

“Osvaldo Reyes,” I offer my hand.

“Marcos. Marcos Gomez,” he says as he gives me a handshake. “How long has it been?”

“Don’t know. Two or three weeks now?”

“It’s easy to lose track,” he says.


“Nine months, I think,” Marcos scratches his head.

“Nine months? Oh, my God. How did they get you?”

“I came here to keep my family safe. We left Honduras because of the violence and there wasn’t work. My wife’s brother was in a gang and terrorized the family. We tried to stay away, but he stole from their mother and threatened them. He wanted me to join, and I told him I didn’t want to. I tried to stand up to him, but he pulled a knife on me. See.” Marcos pulls up his orange top, revealing a scar on his stomach.

“He wanted to kill me right then. He was crazy and high. He talked about killing my wife—his own sister—and our kids.”

“It sounds like you have a good case to stay.”

“There’s too many of us. Most of us here are just like me. Young men trying to find a safe place to work and take care of our families.”

“You can find work. There is work here.”

“This country doesn’t want us. They’re telling us to turn back by ripping apart our families and sending people back without a trial. I don’t know where my wife and our two children are. I have a boy and a girl, who are eight and nine—but they’re gone.”

“Sent back?”

“No. I don’t know. Somewhere else, but not here.” Marcos shudders and I pat his back.

He cries and doesn’t hide it. Another man nearby, Gregorio, says he fled El Salvador with his wife and a toddler. They made it as far as Fresno with help from their relatives. Miguel, a single man also from Mexico, says he’s been in for what has felt like a year. No one on either side of the border was concerned about him. No case, no attorney, just lost. It’s true this country is the land of free, but only to those who pay their time in full.

“What about you, tío? How did you get caught?” Marcos wipes his eyes, then slaps my back. I feel the strength in his hand, and if he were to tunnel out of here, I might follow him.

“Expired visa. I knew someone in San Diego. A friend. But then an agent . . . it’s not important.” I trail off, not wanting to talk to anyone about it.

My apprehension was horrible. There I was, finally reunited with Joanne, and then one of the few people I knew in this town—one of the only people I trusted—young and sweet Daisy from Sea of Cortez was there to take me away.

“Don’t worry, tío. I understand. They trap us like rats, but you’re lucky. You had a visa and you’re going to fly out of here. Find an attorney and plead your case. They should have pity on a hard worker like you. You and the white men. Watch how fast they come in and out of here. The system loves them. If you’re young and brown, plan to stay. You’re older, so maybe they’ll take care of you. No offense, tío. They just don’t want people like me.”

“There’s hope for all of us. Like the saying, hope dies last.”

“You’re an optimist,” Marcos says, “That’s good.”

An officer comes back through our work area. Today we’re scrubbing in the showers, the smell of Clorox burns my eyes and nose. Marcos, the other men, and I get back to work.

AFTER A FEW WEEKS, sleeping becomes easier. Drifting away on my cot, and after the voices hush, I think about my grandson, Estéban, my son Felipe, and my daughter-in-law, Ramona. They don’t know I’m here. Felipe still thinks I’m working at the Faith Mission World Center as a teacher. He never knew about the last few weeks at the restaurant. As I think about them and pray for them, I worry I’ll never see them again. Sometimes I wonder if this is finally my punishment for living the way I did. For my years as a zócalo boy, for the tiny faith I still held for Joanne, even when I was happily married. How I was given a good and strong marriage, a happy healthy son, and suffered no ailments or diseases like my father. I didn’t die young like my mother, and I made enough money and had a decent life. But I was stained, and yes, perhaps all those gifts I received now had to be returned.

At work in the stalls, showers and toilets—there seems to be hundreds—I begin to tell Marcos about me, but in small pieces. He knows I’m sixty-five, from Oaxaca, and that I’m widowed. I mentioned Joanne once, then changed the subject because I needed to be careful about what I share and who I share it with. Or do I? Why does it matter now? I’m starting to fade away like everyone in here. When you’re in this place, separated from your loved ones—you begin to die. My body aches are stronger now and my muscles are weaker. My heart seems to beat slower. Marcos says they pay us a few dollars a day, but I haven’t seen a check, and even if I did, what would I do with it?
Some days, there are visitors. If you have a visitor, ICE comes, gets you and leads you away somewhere, but not for very long, maybe half an hour. Those who’ve had visitors say they were talking with their attorney or a relative. The ones with attorneys say you can’t pay your way out, and that the attorney needs to fight it in court. Some get a court date and never return. I’ve heard those that get caught, like me, sometimes get sent back sooner than those asking permission like Marcos.

“It’s all the same,” Marcos says. “They decide what they want and when. La migra is working overtime. They’re catching everyone.”

There have been no visitors for me. No letters either. Some of the men get letters. The envelopes already torn open; the pages stuffed back inside. Some of them are from above the border and others from below, making the men weep, while others toss them aside.

Joanne would know what to do. She’s smart. She knew what was happening. She saw it all. She could do something. She could be my visitor or not. She could have moved on and forgotten about everything, forgotten about me. Dear God, no. Blessed Mother, please no. Joanne is the only one that knows I’m here, just her and Daisy.

Without a good way to track the passage of time—or a reason to do it— my time inside feels like a never-ending month. Marcos says it’s been at least three. The calendar in the agent break room where we sometimes clean now
shows November with a few days marked off with a pink slash through the dates. I remember it was August when I came in. We joke that the agents control everything, including time. Their stone faces and how they talk to us with short, cold commands make it true. Marcos warned me about the ones that speak Spanish—mediogringos, he calls them. They look like us, but they are white men underneath. He said not to trust their Spanglish.

Today, we’re at a garbage sorting station going through glass and cans. It’s a new job they’ve brought in. I’m taking lids off of the glass jars, plastic bottles and throwing them in separate containers. We go from one bin to the next with the agents coming by more often, keeping us moving. They must have some new contract and now they need the slaves to make them more money. I like the variety, but after a while, it’s hard to keep up. Marcos and the other men have no problem with it. They dance through it.

On our water break, an officer named Lovato sets down a jug of water and cups. One of the other men takes the jug, pours the water, and passes the cups. Marcos points to his own eyes and cocks his chin to Lovato.
Lovato paces around us, inspecting our work. He holds up two fingers and whistles to us like animals. Everyone stops working.

Marcos warns me with his eyes. Lovato doesn’t look scary, he’s thin and doesn’t have arms as big as the other officers. However, I can tell that everyone here is intimidated by him.

Marcos comes up to me and whispers, “Careful with this one, watch what you say.”

I agree and take a sip of water. I bend to pick up the jug and on my way up I feel a pinch deep inside the muscles of my hip. I wince, let out a small yelp, “Ay!” I don’t want any attention.

“Are you okay, tío?” Marcos helps me stand.

“Feels like a tear in my leg or hip.”

Lovato stops circling, “What’s the problem?” his Spanish is good but practiced. “I, I think I’m hurt.” I can stand all the way up, but it’s painful. I try to stretch, but that makes it worse.

“He needs to sit down,” Marcos says.

“No, I’m fine. I can go back to work.”

“Mind your business,” Lovato says to Marcos.

Lovato grabs the jug of water, takes the cups.

“Two more hours,” he says.

I shuffle back to the bins with Marcos’s help. The pain is still there, and I can only stand up by holding tight to one of the containers. “You need help,” Marcos says.

“No, no, I’m fine. You said he was a bad one.”

“You’re hurt. You need to sit. Lovato!”

Lovato struts back. “What?”

“He needs to rest.”

“I thought I told you to mind your business,” Lovato says.

“Come on, he’s an old man. Help him out.”

Lovato, maybe not a fighter as one might think of larger men, transforms into another thing. He becomes sharper as if wings or fangs have come out. It’s in his face and how he stiffens up, pushing himself into the circle of men around me. He lunges toward Marcos’s face, spiting as he shouts at him in Spanish.

“This isn’t your job, fucker. This is my job. Your job is to do the work we give you. Do you understand? Do you understand me?” He jabs his fingers into Marcos’ chest.

“Come on,” Marcos says, not fighting back.

“You don’t tell me how to do my work, okay? Okay?” Lovato turns his head to his shoulder and radios for back up.

“No, please, I’m fine.” Stretching my body up, the pain isn’t as bad, but it’s replaced by a shiver of fear.

“Fine, fine,” Marcos backs away. “Leave him.”

Lovato stands down, but he’s still enraged. He wants to prove himself. “That’s what I said. Now back to work, all of you. Back to work, viejo.”

He sneers at me, the word dripping out of his mouth. It’s one of those words in Spanish that can sound nice to begin with—the simple way of saying ‘old’—but add a brutal twist, a drop of the lower jaw to emphasize the ‘jo’ sound. The word takes on a whole new meaning—that it’s wrong, dirty to be old. I turn and stare back at my bin to reach in the glass jars, but I don’t grab anything—I’m stopped by Marcos swiftly passing behind me.

“That’s it,” he says, rushing toward Lovato.

He jumps the officer, brings him to the ground. I turn as best I can, limp toward them, pushing through the pain, and try to pull Marcos off of Lovato. Lovato, like a cat, leaps to his feet, delivering punches and kicks to Marcos, but the young man holds on and he fights back. I reach for him again, but I’m pulled away, and begin to feel the air leaving me the same way it did when I was apprehended. I feel an embrace of arms, those of different officers, pulling me away, landing blows on me. One connects with my shoulder, my chest—again, I’m breathless. I lay still, don’t fight back. They’ll stop if you don’t fight back. At least that’s what I think.

THE NEXT MORNING, I wake up in the infirmary, and just like every corner of this place, it’s freezing cold. They keep the air conditioning on all day and night, and the blankets are like paper sheets. The nurses wear jackets and they move to keep warm, their shoes squeak on the immaculate sparkling floors because of our work, the prisoners. But no, this is not a prison. Remember? It’s a detention center. Just like Purgatory. Just like this infirmary. It’s in between the misery back in the chain-linked sea, and one step closer to death. It’s nicer here though, because it’s like a miniature hospital. Almost better than the hospital where Felipe was born at in Oaxaca City, or where Teresa had to go several times before she died, and bigger than the small clinic at the Faith Mission World Center in San Diego.

The bed is not a cot and yet it’s not a real hospital bed. They don’t want anyone staying here very long. It’s not comfortable for bruised ribs, shoulders or a sprained wrist. They say the leg pain is a strain that has to heal with time and exercise, that it’s not related to the injuries—the ones they inflicted. The nurses and doctors have somehow ignored how those happened. Checking the bruises—looking but not touching—they say to take a couple of days to rest here, but how under this sheet in the cold?

Marcos is nearby. He looks worse and has been sleeping longer. He might be sedated with drugs because his face is purple and swollen. One arm is over his chest, hugging himself. He got it worse than me from Lovato. Lovato had pity on me, the viejo. It was the other officers that didn’t. Marcos wakes up at last and his puffy eyelids blink open.

“I told you, eh?” he says. “Watch out for those ones.”

“You shouldn’t have attacked him.”

“He needed it.”

“You’re crazy and you’re never getting out of here like that.” “I’m just trying to get out faster.”

“Thank you for defending me.”

“You need it, tío,” Marcos says. “Who’s going to take care of you?” “You know, I have a son, maybe a little bit older than you.”

“Can’t he get you out?”

“He doesn’t know I’m here. No one does.”

“I think everyone forgot about me, too,” he says.

“You’ll get out. I’ve been praying for you.”

“You know that’s all for nothing, right? You know all of this is? You know it doesn’t matter what happens. Nothing matters, tío. Nothing.”

He tries to sit up but can’t. His face twists up with pain.

“Stop talking like that. This will be over someday.”

“That’s it, tío. Might be over someday next week, next month, or even next year. Who knows? And you know what, that little Officer Lovato, they’re not going to do anything to him. He’ll get an award for what he did to us.”

“They said you can make complaints.”

“This isn’t a hotel.” Marcos closes his eyes, pretends to sleep. “Nothing matters.”

A nurse comes in to check on us. She goes to Marcos first, checks his breathing, and his bandages. She feels his forehead for a temperature. She looks kind, like she shouldn’t be working in a place like this, but since she is, she might be one of the good ones. She comes over to me. “Are you feeling okay?” 9

“What time is it? How long have I been here?”

“It’s seven in the morning. You two have been asleep all night. Did he hurt you?”

“Yes, it hurts. But I’ll be fine.”

“We’ve heard he’s a bad one.” She looks back at Marcos.

“Who? Him? No, he didn’t hurt me. It was Lovato, the ICE agent. He hurt us both.”


“Yes, it’s a lie if they told you he hurt me. Marcos is my—he’s like a son to me.”

“Lovato did this?” she asks again, her Spanish turning to English. “Yes, I’m telling you the truth. He’s a bad man.”
The nurse shakes her head, turns to Marcos.

“When he wakes up, we need to talk to him.”

An ICE agent walks in, looks around. “Nurse Vargas?” he says.


“Here, this is for one of them.”

He hands her a thick brown envelope stuffed with papers and is gone as soon as he came.

“You’re Osvaldo Reyes, right? T93524?” She reads from the envelope. “Yes.”

It’s been through many hands, the flap ripped open, whatever is inside was already handled—beaten up and shoved back in, like us. It’s warm though, like a heart still beating. There’s life in it, and it’s the only real thing I’ve seen in a long time.

“Thank you, Nurse Vargas.”

“Call me Yolanda. Please rest. Thank you for telling me about Lovato. That’s—terrible,” she says, and squeaks out.

The writing on the front is Joanne’s. Her handwriting, so perfect and even, how it leans backward, trying not to be a bother. Or could this be nothing? A mistake, meant for another Osvaldo Reyes. Or even if it is from her, does it matter, like Marcos says? Does anything matter?

Marcos flutters his eyes open, “What is it, tío?”

I reach inside and pull out a small card with a picture of a palm leaf leaning over a clear pond, the tip of the leaf touching the water, making ripples. It’s hope and sympathy blending together all at once.

“It’s from her. She found me.” “What does it say?”

Dear Osvaldo,

I don’t know if you will get this. I hope you do. It has taken me a while to find where to send this, to see if you are there. They won’t let me talk to you. I can’t call. If you are there, I need to know. I need to visit you and tell you how I will get you out. I hope you are safe and healthy. I am so sorry for what happened to you. I felt helpless when they ripped you away like an animal. I’ve been thinking of you every day and wanted to send you what they stole from you. It meant so much to me that you still had my original copy that I had written so long ago. I hope it brings you comfort until we get you out. The system is so complicated, and I don’t even know where to begin, but know I’m going to try my best. Write back to this address and let me know if you received this.

Missing you, Joanne

My stomach twists as I feel the thickness of the same book I had been carrying with me since I left Mexico months ago.

“See,” Marcos says. “I told you’d get out.”

“It’s just a letter.”

“From your lover.” He smiles. “What’s all the paper?”

“It’s nothing, it’s just . . . and she isn’t my—”

“She loves you. Who is she? Is she getting you out? You know, tío, you haven’t told me much about you. What is your story anyway?”

I close the card and slide it under my hurt leg. I squeeze the stack of white typed paper, hugging my hands around it and feeling happy to be reunited with it.

Marcos, his face beaten, his body abused—we’re in the same position. Brothers in a larger hemisphere, trapped in time. I want him to know. I want someone to know who I am.

“Well, then I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you everything.”

Buy Slip Soul by Taylor García now so you can continue reading!

Fiction. ISBN: 978-1-952816-68-0 (Paperback & Kindle) Publisher: Touchpoint Press (August 2, 2021)

Click here to purchase SLIP SOUL in paperback from Touchpoint Press.

Click here to purchase SLIP SOUL for Kindle by Amazon.

Visit btaylorgarcia.com to learn more about Taylor García

Cover design: David Ter-Avanesyan, Ter33Design


‘Slip Soul’ — A Story Within a Story by Taylor García

Taylor Garcia’s first novel is influenced by the rise of toxic masculinity, hatred toward immigrants, plus women’s continual fight for both equity and equality.


This content is sponsored by the author.

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