An unforgettable, page-turning survival story recounted by Hector, a man trapped—perhaps fatally—inside a tanker truck during an illegal border crossing, telling of his hopes for rescue, the joys and trials of his life, and what has brought us all to this moment.
“Extraordinary … The horrors of a single passage over the border blossom into a human history of sorrow and suffering, all of it beginning with the thirst to be free.” — NPR
“[A] heartbreaker … Wrenching … with a voice fresh and plangent enough to disarm resistance.” — Boston Globe
“Fearless.” — Globe and Mail
Hector is trapped. The water truck, sealed to hide its human cargo, has broken down. The coyotes have taken all the passengers’ money for a mechanic and have not returned.
Hector finds a name in his friend Cesar’s phone: Annimac. A name with an American number. He must reach her, both for rescue and to pass along the message Cesar has come so far to deliver. But are his messages going through?
Over four days, as water and food run low, Hector tells how he came to this desperate place. His story takes us from Oaxaca — its rich culture, its rapid change — to the dangers of the border, exposing the tangled ties between Mexico and El Norte. And it reminds us of the power of storytelling and the power of hope, as Hector fights to ensure his message makes it out of the truck and into the world.
Both an outstanding suspense novel and an arresting window into the relationship between two great cultures, The Jaguar’s Children shows how deeply interconnected all of us, always, are.
“This is what novels can do — illuminate shadowed lives, enable us to contemplate our own depths of kindness, challenge our beliefs about fate.” — Amanda Eyre Ward, New York Times Book Review
Thu Apr 5—08:31 [text]
Hello I’m sorry to bother you but I need your assistance—I am Hector—Cesar’s friend—It’s an emergency now for Cesar—Are you in el norte? I think we are also—Arizona near Nogales or Sonoita—Since yesterday we are in this truck with no one coming—We need water and a doctor—And a torch for cutting metal
Thur Apr 5—08:48 [text]
Please text me AnniMac—We need help
Thu Apr 5—08:59 [text]
Are you there AnniMac? It’s Hector—Please text me
Thu Apr 5—09:52 [text]
There was a storm—1 bar only now—ARE YOU THERE???
Thu Apr 5—10:09 [text]
1 bar—Something’s broken—Maybe from the lightning—The helicopter came again but doesn’t stop—How do they not see us? Nothing going now
Thu Apr 5—10:26 [soundfile]
Hello? I hope this works. Still one bar only, so I’m recording now and when the signal comes back I will send it in a file with all the details and the information from Cesar. He is badly hurt, AnniMac? — ?unconscious. I looked in his contacts for someone else, but the Mexican numbers won’t work now, and you are the only one with an American code. I hope you are his friend. I know him from school, but I haven’t seen him in many years. We’ve been together only a short time now to cross the border and already he gave me so many things. I have been telling him he’s not alone, that I sent you messages and you’re coming soon, that you will save us. I don’t know if he hears, but in this darkness how will he know to live without a voice—some sign of life? So I talk to him, and to you also.
AnniMac, if you get these messages and come to look for us what you are looking for is a water truck—an old Dina. The tank is a big one—ten thousand liters and you will know it when you see an adobe-color truck that says on the side AGUA PARA USO HUMANO—Water for Human Use. But that doesn’t mean you can drink it. This one is different because someone has painted J and R so it says now JAGUAR PARA USO HUMANO. I saw this in the garage before we loaded and I didn’t know if it was graffiti or some kind of code, the secret language of coyotes, but then I was nervous to ask and later it was too late.
Thu Apr 5—10:34 [soundfile]
It works. I made a soundfile. I will send it when the bars come back, and this one also. The coyotes told us it was a good idea to fill a water truck with people. A good way to get across. No one will know we are here because there is no way into the tank besides two small pipes in the back. The door on top is too small for a person, and they put a box inside with water so if the truck is stopped and searched by la Migra it will not look suspicious. This is what the coyotes told us, like they were describing special features on a new car. It is expensive to do it they said, and this is why we must pay extra, but only un poquito. They were talking fast all the time, but not as fast as their eyes.
Some things you want to know about coyotes—just like in the wild nature there are no fat ones and no old ones. They are young machos hoping one day to be something more—a heavy, a real chingón. But first they must do this thing—this taking across the border, and this is where they learn to be hard. Coyotes have another name also. Polleros. A pollero is a man who herds the chickens. There is no such thing really because chickens go where they want, but this is the name for these men. And we—the ones who want to cross—are the pollos. Maybe you know pollo is not a chicken running in the yard—gallina is the name for that. Pollo is chicken cooked on a plate—a dinner for coyotes. This is who is speaking to you now.
The promise made to us for thirty thousand pesos each—pesitos Lupo called them, like they were only small—the promise was to cross the border quickly between Sonoita and Nogales—no more than three hours, garantizado. Then drive straight to a warehouse where a compadre will cut the hole again and let us out. We will be safe there, he said, with water and gringo clothes and time to call our contacts. In the warehouse there is some kind of secret door with a place to meet the vans so we can leave invisible. These were the promises made to us.
Besides me and Cesar in here are thirteen others—nine men and four women, all of us from the south. Two are even from Nicaragua. I don’t know how they can pay unless they are pandilleros because it is expensive to be in here. To fit us all in, a mechanic with a torch cut a hole in the belly of the tank. Then we climbed in, and with a welder he closed the hole again and painted it over. Inside is dark like you’re blind with only the cold metal to sit on and so crowded you are always touching someone. There is a smell of rust and old water and the walls are alive with something that likes to grow in the wet and dark, something that needs much less air than a man.
I can touch the ceiling if I stand, but the tank is slippery from whatever is growing in here and I could hear people falling when they got in. Unless you are in the very back or the front, the walls are round so it is hard to sit. Cesar and me were the last ones so we are in the back by the pipes and we have a straight wall. It is a good position and we must protect it, the same as the shoeshine man must protect his puesto on the plaza.
All of us agreed to wait until this morning, until it got hot again, and then if the coyotes did not come back we would use the phones to call for help. No one wanted to do this. No one wants to see la Migra and be deported. We have traveled so far and paid so much. So we waited as long as we could—all day and all the night, but people are afraid now because we can die in here you know, and it is difficult to breathe.
There are four phones I know about—mine, Cesar’s, Naldo’s and another guy from Veracruz with no more minutes who will not speak now. Naldo is a Mixtec kid from Puebla, maybe sixteen years old. He had some minutes, but he couldn’t get a signal and then he used up his battery reading old text messages from his girlfriend, even though the Veracruzano told him not to. He has been crying a lot and this is bad for water conservation. Talking is not so good either, but to only wait is worse. Already it is more than thirty hours.
"I have long admired the visceral storytelling and moral complexity of John Vaillant’s brilliant non-fiction about humankind’s tragically ambivalent relationship with the natural world. Now he brings his abundant literary gifts to a debut novel set in a very real borderland in which human beings are themselves treated like animals. The Jaguar’s Children is a beautifully rendered lament for an imperiled culture and the brave lives that would preserve it. You should read it."
—John Burnham Schwartz, author of Reservation Road and The Commoner
"The Jaguar's Children is devastating. It's at once a literary mystery, an engrossing tour de force, and a brilliant commentary on humanity's role in the physical world. The voice that echoes out from that abandoned place Vaillant so masterfully creates won't leave me."
—Joseph Boyden, author of Three Day Road and The Orenda
"John Vaillant is in the business of writing masterpieces. But this first novel will make his many followers fall over in shock. Vaillant sees the tragedy of human predation on the border for what it is—a real-world horror worthy of Stephen King. This book rushes at you relentless as a nightmare and doesn't let up until it kicks out the walls. Settle in. You're going to need a stiff drink. Make it ice water."
—Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The Devil's Highway, Into the Beautiful North and The Hummingbird’s Daughter
"John Vaillant's revelatory nonfiction is catalyzed by eloquent prose and exuberant curiosity. In his first novel, The Jaguar's Children, Vaillant proves that his heart and imagination are as expansive and fierce as his radiant intellect. With a desperate young immigrant as our companion, we enter the dangerous borderlands between countries and generations; myth and magic; human community and the vast, infinitely mysterious, wild environment. Perilously close to death, we navigate the hallucinatory map of the mind where those who endure still hope to discover one thin thread of light leading from terror to survival. Never have I encountered a writer with more energy or compassion."
—Melanie Rae Thon, author of Sweet Hearts, The Voice of the River, and Girls in the Grass
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