A couple of years ago I was sitting on my front porch with my family, when suddenly we saw several Jeeps painted in camouflage rumbling down the street. They were driven by men dressed in black and camouflage. We are all Latinos around here, but the men weren’t. They were much lighter skinned, and some even had blonde hair. It was like we were being invaded by an army. I got really scared and ran inside. The neighbors later said that a man named Rusty was behind all this. They said he’d made an army—a militia—to catch immigrants. They called it “Camp Rusty.”
I’m 15 years old and I live in Brownsville, Texas, a city just across the border from Mexico, where my parents were born. I was born in Brownsville and my parents have U.S residency, but some of my family members don’t, even though they live here.
I’d known about Rusty for a long time before I saw those Jeeps. The first time I heard of him was when I was about seven years old, when my family and I were coming back from Matamoros, Mexico—that’s where a lot of my family members live. My mom was talking about what a mean guy Rusty was, how he would call the Border Patrol every time he thought an immigrant was near his house. I actually saw Rusty not long after, at the neighborhood gas station. He was a huge white man with icy blue eyes.
Even today you can find him at the gas station. He goes there every day and stays almost all day long. He drinks coffee and waits for the immigrants to ask him for some help: money or food. They think he is going to help them because he has a Mexican flag along with his American one, on his maroon Ford truck. But instead, he calls the Border Patrol on his cellphone.
Most people here are scared of Border Patrol, and it’s gotten worse lately. I feel people feeling afraid. Around the neighborhood there have been a lot of deportations —about 10 from what I’ve heard. Some people don’t drive anymore because they are scared to get stopped and sent to Mexico. My next door neighbor is scared because her son has DACA, and the rumors are that DACA won’t protect immigrants anymore.
A few months ago, my aunt and uncle got deported. They were coming back from church, and a state trooper stopped them at the gas station, and then called Border Patrol. They didn’t have a chance. My aunt got deported to Mexico right away and my uncle got deported three weeks after spending time in jail. They have four U.S.-born kids. The youngest is eight years old.
No one I know has ever talked to Rusty, not even to get close to his house. That’s how scared they are. But lately I’ve been wanting to talk to Rusty and find out why he would do such terrible things. I’m the kind of person who loves talking to people, even when I don’t know anything about them. I was afraid, though. So afraid that on the way over, I bit the acrylic off of my nails.
But then I got over it.
First I went to the gas station to look for him, but I saw his truck pulling out, so I went to his house. He was in his truck. I walked up and said, “Good afternoon. I’m a reporter and I would like to interview you.”
He answered, “Are you ready to get bored with this old man?”
I stood by the truck right next to him. He smelled like sweat, cigarettes, and rotting food. He had a lesion on his nose that was filled with pus. He had another one on his wrist, filled with blood. His eyes had big shadows, and the whites were yellow. I wasn’t going to ask why he looked so sick. He told me, anyway. “I have two types of cancer,” he said. “But I’m not treating them: the medicine just makes me feel worse.”
I’d lost my fear.
I looked around and saw his house. It looked like it was at least 60 years old. The white paint was faded and weathered. There was an old cow skull hanging on the front, and cameras with a sign that said “Trespassers will be Prosecuted.” Deeper in the yard was another, bigger house, surrounded by trees, in even worse condition than the first house. I got the impression that Rusty didn’t live in either of them. I started thinking he probably lived in his smelly old truck. I began to wonder if maybe he was not as bad as people say—that maybe he was just an old, sick, depressed man.
Before, I had thought that he hated Mexicans and didn’t know anything about them. But a few minutes after we began talking, he started speaking Spanish. It wasn’t bad Spanish—he spoke it like everyone else around here.
Rusty—also known as Cuban Alfredo Monsees, Jr.—is 69 years old. When he began talking about his family history, I was amazed that it was all connected to Mexico. The most impressive thing was that he said his father was Pancho Villa’s personal servant during the Mexican Revolution. He claimed to have pictures (I didn’t see them). He even told me about his step-brother who was born in Mexico and still living there now.
How can someone with Mexican roots like this be so angry with Mexicans? I wondered. He kept talking.
He said that when he was a boy in Brownsville, his family lived right by Rio Grande, the river that divides Texas from Mexico. He still lives on the same land—Monsees Road, steps away from the border fence. He said that years ago, everything was just fine with the immigrants. His parents would let them spend the night at their home, as long as they agreed to cut the grass.
But then, Rusty said, things changed. A lot of narco-traffickers started crossing the river and some of them were violent. “One hundred and fifty dogs are buried on my land,” he said. “And only about ten of them died of natural causes.” One dog, he said, was skinned and hung up on a tree while it was still alive. “I had to shoot it and bury it,” Rusty said. “If someone is mean enough to kill a little dog, he will do the same to a human.”
I sympathized with everything he was saying, but I know many people who’ve crossed the river without papers, and they are good people. I didn’t understand why Rusty would have a militia on his property (it’s now disbanded), nor why he would call the Border Patrol—he admitted that he does that. It seems he overgeneralizes about immigrants. A lot of people overgeneralize. But Rusty seemed to have other problems with his mind.
For example, he told me that ISIS had crossed the river right here at Brownsville and were caught by the police, but instead of taking them to the station, Obama sent a bus for them and they disappeared. Another weird thing he told me was that he can tell when someone crossing the river is a Muslim, or “a Mohammedan,” as Rusty said, just by putting his left hand out. According to him, a “Mohammedan” will pull back in fear.
This sounded pretty crazy to me. And Rusty didn’t seem to understand that the racist things he was saying could hurt people, even people like me. He just wanted to talk and talk nonstop. He seemed really lonely. He said he is in so much pain from his cancer that most nights he can’t sleep. I started to wonder how long he’d been living alone. “I made some bad decisions,” he said, “and my wife and kids left me.”
I’m no longer scared of Rusty. In fact, I’m planning to go back someday soon, because he told me he was going to take me to look at the border patrol routes. Now I just think of him as pathetic, and someone to feel sorry for. Still, he’s a dangerous person in my neighborhood. He’s got his cellphone, a cup of gas station coffee…and the Border Patrol’s phone number.
The writer’s early drafts were edited by Debbie Nathan, who is the investigative reporter for the ACLU of Texas and is based in Brownsville, TX. This feature is part of Splinter’s project to recruit local, embedded reporters, essayists, and photographers across the country. Read more here. Stories like this are important––spread the word and follow us on Facebook.