Julián’s Tacos: Part One
A Queer Migrant’s Story of Hunger
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Content warning: This story includes disturbing references to violence and sexual abuse.
This was supposed to be a story about food in detention—about the anguish of life in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility run by a private prison corporation in Washington State. Was supposed to be about keeping alive on white bread and canned pinto beans, in a windowless pod of dingy white, where the air conditioning never shut off. Supposed to be about waiting months and months for an immigration hearing that could determine whether you get to stay in the U.S. or be dumped back onto the murder streets you fled, hoping a nice piece of fresh fruit not slimy or dented shows up on the next meal tray.
But halfway through a second long phone conversation with Julián Garcia, the arc of my story changed.
Julián, who has been detained in various facilities across his 33 years, is now free. He lives in San Diego. In the earliest picture I can find of him online (about the time he left ICE custody, I’d guess) he’s a face above a print shirt: lips pursed, head skewed. Gem-chip earlobe studs and a small, pale scar spanning the cleft of his lip. His eyes radiate sadness, or fear—or maybe it’s a look of exhaustion, the disillusion of the queer migrant failing to reach the point of shelter he’d expected to find. Julián’s path to refuge has spanned 3,000 miles so far, from the Mexican state of Veracruz, where he was born, to Tacoma, where his spirit almost died in nearly a year of detention.
Let’s begin at the end, or nearly so.
The Tacoma Northwest Detention Center squats behind wire fencing in a factory and wastewater treatment zone. It sits on one of three broad planks of industrial land—a strand-board collage of Superfund sites—along the southeast edge of Tacoma’s Commencement Bay, not far from quirky landmarks: Sam Choy’s Poke to the Max restaurant, Dale Chihuly’s fantastical Bridge of Glass.
With a pre-covid inmate capacity of over 1,500, the Tacoma Center is the largest facility of its kind in the United States. It’s not a prison. It’s a holding facility for adults whose immigration status is in flux: those who showed up lawfully at a U.S. port of entry and applied for asylum; those with unresolved residency status and criminal convictions, who did their time only to find officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement waiting with flex cuffs at the release turnstile; those scheduled to go before an immigration judge and those appealing deportation. Tacoma is a kind of Ellis Island for the 21st century, a liminal space for moving between old lives and new.
ICE detention was a place of endurance for Julián, where despair arrived on a tray three times a day. Breakfast was a PBJ on white, with milk that usually smelled sour, clotted with age. For lunch, baloney on white, or an 80-percent soy burger patty still icy from the deep-freeze. Canned pinto beans for dinner, or chicken soup with a choking chemical taste, Julián says. With luck, fresh fruit once or twice a week.
“It’s one of the worst experiences a human being can have. I feel like I was being punished,” Julián says, “like I was being suppressed.”
Hungry inmates could buy snacks from an online commissary: ramen noodles or instant coffee; a squeezy pack of peanut butter or box of cereal. But prices were high. If you didn’t get money from family or friends on the outside you’d have to rely on the dollar a shift GEO paid inmates for working, doing the essential jobs of the facility. An inmate would need to work many hours, across several days, to afford almost anything.
Meals came coded with the message that anyone in ICE custody deserved to wait indefinitely in hell. Julián already knew what hell felt like.
The Rio Filobobos writhes through the damp green flatlands of central Veracruz state in eastern Mexico. It’s a region rich in citrus fruits: limes and fragrant, green-skinned bitter oranges. Poverty thrived here, too, especially in the expanding city of Martinez de la Torre, where Julián was born.
Julián’s grandmother had a gas stove but liked instead to cook on her brasero, fired with branches from the trees that walled her patio. Every morning Abuelita marshaled the smoke and snap of the fire as the twigs caught; every morning she used her hands to slap corn masa into tortillas; every morning caused the blistered sweet smell of those tortillas to rise from her comal and seep around the edges of the patio, as the rooster screeched and blustered. Julián grew up on breakfasts of Abuelita’s black beans, infused with the piney flavor of epazote. Black beans with eggs and salsa roja, or with chorizo, but always with a cup of sweet, cinnamon-tinctured cafe de olla.
Abuelita did her best to make young Julián understand the basics of cooking. Look at how I do it so you’ll know, she’d say, someday when you’re alone and hungry. Look at how I make tacos.
At age seven, Julián Garcia asked his mother if he could go to school. She told him there wasn’t money, and if he wanted to go he’d have to earn the tuition. He found work at a neighborhood panaderia: cleaning trays, weighing out lard and flour, forming bolillos from the daily mass of dough. At 10, Julián got a job with a lady who hawked food on the street and sold fabrics from her home. While the lady was out selling tacos, Julián worked in the fabric shop under the eye of the lady’s son, and it was he, the son, who was Julián’s first rapist.
The it happened at school: an older boy abused Julián and preyed on him. Julián began to understand he was different from the boys who called him faggot. They said he was girly, and his complexion was darker than most—cinnamon, they called it, canela. It made him a target. Bullying—“very, very violent bullying” Julián says—became almost constant.
The sexual abuse continued into Julián’s teens. Julián thought he could make it stop by changing way he presented to the world. “I tried to do my best,” Julián says, “like having my best manners, being so polite, so friendly and kind.” But it didn’t stop, and Julián blamed himself—as if being an object of rape was the inevitable consequence of having been born queer and brown. “I grew up with that resentment on myself,” he says, “because I was thinking: Well, this is all I’m going to be for. My body is going to be used in this way.”
Martinez de la Torre was a place where drug cartels operated more or less freely. In 2007, at the age of 17, Julián was kidnapped along with five others: picked up off the street by cartel thugs and held for ransom. But Julián lied, insisting over and over again that he was an orphan, alone in the world.
Over four or five months, the cartel hustled him and other hostages blindfolded from place to place, a series of buildings like warehouses. Julián never knew where he was, whether in the city or outside. He was forced to clean; to deliver packages of drugs to pickup spots under the eyes of his kidnappers. Julián stayed alive on wretched food. “I can’t even recall what it was,” he says, “garbage that was already spoiled. It was that or nothing.”
The kidnappers tortured and murdered a family in front of Julián, shot them one by one as they tried to extract ransom from relatives over the phone. Julián and another hostage were forced to clean up the aftermath.
Later, the kidnappers stepped out, leaving only one thug behind to guard the hostages, but the guy was drunk. “The other hostages were asking me to do something,” Julián says through anguished tears, “to be brave and do something. I don’t remember how I did it,” he says, as if his memory had blurred the details and all he can access are broad movements, like recalling a dream. “I picked up the tool they were using to torture these people and I snapped it on the kidnapper’s head—hit this guy three or four times until he was unconscious.” Julián took his keys, but the door was locked from the outside. He smashed a window and, with four other adult hostages and a child, escaped.
It turns out they’d been held in the center of Martinez de la Torre, not far from Julián’s grandmother’s house.
Read Julián’s Tacos: Part Two.
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