Freedom or Texas


in Ideas • Illustrated by Esther Lee


Part One: The Dominican 

I suppose you could say I was hungry, but I’m not sure it was food I was looking for. After coffee and bagels slathered with jalapeño cream cheese, Nikhil and I meandered back toward the apartment, passing a dicey New York boulevard that, to me, felt as potentiating as it did dangerous. You could find anything under the tracks . . . drugs, taco trucks, a Thai cinema, delis, crackheads, gay bars, and an abandoned Lincoln sedan with its windscreen smashed through. The flow and counterflow of mechanical bodies were relentless: traffic below and subway cars rattling overhead. Was I stepping over puddles of rainwater or piss? It’s better not to ask the question and just walk. 

Nikhil, my first cousin, poked their head inside one of the everyday Latinx eateries (in Mexico you would call such a place a ‘local’) to see what was on offer at the counter. Behind the curved glass there was a selection of dishes that appeared neither fresh nor appetizing, so we went to the next local along Broadway where we were greeted by a friendly middle-aged woman who took our order. Four empanadas to go. Two meat and two cheese. 


While we waited on wobbly stools, I struck up a conversation in Spanish with a young Dominican man in a heavy blue polo who was sitting beside me at the bar. He worked back-of-house at the local but it was a quiet Sunday, so he was drinking an ice-cold Corona and half-watching a repeat of an old Yankee game as bachata music played in the background. 

The dominicano and I had a natural rapport; I was tempted to drink a beer with him, but it was barely midday. Besides, the empanadas would be ready soon. He asked me where I was from, commenting that I had rasgos árabes — his beard was shorter and patchier than mine– I told him I was Indian but born in Britain, though there might well be some Arab in me somewhere down the line. 

Somos de la India,” I said, gesturing towards Nikhil, who, unlike me, had lived in the (grand)motherland. Then the woman who had taken our order came back to ask if we wanted hot sauce. 

¿Quieren picante?” 

Sí, por favor.” 

The dominicano turned to me; his eyes glazed over momentarily, drifting somewhere between tired and tipsy. 

Soy ilegal,” he confessed casually, as if it might have been a joke. 

I was surprised that he felt comfortable (or drunk) enough to share such sensitive information with me, a stranger. For all he knew one of us could have been from ICE. We might have cuffed him and shipped him back there and then. Stranger shit has happened. I hadn’t said or done anything special to elicit this tacit code of trust — esta confianza — that now hung suspended in the air between us. 

He said he paid $21,000 to be smuggled from Managua, Nicaragua to the Mexico-U.S. border. It was much more than I thought, not that I had ever guessed the price. I wondered who he owed what . . . how had he managed to get that money together? He told me that it’s even more expensive to cross now. 

“How much?” I asked. 

Ahora son veinte-cinco mil dólar.” Now it’s $25,000. 

Puta,” I gasped. 

Like cattle, he and 70 other people, mostly from Central and South America — though there were also some Jamaicans and Indians (maybe he saw one of them in one of us) — piled into the back of a truck. Then the shutter was slammed. They moved in the dark, from truck to truck and country to country: we counted and named them all. Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States. Five. He told me it was rough — fue duro — , that he had seen things most should never have to see, signaling his eye with his index finger. When he did this, I noticed two small but prominent scars on his forearm. I wasn’t sure what he was referring to, and yet I imagined a safehouse where a trafficked prostitute had been beaten and raped, the bedsheets stained with blood. 

The caravan of migrants was led by seven different coyotes (a term used to describe those feral smugglers who act as guides between checkpoints) before they reached the mystic Río Grande where a motorboat carried them to freedom or Texas. That was as far as their money would take them. The north side of the riverbank. And from there, you ran for and from your life, praying not to be captured and deported or worse, shot dead by beaner hunters: so-called ‘patriots’ who trap or kill undocumented migrants along the border. All you could do was run. Run through the desert, run from the law, run from it all: 

Y de ahí corres . . . corres, corres, corres,” he paused, with fear still shooting from his eyes. Reflected in the smudged shop window, I imagined an expanse of arid no-man’s-land opening up before the dominicano as he stepped foot on gringo soil for the very first time. He took another sip from his beer that was now almost empty. The server returned, this time with our empanadas. Nikhil paid her eight dollars in cash. I stood up. 

¿Y cómo te llamas?” I asked, as if it mattered. As if I could say his name. As if it were worthy of his humanity to work hidden under the subway tracks, so far from the sun and so close to the sewer. Whatever warmth trickles down here are the scraps. If they couldn’t breathe in the back of the truck, they would have had to break their way out or scream for help along the highway. The passage had already been paid for. If the merchandise arrived cold, it wouldn’t have made a difference. It would all happen again, and the right people would get paid. All for a quiet Sunday. The bottles at the club last night cost too much so this one will do. It’s on the house. We really should kill whatever you were running from because this is nothing worth running for. Even if the dollar is worth that much more. 

Part Two: Sikhs and the City 

In the summer of 2023, one year after my visit to New York, I moved to Mexico City for a third time. I was working on a project documenting barbacoa from Hidalgo with my photojournalist friend Allec. We had woken up before sunrise to photograph lamb being pulled from an earth oven. As we sat in the back of a cab, ripping through Pachuca’s dusty valley, Allec asked me if I had heard the news about an Indian who was shot dead in a drive-by robbery after converting $10,000 U.S. dollars at Mexico City International Airport. I wondered if the crime had any relation to what the Corona-sipping dominicano had mentioned about Indians being smuggled alongside him into the U.S. From a café in the capital’s south, I did some research. 

There had been scant reporting on the matter, although in October 2022, the BBC published a story that attempted to answer the question of why Indians are fleeing halfway across the world for a shot at crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Among the reasons cited by the interviewees were: to flee harassment targeting the LGBTQ+ community; fear of violence from Hindu nationalists against Muslims, Sikhs, and other religious minorities; and overwhelmingly, a lack of economic opportunities. In the mid-’60s my grandparents did something similar, leaving India for England with three pounds in their pocket and a baby on the way. 

The article mentions how the passage is purchased through “travel agents” in India who arrange transit as far as Latin America, where the remainder of the journey is usually outsourced to regional criminal organizations. In the Mexican case, the cartels control the people-smuggling networks, which double as drug trafficking routes. Some migrants don’t survive the crossing, like six-year-old Gurupreet Kaur, who, in 2019, died of heat stroke in the Arizona desert. Her mother had gone to fetch water. They were headed to New York to join Gurupreet’s father who was awaiting a hearing for his asylum case. 

I noticed that the BBC interviews were conducted with those who had already made it to the U.S. I saw an opportunity. What if I could intercept Indian migrants on this side of the border, before reaching the land of drive-thrus and strip malls? Could I capture their hopes and fears for an uncertain future? In a way, these were my people, and it was absurd to think that they might be passing me by in the back of a truck as I sipped my Oaxacan coffee. Indians in Mexico. Just like me, but not at all, for they are not granted the freedom of movement of my British passport and socioeconomic background. To tell their story, enunciated from Mexico, might be a way of reconciling my fragmented identity and connecting with my community. But why would they even speak to me? What could they stand to gain except for additional danger? 

Seeking a point of departure, I went looking for Indians. I undocked an EcoBici, Mexico City’s public bike system, from Coyoacán and cycled along a portion of Insurgentes (the city’s longest avenue, lined with glass-framed steak houses, chain taquerías, and gas stations) to the Hare Krishna temple. I nosed around the grounds and slipped off my trainers before entering the empty worship hall where a life-size statue of the movement’s founder, A.C. Bhaktivedanta, sat. The plaster-cast bald man, a Hitler admirer, was the closest thing there to an Indian. A Spanish volunteer with a shaved head told me that sometimes they [Indians] visit on weekends. I purchased a pasty-shaped samosa from the canteen. The potato filling balanced savory and sweet, smoky and sharp. I sent a picture of the bitten morsel to Nikhil before cycling to a downtown Indian restaurant. 

I could smell the spices drifting down the street. Through the window, the restaurant looked quiet; a waitress was wiping down the tables while a young couple finished their dessert. I came in and walked past an elderly woman dozing off in her chair. A chubby man, around 50, was behind the till, filing receipts and punching numbers into a calculator. He wore a dark blue turban, a kara, and a white T-shirt with a turmeric stain. I asked him for a table.  

“Sorry, brother. We’re closed. Today is lunch only,” he said matter-of-factly in English, with an accent that was difficult to place.  

“Ah, ok. No worries. I’ll come back another day. Do you make chole bhature?” I asked, for next time.  

“Yes. We make everything. All Punjabi, north Indian style.” 

His name was Sunny. He had moved to Mexico from India as a boy. With his family, he had built two successful enterprises: a restaurant and a business importing pashminas. Sunny liked Mexican women, although he seemed to suggest that Indian women make better wives: “It’s ok to have Mexican girlfriends before settling down,” he opined when I asked about his personal life.  

I told Sunny that I was interested in telling stories about south Asians in Mexico. I asked if he knew anything about Indian migrants traveling north towards the U.S. border.  

“You want to know about human smuggling?” He stared me dead in the eyes.  

“Yes, I’d like to know.” 

“That’s my community. I can’t talk about it. But if you come to the Gurdwara on Sunday, you can look and see for yourself. Like I said, it’s my community, I’m not saying anything.” 

Was he implying that there were smugglers who attended the Gurdwara? Or that members of his community have used such services or “travel agents”? I didn’t push the questioning any further. Instead, I asked Sunny when to arrive for prayers and langar: a free vegetarian meal offered at the end of every service. 

“Come around 12 p.m. That’s when we start the program. Here’s my card if you ever need something.” He put his hand on my shoulder.  

I understood his refusal to speak to me about people smuggling. In certain contexts, it can prove fatal to associate with reporters. Outside of the Middle East, more journalists have been killed in Mexico — where their killing was directly linked to their journalistic activity — than any other country in the world over the past 20 years, according to data from the Committee to Protect Journalists.  

Not a journalist, but my friend and fellow Leonard Cohen fan — who also happened to be the son of a corrupt public official — was shot dead a few years ago. Allegedly, the murder was a settling of scores between a cartel and his father. I mention this to illustrate how the deadly power of organized crime in Mexico extends to the state and beyond. Sadly, it’s something I have second-hand experience with. I’ve heard the story of my friend’s killing told from the cartel’s perspective too, as an anecdote at a party. 

In Mexico, it’s no secret that pursuing certain journalistic topics could get you killed, like the narco war, and more specifically, the nexus of organized crime and government. The broad lack of public scrutiny due to legitimate fears of violence means that Mexican voters often have little critical insight from journalists when it comes to elections, especially in those federal entities where cartel-state collusion, or narcopolitics, is most prominent. It is a vicious cycle that ensures the silence of the press, the failure of democracy, and the reign of terror (to varying extents across the republic). Naturally, I was worried that my reporting about the smuggling of Indians might ruffle some feathers. Nevertheless, that Sunday, I went to the Gurdwara, hungry for langar and curious if I could find any leads for the story I was piecing together. 

Mexico City’s only Gurdwara is in Las Lomas, a premier residential neighborhood known for its Beverly Hills-esque boulevards, orthodox Jewish community, and an eerie absence of mobile food vendors. From the Uber, the Gurdwara seemed a generic modernist house that could have just as easily been the residence of some European ambassador if it were not for the coat of arms bolted to the gate. It’s a khanda: the symbol of Sikhism, an amalgamation of traditional Indian swords. I wondered what the maids, who pass the house en route to the bus stop, think of the resplendent khanda, that unlike the cross, has no clear starting point nor ending, but rather keeps on leading back to itself from whichever way you look at it. Might they think the building is a weapons-based martial arts school? 

Before entering the prayer hall, I deposited my trainers in the cloakroom and asked an elegantly dressed lady making chai in the kitchen if there was anything to cover my head. She handed me a cardboard box full of bandanas.  

“Take whichever one you like,” she said warmly in an Indian accent.  

I walked across the hall to a corner where I sat cross-legged. The carpet had been covered with white sheets; we had done the same at home in London when my grandfather died. The ground floor was made crisply white like fresh snow without that delicious underfoot crunch. 

At the opposite end of the Gurdwara, near the altar, three people played devotional music. A man with pockmarked cheeks, a gray beard, and white turban played the accordion. The woman who had given me the bandana, now veiled, joined him on the tabla. She sang Punjabi hymns into an echoey microphone. They were accompanied by a teenager trying to keep up on the cymbals. 

Every now and then, the gray-bearded accordion player would look up and smile at the rest of us. Although there is no official hierarchy in Sikhism, it felt as though he was in control. I observed the room. Sunny, the restaurant owner, was not there. We were around thirty people. Mostly young families. It was difficult to imagine that anyone here might be involved in people smuggling, except for, maybe, a couple of hardy 6-foot blokes with dhidds (bellies) who guarded silence as if their lives depended on it. 

For the last few songs, the accordion player asked us in Punjabi, English, and Spanish to sing along, following the phonetic lyrics displayed on the screen. Without understanding a word, I joined in, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. After the final tune, the accordion player handed out prashad: a sweet made from flour, ghee, and sugar. To receive a lump, I bowed my head and extended my hands as he stood before me, smiling still. It tasted luxuriously buttery, like the halva my grandmother occasionally makes, only hers has chopped almonds and less sugar.   

My palms still oily, I followed the others to the langar hall, where the former patio had been roofed with corrugated steel sheets. Along the tiled floor, mats had been laid out where we sat in rows. Two volunteers, the very same blokes I had typecast as thugs, handed out metal trays with compartments to separate the dishes: rice, paneer, chole, yogurt, puris, and an undressed salad with raw jalapeños to bite. Everything was delicious and vegetarian, not because Sikhs don’t eat meat (many do), but to ensure that everyone is able to gain nourishment from the food equally. 

While I ate carefully with my hands, I spoke to a Mexican university student who had been attending the Gurdwara after discovering Sikhism in the ‘World Religions’ section of a library. I also spoke with a tattooed woman from Delhi, who ate quietly beside her mother. She told me that they had donated the langar in honor of her late father, an executive at a cement company, who had recently died of a heart attack. 

“They were his favorite dishes. Which Punjabi doesn’t like puris?” she asked rhetorically, looking down at the tray which distortedly reflected her handsome face.  

I went to the kitchen to wash my tray. The aunties gossiped in their salwar kameez, sipping chai and packing leftovers into freezer bags. I hung around, waiting to speak to the accordion player who was doing the rounds. He came into the kitchen and firmly shook my hand, squeezing my left bicep with his free hand.  

“It’s great that you came. You’re welcome any time,” he said earnestly.  

“Thank you. Have you been living in Mexico long?” I asked.  

“Almost 20 years now.” He twirled his mustache with his fingertips.  

“And what brought you here?”  

“Oh, business.” 

“What sort of business?” 

“We have lots of businesses. Did you get enough to eat?” He asked, deflecting.  

“Yes. I had about four puris. It was excellent. Thank you.” The chai boiled over and one of the aunties came scurrying along to lower the flame. I tried asking again. “So, what industries are you involved in?”  

“Entrepreneurial. I travel a lot. You know how it is. But we try to be here every Sunday.” 

Why wouldn’t he tell me what he did for a living? Did he have something to hide? Or perhaps he simply did not wish to discuss business in a sacred space. I decided to leave it there. 

I accepted a freezer bag of chole and a stack of puris wrapped in foil from an auntie before heading to the bus stop. On the ride down to the centro, the chole burst open. I hopped off the bus and bought a replacement bag from a taco-stand for 2 pesos before taking the metro back to my Coyoacán apartment owned by a columnist at the daily national, La Jornada. They frequently organized events for the newspaper downstairs. It was safe to assume that the paper’s former investigative journalist Miroslava Breach, murdered in 2017 for her reporting on the narco war, would have been a guest at my house on several occasions. Her murder really captured the public imagination. A mother gunned down in her driveway in front of her children for fearlessly speaking truth to power in her cartel-run home city of Chihuahua.  

Despite receiving death threats from the cartels, Breach continued to expose their crimes and collusion with local politicians, unable to afford to armor her SUV. You might call her reckless. That she had a death wish. But to me, Breach’s defiance was nothing short of heroic. I’m not sure I have that sort of bravery in me. There is no cause I feel so strongly about that I’d be willing to put my life on the line to report about it. 

The personal safety concerns of my piece about the smuggling of Indians seemed futile in comparison to Breach’s work. Besides, why was I writing the piece? Who would an exposé serve except for me? Surely, the most important thing was that the people being smuggled — risking it all for a shot at crossing the deserts of California, Arizona, New Mexico, or Texas — arrived at their destination in as little danger as possible. If someone spoke to me, it could put their lives at risk. It was best to stay out of it. So, I transferred the chole from the bag to a bowl and covered it in the fridge before sitting at the top of the stairs, waiting for some career advice from Miroslava Breach’s ghost.•


Shyal Bhandari, born in Watford and raised in Elstree, is a food-obsessed writer who likes to say he’s from London.