“To disappear” becomes a transitive verb.
For example: “La migra disappeared six people last week.”
Había una vez, the verdant plaza at the center of town thrummed with life. Students spilled from the nearby community college, flinging Frisbees y pateando pelotas, chasing rare golden sunbeams and, catching one, collapsing bonelessly in the grass. Russian Old Believer families — for they, too, had found home here — strolled along the poured concrete path: bonneted women in satin dresses, raspberry and butter yellow and hyacinth blue; bearded men in embroidered tunics; children with cornsilk hair, who skipped over the students’ soccer balls, sometimes joining in.
Ten palm trees flanked the path, incongruous tropical giants that thrived in the misty, silver-gray Oregon air. As twilight fell, workers returning from the fields paused to rest beneath their fronds, sipping coffee and tearing off pieces of sugar-topped conchas bought from the panadería across the street.
Every few hours, beneath the din of town life, came the clamor of crossing gate bells and the low rumble of a passing train. The railroad was to thank for the town’s name: a farmer had started a burn too close to a woodlot, which caught a spark and went up in flames. A station agent witnessing the conflagration wrote “Woodburn” on the maps. The name stuck.
Woodburn is forty minutes south of Portland, on the fertile banks of the Willamette River. The river runs north; like the town, like the railroad, it feeds the city. The speckled farm-fresh eggs, the variegated heirloom cherry tomatoes, the cornucopia of organic summer berries — this is where they come from.
On weekends, people gather at Luis’s Taqueria for carnitas garnished with cilantro y cebolla picada, paper-thin radish slices, rodajas de limón verde. Warm ochre walls reflect in scrubbed tabletops, and families help themselves to booster seats stacked high in the corners. Overhead, piñatas sway, bright crepe paper ribbons fluttering from golden points.
Kids on tiptoe brace themselves against the counter to peer into a glowing churro warmer. “¡Deliciosos! Rellenos de crema o plain, $1 c/u,” read yellow chalk letters on the glass. The wall beneath the counter is papered with posters of crooning men in ten-gallon hats, a rotating roster of Norteño bands and stadium country acts playing the Salem Fairgrounds.
Above the register, newspaper clippings celebrate the high school’s five state soccer championships, the local scholarship winners and beauty queens. A glossy red poster trumpets Coke: “The perfect amigo for your meal.” Hand-lettered stickers, neon pink and green and affixed to the poster’s corners, advertise agua fresca and horchata. Their reverse-scalloped edges evoke a comic book: Wham! Pow!
Lately, the town has gone quiet. There’s a pre-apocalyptic feeling in the air. Anyone might be snatched next; even papers are no protection. Pero Luis’s, por lo menos, sigue prosperando. It remains the frequent object of travel writers’ profiles: close enough to the city for a half-day trip, far enough to feel like a land discovered.
Across the plaza from Luis’s, a white stucco bungalow houses two legal aid offices. Waiting room pamphlets opine on what to do when the landlord refuses to remove black mold, when there’s no drinking water at work, when pesticide sears the skin.
Wallet-sized reference cards list minimum wage and age and maximum hour rules. Nine-year-olds can pick berries and beans, as long as the produce doesn’t cross state lines.
An illustrated booklet, in Spanish and Mixtec and K’iche’, shows women reporting assaults in the fields. Getting justice. It has the ring of fantasy, and not just because of the cartoon drawings.
The thread of fear that runs through the town is new — or renewed — but the rest has always been here, tolerated by those who crack finely-freckled eggs and rinse fragile Marionberries in open, sunlit kitchens.
The law offices, at least, should be booming in hard times, but they’re quiet, too. It’s a risk to complain about the paycheck that comes up short, the water that smells of sulfur, the foreman who says that wages are in his trailer. Fear works like an income tax. It costs more, now, just to earn.
At twilight, people hurry past the park: workers with arms heavy from harvest; women in long satin dresses, reluctant to linger in the empty downtown; scrums of ruddy-faced men, stumbling home with a swagger, emboldened by more than liquor.
In this new silence, you can hear trains coming a long way off. They start honking their warning far outside of town. Years ago, a car stalled on the tracks, the mother still struggling to free two children when the train barreled through. An investigator found the driver blameless. No way he could have stopped on time. But that absolution couldn’t have mattered much, and the train driver was found wandering along the edge of the river a few days later, mindless on painkillers.
Every few hours, the crossing gates descend, red lights flashing against gunmetal sky. Hopper cars of grain and flatbeds piled high with lumber pass through, destined for the city, or for somewhere beyond.
The waiting cars and pickup trucks rev impatiently.
Urgency is what the town shares now, in place of languorous hours in the park. Each afternoon, an electric buzz rises, a collective impatience for the safe golden glow of home. If you’re not worried for yourself, there’s someone you love, someone you pray to see at the end of each day.
The first car starts crossing the tracks while the gates are still rising. A line follows, though it doesn’t stay a line for long. One by one, vehicles peel off, until only a few shimmering dots remain, long stretches of dull roadway between them.
“To disappear” becomes intransitive again.
The sound of wind thumping against palm fronds echoes in the vacant plaza. But in private places, the embers of rage are smoldering. Los niños que crecieron en los fields, fingers ink-stained by berries, who watched as their parents soportaban cada indignidad de los pamphlets de los abogados, luchando siempre, who bore those indignities themselves — they became the state champions and becarios, the college students and union leaders, los maestros y parents with children of their own. They’re the ones rushing home each night with hearts in their throats, esperando ver a los que aman.
Fury and fear are two peas in a pod, and everyone can feel it: with one zephyr breath, this all might catch fire.
And when it does, there’s such kindling to burn.
Megan Corrarino is a human rights lawyer and litigation associate at an international law firm in New York. She was previously a Robert L. Bernstein International Human Rights Fellow at Human Rights First and recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship to Brazil. Her writing has appeared in numerous academic and practitioners’ publications, including the Yale Human Rights & Development Law Journal and the New York Law Journal. Megan is currently working on a mystery novel set in her home state of Oregon and is on Twitter @megancorrarino.