Mississippi author Johnnie Bernhard’s timely novel is set along the I-10 corridor in Texas.
Two worlds collide when a 73-year-old widow finds the semi-conscious body of a 14-year-old Mexican national in a ditch along a central Texas remote byway. The question of justice for a victim of human trafficking and the elderly woman who kills the perpetrator lies in the hands of a biracial border patrol officer and an unconventional small-town sheriff.
One of Bernhard’s greatest strengths as a writer lies in her character development and sense of humanity for everyone the reader meets on her pages. In Hannah and Ariela, Hannah Dural is the widow known for her independent thinking and preference for living life by her own moral code. Ariela Morales and Katia Hernandez are two unassuming teens from Zaragoza, Mexico, who get into a truck with their former schoolmate Ricky Alvarez. That one decision takes them on a dangerous journey as they become victims of human trafficking, through the backroads of northern Mexico and into Texas.
In this excerpt from the book below, we meet Ricky Alvarez, the gang member who kidnaps Ariela and Katia. Bernhard describes this chapter as “powerful,” and it illustrates how she develops empathy for good people who sometimes do bad things out of desperation.
I was conceived in a whore house in Acuna, Mexico across the border from Del Rio, Texas. My papa might have been an enlisted man with the Air Force, a middle-aged deer hunter from West Texas or a gringo teenager, drunk and frustrated with virginity. My mother worked in Mexico’s legalized prostitution zones, La Zona de Tolerancia, until she got AIDS, although the Federales swore there were no problems with STDs in the brothels they monitored through surveillance cameras and regular police patrols. Condoms were provided by the prostitute or the customer, neither a good example for following rules.
I was fourteen years old when we moved back to her hometown, Zaragoza. The Federales provided shelters for former prostitutes, so at least we had a place to go. It was in town, not far from the school I walked to. She was dying, and I was growing up,realizing I had two choices in this life with a beginning such as Acuna, Mexico.
I could be a money maker, trading on my looks. I knew teenage boys who provided services to men, charging up to $350 American dollars for a few hours of work. The real money was in Mexico City, places like Colonia Juarez and near the Hidalgo metro station, where rich businessmen and tourists gathered to view the male prostitutes. The hours weren’t bad, mostly working on weekends from 10 p.m. Saturday to 5 a.m. Sundays. The only thing wrong with my plan was I needed cash. Cash for a cell phone, cash for travel money. So, I waited. I waited for my mother to die, and I waited for the chance to make money.
Cash money and a cell phone came when I accepted my second choice in life. I became a gang member. My pimp was El Jefe, and I trafficked girls and drugs. I did it for power and money, and one other reason. No one would ever dare to say to me again, Ricky, su madre es una puta, a dirty whore.”
I loved my mother and because of that I had a weakness as a gang member. Guilt. A softness in my belly making me cringe each time I stole a girl from her family and took her to El Norte. Sometimes I’d made myself feel better by saying at least the girl would eat every day and have nice clothes to wear. That was more than the Church, or Zaragoza offered my mother. No priest or saintly women pulled the drunks off her body and handed her a chicken and a bag of beans to feed her child. When her mouth filled with sores, making it impossible for her to eat and the fevers never stopped raging, no doctor delivered medicine to treat her. None of them came forward, no teachers, no friends, not even my mother’s sister, the official village idiot. Crazy Benita disowned her sister and nephew, the prostitute and her bastard son, when we left the Church. I still saw my cousins, Michael and Veronica. They’d at least acknowledge me, because we shared family traits, shame and poverty. When you grow up hungry and humiliated, you never forget nor forgive.
I stayed in school until she died, only because she begged me, too. “Hijo, se un buen chico. Ve a la escuela.” She was ignorant enough to think an education would change my life. She dreamed I’d be a college boy, like the ones on television in Los Estados Unidos. She never should have turned it on. It only kept her from facing reality. For me, I learned to hate gringos for having it so easy.
I quit the prepa in the ninth grade, a week after I buried her in a grave without a marker. The female pimp she once worked for, a madrotas, bought her a casket and gave me a place to live until I got a cell phone and a job with El Jefe. The first real money I made with him I bought my mother a white, granite tombstone. Madre Amada was all it said on it. No one needed to know when my mother was born or died, except me.
I was a sixteen-year-old soldier in El Jefe’s war against the Mexicans and Anglos. Because I was literate and not a meth head like most of the other soldiers, he gave me a truck to drive, making deliveries on both sides of the Rio Grande. I was also better looking than the others, making it easier for me to pick up girls. I didn’t have a mouth of black rot like my new partner, Aamon. I don’t know where the animal came from, but he gave me the creeps.
The other big difference between Aamon and me, I still remembered my mother, how she loved me, telling me I could be anything in this world, if only I’d stay a good boy, working in school until I became a banker, lawyer, or scientist, just like the men wearing suits on television. Then, just like it did over and over again, my belly became soft with guilt, especially when I drove El Jefe’s truck with Aamon sitting next to me.
Aamon wasn’t born from human flesh and blood. He came from some Aztec nightmare with his skeletal frame and hollowed eyes. His only ambition was killing for our god, El Jefe.”
Johnnie Bernhard will be appearing at the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge on October 29, 2022. Readers can look forward to an interview with her in advance of the festival.