When The USA Took My Mother Away

Deported abruptly to a country they barely know, the women in Joseph Zarate’s 2012 story of a visit to a Tijuana boarding house-recently reprinted in a Mexican magazine-leave behind their homes, their jobs, and even their children.

With sleep in her eyes, still in her pajamas and slippers, Angela Garcia went out of the house that morning to get breakfast, the thought never crossing her mind that she would not see her home again. Before she got to the store to pick up some milk, officers arrested her and five other people who were circulating at a corner in Old Town San Diego. It was a raid.

Angela Garcia had no papers. They never gave them to her, despite the fact that she had lived in the United States since she was six years old, when she immigrated with her older brother. Her life there was set up there: She grew up, went to school, fell in love and had a son with a Panamanian man, also undocumented. In Los Angeles, she worked as a quality control manager for Hewlett Packard and earned enough to live in an apartment with her pet and no worries about money. In fact, she had almost no memory of her birth country: Maybe the words to a ranchera song, or the taste of the bean tacos she had tried as a child. But Angela Garcia — born in Guanajuato, a thin 29-year-old with dyed blond hair, a big smile and perfect English — was illegal. That morning, inside the patrol car, she knew that Nathan, her six-year-old son, would not be having breakfast with her. They were going to deport her without letting her say goodbye to him.

Deported. To Mexico. Her country.

Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca

A country she did not know. And without her son.

On a hot June afternoon, Angela Garcia remembers the scene when she stepped on Mexican soil for the second time in her life. More than two years have passed since she was arrested the first time, in February 2010. This is the second time they have deported her.

With only a grey sweatshirt, weathered jeans and a bottle of water in her hand, Angela Garcia has just entered Tijuana through the narrow metal gate at San Ysidro, the world’s most heavily-trafficked border crossing: 50 million people legally cross here every year, according to (Mexico’s) National Institute of Migration. But it is also true that Tijuana is still one of the points where thousands of undocumented Mexicans try to cross the border. They go by boat, walk through the desert, hide in the trunk of a car, jump the wall, or tunnel under the earth.

This morning, sitting in an agency that helps out deported Mexicans, Angela Garcia washes down the burrito they gave her for lunch with a glass of Coke. Two days ago, Border Patrol agents arrested her and six others in Tecate, 28 miles east of Tijuana. Immigration officers had been following her trail.

“We crossed the border going up a rope ladder and we ran for the hills in our socks so we wouldn’t leave tracks. From the Mexican side, a trafficker talked to us through a walkie-talkie: ‘Jump, get down, hide so they can’t see you’. We walked for nine hours and when we got in the van to go to Los Angeles, they showed up.”

While she eats unenthusiastically, Angela Garcia recounts that three U.S. officers took them to a detention center in San Diego. The room where they kept them was like a freezer because of the air conditioning, ‘to kill the germs’, they told them. That night, underneath a thin blanket, Angela Garcia slept on the bare concrete floor, hugging an older woman to stay warm.

“Those officers threw away our things and made fun of us in English. Since I understood them, I called them out, told them we were people like them. ‘You can’t give us orders,’ they said to me. They were officers with Mexican surnames: Ramos, Villasenor, Garcia. I didn’t understand why they treated us that way.”

The next morning, she and couple of undocumented immigrants were deported back to Mexico. The rest were put in jail because they had various arrests on their records. Now she is worried because she does not have money and does not know where she will spend the night. She has family in Michoacan, where she lived for a time while her brother rounded up $5000 to get her a trafficker to get her across the border, but since everything went wrong, she would rather stay in Tijuana.

“My son is American and he is there, and that’s why I have to get back home. Being here it’s easier to look for someone and try it again. I will do it as many times as I have to…”

Angela Garcia breaks down. She cries. But she breathes deeply and immediately she dries her tears with the sleeve of her sweatshirt. It is 5pm. More people who have been deported arrive to the office. Five men, a couple women, a young boy.

“I can’t go back. I’m scared, but what can I do?” she asks me. “If you had a young son wouldn’t you do that same?”

Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca

Close to 100,000 women deported from the United States each year arrive in Tijuana, this uppermost corner of Latin America. The majority are mothers who, after 15 or 20 years of living in the U.S. without papers, are separated from their families. The women from the Madre Assunta House are also part of the scenario. The home is a specialized center to help immigrant women and children that was created by Scalabrinian missionaries in Colonia Postal, one of Tijuana’s oldest and poorest neighborhoods. Angela Garcia arrived here tonight thanks to the insistence of volunteers at the agency run by the Migrant Pro-Defense Coalition. Here, they give her hot food, something for her headache, a bed and a little icon of Saint Toribio Romo, venerated by immigrants. She was also able to call her brother and son on Skype to tell them she had not made it across, but that she was doing okay. Social workers have promised to get a lawyer to help her normalize her situation. More than 18,000 women have received the same kind of help over the 20 years that the group has been functioning. However, many of the women, like Angela Garcia herself, still think about crossing illegally.

Now all the migrants in the home are in the community room — sky blue walls, a bookshelf, plastic flowers on an end table — watching television before dinner. It is 6pm in Tijuana and Amorcito Corazon is the soap opera with the highest ratings. Sitting on brown sofas that are clean but worn, ten women spend the evening watching the program. They talk amongst themselves, some of them knit and others watch over their small children as they play. They all have similar stories: They share the tragedy of bad luck.

One, for example, was deported from the United States because she ran a red light and did not pay the fine. Another was arrested while waiting for the bus. Another was arrested at the gate at San Ysidro for trying to cross with fake documents. Another was arrested for defending herself from her North American husband who beat her, but since she was illegal, instead of protecting her they deported her. All have them have lived in the United States for 15, 20, 30 years. All of them have children there.

It is no different for Rosa Mejia, a dark-haired, heavy-set woman wearing tight jeans who carries a yellow plastic bag where she keeps the documents her lawyer has given her about her case. The women talk amongst themselves but Rosa remains silent and watches TV intently, trying not to think about what is happening to her. She lived for over 20 years in Long Beach, California, with her mother and six siblings. One day in November 2011, she got in a fight over money with her cousins and, because they were minors and American citizens, they charged her with abuse and she was deported. Not long ago, a social worker in Los Angeles told her over the phone that her 11-year-old daughter was living with another family assigned to her by the U.S. government.

“They told me the case was closed, that I can’t do anything about it. Since then, I’ve gone sleepless several nights. But I’m here so the lawyer can help me get my daughter back.”

According to statistics from the Pew Hispanic Center, over three million minors who are U.S. citizens live with families where the parents are undocumented Mexicans. It is a precarious situation that could leave them adrift at any time if their parents are deported. That is why Rosa, who has cried herself to exhaustion, got the telephone number of someone at Telemundo who is a producer for a talk show starring Laura Bozzo, the famous lawyer to the poor, to see if she can help.

“She is very famous in Peru, right?” she asks me, “They say she helps poor people.”

“Yes, but they also say she pays people on her show so they will act like they have problems,” says another without taking her eyes off the soap opera.

“I don’t care. What I need is for her to help me,” Rosa Mejia says, squeezing the yellow plastic bag with the documents in her hand. “For example, I come here and the lawyer is not here. They tell me to wait, and to wait, but there is no one. How long do I have to wait? Tell me how long.”

This is the same question asked by Marisela Barrientos, who has spent the last four months of her life running away. From her country, from her kidnappers, from her murderer. She is 25 years old with black hair and a wide face with two skittish little brown eyes. She is from the north of Guatemala, a town called Nueva Santa Rosa. Underneath her blue shirt, Marisela breast feeds her newborn.

She says it happened one afternoon in January at her house. A killer kicked down her door, entered the room and open fired on her mother, who was talking to her in bed. She later learned that a cousin had hired the assassin to kill her mother, the owner of two-story house she did not want to sell. After five days, her father, who lives in Los Angeles flipping burgers, sent her money to leave. With a small backpack and eight months pregnant, Marisela Barrientos crossed the border from Guatemala to Mexico by way of Chiapas and got on the famous Train of Death, which transports hundreds of illegal Central American immigrants through Mexico in cargo cars. She spent 16 days on the train, hanging off one car or another, living on crackers and water, until she made it to Sonora.

“The worst was when I got there. The woman who was going to help me cross the border told my dad that I was already in Phoenix and she collected the $4000 for the job. I didn’t know about it. The lady left me at a hotel.”

Marisela did not have money and fell in with a woman who offered to put her up for a few days. But she was unlucky again: The old woman kidnapped her for three weeks, holding her in a room where she gave her just water. She would only let Marisela go if her dad paid a ransom. Luckily, the old woman went out to buy groceries and Marisela was able to escape through the bedroom window.

The soap opera has ended. It is 7pm and, according to the rules of the house, it is time to shower and got to bed. Before saying goodbye, Marisela Barrientos says that, although she sometimes wants to join her father in Los Angeles, she will not try to cross the wall again. Neither will she go back to her country. The Guatemalan consulate has given her special permission to stay in Tijuana and work. Felipe, her son, was born ten days ago in the home, with the help of the nuns. They named him.

“Felipe is Mexican and I’m going to try to move forward here. Only God knows why I couldn’t get across. Maybe he wants me to start something new here.”

Photo: Platon for Human Rights Watch

A wall / a fortress does not divide love / Love is here between you and I / stronger than ever / Thank you for keeping me alive / because there are nights when I can’t take it anymore.

Esther Morales wrote these verses a year after being deported to Tijuana. She remembers reading the poem at a Mothers’ Day lunch at the Madre Assunta House and that she could not help crying while she read it. Luisa, her 19-year-old daughter born in the United States, was not with her. Esther missed her then more than ever. Like she misses her every day. Like she misses her now.

They call her The Poet. She is a short 50-year-old woman with round glasses, a friendly voice and straight hair pulled back into a pony tail. During the day, she runs a tamale stand on Negrete Street in the Central District, a neighborhood of sad avenues and businesses where most of the city’s commercial activity takes place. But it is at night before going to sleep that Esther gets the chance to do what she likes most: Sit in bed, take out a pen and write verses on colored paper while she thinks about her daughter, about how she used to live in Los Angeles before she was deported.

It is 4pm and Esther Morales is just now taking off her blue apron and sitting down at one of the table’s to rest. With an old song by Jose Jose playing on the radio, Esther remembers the first time she crossed 20 years ago, with her cousin, when it was much easier to emigrate without papers.

“I got to Tijuana, got a smuggler and crossed the hill. But it was a much more respectful crossing. The coyotes were responsible people who knew they were taking lives with them. Now they’re criminals. They kidnap you. It wasn’t like that before.”

When she got to Los Angeles, Esther Morales got work packing vegetables and selling cleaning products. Later, she had Luisa with a man who left her, whom she would rather not remember. During that time, she also started to write poems about her trials as an illegal immigrant. People liked her poems so much that a friend translated them to English and they were published in some magazines in San Diego. A U.S. publishing house even paid her $50 for every poem she submitted.

It was time when she also returned to Mexico often to visit her family in Oaxaca, the Mexican state with the largest percentage of women who have migrated to the U.S. She would stay two, three days and later return to Los Angeles like always: at night, crossing Tijuana’s hills.

“Several times the border patrol got ahold of me. When that happened, they just took my fingerprints and a picture and took me back to Mexico. But I would try again and get past without them getting me. They deported me like nine times. Then they finally found me.”

It happened on a Thursday in March 2010, when she was driving to pick up her daughter from school. Two officers arrested her for not having papers. From the detention center, Esther called her daughter to tell her to stay with her uncle, that everything was going to be okay, to not cry. Esther could not tell her the truth: That because of her record of deportations, the U.S. court system sent her to a federal penitentiary for women in Dublin, California, a prison constructed for criminals in the days of Al Capone. With a poem she wrote there — which one a prize from the publisher Pensando Fuera de la Celda (Thinking Outside the Cell) — Esther Morales talks about the hardships of incarceration:

Bars, cold cells / this is where I arrived after the accident / that almost cost me my life / Of trying to cross the border / between the people and the sounds / I looked for my space / and found this madhouse.

After six months in prison, they tossed her back to Tijuana with nothing more than the clothes on her back.

“It’s a very sad place. There are women there who do 60 days just for crossing the border. I tell the girls at Madre Assunta this so they know the risk they’re running. ‘No, I’ll get across because I have to,’ they say to me. ‘I’m getting a coyote.’ Okay, but it doesn’t hurt to give them a warning, right?”

But Esther Morales does not stop writing. She hopes that other women can find a way to confront their situation through her story, through her poems. That is why she keeps up her visits to migrants at Madre Assunta. She takes them tamales, watches soap operas with them and feels better. She also participates in the vigils at the wall in the Libertad neighborhood. There, when Christmas comes, Esther gets together with hundreds of activists to sing protest songs, recite poems and pray in front of the 4,000 crosses that represent the people who have died trying to cross the border.

“The media always highlights the worst immigrant, the immigrant who didn’t do it, the sad one who left everything and came back with nothing. But why not show the other side of the coin? The side where the immigrant that couldn’t do it said: ‘This is my country. I’m going to make it work’. People have to know that in Mexico it can be done, that it is not worth it to risk your life. The American Dream was over a while ago and we have to look for new horizons.”

Esther Morales is still looking for them. That is why she is saving money to have a computer where she can edit her poems. She dreams of publishing a book. It is a project that keeps her busy and that she thinks about every night when she arrives to the little room she rents in a building in the Central District. There she writes, watches TV or reads the Bible. But sometimes that does not work and she gets sad and feels very alone. Then she goes out at night and goes to the beach where the metal fence ends, or she walks the dirty streets, full of people. She has met many deported women who are working as prostitutes, like the ones in Coahuila, Tijuana’s famous red light district.

“They are women who lost because of that damn wall. I feel the same sometimes. Sometimes I feel like I have an addiction, like I have to go back to what I did before, to get drunk. I’ve been pretty strong, but sometimes the loneliness gets to me, and seeing so many people that…”

Esther Morales stops for two seconds and corrects herself, as if she’s trying to avoid saying something she shouldn’t say.

“But no, no, my life is different. Now I have my daughter. She is the only one who gives me strength now, even though it is difficult to live like this.”

She knows that she cannot go back to the United States. The federal court judge warned: If she tries to cross again she will go away for five years. That is why she has decided to stay in Tijuana. Here, at least, she feels closer to her daughter. The distances are shorter. The phone calls are cheaper.

“A few days ago Elisa came to visit me after not seeing each other for 18 months. Soon she will graduate as an English teacher and will be a great American citizen. She also introduced me to her boyfriend, a boy with Mexican parents who was also born there. They are a cute couple. She promised to come see me on the Fourth of July. Since then I’ve been dreaming about her, about my lost America.”

Esther Morales smiles broadly.

This is what she calls it: her lost America. She remembers it every night in her poems.

This story was written in June 2012 during a workshop put on by Fundacion para un Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano (FNPI), led by Alberto Salcedo Ramos. It was first published by La Mula, and recently reprinted in Frontera D.

Joseph Zarate Translated from Spanish by Brian Hagenbuch for International Boulevard.