~ This story was originally published by Vanguardia on August 14, 2016 ~
After having traveled through an infernal desert, passing by skeletons, and seeing their dreams come crashing down one by one, at this house in Ciudad Acuña, on the border, they find doors that are always open to them, the deportees.
The two bodies they found discarded, abandoned, in the middle of the Sonoyta desert were without a doubt a warning, a bad omen of what was to come.
Later, eight days after they had crept across the border into Arizona and were waiting, hidden, suspicious, and exhausted, for the coyote who would pick them up and take them to their destinations in the U.S., the Border Patrol grabbed them.
The coyote? Who was he? Who knows, those people don’t say who they are or how they work, just where they will meet you. Nothing more.
There were seven of them, plus Jesús Barrera López, from Álamo, Sonora. His destination was Los Angeles, California.
The desert air was an oven and beneath them, 120 degree coals.
One of the bodies was a skeleton, no skin, just bones, and there was no way to identify it.
The other was rotting, and at 100 meters away the stench was such that not even vultures approached.
Jesus approached it, he looked.
It was as if he were dead.
On the journey they had seen two lumps covered with black bags that, from a distance, in their hunger and thirst, they had thought were food. A delivery that had been left on the way by some repentant soul who also traveled the dangerous, treacherous path of their dreams.
When one of those walking at the head of the group lifted one of the bags, he found, to his shock, a skull, a fleshless face, and he startled.
He was so startled that he could not manage a single drop of water on the rest of the journey, and when he tried, he immediately threw it up.
Until the others calmed him down.
It is hard to get those things out of your memory.
The nightmare lasted eight days and eight nights walking through the hills of the Sonoyta desert, a place known as a major crossing point for migrants moving from Mexico to the United States.
Then the Border Patrol showed up.
A couple sheriffs who were patrolling there smiled at them, gave them water, treated them kindly.
They came with two dogs.
Then they were detained, taken to the Border Patrol facility, made to put on a gray sweatshirt and pants, a prison uniform, and they were put in the jail.
“In Acuña it is easy to tell who has been deported because of the prison uniform. That is why the first thing they all want to do is change their clothes so they can go home,” says Hermenegildo Villalpando Gómez, aka Father Mere, the priest of the Santa María de Guadalupe parish and advisor to the Casa del Migrante Emaús (The Emmaus Migrant Shelter) in Ciudad Acuña. The shelter receives an average of 20 to 25 migrants a day, a constant flow of coming and going.
There, on the other side, they had two days of nothing but bean burritos. Sometimes hot, sometimes cold, sometimes frozen. Plus cookies and water.
Two days of hot or frozen burritos, cookies, and water, in prison.
The sheriffs asked them where they had crossed, where they were going, and what type of work they were looking for in the country of their dreams, in the United States.
On the third day, they were taken out of the prison, advised not to trust the coyotes, loaded on to a bus, and dumped in Acuña.
There were a lot of them.
Jesús figured that they had been taken to Acuña to teach them a lesson, so that they wouldn’t try to cross again, so that they would see that it was difficult.
“And what I saw was that it is really hard right now, that people are struggling, and the government in the U.S. is a bit tougher now. It’s more common now for people to fail when they try to cross, that their desire to migrate runs out of steam halfway,” he says.
Then he thought, he did not know why, in the two men that they had found dead in the desert, who had died of thirst, of heatstroke perhaps.
The most intact corpse appeared to be about 22. He did not look very old.
Jesús is 34.
One time he had been going through Sásabe, another of the main crossing points for migrants, just ahead of Sonoyta, and had seen an entire family dead underneath a mesquite bush.
He felt bad, and had not wanted to continue, after seeing there a small boy, a young girl, a father and a mother, laying there, hopeless, abandoned, because that is where they had stopped moving.
Jesús began to panic, gripped by fear of dying there, and he turned around.
Now he is at Emaús, the shelter for deported migrants that the Catholic Church opened in Acuña.
Someone told him it was there, someone brought him, who knows.
At the door he was greeted by Miguel Sánchez and Lilia Guadarrama, the older couple married adult children, who emigrated from Toluca a year ago to serve at the house because:
“There is a passage in Matthew 25 where it says ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger (like a migrant) and you invited me in, for I was a prisoner and you visited me, I was sick or naked and you clothed me’, and they ask ‘when did we do this for you?’ and he says ‘when you did that with the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you did it for me.’ That was the passage, based on the Word of God, that shapes how we serve in this house. It is Jesus, God, who comes here. In each brother migrant we see Him,” says Miguel Sánchez.
Jesús had spent time in a field called Santa Rosa, in Tucson, planting roses and figs.
He earned good money: 100 dollars a day, for eight hours of work. He had a roof and food.
Nothing like the 600 or 700 pesos a week he earned as a mason and miner in Sonora. That was shit, and he had two kids to support.
It was the last straw.
Jesús had barely finished secondary school.
A hard year in Santa Rosa, one year, no more, because he began to miss his homeland, miss his mother, his father, his brothers. He had a wife, two kids, and thought it best to return to Sonora.
But poverty drove him, kicked him out of Álamo and Jesús tried to cross the border one, two, three times. Three times in a row.
That was all he could manage.
“It’s powerful to listen to those who keep trying. It’s rough going north, it’s rough coming back, and they still want to keep trying. Others say ‘I’m never going again, I’m going home, to my town, even though I’m poor, I don’t want to relive what I experienced there,’ but there are others who have tried two or three times. They’re becoming specialists in trying to cross the border,” says Father Mere.
And Jesús is here, at Casa Emaús…
“Waiting to go home. I don’t have enough for the fare,” he says.
Who knows what happened, if it was fear or if his nerves betrayed him, he would get nervous, they said, but suddenly Carlos took off running like crazy through the hills with the weight of the night on his back.
Manuel, his brother, ran after him yelling, asking where he was going, telling him to come back, Carlos! Carlos! But he couldn’t catch up and was left staring into the darkness that swallowed Carlos into its giant, threatening jaws.
He never saw him again.
The brothers were exhausted after having walked, along with 14 other migrants, some eighteen hours without stopping, following the tracks of a coyote who would take them to Dallas, their dreamed-of destination in the U.S.
It would have been around 10 PM, it was dark, when they reached a clearing in the desert where the coyote had promised a truck would be waiting to pick them up and take them to Dallas.
The truck never appeared, it had broken down the coyote said, his excuse more deception than anything else. The coyotes are tricky, the group would have to change their route and walk another five hours.
Manuel, his brother Carlos, and another two, collapsed to the ground. They covered themselves with an acacia branch. They would sleep a bit, they said, then they would follow the coyote’s tracks.
The guide left with the rest of the group. Some twelve people.
A few hours later, with the night well along, Manuel, his brother Carlos, and the other two migrants struck out again across the desert…
That was when Carlos took off, his nerves got the better of him, who knows, and he began to run like a madman.
Manuel and his two unknown companions kept walking, like automatons, until at daybreak they reached a highway.
They were lost.
They had no food nor water…
One of the boys called the coyote on his cellphone, asking him to come for them, and the coyote said no, that he did not know where they were, that he couldn’t find them, goodbye.
We should just turn ourselves in, they agreed, there’s nothing else to do, said Manuel, and they began to walk along the highway filled with trucks.
They asked for rides.
Nobody wanted to take them.
They couldn’t stand the thirst; their throats were parched.
An hour later, two of the big Ford pickups appeared. It was the migra. The Border Patrol.
They were arrested, taken away, and locked up in a jail in Eagle Pass filled with more migrants.
It was then that Manuel, who knows why, thought of his brother Carlos, running through the desert in the night.
Manuel tried to grab his hand but Carlos pulled away and disappeared.
In the jail, they ate bean burritos with water.
After three days locked up there, eating burritos with water, they were so disgusted by burritos that they threw them in the toilet.
They all slept on the floor, without blankets, without anything.
One day, in the morning, they were taken out of the prison, tossed on a bus, and dumped in Ciudad Acuña.
Manuel and Carlos Costilla Espinoza, 33 and 24 years old, from Mexico State, had traveled on a bus to San Luis Potosí to meet up with a guide, a coyote, the elegant euphemism migrants use.
There they paid 13,000 pesos each.
Soon they were in Piedras Negras, and then they were crossing to ‘the other side’ in a small boat across the Río Grande.
There they paid another 2,000 pesos each.
They had some bottles of water, suero, tins of sardines, and crackers.
One morning Manuel is at Casa Emaús with his parents, who had come from Mexico State to look for Carlos, their lost son.
“We spoke to the consulate, to the Border Patrol, and they don’t have any record that he was arrested,” says Manuel’s father.
Their faces are a living photograph of pain.
“Everything is free. Here they are given food, soap, there are showers with hot water so they can bathe, they are given a change of clothes, shoes. If they come with blisters they are treated, if they are sick they are taken to the doctor, but we also share the Word of God daily. I tell them ‘physical food is important, but so is spiritual strength and only God feeds the soul’. We have seen how God gives them strength, rebuilds them, lifts their spirits. They have to keep struggling, as I say to them ‘perhaps you lost a battle, but not the war’. We encourage them to keep going, to move forward,” says Miguel Sánchez, director of the shelter.
There were six of them, Jorge Quintana Orozco, his nephew Miguel Ángel Sandoval Quintana and his wife Maricruz Pérez, and three other kids, one from Guatemala, another rom El Salvador, and a girl from Guatemala. They had met on the way.
It was a dark night that closed in around them.
As they walked, or rather, as their feet dragged across the desert, dead tired, they saw a light in the desert, resplendent and huge.
It was not the moon, but the Border Patrol checkpoint.
One of the boys tried to run, and they kicked him and tied him up.
Jorge and the other boy were held down.
Scarcely had the migra spotted them, mocking the border between Sásabe and Arizona, when they were surrounded, the Border Patrol flying across the desert on their ATVs. They were trapped.
A helicopter spotlight on them from above.
“We want them to find a home when they arrive here, because they show up devastated, having been mistreated in the U.S. When they are arrested, they are treated like criminals, with shackles and handcuffs, and they feel badly. We want them to find a home, a family. If there they felt worthless, here they do not. Here, God loves them, he loves them and they are his children,” says Lilia Gudarrama, head of the shelter.
Miguel Ángel, Jorge’s nephew, Miguel Ángel’s wife Maricruz, and the Guatemalan girl who was called… What was her name? Who knows, they were exhausted.
They would have been hidden in the field after they saw the lights and heard the ruckus of the ATVs and the helicopter, Jorge thinks.
The Border Patrol agents loaded up Jorge and the two boys, the one from Guatemala and El Salvador, in the paddywagon and took them to a jail in Tucson.
Jorge had thought that he would find his nephew Miguel, his wife Maricruz, and the Guatemalan girl there.
He never saw them again.
“I thought that they had been grabbed too, but when they brought us to the jail they weren’t there and that is my worry, because I don’t know anything,” he says.
During his captivity the migra gave him tofu burritos, crackers, and juice.
Tofu burritos, tofu burritos, tofu burritos.
Then Jorge, who knows why, thought of his nephews and the girl, lost in Sásabe.
“I knew they didn’t have much water. And they didn’t bring much food,” he says.
When Jorge fled Chiapas, it was because life there was shit. Earning 150 pesos a day, planting bananas, it was a joke to think he could support his wife and five kids.
As a child, Jorge had completed only two months of sixth grade.
There wasn’t enough money for more.
His dream was to reach Virginia, where one of his brothers lived and worked doing odd jobs.
They spent two days walking through the desert, before the migra caught them and their companions.
He tells this from a plaza in Ciudad Acuña as he waits for a call from the consul who he hopes will have news about his nephews and the Guatemalan girl who were lost in the desert.
Around that time the press in the city had published some declarations from Evaristo Lenin Pérez, the city’s mayor, in which he blamed the deportees for the unstoppable wave of robberies in Acuña.
“We cannot simply claim that those who commit crimes have to be migrants. We cannot create the stigma that being a migrant or a deportee is the same as being a criminal,” says Hermenegildo Villalpando Gómez, Father Mere.
It was written in the stars that the migra would catch Valentín.
If not, then he wouldn’t have been caught.
He had crossed the canal marking the border between Mexicali and Calexico many, many times. Wearing a life jacket. So many times that, as Padre Mere says, he had become a specialist.
Hop a fence, walk 45 minutes, reach the canal, jump in, climb out, walk 15 minutes to a highway, wait for a ride, then maybe another 20 minutes more to get to Calexico.
That was all it took.
No need to bring lunch or even water.
Valentín Ramírez Garavito wanted to work however he could, to find something better, because over there in Mexicali, life is a bitch.
For the shit they paid, 500 or 700 pesos a week on the job…
Valentín had left school when he was in second grade because they ran out of money.
He went back and forth along the canal, hoping that some trucker would pick him up and take him farther along.
There it would be easier to find work, any kind of work, he thought.
But nobody gave him a ride.
So Valentín spent a few days on the outskirts of Calexico, cleaning floors and in other odd jobs, then he returned to Mexicali.
Then one day he ran into the sheriffs.
The Border Patrol came and hauled him out of the canal.
With him was another migrant, one of those fellow travelers, the two of them both swimming, Valentín on one side and his companion on the other.
Valentín got out of the canal and hid in some brush. The migra came and hauled him out.
The Border Patrol had passed by once, twice, and the third time they stopped exactly where he was hidden and pulled him out.
They searched him, tossed him in the truck, and put him in jail.
Valentín, who knows why, thought about the moment when the migra had found him in the brush.
By the time he thought about it, he was already at Casa Emaús in Ciudad Acuña, where the only requirement for entry is to show your deportation papers.
“The house is supported by charity. Good-hearted people who donate. The support of parishioners keeps us alive,” says Lilia Guadarrama.
Valentín had been dumped in Acuña, far from Mexicali, with thirty-some other migrants.
It was their destiny.
What was he going to do? Go home, as soon as he could get fare for the trip.
“You don’t earn much, but it’s not so risky,” he says.Jesús Peña writes for Vanguardia in Coahuila. This story was originally published under the title “La casa que reconforta el alma de los deportados” and is available at http://www.vanguardia.com.mx/articulo/la-casa-que-reconforta-el-alma-de-los-deportados. The photos for the story were taken by Marco Medina, it was edited by Kowanin Silva and the original layout was designed by Edgar de la Garza.
Translation by Michael Lettieri, Trans-Border Institute.