Elizabeth slept in the airport that night. She arrived in TJ on July 22. It had been eight years since she’d last seen her dad.
“It was devastating. My dad said, ‘God knows what is best for you. Be strong. We will get your baby and family together again.”
It took Elizabeth weeks to recover from the shock of being back in Mexico.
“I didn’t want to go outside. I was scared. I didn’t feel secure. In the U.S., I saw on the news how dangerous Tijuana is.”
It took two months to get her son back. There was a delay in obtaining his passport. She spoke to him every day over the phone. He cried and begged to come to Mexico. The day he arrived was a happy reunion.
“For many reasons, I don’t want to go back to the United States. I can wait until my son turns 21 and get citizenship through him, or I can go illegally to be with my husband. Aldo and I separated. The only good thing that America brought me was my son. I want to stay here in Mexico.”
Elizabeth is still angry about her deportation.
“I wish that they had had more heart. They didn’t care; they just kicked me out. I have adjusted. I like it here. In the U.S., I was in constant worry that I was going to be deported. I feel free now.”
The first time Frank saw a white man was the day his mom’s boyfriend showed up to smuggle him across the U.S. border. Frank was six years old and lived with his grandmother in a village near Tepic, in central Mexico. The boyfriend brought along his own four children from Fullerton, California. He tried to convince Frank that entry into the U.S. would be an adventure, not an illegal activity.
Frank was scared. He didn’t know any English. He was anxious about reuniting with his mother, of whom he had no memory. He’d been a toddler when she left for the United States.
“It was a 32-hour drive from my village to the U.S. border. We stopped overnight at a fancy beach resort. I had never seen anything like it. We collected shells on the beach.”
Frank and I are sitting in plastic lawn chairs on the front patio of his employers’ Rosarito home, while he tells the tale of his entrance into the United States. A shaggy white-and-brown pit bull roams the patio and barks to get our attention. “Shush, Marilyn!” Frank says while petting the dog’s head. Frank is wearing a baseball cap, a Sublime band T-shirt, and cargo pants. Soft-spoken and serious, he reminds me of my junior high school history teacher.
They arrived at the border after midnight. The boyfriend instructed Frank to feign sleep. When they drove up to the post, the boyfriend told the border agents that Frank was his son. The lie went unquestioned. Frank was in.
“I remember the bright lights on the freeway and the bridges. When we drove into L.A., I thought it was the most beautiful city in the world.”
Frank had high hopes for his reunion with his mother. In his mind, she was nurturing and warm.
“My grandmother was very stern. She gave me one too many whippings. I was expecting my mother to be different. I thought she would be soft. She was anything but. I was disappointed. We didn’t speak Spanish because my mom really wanted me to learn English. She wanted me to be perfect at it. She would beat me in order for me to get the words right.”
Frank arrived in the United States during the summer, and by the time school started in the fall, he was fluent in English.
Shortly after his arrival, Frank’s mom and her boyfriend broke up. He and his mom moved from an upper-class neighborhood in Fullerton to San Pedro, where there was lots of gang activity.
“My mother worked harder than anyone I have ever met. She worked 14-hour days. She worked at a bakery and an old folks’ home. I used to go with her to her jobs. I would sweep and mop at the bakery. I played cards and read to the elderly. It kept me out of trouble, for a while.”
When Frank was seven, his mother paid a coyote to bring her other two sons over from Mexico. She wanted her boys to have opportunities she had not been afforded. The younger boys were three and five. After crossing the border, the coyotes made the boys stay with them an extra week. They demanded a sum of money larger than what had been originally specified. It took seven days for Frank’s mom to raise the funds.
“I was ecstatic when [my brothers] came. Before that, it was just me and my mom. She was going through a depression from breaking up with her boyfriend. She was drinking every day. Each night, I thought she was going to die.”
Frank did his best to take care of his brothers. His mom worked during the day, and the boys’ care was left to Frank. They lived in a duplex across the street from Frank’s elementary school. Periodically, he’d leave school to check on his brothers.
“I got in trouble for ditching. My teacher thought I was a bad kid. I knew I was doing what I had to do. I tried to be a dad to them.”
Despite spending nearly all of his childhood — and most of his adult life — in the United States, Frank never attempted to become a citizen. When in 1986 Ronald Reagan signed an immigration-reform bill granting amnesty to immigrants who’d entered the country before 1982, Frank’s mother filled out the paperwork for herself and her children. They all became residents but not citizens.
“I got a Social Security card and was able to get a driver’s license when I was a teenager. I didn’t try for citizenship.”
Frank’s decision not to become a U.S. citizen was deliberate, an attempt to honor his heritage.