San Diego 'Slow down! You're not carrying animals back here!" It was the last thing Roberto Alvarado Galindo remembered yelling. The accident happened just before midnight on September 4, 1995. It bore a haunting similarity to last weekend's fatal accident in which a Border Patrol Ford Bronco filled with seven suspected illegal immigrants tumbled 1000 feet off the Otay Mountain Truck Trail, southwest of Dulzura. Four men, including the Border Patrol agent, died in this most recent accident, and four immigrants were injured.
What happens to the surviving injured immigrants? A San Diego psychologist believes authorities should take Roberto Alvarado's story into account.
On that night in September 1995, Roberto, then 28, and his brother Celerino, 32, had just crossed the United States border, illegally, from Tijuana's Otay area. They didn't get far. Almost immediately light beams swung onto them. Agents of the Border Patrol ordered them out of the bushes and into the back of their Bronco. Celerino took the last seat. Roberto had to sit on a spare tire.
That's when the driver, Border Patrol agent Gregorio Lopez, apparently responding to another call, misjudged a section of the dirt trail.
"They crested the hill and left the roadway," CHP officer Mark Gregg later told the Union-Tribune. "The vehicle rolled down a 65-foot embankment. On the way down, three of the four undocumented immigrants were ejected."
The County Medical Examiner's Office said Celerino died of several massive blows to the head and body. Roberto suffered severe scrapes and bruises on the left side of his face and bruises on his arms. He would later complain of chronic anxiety, headaches, blurred vision, pain in his legs, and a post-concussional disorder.
"The government admits all liability for the negligence of the Border Patrol agents who were acting within the course and scope of their employment," wrote United States District Court judge Napoleon Jones three years later.
Jones was writing last December 3, at the conclusion of the wrongful death and personal-injury lawsuit that Roberto and his brother Celerino's family had filed.
On the other hand, the government did not see why it should pay Roberto the $400,000 his lawyers claimed for physical and emotional injuries received, or the $1 million Celerino's widow and heirs sought.
That's where Ricardo Weinstein comes in. Weinstein, who labels himself one of the few "bilingual/bicultural" psychologists in San Diego, says Roberto and Celerino are a perfect example of why he is so busy these days.
"We unfortunately have a very racist system here. The lives of Mexicans from rural areas, who come across to work in California's fields, are not worth what our lives or injuries are worth," he says. "It's like they're subhuman. I see it in depositions. When the [lawyers for the other side] take my depositions, they ask racist questions that reflect their beliefs. Things like, 'But even if they're brain-damaged, what's the difference? What could they do before anyway? What abilities did they lose? Brain-damaged or not, they can still pick strawberries.' "
Not only that, Weinstein says, but many Hispanics going through San Diego's criminal and civil justice system are at the mercy of medical experts who don't -- can't -- understand them. "When you're talking of emotional problems, brain injuries, if [the psychologist] doesn't understand the client's language and culture, it is almost impossible to come up with a proper diagnosis."
Look at what happened to Roberto Alvarado, he says. "He was transported and treated at UCSD Medical Center hospital. He was still very disoriented. He remembers nothing until a couple of days later in the hospital, which is typical of what's called 'mild traumatic brain injury,' MTBI. And the diagnosis of that consists of some kind of unconsciousness, amnesia of no more than 24 hours, and basically a blow to the head, a closed-head injury -- meaning it didn't crack the skull. The question is, what are the emotional consequences for some individual of this background after such a traumatic experience?"
Weinstein says that the attitude toward Roberto was so indifferent that it wasn't until "people from the mortuary came in and told him" that he learned his brother had died at the accident site.
"After a couple of days he was released from the hospital, with orders to come back within a week for follow-up treatment and evaluation," says Weinstein.
Instead, the INS transported Roberto back to the border and dumped him there with a bus ticket provided by the Mexican consulate to his village of Calihuala in Oaxaca.
"He went back home," says Weinstein. "But fortunately, with the assistance of the consulate, he got representation through a local [San Diego] attorney. That's how I got involved with the case. The attorney financed his expenses to come back, got him the legal documents to [return to] San Diego to get the treatment he needed, and the full-support evaluations.
"But how do you measure his brain damage? This is a man who comes from a very impoverished upbringing. He has very little formal education. He has worked all his life in agricultural activities. The question is, what are appropriate damages? The assumption is it doesn't matter, because if you're not a brain surgeon, not an attorney or something like that, what's the difference whether your brain works or not?
"So [during the three years it took for the case to come to trial] he went back home to Calihuala in Oaxaca. But he couldn't go out in the fields anymore, because he was in pain, his back was in pain, he couldn't lift, he couldn't do the work he used to do. Also, one of the things people with head injuries experience is that when you work out in the field all day, sometimes you become photo-sensitive. The sun hurts. You get horrible headaches.
"His wife had to go and find work. She started buying fruit from different producers on a very, very small scale and taking it to the market and making a few pesos, and that was how the family was being fed. And that's where the macho issue comes in. His whole sense of identity, to be able to provide for his family and children...was [gone]. Plus he lost the ability to make love with his wife. This is both legally and psychologically [relevant]. Because there is a value to that."