By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
The shock wore off; the tears poured out.
"We were contacting our dad, and we were trying to contact our uncle, too," Araceli says. "We were just trying to figure out what to do. And so, finally, we decided to go to Mexico."
A week or so later, when they left Reno, the food their mom had cooked for them the morning she was unceremoniously deported remained untouched on the table. They packed some clothes and a few pots and pans and waited for their dad to show up. Unable to get a flight out of Chicago, he drove to Nevada. He thought his children wanted to move with him to where he lived in Wisconsin, but the children refused. But their uncle, who lives in Santa Ana, showed up before their dad and took the Britos to Mexico.
In Tijuana, they met up with their mom and spent a night in a hotel. After her arrest in Reno, Ana Maria was processed and jailed there. Then, after taking both a plane and a bus and making several stops along the way, customs officials dropped her and several others off in Tijuana and offered them no tips. If there was a shelter for deportees nearby, she didn't know about it. She stumbled upon the hotel, somehow scrounging up enough money to afford a stay and make contact with her niños.
For the next month or so, Ana Maria and her children lived with family friends in Rosarito, in the same room where she lives now, subsisting only on bread. The family relocated to Ana Maria's home state, Querétaro, a state her children barely knew, bouncing from one aunt's house to another. "My mom didn't want to be a nuisance in their houses, so she's like, 'We might as well spread it out.' Eventually, we rented our own little house," Isela says.
They lived in Querétaro for almost a year and tried their best to assimilate, essentially living life as illegal immigrants in Mexico. "It was so different. The homework, socializing with other people, everything," Araceli says. The children had to attend school unofficially because they didn't have papers to show Mexican citizenship. But the family slowly settled into life in Mexico, planning to live there permanently. Then their father, furious his children sided with Ana Maria, suddenly stopped sending child-support checks. Now, there was no money coming in from anywhere. [Editor's note: A misspelling in the preceding two paragraphs was corrected. Please see the end of the story for details.]
Ana Maria decided a change was necessary, albeit it a painful one: She'd return to Rosarito, and the kids would relocate to Wisconsin with their dad. It was September 2009, and this time, they at least got to say goodbye.
* * *
Their uncle picked them up in Tijuana and drove them to Santa Ana; they stayed the night with a woman they'd never met, a relative on their dad's side. She dropped them off at John Wayne Airport the next morning. At Chicago O'Hare airport, the Britos saw their dad for the first time in years, accompanied by a woman they didn't recognize. The children figured it was his new girlfriend, but he shrugged off their questions, claiming he'd explain later.
He never did. The kids spent their days holed up in a single room in a townhouse. Their father and "that lady," as the Britos derisively call her, stayed in a different room; the woman's four sons lived in a third room. "It was a small house for a big family," Araceli says, adding that she lost 10 pounds because they had nothing to eat. The kids didn't go to school because their dad said he couldn't afford school supplies. "He has a good job, but he just doesn't know how to manage his money, so he spends it all," she explains.
Araceli, Diana, Eduardo and Isela scrounged through the pantries and lived off canned corn and pancakes for a month, trying to pass the time. Finally, the four called their mom, begging her to rescue them. Ana Maria and her relatives in Querétaro gathered some money and started to look for plane tickets.
But the kids had to convince their dad to let them go. "He wouldn't let us. He made Mom sign some notary paper saying she'd take full responsibility for us if anything happened," Eduardo says. The paperwork eventually went through, and they flew back to Orange County, where they spent a month living in Santa Ana with a couple of their cousins in a single rented room. "We just slept on the floor, lined up, but, I mean, that was like heaven to us because we actually ate, we slept, we didn't have to worry about anything," Araceli recalls.
Soon, the money was gone, and they traveled back to Rosarito to buy some time. By now, they'd missed more than a semester of school. So, in February 2010, Diana and Araceli moved to Santa Ana to live with their uncle. "I was trying to find a job, but nothing. They want high-school diplomas, and I didn't even have that," Araceli says. She and Diana enrolled at Valley High School and applied for welfare through the state's social-services department. They got $200 in emergency funds, which they sent back to Rosarito because the others were starving.