By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
He has never worked with agencies in San Diego before, and he says he knows it will be tough since it's an old crime. "I've looked at every other option," Zapata says. "The only other thing I can think of, maybe, would be getting a [state] senator's bill specifically for her, and that's likely publicity a senator would not want." The fact that two of the kids are still minors helps, of course. "Look, the only reason she wants to come here is to raise her kids while they're still kids."
* * *
At the morning of the McDonald's rendezvous in Rosarito, Ana Maria spent the first few minutes inundating her kids with "mom questions," as they call them. "How's school?" "What did you eat yesterday?" Then, out of the corner of her eye, she catches a glimpse of the group of strangers—some with expressionless stares, others with misty eyes—watching them. In Spanish, Ana Maria thanks David for bringing her kids to see her, and then she thanks the group again in accented, articulate English.
"Let's go to Puerto Nuevo to eat, yeah?" David asks.
"Of course. With my kids, I can go anywhere," Ana Maria responds.
First, though, the family splits off from the group for a bit of alone time. After, amid spurts of laughter, the family walks toward the McDonald's parking lot with linked arms. Everyone piles into the van for the trip to Puerto Nuevo.
Before a late lunch, they browse nearby curio shops. At one, Ana Maria notices Mexican jumping beans for sale and immediately furrows her brow. "Why are they moving?" she asks a shopkeeper. "What's inside?"
"A little animal" is the response.
"Well, then, what do they eat?"
"Ay, pobrecitos," Ana Maria says as she shakes her head. She then runs up behind Isela and flings her arm around her daughter's waist.
Finally, the family shuffles through the restaurant and to a back porch overlooking the Pacific Ocean. As a mariachi band sings of Michoacán and waves crash onto the sand, Ana Maria grabs Diana's hand from the table, pulls it to her mouth, and kisses it over and over. Her eyes fill with tears as she says, "I am so, so proud of them all. In the almost year and a half that they've lived by themselves, they've grown up so much."
* * *
Everyone slurps down the last of their margaritas and lobster, and the kids give David a glass pen with his name on it that they picked up at a curio shop earlier. It is time for another goodbye. Nobody cries, really. No one says much of anything. The kids huddle around their mom, and she recites a mantra of sorts: "Hasta pronto, hasta pronto, hasta pronto." See you soon. The van door slides shut, and the group heads north.
As the van inches toward San Diego, everyone gets out documentation—a combination of passports, birth certificates and school IDs. A bristly, barrel-chested U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer looks inside the crowded van and sighs. He opens the door and peers toward the back. "Who's your guardian?" he asks.
The kids point to Diana. She isn't really their guardian, but their mom is afraid that in the process of securing guardianship for her or Araceli, they may risk the younger kids being sent to Child Protective Services.
"Okay, why don't you guys have passports? You really need passports," the officer says.
This happens every time they cross back into the U.S., Araceli says. "I tell them that they're expensive, and they say, 'No, they're not. They're only $55 or something.' And I'm like, 'Yeah, that's a lot.'"
Even if they did have the money, they'd still need their parents or a legal guardian to sign off on a passport. Since neither is an option, they say, they'll keep chancing it and crossing the border with their birth certificates and IDs.
On the trip back to Orange County, Sergio Muñoz, a member of Los Amigos, plays a game with the kids called M.A.S.H.—or mansion, apartment, shack or house. The schoolyard favorite predicts what kind of jobs and cars they'll have in the future and where they'll live. Amid talk of Mustangs and Maui, they dream of their actual futures. "I imagine someday each of us having a career, having a good job, and even a nice house or something," Isela says. At the same time, Araceli and Eduardo chime in with "One day."
For now, they're working toward their goals. Araceli works at a Santa Ana restaurant that Muñoz manages, Casa Oaxaca. The Britos used to survive off about $500 worth of food stamps and $800 in child support from their dad per month. Rent is $470, but they're still making payments toward a security deposit. Between bills, cleaning supplies, bus passes and sending money to help their mom, there's no extra cash.
The Britos sacrifice a lot, but they don't complain. The four spent Columbus Day at home, cleaning. As they sat inside their dark living room (they often keep the lights off to save on electricity), Isela mentioned that homecoming had been that weekend. They didn't go. Tickets were $50, she says. "We'd rather save that. I think there are more important things to spend that on. But, maybe prom. Hopefully."