Morning light peeks over the horizon on a Sunday in August. Inside an Anaheim warehouse, four siblings stand in silence. The Brito kids—Orange County natives who spent much of their childhood fending for themselves—are waiting for a group of strangers to take them on a road trip to Mexico.
A few minutes later, Tarcisio Magaña, owner of a local automobile-repair shop and a member of Los Amigos of Orange County, maneuvers a boxy white van through the southbound lanes of Interstate 5. Amin David, the longtime leader of Los Amigos, fires questions at the kids. "Are you excited or nervous?" he asks. "What's the first thing you're going to tell her?"
Diana, 20, giggles at the questions and shrugs her shoulders. Araceli, 18, and Eduardo, 16, respond in unison: "I have no idea." Isela, 17, smiles but continues to gaze at passing cars. The sun is starting to rise, and the freeway lights mix with the dawn, casting a soft, promising glow on the landscape ahead. Magaña pulls his eyes from the road for second and looks at the kids via the rear-view mirror. "This is going to be one of those moments that makes you say, 'This is life,' you know?" he says in Spanish.
A hundred miles and a breakfast-burrito stop later, Magaña slows the van to stop. In the distance, shacks line the border wall; to the right of the road a sign reads, "WARNING: Guns/ammo illegal in Mexico Frontera Internaciónal 2 km." Tijuana is just a few minutes away. After getting waved through the U.S.-Mexico border by the federales, Magaña gets to a toll-road pay station, rolls down the window and hands a couple of dollars to the woman running it.
"Where should we stop?" David asks rhetorically. "We're going to stop at the McDonald's there in Rosarito, okay?"
Isela nods and nudges Araceli. "Okay, text Mom," Isela tells her sister. "Tell her we're almost here."
About an hour later, the van enters a parking lot; the kids hurry into the pristine, brightly lit McDonald's. Their mom isn't there yet, so the Britos sit around a square, plastic table and wait. Diana tosses a bracelet back and forth between her hands as Araceli crosses her arms over her chest and cranes her neck to look out the window. European dance beats pulse in the background.
Suddenly, someone says, "I think that's her." The Britos swoop their heads in unison toward the door as a small woman with a neatly kept bun and deep wrinkles around her dark-brown eyes walks through the door and runs to the table. Her four kids jump up, and all at once, they hug their mami. Kisses, tears and "I love you"s drown out the music as Ana Maria Sanchez Mateo, 45, nuzzles the head of each of her kids, whom she hasn't seen in months.
* * *
On Dec. 8, 2008, a teacher told Araceli to report to her Reno high school's front office. "I didn't know what was going on," she says now, as she sits on a couch at the Britos' apartment in Anaheim. "They say, 'Okay, calm down, don't worry, but your mom was deported.'"
The then-16-year-old left the office and aimlessly roamed the halls of her school. The Britos had moved to San Diego from Orange County, and then to Nevada for their dad's job seven years earlier. Ana Maria and her husband had since separated, with their dad moving to the Midwest. Finally, Araceli ran into Isela. The sisters locked eyes, and Araceli blurted out, "Mom was deported."
They knew their mom, who had lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years, had an interview with immigration officials earlier in the day, but they expected her to come home with a green card. They'd later find out that because of her past immigration record, Ana Maria wasn't eligible for one. A victim of domestic violence, she had been living and working legally in the U.S. for several years; under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994, the government granted her work authorization. Once she was eligible for, but not guaranteed, a green card, the government stopped granting her work authorization.
Araceli and Isela found Diana, told her what had happened, and together, they planned their next step. First, they had to track down Eduardo, who went to a different school, and convince administrators to let them leave. "They're like, 'You don't have a mom; you don't have a dad. Where are you gonna go?'" Isela recalls.
One of the girls called their father, who lived in Chicago at the time; he called a friend and asked him to pick up the kids. They'd never met the man, but they wanted the ride home.
The man picked up the girls, then Eduardo, and dropped them off at their house. Upon arriving at the front door, the kids realized they didn't have any keys. On a hunch, Eduardo jumped onto the porch and tried to open the door. It was unlocked. He let his sisters in. Waiting for them were several messages from their mami, sobbing that she was about to get deported.
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.
Things stabilized a bit, and Isela and Eduardo moved to Santa Ana, too, and started attending school. But they didn't get along with their uncle's wife and had to move out. They rented a room from an aunt's brother who also lived in Santa Ana. That, too, ended up being a bad situation. "Those people were just horrible with us," Araceli says. "They were mean and rude. We were not comfortable at all."
Thankfully, the tide started to turn in their favor. Roselinn Lee, Araceli's AP U.S. history teacher at Valley and the wife of Santa Ana-area state Assemblyman Jose Solorio, remembers the day she pulled Araceli out of class to talk. "I go, 'What's going on? You're not coming to school,'" Lee says. "She said, 'Well, I didn't have money to come to school. Bus money.' I said, 'Bus money is, like, $1.25. Where do you live? What's going on?' She explained to me her situation, so I ask, 'Do you even have money to eat today?' and she says no. I just said, 'Oh, my God, this is just beyond . . . and I pulled out a 20 and gave it to her, and she starts crying."
Lee made it her mission to get the kids out of the "hellhole" they were living in. She emailed her husband to ask if he had any connections; Solorio forwarded the email to the Orange County Housing Authority, which said housing might be a possibility. In the meantime, Lee sent emails to fellow teachers, who collected money for the Britos. She also worked out deals with her husband to pay the kids to help at his events.
Everyone at Valley High School was really supportive, the Britos say, but it was Lee and Vice Principal Anuar Shalash (who has since left the school) who went above and beyond. When the kids were approved for low-incoming housing a few months later, they moved to an apartment in Anaheim, where they now live; Shalash got donations to help them furnish it.
Lee dropped the kids off after an event and got to see the apartment. "It was really nice to see that they had separate bedrooms and a kitchen," she says. "They were so dedicated to one another as a family, and they were so committed to doing well here. They're just the sweetest kids ever. They just needed a little help."
They finished that year at Valley High School but ended up transferring to Anaheim High School the next year because it was closer.
* * *
At a scholarship-awards night earlier this year, the Britos met a couple of people who also wanted to help them. One was Amin David, the round-faced, perpetually peppy septuagenarian who led the Latino civil-rights group Los Amigos for 30 years before stepping down this year. David says he attended the scholarship program on a whim, adding that he's glad he did.
"They're angels; they're babies—and babies need their mom," says David, who owns the Anaheim plumbing warehouse where the group met before their road trip to Rosarito, which he helped plan.
Another person was Mario Zapata, an associate attorney at Costa Mesa-based Nicastro Piscopo, an immigration-law firm. Zapata is now representing the family pro bono to help Ana Maria return. While he admits it's "an uphill climb," Zapata is working to get the Britos' mother a U Visa, which would grant her a four-year stay in the U.S. The government can give out as many as 10,000 U Visas per year to victims of certain crimes, including domestic violence, Zapata says. Normally, this would be a slam-dunk case, he says, but there are a couple of complicating factors at play.
In 2000, while living in San Diego, Ana Maria called the police after getting into a fight with her husband. Since she was married to—and victimized by—a U.S. resident, Ana Maria self-petitioned for a U Visa under VAWA and was approved, Zapata says, which meant she also got work authorization. For several years, she worked in hotels and at various fast-food restaurants. Sometime in 2007, Ana Maria filed a green-card application. It wasn't until December 2008, however, that immigration officials got in touch with her and asked her to come in. Ana Maria assumed it was for an interview, but really, the officials wanted to arrest and deport her.
She was deported for making a false claim of U.S. Citizenship in 1998, Zapata explains, which is taken very seriously in immigration-law circles. "You're committing fraud against the government, and as far as immigration law, you're permanently barred." In order to get the U Visa, the arresting agency or a judge who handled the case can sign off on a certification saying the person was, in fact, the victim of a crime and that they assisted with any investigation. In cases when he's able to get that signature, Zapata says, the U Visa is almost guaranteed.
Whether he can get the signature, though, isn't certain. "It's unfortunate because I might have the same type of victims," he says, "but in different cities, and I can do something for one of them that I might not be able to do for another."
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."
While Araceli and Diana intend to start at Fullerton College next semester, Isela and Eduardo are working on finishing high school at Anaheim High. Isela was asked to apply for the QuestBridge program, which would have offered her a full ride to several Ivy League schools, but she opted against it to stay closer to her siblings; she's applying to several UC schools, instead. Eduardo was accepted to the Simon Scholars Program for disadvantaged but successful students last year. He gets $60,000 to spend at any four-year college once he's done at Anaheim.
In a weird way, Araceli, Diana, Eduardo and Isela are grateful for the way things turned out. "Before all of this, we were spoiled 'cause we had everything," Isela says. "We took for granted the Internet, having a car—all of that. We thought, 'Oh, we have this. We need more.' Now it's like, no, you work for it and you don't always have what you want."
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More than anything, it has helped them value their relationships with one another and with their mother.
"There was this girl I remember . . . She was really mad at her mom," Eduardo says. "She was like, 'Oh, I wanna punch her.' And I'm thinking, 'If I only had my mom here, and she wants to punch hers.'"
CORRECTION, Oct. 20, 2011: In the original version of this story, the name of the Mexican state of Querétaro was misspelled twice. The Weekly regrets the error.