Editor’s note — We first met and reported on the Guerrero family in January 2015. Luis was being held in detention while his wife Sofia and their four children — Andy, Jenny, Melody and Lucy — struggled to get by in his absence. Shortly thereafter we reported that Luis had been suddenly deported to Mexico without any prior notice to his family. That is where our previous reporting stopped.
Eventually, Sofia had little choice but to take her three youngest children, all U.S. citizens, to Mexico in an effort to keep the family together. Needless to say, it’s been a very difficult transition for them.
Last year we sent Angela K. Evans to a small town north of Mexico City to reconnect with the Guerrero family. She has also stayed in touch with the oldest son Andy, who still lives in Colorado. Read Part 1 here.
Driving in Mexico can be chaotic. The traffic in Mexico City is crushing as millions of cars ignore lane lines and swerve around each other in a frenzied dance. Though the road from Mexico City to the mountainous town of Ixmiquilpan is virtually empty, the chaos returns as my translator drives into the town center on narrow cobblestone and pothole-filled streets. A sedan carrying more people than seat-belts cuts in front of us, a large Denver Bronco’s decal decorating the back window, a good omen I’m thinking to myself.
The town is situated at the base of foothills, taller mountains peaking out of the clouds. Roughly 150 kilometers (about 90 miles) north of Mexico City, Ixmiquilpan, including the surrounding mountain villages, is home to 94,000 people, a third of whom speak an indigenous language. Water parks line the highway leading into town and help account for why tourism is the area’s only major industry. The Mexican central bank estimates that more than $100 million comes into the local economy from money sent back from family members living outside of Mexico.
Sofia and Luis live in a two-story concrete block house in a small neighborhood off of a partially paved road. They complain about the erratic traffic as we park. Both learned to drive in the U.S., and it’s one of many adjustments they’ve had to make since returning to Mexico.
A large metal door opens into a dark living area, shades drawn to block out the powerful sun that would quickly overheat the small home. Bright, lime-green chipped paint covers the walls. The home is relatively bare, moving boxes still stacked in the corner.
When Sofia first arrived in Ixmiquilpan, she still hoped the move wouldn’t be permanent. Even a year and a half later, they only have the fundamentals: a table and chairs, couches and bunkbeds for the girls. Their clothes are hung on a single rod propped up between stacks of old milk cartons; Shoes are piled on the floor beneath. A mattress on a simple wooden frame sits in one corner of Sofia and Luis’ room. Next to it, an old milk crate on its side functions as both a nightstand and a dresser for Lucy’s clothes. It’s covered by a red piece of cloth with a framed photo of Sofia and Luis in front of a Christmas tree in their old home back in Aurora. Toddlers Andy and Jenny pose with them.
Sofia shows me her wedding dress, wrapped in plastic and stored in one of several suitcases under the bed. “See, I kept my luggage in case I get to go back,” she says.
Downstairs, framed wedding photos are displayed on top of moving boxes covered by another tapestry, underneath a mounted flat screen TV. They had a large framed wedding photo, but it was lost in a suitcase that somehow never made it to Mexico.
Important files are stacked on top of the fridge in the kitchen. The stove stands against one wall, a simple metal shelf with two burners connected to a fuel line running from the back patio, which also serves as an open air laundry room, with a metal staircase leading to the second floor.
This is all that is left of their old life back in the U.S.
Sofia sold most of their belongings in yard sales before leaving Aurora. She sold most of Luis’ tools, all the furniture and Melody’s bicycle, something the 9-year-old especially misses. They only kept what could fit in suitcases or be packed in Luis’ work truck, which they hired a friend to drive down to Ixmiquilpan for them.
“I miss everything,” Sofia says. “Denver is special. My kids were born there, they grew up there. We made our life there.”
• • • •
After a heart-rending goodbye with her oldest child Andy in Denver, Sofia, Melody and Lucy took comfort in a joyful welcome in Ixmiquilpan when they first arrived.
“I don’t know what it feels like to win the lottery because I’ve never won,” Luis says. “But when I saw them I think it was way better than winning the lottery … It’s happier to be with your kids and with your family.”
However, the celebratory reunion was short-lived. In reality, many of the family’s challenges were only beginning.
Like Luis, returning to Mexico wasn’t a homecoming for Sofia. She had also crossed the U.S. southern border as a teenager, leaving behind what she describes as a difficult childhood, full of responsibility and violence both at home and in the world. Given Sofia’s complicated family history, the decision to settle in Ixmiquilpan near her parents wasn’t easy and the reunification has been difficult. In many ways, Sofia and Luis have less support and community in Mexico than they ever did in the U.S.
“There were way more people who took me to the airport in Denver to say goodbye than there were people here in Mexico to welcome me back,” Sofia says. “That’s what makes me sad. In the U.S. there was always someone. And I feel alone here.”
The family may have been mostly back together in Mexico, but as time passed, neither Sofia nor Luis could find reliable work. Sofia set up a food cart at the end of their street, making whatever money she could. Luis picked up odd jobs at construction sites here and there, but it’s an industry largely reliant on who you know and who you’ve worked with before — relationships Luis spent the last 20 years building in the U.S., while he knew no one in Ixmiquilpan.
“I know how to work but it’s frustrating to start from scratch,” he says.
In the U.S., he spent decades building trust with contractors. Starting by cleaning up job sites, then mixing cement, he eventually learned how to frame a house, install drywall and paint. In Mexico, the bosses asked him why he spent time being so precise in his measurements.
“That’s how I learned to work, with rules. In the U.S. if you don’t respect the rules then you don’t pass inspection,” he says. “And I won’t change how I do things, because then I wouldn’t be true to myself. It wouldn’t be me.”
Luis says he used to make up to $80 a day working in the U.S. All of a sudden he was making less than $10 a day. When someone stole the battery from their car parked outside the house, Luis had to work for a week to get the money to pay for a new one.
“Here you have to make small payments to get a pair of tennis shoes,” he says. “And if you’re paying for them slowly, then once you’re done paying for them, the tennis shoes are all worn out so you have to start all over.”
Enrolling the girls in school was another obstacle Sofia faced. Transferring credits from their schools in Colorado proved difficult. She also had to “make contacts” at certain schools to even give Jenny and Melody the chance of taking entrance exams. The tests were challenging for both girls, mostly because of new Spanish vocabulary and Mexican history. Melody especially had excelled in school in Colorado, and now she found herself struggling to understand basic concepts.
“It’s not like when you come from Mexico to the U.S. and they have programs like ESL and they separate them according to their needs,” Sofia says. “They don’t have that here.”
Sofia constantly questions her decision to move the girls to Mexico, afraid that they will fall behind in school, that it will be her fault if they aren’t able to advance.
“In the U.S. they care more for the kids, they give them more attention, they teach them more and the schools are safer,” she says. “The teachers are more committed. I was not worried about them at school. They would give them food, they had a complete schedule.”
Jenny started high school in Ixmiquilpan, at a technical school studying computer science.
The first day of school, Jenny had butterflies wondering if it would be the same as school in Colorado. She says it’s something she always wondered about, even when visiting her grandparents in Mexico. She realized very quickly it was not the same. No lockers, no hallways, no school dances, no changing classes.
With only 45 students in her program compared to more than 2,000 students at Aurora Central High, she struggled to make friends. In Colorado, she played the flute and always planned to play in the high school band with her best friend. The school in Mexico doesn’t have a band.
“It was hard,” Jenny says about starting school. Her teachers treated her differently, she says, like someone learning Spanish for the first time, despite the fact she has spoken the language since birth. They’d go over sentences word by word, words letter by letter. “It’s frustrating,” she says.
The high school is 25 minutes away, requiring two separate van rides to get there, each way costing 14 pesos, 28 for the day, 140 ($7.5) for the week. Add that to the cost of registration, books and other supplies plus additional charges for tests, and it’s almost too much for Sofia and Luis. Then there’s the additional cleaning fees each family must pay if the parents can’t come on the designated day to clean their kids’ schools themselves.
“You have to go. If you don’t go they charge you 100 pesos. And when you work the day you get 150 pesos,” Luis says. “Everything is about money here. If we were in the U.S. we wouldn’t have all these needs.”
Eventually, Sofia and Luis felt like they had no choice but to sell the truck to save money on gas. They advertised it for $30,000 pesos (approximately $1,600) in the window. Soon after, Luis got a call from a man saying he had taken his daughters and demanding the exact amount of money that was on the truck window to ensure their safe return.
Luis frantically drove around town, checking on all of the girls at school, glad to find them safe in their classrooms. But the threatening calls continued, and the police told him there was nothing they could do — threats of kidnapping and extortion were too commonplace for them to expend their resources.
“The U.S. is safer than being here, even having to worry about immigration,” he says.
• • • •
While the rest of his family tried to figure out their new life in Mexico, Andy was left to figure out his own way in Colorado. At first he questioned his decision to stay behind, but spending summers with his grandparents, Andy witnessed life firsthand in Ixmiquilpan. He saw a life of six-day work weeks and church on Sunday, repetitive days, weeks and years that were hardly distinguished from each other.
“I don’t want to do the same thing over and over for 20 years, 30 years, 40,” he says. “I’m like my dad, we like doing different things. We don’t like doing the same thing over and over. …
“I saw no hope down in Mexico.”
Andy set his sights on college, willing to make whatever sacrifice was necessary. He was, in large part, inspired by Luis, who before being put in immigration detention was helping Andy apply for academic college prep scholarships. The time they spent together doing this was special, which made it all the more painful when Andy was awarded $25,000 from the Boys Hope Girls Hope Academy and Luis wasn’t there to celebrate.
When Sofia and his sisters first left, Andy was offered a place to stay at the Boys Hope residential center at little to no cost. They would have provided shelter, food and even clothes when Andy needed it. But Andy refused.
“I wanted the taste of responsibility. I wanted to know what it will feel like in five years when I’m on my own,” Andy says. He pauses and looks down at the table for a moment. “I didn’t get the taste, I got the full meal.”
Andy bounced around different living situations, staying with his uncle and cousins, then with some friends and their parents. He usually paid rent and bought his own food, bearing the responsibility of a young adult first out on his own while still in high school. He often had little privacy, sleeping on the floor or in makeshift rooms in closets. He was often frustrated, watching other teenagers fight with their parents or do just enough to get by in school. He was angry that they could hug and kiss their parents and he couldn’t, frustrated by what he perceived as their ingratitude.
In order to escape, he stayed at school as long as possible most days to study, sometimes until after 8 p.m., or whenever they kicked him out. And he picked up a job at Jack in the Box, struggling to make it on minimum wage.
“That was good, but I gained weight eating a lot of burgers,” he says with a slight chuckle. “And then I realized this wasn’t going to help. I was just working to pay, working to pay.”
Still, he refused help from his parents, insisting any extra money they had be spent on his little sisters.
He told his mom, “If you ever send me money, I’m not going to accept it. No matter what condition I’m in, even if I’m sleeping outside on the corner, I’m not going to accept it because you have my three little sisters. I want you to look out for them.”
Sofia was mad, but Andy was unmoved. Instead, he quit his job at the fast food restaurant and started a new one at Best Buy. He also cleaned one house that Sofia’s former company still contracted with. He sent the money he earned cleaning to his mom in Mexico.
Though resolute in his decision, in retrospect he also acknowledges in some ways it was prideful to refuse help.
Sofia’s conversations with Andy over the phone tore her apart. When Andy asked advice for “a friend,” Sofia knew it was for him — when he didn’t have a place to sleep, when he was sick and didn’t know what medicine to take, when he struggled and called his mom for help, but still tried not to worry her.
“What hurts me the most is to be far from him. I don’t want him to think that I left him. I don’t want him to think that I love his sisters more than him, because God knows that’s not true,” Sofia says. “I just wanted the best for everyone.”
Despite his hardships and loneliness, Andy finished his junior year, applied for colleges early, and made plans to visit his family in Ixmiquilpan for summer break.
After several months apart, he spent the entire summer of 2015 with them.
“I know it wasn’t like being back home here, but being with them was the best thing,” he says.
He took his parents to buy bunk beds for the girls’ room and took them out to dinner. They went to the water park and sat around in the evening watching TV.
He encouraged Jenny and Melody to speak to Lucy in English, afraid that the toddler would lose her bilingual skills. “I want her to have that language to fall back on in case anything happens,” he says.
Everything made sense again. Andy fell back into his role as oldest sibling and son, so much so that he didn’t want to come back to Colorado. But then toward the end of the summer, he checked his email and found his first college acceptance letter, and he knew he had to leave. The family celebrated together, and threw Andy an early 17th birthday party.
Then it was time to say goodbye.
“That was the worst part,” Andy says.
• • • •
Frustrated by the lack of work and the growing anxiety over his girls’ safety, around Mother’s Day 2016 Luis went to visit his dad in Nuevo León. He found himself in the cemetery again, seated at his mom’s grave in a state of grief once more. Just a year earlier, he had sat there with his dad, agonizing over whether or not he should try and cross the border once again. Knowing his girls deserved more was always on his mind. This time, Luis decided he needed to try again. He didn’t see any other option. If he could make it back to Colorado, Sofia could send the girls back to their friends and schools — back home.
But he knew it was impossible for him to make the journey on his own, no matter how well he knew the way. Human smugglers and drug traffickers — narcos, Luis calls them — control the routes, often demanding large payments in return for safe passage. Luis paid a friend of a friend to help avoid the drug cartels and cross safely, but instead the man delivered Luis into their hands.
“The plan they had for me was not to kidnap me or anything like that. Their plan for me was to work for them, to give me drugs and make me cross the border,” he says. “They told me I have to work for them and if not they’re going to kill me.”
Luis says they made copies of his Mexican ID and took all the money he had with him, although he had hidden his bank cards in his underwear.They took him deep into the woods where he saw people beating others with wooden panels, demanding that they carry backpacks full of drugs across the border.
Luis says they told him they would send him to Matamoros, a border town on the northeastern coast of Mexico, then they would make him cross at night and in a few days he’d be in Houston, free to do whatever he pleased. But he had heard too many stories to believe these promises. He knew that often times once the drugs are delivered, the cartel would take the mula — the drug smuggler — back to Mexico to do the same journey all over again.
Luis rarely drinks alcohol, let alone partakes in any other sort of drug use. He couldn’t fathom a life tied up with the cartels, even if it meant he would eventually be able to return to the U.S. Plus, there was always the chance he’d be caught with the drugs by American officials, further tainting his U.S. record and complicating any possibility of legally returning to Aurora.
After the meeting in the woods, he says the cartel took him to a hotel for the night, leaving a guard to watch him. But in the middle of the night, Luis was able to escape, hiding out in a nearby church until morning. He called Sofia and asked her to put money in the bank account, enough to hire a taxi to take him back to Monterrey where he could catch a bus to Ixmiquilpan. He knew he could never try to cross the border without papers again. If the cartel ever saw him again, he wouldn’t escape with his life. He knew that he was leaving Nuevo León for good, never to return to his mom’s grave or his childhood home.
“I think when you write this article, people will think, ‘This guy is lying,’” he says. “But maybe people will read it and they also went through things and they will know this is reality. If I have gone through things like this, there are people that have been through worse things. You never know what can be worse.”
• • • •
On a Sunday morning three months later, Luis wakes up refreshed. Clapping his hands together in the kitchen, he announces he’s going to make breakfast for everyone. Sofia is already at work managing a restaurant at a local hotel, finally securing a stable job the week before I arrive.
Luis stands at the small kitchen counter next to the sink, carefully cutting onions, peppers and sausages to make his girls omelettes. He also boils water to make his coffee, the first cup of many for the day.
Luis drinks coffee relentlessly. Here, it’s Nescafé in small clay mugs. He reminisces about his early mornings in Aurora — making a large pot of coffee at home, then stopping by the 7-11 on his way to the job site for more, filling an extra large cup to the brim. He needs to find bigger mugs, he says, draining his cup.
As we talk, the girls eat and then move to the couch. With the TV on in the background, Melody covers her schoolbooks in plastic, Jenny looks at her phone. But several times I glance over and can tell they are intently listening to their dad’s stories.
A small ice cream truck circles around the block outside playing jack-in-the-box music louder and louder. Lucy stands on the couch and looks out the window, watching for it to pass by.
Luis has the day off from work and it’s the first time I’ve seen him without specks of plaster covering his clothes, even dotting his hair. He would like to start his own construction company again, this time in Mexico. But it’s almost impossible now that he sold his work truck and shares a small red hatchback with Sofia. For about a month, he’s been helping to build medical offices close by and the boss recently noticed the precision he uses whether he is framing or putting up drywall. As a result, his boss has offered him work whenever there is a job.
While this potential for more consistent work is promising, Luis knows nothing in Mexico is guaranteed. “Maybe I will work this week and then next week and maybe for a month. But what if I don’t have more work for a week or two? Where do you get the money from?” he says. “But I believe better times will come.”
To be continued. Read Part 3 here.