NOGALES, MEXICO - Pouring milk into her cereal bowl, Olivia Juarez puts on an infectious smile for the camera, perhaps inspired by the telenovella playing behind her. “Can you fit me in your bag?” she asks, laughing.
As a single mother who supports four children, several grandchildren and her own mother, Juarez has persevered through economic struggles all her life, working two, sometimes three jobs. But her motto has carried her through times of distress and happiness: “Move ahead, not backward.”
It’s these words that guided her most recent - and hardest - decision, one that no mother would take lightly: to leave her children behind in Mexico to provide them with opportunities she never had.
“Better that I put myself in danger than my kids,” she says, while acknowledging that beginning from scratch in the United States would not be easy, either.
“The reality is, when you’re not a resident or from there, they’ll always see you as beneath them,” Juarez said.
Leaving without good-byes
When Juarez decided the time was right to leave, she chose not to say goodbye to her children in the city of Morelia in north central Mexico.
Her eyes glisten. “I didn’t want to because it made me sad. It would bring me back. And I’ve always been someone who tries to move ahead and not backwards.” Juarez loses her composure and wipes her cheek with her palm.
She says her attempt to “make it” to the United States lasted no more than a few hours. Along with an acquaintance she was guided toward the border by a contact on a telephone.
She details an uncertain journey, including occasional blackout moments without service. As darkness approached that evening, she recalls feeling the cold and danger. The pair opted to stop and sleep in the open desert until sunrise.
As immediately as it began, their journey ended the following afternoon, across the border but surrounded by vast emptiness. The men who were supposed to meet them never showed up. Unsure of what to do next, they turned themselves over to “the migra.”
They treated her fine, she said, but like a criminal. “They locked me up and made me take off everything, even my shoelaces.”
A helping hand in Nogales
Juarez said she was taken south and turned over to Mexican authorities. She landed in a hostel for migrants - Albergue San Juan Bosco - at the top of a steep hill in Nogales, Sonora.
Gilda Irene Esquer Felix, legal representative of the Albergue, has worked to help resettle repatriated migrants for 35 years. Before 1982, she said, there was an unfulfilled need.
“They would rob; they would stay in the streets because there wasn’t anybody to give them a hand.”
Behind Esquer Felix’s desk are rows of yellow-and-red bunkbeds flooded by the late-afternoon sun. Even today, she says, deported migrants come with nothing.
“They don’t bring money. They don’t bring clothes. They don’t bring anything, so they come here vulnerable.”
For three days, sometimes more, the shelter’s residents receive morning and evening meals, clothes, toiletries, and health care assistance - basic necessities to get them on their feet. Intake numbers are running below average currently, but Esquer Felix says the shelter is prepared in the event of a surge.
$40 a week
In the next room, one lone young man sits silently in a corner, clenching a white plastic cross. In front of him is an altar where he and other migrants gather to pray.
The hostel provided Luis Angel Garcia Gonzalez, 23, with pants and tennis shoes, newer and cleaner than the ones he was wearing in the desert when he was apprehended.
Like Juarez, Gonzalez didn’t get far. In the second night of his journey, just past a “small road where migra cars go,” an airplane hovered over his group. It happened so suddenly, he says, because he couldn’t see any of it - it was pitch black.
“We got down on the floor,” he recalled. “They came walking with a dog. Then came a helicopter.”
Gonzalez, though young, is also the caretaker of his family in the countryside near Tuxtepec, Oaxaca. He has three younger brothers, and they all live with their grandparents.
Before he left, he promised his ailing grandmother he would be back in four years. He was determined to repay them for all they had given him growing up, while helping his younger brothers continue their education and avoiding 13-hour days in “el campo” in order to earn a weekly wage of $40-50 (800-1000 pesos), an amount he describes as barely enough to scrape by on, and nowhere near enough for a family. For the trip, he had to save 5,000 pesos, more than a month’s salary, accumulated over many more months of saving.
Though Gonzalez had no specific destination, his mission was set. All he had to do was get through the desert and all of its dangers: dehydration, the elements, wild animals…
“I don’t have vices. I don’t drink, do drugs, cigarettes,” he said, “so I wasn’t scared of the [U.S.] president … why would I be fearful if I’ve done nothing wrong?”
Lessons from a failed attempt
President Donald Trump “thinks we’re all bad,” rejoins Juarez. She had a specific plan and final destination in mind: Sacramento, California, where she was to care for her former boss’ children, whom she had helped raise in Mexico.
Her dream is to provide enough for her children and grandchildren that they can start a business one day, “so they wouldn’t always work for other people.”
She has learned from her failed attempt at migrating. “It makes me think, how they treat us [in the United States]. And how here in Mexico, we treat people from El Salvador,” she said. “We treat them bad too. I don’t understand.”
She feels at home in Nogales. But now, at the end of her three-day hostel stay and more than a week without her family, she can’t wait to hug her children.
“I’m happy that I tried. I couldn’t, but I’m still here,” she smiles. “As long as we have life, we’ll be okay.”