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A cross they can't bear

For Mexican families who have members trying to get into the United States, waiting to find out if they are okay is excruciating. Especially when you've already lost someone.

By MARY SPICUZZA
Published April 23, 2006


AGUA DEL ESPINO, Mexico - The two women worked in silence.

Laura Teresa Gomez Santos patted a ball of masa and slapped it onto a tortilla press. Her husband's mother, Ignacia Zavaleta Rios, stirred a pot of simmering black beans.

They tried to hush the barking dogs and quiet the roosters, afraid they might miss the sound of the phone.

Laura's husband, Celestino Garcia Zavaleta, 20, had been caught by Border Patrol while trying to cross into the United States. Two days before, one of his brothers, who lives in the United States, had called to say Celestino had been deported and released in a nearby border town.

But that was all they knew. Did he have enough money to buy food? Was he hurt? Where was he?

"We don't know," Laura said.

Nearly a week had passed since Laura, 19, washed her husband's clothes and made him tortillas to put in his backpack for the journey north.

Before Celestino left, his mother, Ignacia, 48, took him to the family altar. There, she made the sign of the cross over him and prayed he would have a safe journey.

Then a car arrived.

He said goodbye to his children, 2-year-old Oscar and 4-month-old Yareli.

And he promised to return when he could.

But the family knows things can go badly in the 2,000-mile-long stretch of border that separates Mexico and the United States.

The last time Celestino left home, in the spring of 2003, had been the first time. He traveled with his oldest brother, Matias. But Matias did not survive the journey. He died in the Arizona desert, an anonymous statistic in a growing debate that may dramatically change the lives of millions of Mexican immigrants.

But for now, Laura and Ignacia had a far more immediate concern:

Would Celestino make it across the border alive?

* * *

The only thing that could pull them away from the phone was God himself.

The village was holding an evening church service and procession for Good Friday. Information had been trickling in to the family, but nothing completely reassuring. Ignacia's husband, Miguel Rey Garcia Rodrigues, 53, offered to wait at home for more.

Laura and Ignacia joined others from Agua del Espino in the village's Catholic church. The writing over the door reads San Jose Protector.

As the procession left the church, three men picked up large wooden crosses and walked with the women along the unpaved streets. It became immediately clear - very few men, especially young men, are left in the village of about 3,000 people.

"Everybody goes," family friend Raul Santos, 40, said. "When the rain falls, it's beautiful. There are beans, corn. But when there's no rain, it's let's go to work, to eat."

Or as another villager, 42-year-old Augelio Garcia Lopez, said, "There are only women here."

Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in Mexico. Corn has been part of the diet there for centuries, but Santos said lack of fertilizer and irrigation systems make it increasingly difficult to farm the land - and nearly impossible to make a profit.

After the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed, the United States flooded the market with cheap corn. Many Mexican farmers couldn't compete. Now in villages like Agua del Espino, corn is a subsistance crop grown mostly by old men.

"I'm not scared to cross the border," said Raul Santos, who has crossed four times. "I may die in the desert. But if I stay here, I'll die of hunger."

Migration from Mexican states like Oaxaca dramatically increased in 1942 with the United States-sponsored Bracero program. During that time, recruiters visited villages like Agua del Espino and encouraged men to sign contracts to come work in the north.

Photographs from the time show Mexican farmworkers (known as braceros derived from the Spanish word brazo, or arm) on trains bound for the United States wearing badges that read Bienvenidos Los Trabajadores Mexicanos.

Welcome Mexican workers.

The Bracero program ended by 1965, but the path was already well-worn. But Mexican workers were now seen as illegal immigrants. At first there were few barriers to crossing; they would simply enter through major cities like Tijuana.

But, over the years, it has become increasingly difficult to cross the border.

"In Tijuana, it was very good," Raul Santos said. "It's really dangerous now. The desert, thieves; it's much more dangerous."

The United States has launched programs like "Operation Hold the Line" and "Operation Gatekeeper." It has installed a high steel fence that stretches into the Pacific Ocean. The budget for U.S. Customs and Border Protection is now $7.1-billion.

Yet undocumented migrants keep coming from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. Some enter through underground tunnels, others hidden in trains or trucks. Many now walk through the desert.

Once they get across, they place a call - una llamada - to say they have arrived safely.

Santos can rattle off a list of friends who have died while crossing, some of dehydration, others by drowning in rivers. Others have died in car crashes on U.S. highways. Several hundred people die trying to cross the border each year.

Still, it's hard to find a family in Agua del Espino that doesn't have someone - sons, daughters, husbands - in the United States. They're part of the group of some 11-million illegal immigrants. And, considering that Mexican workers sent about $20-billion to Mexico last year, they are clearly finding work here.

* * *

But not everybody wants to cross the border.

In 2002, Matias, Celestino's oldest brother, decided he had had enough. He had already crossed 10 times. He wanted to stay at home with his wife, Isidra, and two sons, Juan and Elias.

Matias hoped to grow chiles and sell them in nearby markets. His fields were thriving until an early frost destroyed the crop overnight. Matias had little money left - he had taken out loans to start his business. Facing severe debt, he decided to cross again.

But it took time to earn the nearly $2,000 to pay a "coyote" to help him and Celestino get across.

By the time they were ready, it was late May, one of the hot months that make up what is known as "the season of death" at the border.

In the border town of Sonoyta, they waited for dark, then they headed into the desert.

They walked more than 20 miles.

Matias started to feel sick. They got separated from the coyote and the group.

Celestino and his cousin, who was with them, carried Matias for miles. But his symptoms of dehydration and heat exposure got worse. Matias started screaming and having convulsions. He was hallucinating that he was back home in Agua del Espino.

"Keep trying. We're going to cross the border to make a better life," Celestino told Matias. "We're going to make it. But he didn't even know where he was."

Celestino cradled him and tried to comfort him.

"But he told me to let go."

Matias, 29, died next to the highway that could have taken the men toward California.

"He asked me to look after his children," Celestino said.

For the men of Agua del Espino, that promise means going to work in the north.

In June 2003, just days after Matias died, Celestino made it across and went to work. He sent money home to the family, but was eager to meet his newborn son.

So he came home and spent months with his wife and children, his parents, and Matias' boys. He couldn't stay home forever. Still, he didn't want to cross, especially because of what happened to Matias.

The death continues to haunt the family. Nearly three years later, Ignacia worries Matias' spirit is still suffering. She has had dreams in which he tells her he's thirsty. She leaves a glass of water or soda for him at his grave.

"We believe he comes to drink it," she said.

She didn't want Celestino to go north, to take the same risk. But nobody knew of another way to support the family. And so on April 9, he left.

Then late on Good Friday, after the procession, after five days of praying for his safety, the phone rang again.

Celestino's father, despite his bad legs, sprinted across the courtyard for the telephone.

It was one of the older brothers calling to say that Celestino was still at the border, but was okay.

The next day, for the first time since Celestino had left, the entire family drove to a nearby river together. No one had to stay behind to wait by the telephone.

* * *

Oscar says his father left home to go kill a monster. He says his dad is going to kill a monster so that he won't have to cry anymore.

"Daddy," Oscar said. "Vroom."

Ignacia says Oscar has been repeating the word "vroom" since a car came to pick up Celestino.

She said she hopes the two countries can develop an agreement, such as a guest worker program, so her sons can come visit home while going to earn money in the United States. And so they can be in the United States without breaking any laws.

"I want them to change the laws so they can have papers," she said. "It makes me nervous because they can't visit."

She already has two sons, Jesus and Vittorio, in the United States, whom she hasn't seen in 10 and four years, respectively.

"It costs money, and the government is making it difficult," she said. "Since their brother died in the desert, they're scared to come back."

The family has built a new house for Vittorio on their land, but it's unclear when - if ever - he'll return to the village to live in it.

On Easter, all her sons gone, the relief of the phone call had evaporated and Ignacia broke into tears. She said it was her fault Matias died. Knowing that Celestino was still at the border, exposed, was almost more than she could bear.

She prayed for the phone to ring.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds and photojournalist Kathleen Flynn contributed to this report. Mary Spicuzza can be reached at mspicuzza@sptimes.com or 727 869-6241.