The Broken Promised Land

Mexican women crossing the border find themselves scared and alone in a new land. Now there is one place they can turn for help.

She says before her husband went to jail, she spent most of her time shut up in the house, feeling like a maid. She kept her problems to herself. The Lassen group is the first group of girlfriends she has ever had. She and Maria Hernandez live a few doors down from each other, but never spoke before meeting at Lassen.

"My husband never allowed me to have friends," she says. "I left all my friends for him."

Lopez says when her husband gets out of jail, things will be different.

After watching a video about illegal immigration, Virgie Estrada leads a group discussion about each woman's passage to the U.S.
photos by Paolo Vescia
After watching a video about illegal immigration, Virgie Estrada leads a group discussion about each woman's passage to the U.S.
Ana Maria Branham, HIV/AIDS educator for the county gives a presentation to the group about safe sex.
Paolo Vescia
Ana Maria Branham, HIV/AIDS educator for the county gives a presentation to the group about safe sex.

"I gave him enough chances, and now it's up to him to change," she says.

Her husband is not a citizen, and Lopez says if he gets deported because of his record, she and the family won't be going with him.

"I'm not going to live in Mexico now that I know I can do it by myself."

The water drainage tunnel is about one meter by five meters and provides underground passage from Nogales to the north. At dusk, people slip like rodents into a hole in the curb just large enough to fit a human body. What happens inside the "tunnel of death" is the stuff of urban legend, and a nightmare Gloria Herrera relives in memory.

"Once we were inside, [the coyote] tried to take advantage of me," she says. "He told me to take off my clothes. I said, 'For what? What are you going to do to me?' I told him if he harms me my husband will go to the police."

Gloria worried that if she and her two daughters didn't join her husband, he would find another woman. When she thinks back on it now, she says nothing was worth the 40-minute scramble through that tunnel.

"My husband didn't understand that I suffered a lot getting here," she says. "I felt he didn't appreciate what I sacrificed in order to be with him."

Gloria seems younger than her 31 years, with her purple toenail polish and childish giggle. It isn't just the innocence of someone who would put her life in the hands of a junkie on a prayer to San Pedro. There is something in her eyes that shows she is full of life. And bored to death here in the United States.

She says the hardest part about living here now is accepting that she may never go back to Mexico. She explains that every time her husband brings home a new piece of furniture, she feels one step further from home.

"Everybody but me seems to know we're not going back," Gloria says.

Initially, her husband promised her they could return to Jalisco after one year of working and saving money. Their one-year anniversary passed in October, and he said just one more year.

"I'm thinking about our future," her husband, Eduardo, says. "It's a very American way of thinking -- to plan ahead."

Eduardo had his own difficulties adjusting to life here. He says the pace is much faster and he has to work more hours and more days to keep up. He worries about not spending enough time with his family, and about his daughters growing up too fast -- growing up American. "It's not freedom," he says. "It's liberalism."

Still, Eduardo can make more money here than he ever dreamed of, and his family is no longer sharing a one-room house with relatives. He admits that things were harder for Gloria initially because she doesn't speak English or drive. Also, he prefers that she stay home and raise their two daughters. However, Eduardo says he, too, suffers from a lack of community.

"Mexicans aren't united here," he says.

He hears stories about neighbors reporting each other to the INS. Often when he asks another Mexican a question in Spanish, he or she replies in English, pretending not to understand. Gloria, he says, has made friends faster than he has.

Recently, Gloria has not been able to find a ride to Lassen, and she lives too far to walk. But when the class first started, she was a regular.

"The first place I went was the school, and little by little, I grew to trust it," Gloria says. "But it was hard. I just wanted to stay inside and try to feel as if I were in Mexico."

As time passes, Gloria is adjusting to life here. She says when she first arrived, she felt less independent than she felt in Mexico. Her husband performed family duties that were typically hers. He had to do the shopping because she didn't understand the labels, and the laundry because she couldn't figure out how to work the machines.

"The washing machines were always my hands," she says.

Gloria's parents are aging, and she's accepted that she may not see them again before they die. More than anything, she misses home and family.

"You know how it smells here when it rains? It smells like that all the time where I come from. I miss the climate, I miss the plants. Of course I miss my family. I miss the satisfaction of looking around me and seeing my family, knowing they are there and feeling safe."

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