Courtney sargent

Codie’s Journal: A first-person account of travels and tribulations of the Divided Families project

By Codie Sanchez

My first glimpse of Agua Prieta—Oct. 26, 2007
One random phone call, a couple of last minute preparations, a few teachers’ egos appeased and I’m off on another long weekend to Mexico. Must be nice, huh? Well, these aren’t your typical college Mexico trips. No tequila shots. No fish tacos. Saddest of all, replace the beaches and four-star hotels with deserts and dormitories.

Despite all that, I’m excited and ready at 5 a.m. to begin the drive to Agua Prieta, Mexico. I’m

traveling with a non-profit organization called Rancho Feliz. It is having its annual Fandango, a weekend filled with community service and donations to benefit various projects in Agua Prieta.

After a five-hour drive from Phoenix, we arrive in Douglas. This town of a few thousand stands directly across from Agua Prieta and its fluctuating population of more than 200,000. From our second-story hotel room in the historic Gadsden Hotel, we can see the sprawling city of Agua Prieta. The quaint, rustic and supposedly haunted hotel is about a five-minute walk from the border, which suits me perfectly. After I get past the idea of ghosts trolling the sparsely lit hallways, I begin prepping for the afternoon trip into Mexico. We’ll be visiting Vecinos Dignos, a new housing complex for displaced and underprivileged families in the heart of Agua Prieta.

We leave the hotel and walk past gray metal fences, rotating cameras and stern border patrol officers lining the U.S. side of the border. Past the intimidating security fences is a contrast of color and sound. The buildings scream for attention in magentas, purples and lime greens, and the people aren’t very quiet either. Taxi drivers muscle for attention, peddlers display their goods and children beg for change along the sidewalks. We are in Mexico, a whole different world just across a fence.

The hundred or so volunteers cram into yellow buses and we’re off. Rancho Feliz founder Gil Gillenwater explains each section of the city we pass through. He points out the maquiladora section and the most deprived parts of the city, while the volunteers throw candy out the windows onto the street. Children run from alleys and doorways squealing as they pick up the strewn candy. Their heads peek from behind cracked windows and draped doorways.

Looking out the bus windows, I see barrios, discotecas, stores and schools full of children, but the consistent thread is of poverty and neglect. The buildings are run down, the children dirty, the merchandise sparse.

As the candy stashes dry up and the parade-like excitement dies down, we pull up to a grouping of new buildings festooned with balloons and flags. This is Vecinos Dignos. Here families are given the opportunity to live and work in well-maintained communities while their children attend a state of the art child care facility.

There was a dedication ceremony in the evening and although beautiful, it made me notice the stark surroundings outside the compound. Box-like houses bordered by teetering wooden fences line the streets. Everywhere you look are unfinished homes and the remains of skeletal buildings. I’m told these are the result of residential financing plans, government confiscation and building time limits. Vecinos Dignos appears to be a rare exception here in Agua Prieta.

After seeing this community, it’s hard to imagine what kind of good, what kind of actual change, can be made on a city and a country hurting so badly.

Continuing perspectiveNov. 3, 2007
“Good God, what the Mexican people go through to try to get there,” said Gillenwater as he points towards the border. He talks about the suffering immigrants experience in their hometowns, the suffering they experience traveling to the border and the suffering that stands before them as they try to cross the border. There is so much suffering.

He stands up to introduce me to a group of new people. Apparently it’s a virtual who’s who of Agua Prieta. There is Queta Ibarrola, a prominent politician and immigrant advocate, David Figuerroa, the former mayor of Agua Prieta, Alejandro Laureano, head of Rancho Feliz and Jorge Herrera, a well-known pastor and activist.

The picture I have of the border and immigration becomes more focused as they paint in the details and problems their people face. They talk of abandoned children, drug smuggling, government corruption, political ignorance and a broken system. The key is to take small steps in the right direction, according to Ibarrola.

That’s why today Rancho Feliz is having a free clinic where people can have their cats and dogs

neutered or spade. Although it seems like a side note in the gigantic problems facing the border, it is one of those small steps in the right direction. There is a huge animal population control problem in Mexico. Hundreds of stray dogs starve in the streets, transfer diseases and are killed by motorists.

I walked into the “operating room,” a transformed classroom filled with desks and finger paintings, to see how the procedure is performed. However, my stomach couldn’t stand what my brain wanted to see. There were drugged animals with their lolling tongues hanging out on operating tables and an overpowering smell. Apparently, some small steps can be quite painful.

Centro de Recursos para Migrantes—Nov. 3, 2007
Right across the border is the Centro de Recursos para Migrants. The small building is painted lime green and filled with a welcoming staff of volunteers from Frontera de Cristo, No More Deaths and local organizations. This is one of the first stops for those recently deported back to Mexico.

The center provides food, water, clothing, resting places and information to the deportees. You see leaflets for attorneys, stacks of discarded clothing and beds covered in blankets and pillows.

We sit and talk with the head of the center, Adalberto Ramos, who is part of the Mision de Escalabrinianos, a Catholic missionary organization. Ramos has done community service all over Mexico, but feels his work here has been the most fruitful.

He is a man of many stories, and after listening to them I can’t help but be moved. Most of the stories he tells are of broken dreams and families divided by immigration. He calls the border fence the wall of embarrassment. This feeling is echoed by some of the other staff members who say they are members of a proud race that has to forget its pride to survive.

Their only reprieve—Nov. 4, 2007
Despite 50-hour weeks, overtime, family responsibilities and the hardship of everyday life, Agua Prieta residents arise early every Sunday to give thanks. They give thanks for the small things. They may not have money, nice houses or even running water, but they are thankful for the little they do have.

Here at Lily of the Valley, a Presbyterian church in Agua Prieta, families gather for prayer and song. The children play on dusty swings before the ceremony begins, while parents and grandparents exchange pleasantries in their Sunday best. Even the teenagers come and discuss their Saturday night at the discotecas.

Sitting in a pew watching all of this, it’s easy to forget that I’m in Mexico—until I remember that I’m wrapped in four different layers because the church has only one small space heater. The heater chugs along in the front, warming up the two or three people lucky enough to be within range. 

More than 90 percent of the tightly bundled churchgoers are from southern Mexico, specifically Chiapas. Chiapas is located next to Guatemala and known for its coffee and agricultural production. However, due to bad weather, sliding coffee prices, increased competition and trade agreements, the region struggles despite its many resources.

I’m told that in many parts of Chiapas, more than 50 percent to 75 percent of the residents have left to try to make money along the border or in the U.S. I’m introduced to one such boy, Neftali Fuentes, an 18-year-old from Chiapas, who left his family to work along the border. He looks like a normal teenager—baggy jeans, a hat tilted sideways—and he has a teenager’s irreverent sense of humor.

It’s hard to imagine everything this seemingly carefree boy has been through. He’s traveled across an entire country by himself, worked 60-hour weeks since he came to Agua Prieta and has been separated from his family thousands of miles away for more than a year. Despite the hardships that so many experience in these border towns, there is an air of gratefulness and appreciation that humbles me.

Abandonment—Nov. 16, 2007
Today was my first real trial as a journalist and as a person. Today I went to La Divina Providencia. It’s a senior care center in Agua Prieta, Mexico, for 20 seniors. It is filled with elderly people; some happy, some sad, some with stories to share and many to keep to themselves. There are many who were abandoned as their families made their way across the border into the U.S.

There were so many faces that looked like the grandparents I know and love. There was Carmelita, Raul, Isidra, Emma, Manuel, to name a few. Each had a story; each had a past. The

most trying part was that I couldn’t hear all of their stories and they couldn’t share them as they once could. Time, age and neglect, like thieves, had stolen so many of their memories. A few of them had worn and fading photographs of their lost families. Some of those could no longer name the faces in those photos. Still, they missed the  lives they once had and the families that used to surround them.

I walked around the dimly lit rooms, talking to those who wanted company and listening to those who had something to say. Most didn’t or couldn’t leave their beds without assistance and almost all needed walkers or wheelchairs to move around. One woman, Consuela, invited me to sit next to her while she sang a Spanish lullaby that she remembers from her childhood.

Even though she was more than 80 years old (she said a lady never told her age), she had a hauntingly beautiful voice. When she finished, we started talking about her life, how she ended up in La Divina and where her loved ones are now. She thought for a moment, and I could almost see her working to reach those memories she’d buried in her mind. Then she told me that she had family in Douglas and had tried to visit them many times but the address was always wrong. They were never there. A nurse helped me piece together her scattered thoughts; it seems she had tried many years ago to contact her family members, but they had never written back. What appeared to be yesterday or last month to Consuela was really five or six years ago.

Stories like this are commonplace in La Divina. Some of the residents haven’t seen their family in more than 15 years. What would that be like? Giving birth to children, watching  them birth your grandchildren, seeing your family grow and then being cast off alone for over a decade. God, I hope I never know that feeling.

My last day in Agua Prieta—Dec. 2, 2007
The last day in Agua Prieta was a bittersweet one. The thought of a long, hot shower, food that didn’t include salsa and a heater that wasn’t a gas stovetop was intoxicating. However, leaving the people would be hard.

While reporting on these border stories, I’ve met some of the strongest, most fascinating, and compassionate people. The volunteers in Agua Prieta are the closest things to saints I’ve met. They welcomed us into their homes and lives without a question. The people who make up my stories are nothing short of incredible.

Who would want two young journalists following your every move, taking pictures of you constantly and asking you questions you’ve probably never even asked yourself. Yet they seemed to know that others needed to hear their stories.

This experience changed me. It gave me perspective and showed me the gritty reality behind the news stories I’ve see on CNN and FOX. Those people in those stories are just like you and me. They cry and they laugh. They have good days, and they have bad days. Most of all, they want to live—and live happily, just like we do. I’m convinced the only way you can really understand the stories we’ve written and the stories you see in the news is to experience the people and places first hand. The difference between reality along the border and “reality” in the news is greater than I ever imagined.

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