MEXICO CITY – Orlando Mendoza’s dream was to learn code and work as a software developer when he lived in Seattle.
It would’ve been the perfect fit.
The son of Mexican migrants who brought him to America when he was a little boy, he’d grown up in Yakima and then the Seattle area, and he’d come to think of the Puget Sound region, with its global tech companies and rain, as home.
Mendoza checked all the boxes. He attended Mariners games whenever they were in town, went snowboarding in winter and visited Bruce Lee’s grave site on Capitol Hill once a month to pay his respects to the man whose movies he’d always loved. He even briefly studied aviation at a local community college.
He felt like he belonged in the Northwest.
But when you face deportation, as Mendoza did seven years ago when he was 28, it is not you but the U.S. government that decides where you belong.
America sent Mendoza back where he came from. The only problem is that Mendoza, now 35, had become one of us.
To get a sense of the scale of America’s deportation of Mexican nationals like Mendoza, consider that in 2017, there were 192,334 removals, according to research by Pew. As dramatic as that figure might seem, it doesn’t come close to the recent high mark set in 2013, when the number of deportations was 307,120.
There’s no one profile of a deported Mexican. They come from different walks of life and get flagged by immigration officials for different reasons.
Deportation is not an easy experience for them to relive, or live down due to the social stigma attached to it in Mexico.
Recognizing the hardship that many deportees face as they rebuild, we agreed to include Mendoza in this story without disclosing the circumstances of his return to Mexico, but his situation did not involve a violent offense.
The tens of thousands who chose to stay in Mexico City will start a new chapter in their lives in a city that offers stark choices for how to regroup. It’s a mind-boggling prospect.
Sitting at 7,300 feet in elevation and guarded by a constantly puffing volcano that the Aztecs called “smoking mountain,” Mexico’s capital can overwhelm even before you hit the ground.
The descent by plane follows a path that curves around the city center’s futuristic high-rises, bone-straight boulevards, dense apartment blocks and a green space twice as big as New York’s Central Park.
At street level, the city’s heaving pulse knocks you back a bit. There are chatty sidewalk taquerias and demoralizing traffic jams, florid buildings and scruffy apartments, bright colors and brown air. There are people everywhere — 21 million of them.
Mexico City has Old World manners and New World classism, districts dripping with glamour and so much inequality that the poorest residents sometimes get barely a trickle of water from their faucets.
This is what Mendoza came back to.
“It was kind of heartbreaking because I had to leave my home, basically,” Mendoza says of Washington state. “It was my heart and my soul, where I grew up … I was a little bit afraid because I didn’t know what to expect.”
But he knew he needed to think about launching that career he’d been dreaming of.
Mendoza eventually contacted Leni Alvarez at the nonprofit software-engineering academy Hola Code, which offers five-month coding classes on a kind of honor system to deported and returning Mexican nationals, as well as refugees.
The name conveys the organization’s mission: “Welcome to Mexico, welcome to technology, welcome to a family, welcome to understanding,” Alvarez says.
"Welcome to Mexico, welcome to technology, welcome to family, welcome to understanding."
With Mexico undergoing its own tech revolution, good-paying jobs in the industry are expected to increase.
“I just feel really privileged to have the same type of training that someone from Silicon Valley would have,” Mendoza says.
Hola Code has helped him chase his dream, while building a connection to his birth country.
“I feel like if I go back to the U.S., I would miss Mexico City as much as I miss Seattle,” Mendoza says. “It’s like two cultures, two homes.”
"It's like two cultures, two homes."
“I don’t feel like I belong”
The experiences of returning Mexican nationals is also far from uniform, though they do face some common challenges: For instance, Mendoza struggled with communicating in Spanish after going through life as an English speaker.
Jesus Ortiz, 37, talks about his deportation experience in March 2018 with a similar mix of regret, longing and hopefulness.
Up until then, he was living with his wife, who’s a U.S. citizen, and her two children, in Charleston, South Carolina. He’d migrated to the States at the age of 19 to find work.
For five years, Ortiz had been fighting his deportation order in court, because he felt the rationale — the fact that he’d gotten a driver’s license in another state under conditions that federal authorities found suspicious — was unfair.
It was all to no avail. The same day he found out the date he was to leave the country, his wife found out she was pregnant.
Ortiz was back in Mexico City, his hometown, by the time his wife gave birth in late summer. He watched the scene in the delivery room play out on FaceTime.
He can barely hold back tears as he talks about having to get to know his baby daughter solely from video streams and pictures.
“It’s hard — I try to be strong,” he says.
He doesn’t want to bring his family to Mexico. Daily life is stressful, wages are low and deportees face job discrimination, among other obstacles. He was trying to secure a U.S. spousal visa, so he could return to Charleston.
“Charleston is part of me,” he says.
Like Mendoza, Ortiz appreciates the chance to reconnect with his Mexican heritage, but still, “I don’t feel like I belong.”
But I don't feel like I belong.
We heard the story again and again: People who thought of America as home forced to leave their parents, siblings, partners, spouses and even their own children behind.
As in the case of Ortiz, the trauma of deportation can start from seemingly unremarkable events.
Gustavo Lavariega Diaz, an activist for repatriated Mexicans who also lives in the capital, said he was deported in 2016 after being pulled over for speeding in Eastern Washington, where he was living and working as a fruit picker.
He put his fists together, then pulled them apart, as if he were breaking a stick, to demonstrate his separation from his American-born daughters, who still live in Washington state. That’s how he feels on the inside too, he told me: broken.
He may have crossed the border back to his native country, but at the same time, “the border crossed my life.”
Mexican deportees cross the border into a strange type of exile in their home country.
It’s striking to walk around the center city by the soaring arches of the 220-foot, art deco Monument to the Revolution in Plaza de la Republica and hear perfect American English among the Mexicans hurrying along the sidewalks during their work breaks, or to see American-style burritos listed on a menu clearly catering to a clientele that’s familiar with gringo interpretations of Mexican food.
The area has been coined “Little L.A.” in media reports because of the heavy presence of deported Mexicans working, socializing and in several cases starting businesses there.
Little L.A. is still more of a concept, a way of bringing awareness to the presence — and distinct needs — of a segment of society that is often treated as more American than Mexican.
Deportees in the area talk about locals scolding them for speaking English in public or taking jobs from fellow Mexicans. Some have been told to “go back to their own country.”
When I first met Josue Zarazua in Little L.A. over a year ago, he was volunteering for New Comienzos, an organization that helps returnees settle in, find jobs and start over. Zarazua was looking for steady work to help support his three kids, all born in Mexico City in the years following his second deportation from the United States in 2001.
At New Comienzos, he counsels recent arrivals who are dealing with the culture shock of Mexico City. But he’s still finding his way too.
Zarazua, 45, is open about his mistakes, including an unarmed bank robbery.
His father migrated to Santa Cruz, California, in 1979, and his mom came shortly after. Zarazua crossed the border later, when he was 7.
Four other younger siblings were born in the states.
By his early 20s, Zarazua had become estranged from his strict Jehovah’s Witness family and gotten expelled from the church. He was drinking too much, experimenting with drugs and getting into trouble.
Looking back on it now, Zarazua sees that much of his downward spiral was the result of depression over his estrangement.
During this time, Zarazua briefly lived on the streets of downtown Seattle before taking a job in the fishing industry in Alaska. He still keeps his Washington state ID in his wallet.
Zarazua says that after the bank robbery, he needed to decide for once and for all: “Am I a good guy or a bad guy?”
The arrest, he says, was his salvation.
He settled back in his hometown, Mexico City.
Repatriated Mexicans just want to live their lives, he says, but they have to keep in mind that they’ve entered a new culture with its own rules.
“We came back to a country we don’t know or can’t remember,” Zarazua says. “We’re like strangers in our own land, foreigners. That’s a hard mindset to overcome.”
Help for returnees
De aquí y de allá. From here and from there.
A play on the expression “neither here nor there,” that’s the mantra at Poch@ House, which is all about changing the mindset of returning Mexicans.
The organization is home base for Otros Dreams en Acción, a community-service and advocacy group that celebrates the hybrid American/Mexican identity of people who’ve returned, whether they were forced to leave the states, chose to leave in order to avoid prosecution or left the states to keep their families intact.
“Pocha,” or “pocho” if used in reference to a man, is usually meant as a derogatory term against people of Mexican descent who left Mexico to live in the states, lost touch with their roots and can’t speak Spanish fluently.
At Poch@ House, the expression is spoken with pride, as a way of reclaiming Mexican identity while not feeling self-conscious about having lived on the other side of the border.
Maggie Loredo, a co-founder and co-director at Poch@ House, voluntarily returned to Mexico in 2008 after graduating from high school, knowing that her undocumented status would hurt her prospects in the states.
She says returning Mexicans are pretty much left to their own devices once they get back.
“The challenges that we face show that the Mexican government is not ready and has not been ready to welcome or receive Mexicans that are being deported or returning,” Loredo says.
Loredo has a message for Americans on the issue of forcing people to start over in a country they don’t really know.
“I hope they can think about what happens when (someone they know) disappears,” she says. “The story doesn’t end with deportation.”