Rescuing My Deported Aunt from a Hole in the Tijuana Canals
We took Interstate 5 South on a mission to rescue my Tia Martha. After thirty years in the US, she got deported three years ago to Tijuana, the bottom of California – el culo del diablo. We hadn’t heard from her since.
It was because of the Mexican news media program, Televisa, that we were able to find her. A news reporter for Televisa, Vanessa Job, came to do a report on the community living in Ñongos -- undergound bunkers in the canals of the Tijuana border where camps of the deported and homeless were living in subhuman conditions. In the colloquial term, Ñongo, literally means knot – a tight spot – between a rock and a hard place. They interviewed my aunt Martha on March of 2013. A month later, after stumbling upon that program rerun, my aunt’s sister-in-law contacted Martha’s oldest son Lupe to show him his mother’s whereabouts.
I was at home in Tracy, California, when my dad called me to tell me that they saw a video of my aunt Martha in Tijuana. He told me to go on the computer and look at the YouTube video, and find out where exactly she is. As I saw the video, I was delirious. Watching footage of my aunt living in those bunkers felt like watching a tragic movie. The pixilated digital image of my aunt on the laptop screen wasn't the same as when I saw her in the flesh. Our family contacted the news reporter who found my Tia, and they followed us as we traveled South from the Central Valley to find her.
Jose, Martha’s older brother, rented a Ford Flex to fit the group of sons, brothers, and sisters, ready to get Martha back to safety. We started from Tracy and went through the fields of Central Valley where my family first worked in this country, down to Southern California’s coast, and to Tijuana, Mexico.
By the time we arrived, it was still hard to believe Martha, my aunt, who watched me grow up, who’s children all were born in the US and would come to my birthday parties - ended up in a Ñongo in Tijuana. Ñongos are the makeshift bunkers built by the community living along the Tijuana canal of the border between Mexico and the US. The canal is a long bed of cement about a football field wide. The ñongos stretch about half a football field. The way they are all clopped together in dirt mounds along the edge of the cement canal was a testament to the human spirit of survival, and like a hobo version of Atlantis.
All of Martha’s belongings - including her cell phones containing all her family's numbers and her legal papers -- were destroyed in the ñongos. So she was a person with no money, no home, no identification or documents, and no contact with any family members in a strange city on the other side of the border. Eventually, she joined the community of ñongeros who faced similar problems. This homeless immigrant refugee community attracted the attention of the media television program in Mexico City due to the rising problem of immigration deportees in the city of Tijuana.
When we found her, Martha was, as her son put it, one step above her grave. She was about a meter deep underground, hiding in the only bunker that was left after hers and others were burned down by the Tijuana Municipal Police.
The reporters followed my cousin, Junior, 21, as he pulled his mom out of the hole and to the daylight like a groundhog. Her eyes gleamed, standing out from her sun crisped skin. standing at about 5’1”, I could have sworn she was a lot taller – but that’s just what I thought because I was just a kid when I last saw her. Her cheekbones showed profusely as if she was almost just a skeleton of my Tia. She had nubs for fingers without nails. But I was happy to see her alive and I was focused on baby steps to getting her out of her predicament. We got my aunt out of the hole and took her to eat.
My Tia, as I always remember her, was so happy that day. We chit-chatted about life there. She told me how a couple days ago she had seen her friend murdered in cold blood right before her eyes. She told me about how she missed us all and wants to go back to the States. I did not really know what to tell her. I knew of her predicament and knew that she would not be able to go back. I consoled myself knowing atleast she would not have to go back to the ñongos. She would talk to my mom and her daughter Jessica about how hard life was there and share stories like the one she told me. We ate tacos and she would eat slow and talk more. She is now living with family in Mexico, recuperating. Her children are making plans to go visit her.
Later, when I was back home in Tracy, I watched the news with the footage of my father, my Tia, and my cousins. I thought what a beautiful thing we did, to go over there and reunite with our family member. But I also thought, what about all those people who still need rescue? Ñongeros have families, it just so happened that my Tia had a family that saw her on TV.
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