Marlen tells me her husband has lost his mind.
“His life has made him crazy, I think,” she says.
Marlen and I sit across from each other at Instituto Madre Assunta, a Tijuana shelter run by an order of missionary nuns. One hundred and twenty women and children live there. Marlen shares a room here with three of her kids, ranging from 6 months to 8 years old. Their father, Marlen’s husband, Josue, stays with her two teenage boys from a previous marriage in a men’s shelter a few blocks away. The nuns told Marlen the boys were too old to live at the institute.
“It is difficult to be away from my boys,” she says, “but I have no choice.”
In recent years, thousands of Central American migrants like Marlen and Josue have passed through Mexico on their way to the United States to escape the violence in their native countries. Between October and December of 2015, Border Patrol agents apprehended almost 21,500 families — generally mothers with young children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — a 187 percent increase from the same period the previous year.
At the same time to the north, the aftershocks of the 2007 Great Recession continue to rob many Americans of their livelihoods. For these families, a tepid economic recovery has meant the recession never ended. Some of them blame their problems on immigrants.
As their numbers increase, immigrants find themselves the target of a mix of social anxieties: economic tension, free-floating anger seeking an outlet and the volatile ethnic discord plaguing many cities. And because most new immigrants are not white, there are racial overtones to the friction. Stories of the violence some immigrants have fled provoke little empathy.
Stories from war-torn countries have almost normalized violence. Hardened people made rum dumb by the onslaught of bad news assume victims did something to merit their treatment. Bad things don’t happen to good people, they say. It was their fault. It is too frightening to think otherwise.
Whatever the motivation may be, immigrants have become the tangible targets of the rage and uncertainty that have hold in the U.S. By the time I left my Chicago home for Mexico to begin reporting on the migrant crisis, demands to build a wall along the border separating Mexico and the U.S. rose to a crescendo in a presidential election year marked by vitriolic comments against Spanish-speaking and Muslim immigrants.
In Mexico, most of the migrants I meet, including Marlen and Josue, assume I’m a gringo. My poor Spanish does nothing to alter that assumption.
Drawn curtains keep out the afternoon heat from the office where I sit with Marlen. Sometimes, she and Josue get together, she says. They run errands for the nuns or she might meet him at his job for lunch.
She leans back on the couch and rests her hands on her swollen stomach. Her black hair falls to her shoulders, a resigned look crosses her face, her wide eyes look at nothing. She has been at the shelter for five months. Thirty-six years old and two months’ pregnant with her sixth child. The baby could kill her, she says. She has epilepsy. If she has a seizure while giving birth, she might die.
Yet Marlen has taken the extraordinary measure of leaving her country pregnant, five children in tow, because staying at home could mean death for her family. The danger didn’t grow from a partnership with gangs or from criminal acts against the government. It was born of exactly the opposite.
“Tell me about Honduras,” I say. “Your life there. Why you came here.”
“Because of what happened in 2009,” she says.
She describes to me the coup that removed Honduras’s democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya, from office and from the country that year. A group of Honduran politicians and military officers ousted Zelaya ostensibly to prevent him from changing the constitution so that he could run for re-election and hold on to power. Critics of the coup warned that Honduras was moving toward a military dictatorship.
No matter the motive, the years since the coup have been marked by a huge uptick in violence, including the slayings of labor activists, peasants, politicians and journalists.
“Honduras is a very dangerous place for us now,” Marlen says.
“Because of my husband. After the coup, the military men wanted his land.”
“They saw he could make money on it, I think. It doesn’t matter why. It matters they wanted it. They tortured him until he gave it up.”
The couple lived apart when the trouble started. Josue insisted on it. They went through their house and took down all photographs of themselves together, all documents with his name. Marlen moved back in with her mother.
Josue meets me outside the men’s shelter. He is 36. He tells me he’d like some coffee. He has on blue jeans and a button-down white shirt over a T-shirt. We walk together uphill, his thin body leaning forward. He speaks quietly, picks at his mustache. A Saturday morning. An Oxxo convenience store is open but has no stools for us to sit and talk. On Gallello Street not far from the shelter, I notice a man washing the sidewalk outside a restaurant. “We’re open,” he tells us. We pick a table near the door, order coffee. Black.
Josue tells me he met Marlen one afternoon outside his mother’s house in 2005. She lived in the same neighborhood. Marlen was very humble, he recalls. She did not look at him directly. He liked that. She dressed simply, too, and was a Jehovah’s Witness. They married that same year.
“When the problems started, I was living in an apartment in Colon, Honduras, in 2009. I was a farmer. I attended school long enough to learn how to write my name, but I always farmed, even as a boy. I belonged to a farmers cooperative. Our name was Grande Verdadera, part of Empresa Agricultura de Campesinos de Producción. There were 42 of us. We were growing coconuts and selling coconut oil. We were a good group of farmers. There were a lot of jealous guys, though. They were government people. Military people. They wanted the land for themselves.”
At first, the government people were polite when they asked the farmers to sell, Josue tells me. But he and the other farmers remained firm. No, we’re not selling. Then the government people stopped being polite. They killed his sister’s husband, president of Grande Verdadera. Then they started killing the rest of the farmers one by one. They pulled them from their houses and shot them. Only seven remain today.
On Oct. 12, 2009, Josue received a court summons. The summons did not define the complaint against him. It had no official seal. He stared at the paper in his hands. His friends had been killed and he assumed that now the government people wanted to kill him with a false summons. He felt hollow inside, an overwhelming sadness that allowed for no tears. He would not answer the summons. Let them come and kill him. He would not go to them to die. Two weeks later, he received another citation. He tossed it.
Toward the end of November, truckloads of soldiers drove onto the farmers’ land. The farmers were outside, standing in a group, talking. The soldiers started shooting. Four farmers fell dead. The rest ran. Josue recalls panic overwhelming him, the unevenness of his breathing, how everything seemed crooked, and he ran stumbling as if he were drunk. The soldiers arrested those they did not shoot. They put black hoods over their heads and screamed at them and jabbed them with their rifles to get into the trucks. The soldiers drove into San Pedro Sula, where the farmers appeared before a judge.
The judge asked for the president of the group. Josue said that since his brother-in-law’s death, he had been president. The judge said, “Renounce possession of the land.”
“That is not possible,” Josue said through the cloth over his head. “The land was given to us. We have documents proving it. It’s ours. We can’t just give it up.”
The judge said he had documents, too. He gave Josue papers to sign relinquishing the land, but he refused to sign. The judge got angry and sent them all to jail. They were held for two months. No one notified their families. A man brought them food once a day, nothing more.
Their release came in January 2010 after a journalist friend of one of the farmers started looking for them. One morning, the guard got them up at 2 a.m. He told them they were free. But Josue and the farmers sensed a setup. Two in the morning. No one on the streets. No one to see them get shot. They refused to leave until 10 a.m.
A lot of journalists had been standing outside waiting for them. Josue made a statement about their arrest. He gave the judge’s name, Rafael Diaz. He gave the names of the government people who wanted their land. He gave the names of the farmers killed by the military.
The ringing of a journalist’s phone interrupted him. The person on the other end said police had gone to the house of Josue’s older brother and killed him.
At the Institute in Tijuana, Marlen stares at the curtained windows.
“After he lost his land, then Josue had a run-in with gangs. Mara Salvatrucha. MS-13,” Marlen says.
MS-13 is an international criminal gang that began in the inner city of Los Angeles in the 1980s and has since spread to Central America. For years, the gang contributed to Honduras’ ignominious title of murder capital of the world. Drug running, extortion and political corruption have all contributed to the country’s lethal reputation. A close relationship exists between some members of the military and the gangs to extort and otherwise intimidate civilians.
Violence has also penetrated Mexico as gangs compete for control of the illegal drug trade. Confrontations with law enforcement operations against the traffickers heighten the violence in a never-ending cycle of face-offs and skirmishes, especially in the cities of Juárez, Durango, Sinaloa, Guerrero, Chihuahua, Michoacán, Tamaulipas and Nuevo León.
“Tijuana is dangerous, too,” Marlen says, “especially if people know you’re not from here.”
“Is MS here?”
“I don’t know. Probably.”
“What happened between MS and Josue?”
“A few years after he lost his land, MS told him to leave Honduras. The gang said they would kill everyone in the house if he didn’t. Even the dog.”
“Yes. But we didn’t have a dog. They said that for effect.”
Outside in the hall, I hear women talking. One of them mentions “the gringo” speaking with Marlen. Why is he with her? What makes her so special? What is he giving her? Maybe he will help us?
Marlen hears them, too. She glances at a wall clock and tells me she has to help prepare the kitchen for lunch. Everyone at the shelter has chores, she explains. I follow her into the hall toward the kitchen. The other women watch scowling, some with rags in their hands, others leaning on brooms. They gather around me and ask if I am taking Marlen to the United States. I assure them I am not.
“I am only a reporter,” I say. I want to get back to Marlen, learn what set of multiplying tragedies led her family to this in-between place: neither Mexico or America, a bed but not a home.
But the other women have made it clear they also want my attention. They have anguish no less than Marlen.
A young woman breastfeeding her infant son tells me she is from Ixtapa Zihuatanejo in the Mexican state of Guerrero. The town, she says, has a lot of death. You walk and find dead bodies close to houses. You hear gunshots. Close to where she lived. Someone killed her cousin. A young woman. She was found in a field shot in the head. Police said it was a robbery. But on the street, people said that her job in a cantina put her in contact with a lot of married men. Perhaps one got jealous with her flirting.
Another woman pulls me aside.
“Help me,” she says.
She is from Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. She left to find a good job in Mexico or the United States. She did not have an issue with the violence, but she knew it would catch up with her one day. The police treat you poorly in Mexico, she says. They take your money, harass you. Not all Mexicans. She can’t speak for all Mexicans. But the federales are bad people. They steal, and they touch your clothes to feel your body. If you’re a woman, they’re looking for more than money.
A woman from Michoacán pauses at a door behind the kitchen counter watching Marlen. The woman then calls me over.
“Why are you talking to her?”
“For a story. I’m a reporter.”
“I have a story.”
The woman left Michoacán with her 8-year-old granddaughter because of the violence. Both of them had seen people killed. Shot for nothing. For just existing. The woman turned herself in for asylum in California at the San Ysidro border, but she didn’t have proof that the girl was her granddaughter. The border patrol agents said they would have to hand her over to Mexican child protective services. “I’ll return with her,” the woman told them. She sent her granddaughter back to Michoacán to be with her mother.
The woman then went back and asked for asylum. She was treated poorly. The border patrol agents told her she’d never get into the U.S. She slept on a mat on the floor in a small room. So cold. They locked her in there. She saw people in handcuffs, others in shackles. They held her five days before they denied her asylum. They kept her ID and birth certificate. What did they need it for? she wonders. She misses her granddaughter. She raised her. Her mother did not want her. It is all the violence. After a while, even a mother feels nothing.
Marlen watches the women talking to me. She picks up a broom, begins sweeping. I take a few pictures of her cleaning the floor. She ignores me. She leans on her broom and stares out a window touching her ear, a distant look in her eyes.
I watch as Marlen and the other woman eat a lunch of beef stew and rice. I think of the stories my mother told me about her father. How he was pursuing the American ideal by taking advantage of his ambition and his family’s wealth. How he left Spain to study law in New York, where the family owned a home. He was pursuing the American ideal by taking advantage of his ambition and his family’s wealth. He had been accepted at Syracuse University. He did not speak a word of English. He required a tutor his first year. He earned a law degree. His is an immigrant success story softened with money.
I grew up instilled with the American immigrant success story: Work hard, study hard and anything is possible in America. My brothers and I did not speak Spanish growing up. English only. We live in the United States, my mother said. A roof over our heads, three meals a day, school and jobs, all of this and more we accepted as our due. You’re Americans, my mother told us. Our last name was the only and increasingly distant attachment to Spain we had.
When I was introduced to Marlen by the institute’s director, she asked me about my last name. “Garcia?” she said. I told her both my maternal and paternal grandparents came from Spain. My mother’s father moved to New York, my father’s father left for Cuba and later Florida.
“Ah, España,” Marlen said.
She is impressed my mother’s father became a lawyer. She wanted nothing so grand. She never completed school. Something that paid more than jobs in Honduras would be nice. In Honduras, she earned just $5, $6 a day as a maid.
I don’t say anything more about my maternal grandfather. Separated by class and money, he would have had no sympathy for Marlen. There is no comparison between his story and hers except that as he had, she, too, dreams of coming to America.
After he was released from jail in 2010 and learned that someone had killed his brother, Josue caught a bus to the spot where the body was found strapped to a chair, tied and handcuffed. Beaten, with burn marks pocking the face. Twenty years old. Carlos Hernandez. Many police stood around the body. When the police asked Josue who he was, he gave his name as Pedro, a local farmer, and pretended he didn’t know the dead man.
The next day his uncle called Josue. Another brother had disappeared. A corpse had been found in La Ceiba Atlantida. Josue drove to the site. As with the other brother, this brother, too, was tied to a chair and left on an empty street. This time, the police recognized Josue and turned him over to the military. Soldiers put a black hood over his head and took him to a isolated place where a dilapidated house stood. They sat him in a chair nailed to the floor. They took off the hood. Josue saw a man he assumed was the commander staring at him. Soldiers stood behind this man.
“Oh, so this is the famous farmer who stands up to the military?” the commander said. “So you are president of a farmers’ group and you think you own your land?”
“No, you confuse me with someone else,” Josue said.
“The dead guy is your brother?”
“No, he’s not my brother.”
The commander stepped back and the soldiers moved forward and started beating Josue with their fists. They kicked him, too, in his chest and groin. They told him to sign some papers. He refused and they beat him until he passed out. He came to in a ditch. Some man was rifling through his pockets for money. Josue moved and the guy shouted in surprise. He was a thief, Josue says, but also a good man. He called an ambulance. Josue was taken to a Red Cross hospital. His older brother saw him on the news. The broadcaster said if any viewer knew this man to notify the hospital. His brother drove to the hospital. He knew a nurse in the hospital and Josue was discharged into his care. Marlen met them at the brother’s house. She wept when she saw Josue and hugged him. He screamed in pain. He pushed her away and told her not to touch him. The pressure of her embrace reminded him of the punches and kicks his body had absorbed. His older brother helped him to a bed. Marlen stayed in another room.
In the morning, his brother told him to give up the land. They’ll kill you, he said. Work with me. Josue sat behind a counter at his brother’s shoe store and assured customers he could repair their shoes and boots. Marlen joined him and put tags in the shoes identifying the owner. Josue began to heal. He joked with Marlen and they held hands. She joined him at night in his room. He had suffered from nightmares. Sometimes he would say, “Did you see that? Did you hear that?” Marlen would shake her head. She had seen and heard nothing.
Weeks passed, then months and years. No more military raids. No more arrests. No more killing. Then one February day in 2015, while Marlen was out of the shop, a member of MS-13 stopped by. Josue had known him as a boy. But now he was a young man with a gun.
“You are a valuable person,” he told Josue. “The military is looking for you. I won’t kill you right here because of your children. I’ve never had any trouble with your family. I’ll give you an opportunity to leave the country. If you are still here in two days, I will kill you, your family and your dog.”
That night, Josue told Marlen, “We have to go.”
Marlen did not want to leave. Why would MS-13 want to kill Josue now? So much time had passed. Was this one of his nightmares? Was he confusing a bad dream with life?
“We have to go!” Josue insisted.
He suggested they travel to Mexico and then try to make their way to the U.S. They dropped off their children with Marlen’s mother. Josue would return for them as soon as they found a place to settle. They took a bus to Guatemala and from there to the Mexican border. Marlen was pregnant with their fifth child. They walked eight hours to La 72, a shelter named after the killing of 72 migrants on Aug. 24, 2010, in San Fernando Tamaulipas, Mexico. Marlen and Josue applied for asylum in Mexico. Their application was approved in a matter of months.
In May, they left La 72 for Casa de los Amigos, a shelter for migrants in Mexico City. Once there, Josue returned to Honduras by bus to get the children. But Marlen’s first husband would not let him take the two older boys. Josue returned to Mexico with the two children he had fathered with Marlen.
Josue, Marlen and their kids tried to enter the U.S. from Heroica Matamoros, Mexico, but U.S. border agents stopped them. They weren’t eligible for asylum in the U.S., the agents told them, because they had been granted asylum in Mexico.
They returned to Mexico City and Casa de los Amigos and stayed there for four weeks. Then one June night, Josue noticed two men watching them. He wondered why. He followed one and overheard him talking on the phone.
“He is here,” the man said, “with his wife.”
“Who are you calling?” Josue demanded.
“None of your business.”
“What do you want?”
“What I was looking for. And I found. I found it.”
Josue began shaking. He passed out and woke up in a hospital. They told him he had fainted. He told the doctor what had happened. The doctor gave him medication to help him sleep. He also said he might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
To this day, Marlen wonders if Josue actually heard the man talking on the phone or if he hallucinated. Would MS-13 really follow them into Mexico? She didn’t know, but Josue became very agitated with her questions.
The next morning, he, Marlen and the kids returned to the U.S. and again requested asylum. Marlen was close to giving birth. Border agents separated the couple and sent Josue to a detention center in Miami where he was held held for four months before he appeared before an immigration judge in October 2015.
“Everything you say is credible about why you left Honduras,” the judge told him, “but you have asylum in Mexico. You can’t have asylum in two countries.”
The judge sent Josue back to Mexico.
Back in Mexico City, Josue lived on the street rather than risk running into the two gang members at Casa de los Amigos. He got in touch with Marlen’s mother in Honduras and his two stepsons. Gangs wanted to recruit them, the boys told him. Josue spoke to their father and he agreed to send them to Josue with some money if he would try to get them into the U.S.
Two weeks later, Josue and the boys left Mexico City for Texas but a border agent told Josue if he crossed he would be deported to Mexico again, and the boys would be sent back to Honduras. The agent told him about programs in Tijuana for migrants. Josue called an aunt of Marlen’s in Tampa. He said, “If you hear from Marlen, tell her I have the boys. I’ll be in Tijuana.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials held Marlen and her children in Houston Immigration Detention Center. She did not know Josue had been deported. Her fifth child, a girl, was born Aug. 8, 2015. A little Texan, she says.
The detention center allowed her to use a phone once a day. One October morning, two months after her daughter’s birth, she called her Florida aunt. The aunt told Marlen that Josue was in Tijuana and gave her his phone number. After she spoke to Josue, Marlen asked to leave detention. She wanted to see her boys. She would drop her appeal for political asylum if she could return to Mexico and be with her boys. U.S. officials agreed to send her to Tijuana.
It is now March 2016. Marlen and Josue have been living apart in two shelters for five months. Marlen wants to return to the U.S. She’d like to work in a pizzeria or some other service industry job. But because she left the U.S after requesting political asylum, she worries she would not be let in. Border agents might take her American-born baby. They might send her and the other children back to Honduras. She does not want to die in Honduras. If she must, she will enter the States illegally. She will leave Tijuana with her youngest children. The two oldest can meet her in the U.S. or remain with Josue. She would miss them but they are old enough to decide for themselves. One way or another, Marlen is leaving. She wants her sixth child to be an American citizen.
“Josue has too many mental problems,” she says of her husband. “I can’t live with him. I will go without him. Is there nothing you can do for me?”
I don’t answer. The story of Marlen and Josue should be a love story, a story of how they fought against all odds and won. But it isn’t. Josue is no longer the man she married. Honduras is no longer the country she knew.
She looks at me for a long time. I am an American. In her eyes, I represent the status and good fortune she wants for herself and that Josue and Honduras can no longer offer.
“No,” I tell her finally. “I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do.”
I see Josue as a normal man with a harrowing story. But I can’t speak for what goes on in his head, how the horrors he experienced come back to haunt him and how that feels to Marlen. A psychologist friend of mine described mental illness as the natural reaction to unnatural circumstances.
I do know Josue would not want Marlen to leave him. He hates being apart from her. He wants to rent an apartment but can’t afford it. He works as a welder but earns only about $67 a week full-time. He would work more but his right knee, fractured from the beatings he suffered, aches and he can’t stand for long. He would love to live in the U.S. but does not think that will ever be possible.
He worries about running into the wrong people. He does not go out other than to work and visit Marlen in the driveway of the institute where they talk, a gate separating them. He sees dead people all the time. He dreams of them alive. He dreams of beatings. When he dreams, he does not know if the dreams are real. He wakes up and runs out of the dormitory until someone stops him and calms him. Sometimes, he sees the faces of his dead brothers in the faces of his children.
To leave your country, he says, is like being born again. Leaving the womb and emerging into something new and confusing and dangerous. The Spanish spoken in Tijuana he finds hard to understand. The accent doesn’t make sense to him. Some words are different. On his way to work, the police stop him as if they know he is not not from here.
In Honduras, he had plans for his land. To build his own house, raise a family. He lived a tranquil life before all the trouble started. He used to see in the faces of his children the happiness his old life gave them. He does not see that in their faces now.
On my last day in Tijuana, I see Josue and Marlen standing together outside the closed gate of the institute. Marlen looks happy to be with Josue, and had I not spent five days with them, I would not know they are plagued by ghosts. I imagine that one day or perhaps over a course of several days, the ghosts relented and they got together to buy food for the shelters, and they forgot themselves and their problems and loved without caution and Marlen became pregnant once more.
Josue reaches through the bars and rests his right hand on Marlen’s stomach. She watches him. He leans down and cocks his head to one side as if he might hear the baby. Marlen smiles. They are happy at this one brief moment to be husband and wife, happy to be expecting this baby whose own children may say of them as I say of my grandparents, “I am descended from immigrants.”
At these times, Josue is no longer tortured by nightmares and Marlen no longer plans to leave him. They are no longer a Honduran couple on the run living under the radar and seeking refuge. They are no longer talking to a reporter who has nothing to offer them other than questions that remind them of what they have been through and of the impossible choices they face. At these times, they are eager parents with a future traveling north to the United States.
J. Malcolm Garcia is a freelance writer and author of The Khaarijee: A Chronicle of Friendship and War in Kabul and What Wars Leave Behind: The Faceless and the Forgotten. He is a recipient of the Studs Terkel Prize for writing about the working classes and the Sigma Delta Chi Award for excellence in journalism.