26 September 2014

Mariachi in The Last Frontier

I'm currently in Toronto, in the middle of a journalism fellowship through the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs, and with all the excitement about packing and forgetting things and leaving and planning and plotting, I nearly forgot to put up this story that I did last month for The Atlantic.

They're such a fun group, and it's such a cool story.  Alaska is one of the most diverse states in the US, a product of oil and fishing jobs, the military, and Alaska itself.  That means although the population is small (about 750,000 all told) it's an incredible melting pot.

The state has exactly one mariachi band, made up of young people who either wanted to learn more about their family's home country or were just excited to learn an unfamiliar style of music.  You can find the story here.

Not coincidentally, this is part of my master's thesis, should I ever finish it.  (I'll finish it.)

 A companion radio piece will air nationwide on NPR's Latino USA in November.

14 August 2014

Goodnight, Gracie.

In the beginning there was Gracie.

I had just met someone and had fallen in love in a way that I never had before – hook, line, and sinker – and when I saw Gracie, I fell in love again.

He wasn't Gracie yet, of course. He was just a scrawny pit bull terrier running around in a busy Los Angeles intersection, rearing up on his hind legs and putting his paws on the hoods of cars that were stopped at a traffic light.

This dog is going to get run over, I thought. Why isn't anybody doing anything? I saw three old ladies standing on the corner watching him dodge cars, their hands over their mouths, but none of them made a move to help. I sighed, pulled over, ran over to the intersection and shouted, “Hey puppy! Come here!”

The dog turned around, panting happily, and charged at me full speed as I crouched down and called him over. I caught a glimpse of enormous smiling jaws and had just enough time to wonder if I had made a terrible decision when he leapt on me, wagging his entire body, and knocked me off my feet. I grabbed him and held him so he wouldn't run back into traffic. I had left my car door open, and he jumped into the back seat and sat there.

“Where's your owner?” I asked him, looking for a collar. There was none. He was filthy, skinny, not neutered, and looked like he needed a good meal and a bath before anything else. I sighed, looking at the time. I was late for work. “Okay, pup. You get to hang out with me for the day.” After work, I reasoned, I could find his home and get him back there. Somebody around had to love this dog.

I left him in my car in a parking structure at my work and got him food and water. Every half hour I would go out and check on him and walk him around the parking lot with a belt around his neck as a leash. “Your owner must be really worried,” I kept telling him. He would just grin at me.

After work, I went all over the neighborhood where I had found him. Nobody had ever seen the dog before, they said, but hinted at dog fighting rings and stray pits. “Take him to the shelter,” advised the last person who opened the door for me. “And you probably shouldn't be knocking on doors around here after dark.” He shut the door in my face.

I had already made up my mind that I wanted to keep him by then, so I began the long drive back to San Diego. On the way there, I got him a leash and a collar and called my boyfriend to tell him we had a dog, at least temporarily, hopefully longer.

“No, Brooke, we are not keeping a dog,” he said. “What kind of dog is it anyway? What? A pit bull? No. No. No. That's the only type of dog that scares me. Not that we would be keeping it anyway. I don't even want it in the house.” I brought the dog in anyway.

“Meet Jaws!” I said. My boyfriend shook his head. “No. This dog is not staying here.” Jaws started to growl and then bark at him. “You see what I mean?” he asked me. “He's going to attack me.” He got up and left the room, and Jaws followed him, tail wagging, until he got closer. Then he stopped barking, because what Jaws really wanted was attention. After that, Jaws followed him everywhere.

That was the first day.

Over time, Jaws became Gracie, so named because he was graceless, ramming into people's legs with rough affection, knocking over cups and vases with his constantly wagging tail. He was a street dog, awkward with other dogs but wonderful with people. We weren't supposed to have a dog in our place, so we took turns taking him to work so as not to leave him alone. Gracie became a constant companion during my frequent drives to Los Angeles and back. He was unfailingly wonderful company. He was family.

“Man,” said the Los Angeles Police Commissioner during a press conference, “I always see you covering stories with that dog. He's a beautiful dog.” By then Gracie was a fixture when I was out on the field. He met commissioners and politicians and celebrities and got to sniff them all. He got to smell every city between Ventura and Tijuana and loved every moment of it.

One day, I was covering a triple murder and suicide in Laguna Beach at a beachside hotel. When I was done, I decided to take Gracie to the water. It was a secluded beach and no one was around, so I dropped his leash to let him run.

He went straight into the water, tail waving happily, getting submerged and then popping up again like a flag. I gaped after him for thirty seconds – god, could he swim! I had never known – and realized I had to go in after him. I jumped in with my clothes on and my phone in my pocket and went after him, finally catching up to him on a rock about a quarter of a mile out. I grabbed his leash, screaming and swearing, and tried to tow him back to shore. He towed me instead, and we swam back together as I held his leash tighter than I ever had.

When we got back to the beach, I looked up to see hotel security lined up on the cliff watching the whole drama play out. They had followed us out to the water, thinking that I was going to take paparazzi-style shots, and watched in awe as I dove in after my quick-moving dog. They had towels for us and gave us pizza and we laughed about the whole thing. Gracie had never looked so happy in his life – and he always looked happy.

He was family. It was the two of us for a year, and then there was Gracie too. He was our proxy for conversations, our companion as we slept. I bitched at him in the mornings when he woke me up early and groaning with a hangover to feed him. I curled up around him and my boyfriend curled up around me at night. When we sat on the couch, we unconsciously started sitting at opposite ends, so that he could jump up and curl up between us, his favorite spot.

“Honey, we have to stop letting the dog come between us like this,” I would say, jokingly. I never meant it. By then, he was us, the third leg of the stool, the hypoteneuse of our relationship. We were a pack, a family.

“That's a damn happy dog,” people would observe, watching us walk together. In pictures of the two of us, we had identical huge, stupid grins. We ran together, jogged together, and finally, as he got older, we walked together.

Gracie was part of us for ten years, and I valued every moment of our time together. This week, he got sick and died. His happiness and liveliness concealed the tumor that was quietly growing in his belly for months, maybe longer, until two days ago, it no longer could. He was ten years old and so tired at the end, but still wagging his tail, still curled up with us, still giving us every bit of love he had as he always had, with no judgment and no reservations.

Now we are lost, looking at the empty spot on the couch where he curled up every day for years. I am lost, listening for his happy snores at my feet as I write. Sometimes, I would listen to his breathing all day and panic if I couldn't hear it, thinking he had died in his sleep. “Gracie!” I would say, and he would open an eye and look at me as if to say don't be ridiculous, I'm right here, what are you yelling about? Then he would sigh and stretch and go back to sleep.

Toward the end, I think I knew on some subconscious level that he was getting ill, even though I would take him to the vet and they would tell me nothing was wrong with him but age. I would have recurring dreams that I was frantically looking for him, crying and yelling, running after him, and that he was gone. I would wake up and shower him with relieved affection, knowing that he was still there, for the time being, at least – that he hadn't run away, that he was with us.

Just before he died, those dreams stopped. When he got sick, I knew it was final, but I didn't want to believe it. I didn't want to believe that those dreams were coming true so soon. We have another few good years, I told myself. At least a couple of good years. But we didn't.

Gracie, where are you now? We miss you so much.

01 August 2014

From Guatemala to San Diego: A Teen Refugee's Story

I wrote and reported a story about the Central and South American refugee crisis for NPR's Latino USA.  It can be heard here.

22 July 2014

Riding the beast: The journey of migrants from Central and South America

Image source: Daily Mail

Yesterday, I visited two brothers and a sister who are staying with a family in San Diego. The siblings are 20, 16, and 15, refugees from Guatemala, and part of the wave of people who have come in the past few months to offer themselves up to Border Patrol and ask for asylum.  I am telling their story here but not using their names, because they are so afraid of being found, even here, even now.

The younger brothers, 15 and 16, like many boys their age, were recruited by cartels in the small Guatemalan mountain village in which they grew up. “Recruited” is the wrong word, because it sounds like they had a say in it. They did have a choice, a devil's choice: join us, or you and your family will be killed. The family said no, enduring threats and increasing violence, until they decided they had to leave. They decided to try to go to the United States, because they have a distant relative here. He was their best hope.

The entire family – mom, dad, three brothers, a sister – left in the middle of the night to avoid being found by the cartel's militias, walked to the Mexican border, and rode La Bestia to the border. La Bestia means The Beast, and it's the nickname for the freight train system that bisects Mexico and connects to the United States. Migrants ride along its roof as far as they can go.

That in and of itself is enough to make the journey dangerous, but the human element makes it far worse. Beatings, rapes, and robberies are common. Their money was stolen. Their passports were stolen. Their food was stolen. By the time they arrived at the border, the family had nothing. But they were still together when they asked for asylum.

They remained together until the United States, for reasons that are not clear, separated the adults from the minors. The brother and sister who were 18 and 20 respectively were taken aside. The two younger brothers remained together. Their mother and father, too, were separated. None of them had phones or contact information, and nobody had anywhere to go; their only point of contact was that distant uncle in North Carolina, which is how the mother, two brothers, and the sister eventually found one another. Their father is still in custody. The 18 year old is still missing.

The sister was released into the United States first, but did not want to leave without her family. She found a 24-hour bail bonds office next to the border entry in San Ysidro and stayed there for nine days and nights, waiting, until someone finally spoke to her and helped her call her uncle in North Carolina, who told her where the rest of her family had told him they had been staying. Someone connected them with a local church group, which housed them for a time, until the sister was raped. They called the police, but the police could do nothing without a better description.

Finally, a local group called BorderAngels heard about the family's plight. They were able to connect the siblings and parents with a local family, where they are now staying. The father is still detained and the brother still missing, and so they wait to find out what their fate will be.

All they know is that they can't go home again. “That's the saddest thing,” said the 15 year-old. “I know that place where I grew up, no matter where I go from now on, is never going to be home again. If I go there I'll be killed. I can't go back.”

Their story is one of hundreds of thousands, but all begin more or less the same way: poverty, cartels, violence, desperation, flight, the search for a better life.  And their story has something of a happy ending -- happier than many, anyway.  They have been beaten and violated and have nothing but the kindness of strangers to survive on, but at least, for now, they are alive.


20 March 2014

Elvira Arellano Returns to U.S. Soil



Border and immigration activist Elvira Arellano, who first made headlines in 2006 for living with her son Saul in a Chicago church to avoid deportation for a year, stands outside the federal building in San Diego Thursday after being released from detention. Arellano was among at least a hundred other activists without U.S. documentation who applied for humanitarian visas this week as part of a coordinated protest for immigration reform.  She hopes to return to Chicago with her two sons.

10 March 2014

Bring Them Home event for immigration reform at the Otay border crossing

A rally at the US-Mexico's Otay border crossing Monday morning aimed to reunite families pulled apart by deportations.

Border Patrol, with protesters behind them on US soil.


Immigration activist Elvira Arellano

Young DREAMers and their families joined and crossed into Mexico, where they were met by other groups (along with some of Los Otros DREAMers) before trying to cross back into the United States. About 30 applied for asylum in the co-ordinated effort and were being processed by border officials by the end of the event.

The National Immigrant Youth Alliance organized the third and largest #BringThemHome event, pushing for comprehensive immigration reform. About 150 people on both sides of the border waved signs and chanted, "Bring them home!" and "No estan solos!" (They are not alone!).


There will be more events throughout the week.

18 January 2014

On human trafficking

This week, I visited a home in Tijuana for young girls who have been trafficked -- bought and sold into slavery, sometimes across international borders, sometimes not, but always horrifically abused and tortured either psychologically, physically, or both -- and spoke with them, an adult trafficking victim, and Alma, who started the home.

The issue of human trafficking is enormous and difficult to fully appreciate, so I will only focus on thing: a woman I met who I'll call Mari.

Mari is 40 years old.  She was born in Mexico, and spent the first few years of her life in Tijuana.  She had always heard that the United States were where you could go to make money to take care of your family, so when a friend of her parents said he was going to the US, she asked him to take her along.

What Mari didn't know was that he was a smuggler, a coyote.  He took her to Encinitas, an upscale beach town in San Diego where there was a large but invisible population of undocumented immigrants, and left her in a shantytown, where she met her captor, who repeatedly raped her, abused her, incarcerated her, and impregnated her.  Mari was 13, and he was in his 40s.  She stayed with him until she was 19, living under constant threat, working as a maid or a fruit picker by day and being raped and beaten by night -- until he shot and killed a man they both knew.

Mari took the blame, and ended up going to prison for the crime for 18 years before she was let out.  Afterward, she returned to Tijuana to look for her family and try to pull her life back together, but because she was an ex-convict covered in tattoos, tattoos that the man who had kept her in the shantytown had carved on her to mark her as "his," she was unable to get a job, and her family rejected her. They thought she was a gangster.




Mari is in the process of getting her tattoos removed. Her family has little contact with her.  She works a low-paying job in Tijuana and spends a lot of time at Casa del Jardin.  All she wants, she says, is a family, and to be loved, and to be able to love without reservation.

One of the things people ask her the most, she says, is why she stayed with her kidnapper for so long. This is one of the most insidious and deeply violent things about human trafficking: the implied or explicit threat.  In Mari's case, her captor told her he would kill her family in Mexico if she tried to escape, backing it up with extreme physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, and eventually, like so many others, she stopped trying to leave and began trying to simply survive.

Mari's story is harrowing and heartbreaking, but hardly unique.  The brothels and streets of certain parts of Tijuana are filled with them.  Theirs is a life circumscribed by market forces; they are the supply, and the demand, as Alma from Casa del Jardin points out, comes almost entirely across the border, from the United States.  Everywhere, trafficked humans are the world's beasts of burden.

06 December 2013

Los Otros Dreamers and the fight for immigration reform


One of the most profound changes that is being wrought by the Obama administration's immigration policy is that an enormous amount of young people are being deported.  This uptick has changed the fabric of Mexico's society.

In the 1980s and 1990s, an unprecedented amount of families made the trek from Mexico to the United States in order to escape a period of time known as "La Decada Perdida," or The Lost Decade.  It was actually more than a decade, perhaps 15 or 20 years, which struck many countries throughout Latin America, which had borrowed enormous sums internationally to kick-start industrialization.  The loans, made by oil-rich countries, quickly skyrocketed exponentially in value; in 1982, Mexico announced that it had to default on its debt, which of  course ended loans to the country and caused an immediate financial crisis as infrastructure crumbled and social safety nets disintegrated.

The effects on Mexico's middle class (and the country in general) in particular was nothing short of catastrophic.  Wages dropped, unemployment skyrocketed, crime rates went up, and the very young and very old were left to fend for themselves without much, if any, state help.

By contrast, the United States was doing quite well in the Roaring `80s.  Many people in Mexico had started families thinking they would be able to provide for their children, and now were living in Depression-era conditions.  They looked around, looked at their young children, looked northward, and packed their bags and began the long trek back to the middle class and economic opportunities. Some stuck it out longer than others, hoping that perhaps signing NAFTA might help them individually.  When it became clear that it would likely not, they, too, went north.

At this time, the border was much more porous.  "Border security," as it is understood today, barely existed until the middle or later 1990s.  So these middle-class families settled into their new homes, raised their children, taught them the value of a good education and hard work, and went about trying to become Americans.

Some, the lucky ones, succeeded.  President Reagan's amnesty, in exchange for tougher immigration laws, helped those who were in the United States before 1986.  Others were caught between the cracks of bureaucracy.  They began to treat their undocumented status as a shameful issue, a kind of public nudity that could only be discussed in whispers.

Their children grew up American.  They knew nothing but American individualism, the entrepreneurial spirit and vibrant hopefulness that characterizes the United States at its best. They worked hard. They got educated.  They graduated from college.  They spoke Spanish at home but English everywhere else. Some of them knew they were undocumented; some didn't. Those who did know worked as hard as they could to file their papers and pay their fees to become citizens, but often were once again tied up in immigration bureaucracy. Some people have been waiting 25 years for an answer.

Now they are adults, ranging in age from 20 to about 40, and they are being deported in record numbers.  After they are "sent back" to a country of which they have very few memories, if indeed any at all, they have to deal with a whole new set of problems.  In border cities such as Tijuana, saying you are a deportee can cost you a job.  Their college degrees also need to be recertified, a process that takes time, costs money that people who have been deported don't have (being deported means you are only allowed to take whatever you have with you when you are processed and sent out of the country, which sometimes means no phone, no cash, nothing but the clothes on your back) and is incredibly frustrating (sometimes college graduates need to re-take up to 75 percent of their classes.)

Some, however, have prevailed, and are continuing to work for both immigration reform on the United States' side of the border and for a better infrastructure and more help for those who have already been deported, as there are very few social services for people in their position.  While the young and undocumented in the United States refer to themselves as DREAMers, after the DREAM Act, which would have offered them a clear path to citizenship, the deported people call themselves "Los Otros Dreamers" -- The Other Dreamers.  Their story, which I wrote for NPR's Latino USA, is here. 

You can also find more information on life as one of the Otros Dreamers at Nancy Landa's website, Mundo Citizen (she is one of the people featured in my story) or in the book Dreamers: One Generation's Struggle for the American Dream, by Eileen Truax, or in the upcoming photobook by Nin Solis and Jill Anderson, Los Otros Dreamers.

18 October 2013

Campamento Por Migrantes Deportados - Encampment for Deported Migrants, Tijuana, BC, Mexico

In early August, Mexico's government destroyed the encampments in Tijuana's riverbed after the notorious "El Bordo," where homeless people had been living for years, became international news.  A tent city soon sprang up nearby, in Tijuana's Plaza Constitucion, and has housed homeless migrants, largely deportees, since.

Of these deportees, almost 40 percent have lived in the United States for several years and identify as at least partly American; at least 5 percent identify as indigenous Mexican and speak very little Spanish; many need mental health care or addiction treatment, and nobody wants to be there. 


The encampment is administered by volunteers from Angeles Sin Fronteras, Angels Without Borders.  They offer food, a temporary place to stay, bathrooms and makeshift showers, and free haircuts to those looking for work. 

There are very few places that offer such services for the homeless and the "segun deportados," the twice deported, who have absolutely nowhere else to go. The ones that do exist subsist on very little support from the Mexican government.

Everywhere, handwritten signs are tacked up that read: "No militarizar la frontera" - Don't militarize the border.