30 November 2014

Life in The Bunker


I recently spent a day at The Bunker, a place in Tijuana that functions as a hangout, and sometimes a shelter, for deported veterans of the United States military.

Conventional wisdom statesthat serving in the military confers automatic citizenship. This is untrue. However, it can speed up the citizenship process, as long as applicants pursue it while they are still in the military.  Otherwise, they wait in line along with everyone else.

There are many people in Tijuana who were deported after spending their lives and careers in the United States. Some were convicted of felonies. Others were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

All are trying to find their place in a country that for most of them is strange and new.

Photo essay on Exposure.co.

24 November 2014

#YaMeCanse

The disappearance and probable deaths of 43 normalista students from Ayotzinapa, in the southern state of Guerrero, has taken Mexico by storm.  The country's anger and grief went from a murmur to a shout overnight, and now people are in the streets from its northern border to the southern tip - and beyond, since Mexico's diaspora is enormous - demanding immediate and comprehensive reform.


The protests have been spurred by the disappearance of the student teachers at the hands of Iguala's government, but they have been inflamed by the government's mishandling of the situation.  First, there is the misdirection.  Whose bodies have they found?  Search parties have found more than a dozen mass graves in the area, but none appear to contain the bodies of the students from Ayotzinapa.  So whose bodies are these?  No one seems to know. With each new discovery, Mexico's outrage grows.

"Ya me canse," said Mexico's attorney general at a press conference about the students, and Mexico's fury grew.  He's fed up? Mexicans have been asking.  He's tired?  That spawned "#YaMeCanse," and on and off Twitter, people have been sharing what they're fed up with.

I'm fed up with life in Mexico being safer as a narco than a student.
I'm fed up with the culture of impunity. 
I'm fed up with the disappearances, the deaths, the mass graves, the mysterious people following the most outspoken activists, the implicit and explicit threats, and most of all the fear.

In Baja California, citizens stymied by the government's inaction on missing people and unsolved murders have been taking matters into their own hands for years, forming action groups and pressuring law enforcement to investigate suspected killers and mass graves.  Now they, too, are speaking out.




It's uncertain whether Mexico will actually reform as a result of this movement, but for the first time in a long time, the international press has its eye on the country and its military and government. What happens next remains to be seen and depends just as much on pressure from outside Mexico as it does on pressure from within.

01 November 2014

Dia de los Muertos

Today is Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday that is a fusion of the Aztec celebration of Mictecacihuatl, Queen of the Dead, and the Catholic All Saint's Day and All Soul's Day. 

Typically, it is a time to honor and celebrate the lives of those who have died.  People build altars for their loved ones, strewn with photos, sweets, and, traditionally, marigolds to help the dead see their way to the next phase.  Sometimes, they build altars for those they have never known.

On the north side of the border, activists have altars for the unknown migrants who lose their lives trying to cross from Mexico to the United States, an arduous trek across deserts and rivers, complicated by crooked coyotes and traffickers.

Often they die alone, unidentified and thus mostly unmourned. Sometimes they just disappear, only to reappear as a small heap of anonymous dry bones, gnawed by animals and bleached white by the sun. 

In Tijuana, shelters for those who have been deported contain no altars. “We don't have the money to put up art like that,” says a worker there.

He is young, rail thin, with sharp cheekbones. He speaks both English and Spanish with an American accent. “We need it for food.”

These places for the deported are run on a tiny budget, with little to no help from the Mexican government, relying almost completely on donations. They are mostly in raucous and rundown Zona Norte, just meters from the high wall that runs all along Baja's northern border.

When people with no social networks are deported, their choices are limited. Many end up digging holes to sleep in along a dry riverbed at the international border, using runoff to wash themselves and their clothes.

Shelters work as alternatives and become waystations, where people with no other resources can shower and do laundry.

They all have stories about their lives in the United States, stories of loss and love, jobs they had and opportunities they wanted, but always ending the same way, when they are dropped off alone in Tijuana.

Many are injured. “I lost my eye when a cop beat me up,” Miguel says. He looks up from his mattress with his one good eye; his other eye is white with scar tissue in its socket.

“They took all my clothes, so I have been wearing these filthy things for weeks.” He doesn't say which country the cop was in, or why they took his clothes. “I'm going back soon,” he says. “Back to the other side.”
Arturo is on a mattress next to Miguel's. He says he came from Mexico City to look for work, and kept going north when he hit the border.  He doesn't say when or how he was deported.  

Arturo can't talk for long. His eyes are glassy and feverish. His belly is swollen. There are livid bruises on his abdomen where a bloody bandage covers a deep incision, and he pants when he tries to sit up. "Liver surgery,” says a third man. “He drank too much.” 

“I didn't drink too much,” protests Arturo weakly. “Those bottles were full of water, I told you.” The other man shakes his head. Arturo seems to stop caring and rolls over on his side.  "Please give me something for the pain," he says. "I hurt." But nobody has anything to give him.

One man comes in with a single marigold, which they put on the countertop: their one concession to Day of the Dead. There are few decorations in this building. It's not intended to be a place that feels like home.

All of them will be gone from here soon, one way or another.


11 October 2014

A Day at the Fair


“Oh, so you're having an existential crisis over death, eh?”

There is a woman sitting across from me at a little fold-out table, peering at me over the top of her reading glasses while shuffling a deck of tarot cards. “I've died twice,” she says, shrugging. “It's no big deal.”

The Mississauga Psychic Fair, now in its fourth year, is organized by First Star, a project by Stan Mallow and his business partner, Ray Fulcher. Mallow, a host of a television series out of Niagara called “The Paranormal Show,” is affable, friendly to skepticism, and even leaves me tickets at the front counter so that I can go explore.

The event looks much like I thought it would. The conference room, not far from Toronto's main airport, is carpeted in booths and draped with signs, silks, crystal balls, angel figurines, gems, and other tchotchkes. The crowd – surprisingly diverse to my eyes – is in constant motion, although here and there I can see people talking earnestly and animatedly to various psychics. As I watch, a woman starts to sniffle; the man who is reading her tarot cards quickly brings out a box of tissues from under his table in a practiced motion.

I sit down at a table with a placard that reads “Tarot Anne” and smile at the woman there, presumably Tarot Anne herself. She smiles back. I like the way she looks: henna-red hair, half-lens glasses that she looks at me over, and simply dressed. She could be somebody's friendly mom, not a moony spiritualist.

“Pick some stuff from my box of junk,” she says, dumping trinkets onto the table. “We'll figure out where to go from there.” I'm supposed to pick out four objects, so I do, and she reads them with the help of tarot cards. I'm going to write, she tells me. I'm going to do well communicating ideas to others. Every single psychic or card reader I've ever talked to has told me this, and I figured it out long ago: I always have ink on my hands.

But then she stops at one of the trinkets I picked out: a deep blue brooch with no discernible pattern, just a shimmer. “Oh,” she says, “the unknown. And the cards say you have some kind of fear?”

“I do. It's about my dog," I say, "he died,” and to my embarrassed horror my voice breaks and I tear up. She brings out a box of tissues from under her table in a practiced motion.

“He was fine before he was born and he's fine now,” she says in a no-nonsense brisk librarian sort of way, “and anyway, being dead is really no big deal. I've been dead twice. It's great. But what I have to ask you is, why the hell are you worrying about that shit? Life's too short.”

This is better than a therapist, I think, sniffling and wiping my nose.  As I look around, I realize nearly everyone around me is crying. We're all here grieving lost loved ones and searching for some kind of assurance, beyond the heartache and the pain and the final awful goodbyes, the universe might really, finally, be all right.

For a moment, I am cheered. But then I go to the hair reader.

“Your hair carries memories of the past and the future,” he leers at me, licking his lips. “Is that a natural wave or a perm?” His helper, who as it turns out is also his girlfriend, tosses her long hair over one shoulder and waves me into a seat.

“Can I touch your hair?” he asks, leaning directly into my face. He has the strangest eyebrows I have ever seen, like a moustache over each eye, but brushed straight up toward his scalp.  

“Oh, sure,” I tell him. I mean, that's why I'm here, right? So he puts out a huge paw and strokes my head. “Oh,” he says, rocking back and forth. “Oh. Yes. Yes! Yes!”

I sit, frozen by the absurdity of it all and the effort of trying not to laugh as he twines his fingers in my hair. “I'm feeling that you're having a lot of, well, menstrual problems,” he says, winking. “Your woman stuff has been a little haywire.  Am I right?”

He is not right, but I shrug noncommittally anyway. I want to see where this goes. He grunts and rolls a lock of hair between his fingers. “Are you sure this is your natural wave?” I nod as well as I can with my hair in his fist. That part, at least, is true. He leans in even closer.

“And,” he whispers, straight into my face, “you're on your period.”

As he pronounces the p in period, a little blob of saliva sails out of his mouth and directly into my eye. I try not to think of ocular lesions and bacterial infections. Mercifully, the reading is now over, so I rush away. For the rest of the day, I hurry past his booth and avoid eye contact.

“I see spirits,” announces the third medium. “They're all around me, all the time.”

Allison Boswell's story is particularly interesting. She was just a normal person, if a little bit dreamy, working in a normal business, she says. She was never particularly skeptical, but she was never particularly superstitious, either. She just hung out with her husband and worked at her job until a month after her 29th birthday, just a few months ago. Then, one day, she started seeing ghosts everywhere.

“I had to talk to people. I had to tell them what the spirits were telling me. Sometimes they were sick, or sad, or had lost something and they needed guidance. It was getting so bad that I would go up to complete strangers and tell them.”

“With all due respect,” I begin to ask her, and don't know how to finish.

“How do I know I'm not crazy? Because I can back it up. What they're telling me is stuff that I can verify, things I couldn't possibly know otherwise. And I'm never alone now – they're around, saying hello, crowding around me and whispering in my ear, sitting on rafters and chairs and on people's heads. By the way, are you ever going to finish that book you started writing?”

I involuntarily take a step back, then clear my throat and remember the ink on my hands. But then I look at my hands, and there isn't any ink on them.

I end up spending six hours at the Mississauga Psychic Fair, mostly enjoying the people-watching and the massage chairs.  But my favorite part comes as I'm leaving, when I pass by the hair-reader's booth to see him trying to make a sales pitch to a large, unimpressed-looking man, who is completely, neatly bald.

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 about Mariachi Agave Azul, Alaska's only mariachi band.

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.  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.


09 April 2014

US-Mexico friendly, Glendale, Arizona, 2 April 2014






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.