Valeria Fernández/PRI, pictured photo by Rebekah Sampson
The laundry bags kept falling from the stroller onto the uneven and narrow sidewalk. With her daughter, Sedona, strapped onto her back and her son, Adero, in tow, Katerina Barron stood in a sweat, speechless in front of the lavandería attendant. Her husband, Jesus, wasn’t there to translate her questions into Spanish.
It was three weeks since she and her children moved to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, following Jesus’s deportation.
“I started to cry because I realized I didn’t even know how to say ‘laundry soap.’ I didn’t know how to say 'machine.' I didn’t know the words to ask her.”
After that, the Barrons decided to buy a washing machine.
Days like that were reminders that Katerina is away from home. Cousins, friends, parents — she even missed the overwhelming dry heat of Arizona, the feeling of getting inside a car that is like a sauna.
Jesus was deported on June 6, 2017. Twelve days later, his entire family started over in San Miguel. In her first months in Mexico, Katerina came to terms with the idea that deportation didn’t have to be a “death sentence.” But she also knew there was no way to bring Jesus back to the US.
In six suitcases, she had packed pieces of her life: her chef knife, refrigerator magnets, her grandmother’s white tablecloth, Adero’s dinosaur blanket, Christmas stockings, a blue, carved frame holding a wedding portrait, a year’s supply of contact lenses and her children’s dental records.
Valeria Fernández/PRI, pictured photo by Rebekah Sampson
“One minute, everything was fine and another, it wasn’t anymore. We were ripped out of our life,” said Katerina, who celebrated her 29th birthday after their move.
There are over 10,000 Americans living in San Miguel de Allende, a town in the state of Guanajuato about four hours north of Mexico City by car. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site; Travel + Leisure magazine called it the “world’s best city” in their July 2017 issue. It’s not uncommon to see Americans walking the downtown cobblestone streets, charmed by the colorful 475-year-old colonial buildings and churches.
“You are going to fit right in,” Jesus told Katerina before she arrived.“There’s a lot of white people here.”
Most Americans in San Miguel are there by choice; the Barrons didn’t choose for Jesus to be deported, but they did choose San Miguel. Katerina thought it might be a bit easier for the children than Jesus’s hometown in Durango, further north. He had self-deported there once but felt alienated because there were no job opportunities, and he didn’t speak Spanish well enough to feel accepted.
In San Miguel, though, the Barrons faced the same challenges as other local families because tourism drives the cost of living up. They found their first apartment in a working-class neighborhood with other Mexicans. They took the 7-pesos bus to get around the city because, at 40 pesos, which amounts to about $2.15, taxi rides are too expensive. On the street, sometimes an entire family would stop to praise 2-year-old Sedona. They note her big blue eyes and blond hair and pat her head saying, “Hermosa, hermosa.” Beautiful.
For Katerina and Jesus, it is both uncomfortable and amusing. They both grew up in the US.
“I had a great childhood. I wish my kids had the same,” said Jesus, 31.
This was Jesus’s third deportation; his family brought him to the US from Mexico when he was 5 years old. When he married Katerina, a US citizen, in 2015, they thought he could deal with the consequences of an 8-year-old DUI and then sort out his immigration status.
But after two years of trying, they found that his previous deportations and the fact that he returned to the US illegally permanently barred him from coming back. Jesus served four months in prison for those re-entries on top of the time he served for the DUI. And then immigration agents dropped him off across the border in Nogales, Mexico.
Even though he was married to a US citizen, there was nothing that Katerina could do to help him.
Katerina’s mother has a cousin who owns a house there, but she wasn’t in town when they arrived in San Miguel. The Barrons didn’t know anyone, and it was lonely.
“In Arizona, I had a network of people,” said Katerina. “We have a lot of downtime here.”
It was hard to explain to Adero, her 5-year-old, why they were in Mexico. In the last two years, he got a new baby sister, Sedona; Katerina and Jesus got married; the family moved several times; and Adero’s father was in prison.
“Then, we moved to another country — of course, he’s going to be angry,” Katerina said.
Sometimes he cried about leaving his friends behind in Arizona. Other times, he was more upset than usual when TV time was over. He yelled or threw things. Katerina noticed he was refusing food that he liked before — as if refusing to eat was the only thing he could control.
“I read parenting blogs; I do what I’m supposed to do,” she said. Katerina told Adero that it was OK to feel angry or mad.
“I just let him be mad at me. Because who else is he going to blame? He can’t blame the government. He tried. One time he asked me, ‘What did the police officer look like? The cop, the one that took dad?’”
Katerina told him, “‘I’m sorry that we have to move to Mexico.’ Who else would be able to apologize to him for what happened? His entire world was ripped apart.”
And some days, Katerina felt depressed, too.
“As a teenager, I struggled with depression. I had highs and lows,” she said. After Adero was born, she had panic attacks, and with Sedona, she experienced postpartum depression.
But she and Jesus worked through those problems together. Then she received mental health care and started taking antidepressants, which she still takes. In a way, she said, those challenges prepared them for the move to Mexico.
And now, she is more vigilant about her feelings and how she acts in front of her kids.
“We make ourselves better people, not for ourselves, but because we have to be better for our children,” she said.
But with Jesus spending sometimes 12 hours a day at work, it wasn’t easy to do. His first job was at a rooftop bar downtown called Quince, on one of the side streets of the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel. He worked from 3 p.m. until 2 a.m., six nights a week.
He says he usually made between $10 and $25 per night in tips as a new busboy. A couple of times, he made $2.* On top of that, he made a weekly salary of about $30.
“The first time that I got paid through my bank, we went to the grocery store. Our grocery store receipt was 900 pesos, and I got paid 600,” said Jesus.
It wasn’t worth the amount of time he spent away from the family, Katerina said.
In the US, Jesus managed a fast-food restaurant. For a while, Katerina was a teacher’s aide at an elementary school in her hometown of Payson, Arizona, and then they moved to Mesa where she began studying to become an elementary school teacher. She owns a house in Payson, which they rent now, and had a Honda Accord, which they sold for about $3,000.
They also made an online fundraiser and got help from both of their families to resettle.
“I had a hard time accepting donations. It’s weird to be here and be receiving charity,” Katerina said.
The Barrons’ family support allowed them to move to a place like San Miguel, where both Jesus and Katerina have a chance to find jobs because they can communicate in English.
The Barrons moved to their second apartment in Mexico at the end of July. It is at the end of a cobblestone road in the San Rafael neighborhood. The terrace overlooks a broad patchwork of colorful houses embraced by green mountains. Rent is $366; in Mexico, the minimum wage is less than $5 a day.
A week after they moved in, Katerina and Adero climbed the steps to the shared terrace on top of their building to see the sunset.
Hear Katerina Barron and her son, Adero, play on the terrace of their new apartment:
“Dad’s work and the castle. Right there,” Adero said. In the distance, the pink pinnacles of the castlelike Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel stood out as one of the tallest buildings between colonial houses.
“This is why I fell in love with it. Yesterday, I could see a rainbow. There’s fireworks all the time; they celebrate everything here,” Katerina said.
Their living situation is better than many others’ in the city, but a few days before the move they didn’t have any furniture. Katerina had to ask for help.
“When she told me that they rented an apartment and it didn’t have anything in it, I thought, ‘Well, we have to get it furnished,’” said Judith Chaikin, a 71-year-old Canadian artist who has lived in San Miguel for 20 years.
She sent Katerina to pick up items from some local Americans, “nicer things than we could afford,” said Katerina. Things like a white kitchen table that sits in the dining room, two dressers, their queen bed and all their sheets, and Sedona’s blue booster seat that is painted with flowers.
Chaikin became one of Katerina’s first close friends, someone whom she could go to for advice. Or to borrow her washing machine.
This friendship was one of the first surprises San Miguel had in store. The city also has over 100 nonprofits that do community work, many of them run by American expats. Katerina reached out to Toni Roberts just a few days after she arrived in San Miguel.
“I would like to get involved in the community to help in any way I can with deportees and their families,” she wrote to Roberts in an email. She found the 73-year-old retired human rights activist from New York through a San Miguel events page on Facebook.
“I certainly never met anyone in her position before,” said Roberts. The people who need support aren’t usually US citizens.
Roberts has been in Mexico for 12 years and, a couple of years ago, started the Train Tracks Migrant Relief Project to give snacks and personal items to US-bound Central American migrants and asylum-seekers who travel by the cargo train that goes through San Miguel.
“I definitely have PTSD. My children have it a little bit. They’re traumatized,” said Katerina. “But hearing about these refugees that don’t have a leg because they were riding a train to escape their country — our life is like nothing compared to that.”
Roberts immediately connected Katerina to Robin Loving, one of the leading forces behind a group to help deported Mexicans.
“It was impressive that she would uproot her family, a US family, to move to Mexico to keep the family together,” said Loving, 64, who is also the president of Jóvenes Adelante, a nonprofit that works with youth. “I had the privilege of deciding that I want to live here. I feel I have a responsibility to give back in this country, in this community because it welcomed me.”
The Mexican Interior Ministry reports that deportations from the US were higher in 2016 than they were in 2017, but the Donald Trump presidency put a spotlight on the issue for Americans in San Miguel.
“He’s so demonized them,” said Dick Snyder, the chair of the social action committee at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in San Miguel de Allende. “He slapped us in the face with his hatred, and we feel like we just have to do something to show support for those people.”
The fellowship donated $5,000 to start Caminamos Juntos (We Walk Together), a partnership with a local migrant shelter to support deported Mexicans.
San Miguel de Allende is not the main destination for those deported from the US, but Guanajuato is fourth among Mexican states for deportations: 10,088 Mexicans from Guanajuato were deported from the US, out of 151,647 Mexicans total, from January through November 2017, according to the Mexican Interior Ministry.
Katerina could not help others like her when she first arrived, but she agreed to speak about her family with the local Midday Rotary Club. Tom Schneider, who invited her, said some members of the club wanted to know if there was a way the Barrons could legally immigrate back to the US.
On Aug. 8, Katerina stood shaking in front of an audience of about 30, her straight, blonde hair pulled back in a bun. She wore a white, cotton halter dress with pink flowers on the front.
Hear Katerina Barron share her story with the Midday Rotary Club:
“I’m short. So, I’m going to need all the help I can get. I’m nervous,” she said, to break the ice as she stood behind a podium. In attendance were mostly white Americans, retirees.
“I think that the only reason to go through struggles in life is in hopes that sharing it will help others, and that is why I'm up here sharing our story with everyone.”
She had worked on her notes for weeks. That morning, Adero told her something she had said to him: “Even if you’re sad, you still have to be brave.”
“In the beginning, I used to tell everybody that Jesus’s story was a dime a dozen. Families are being separated everywhere all over the United States. People get deported every day but, most of the time, to white people, it's just another story to them. It's in the news. So me being who I am and white, I feel like I have a duty and a purpose to use my white privilege to reach people that wouldn't have necessarily been reached by our story.”
The last time Katerina had done public speaking was in a communications class in college. This time, Jesus was in the front row with Adero and Sedona. He allowed Sedona to send random emojis in text messages to keep her entertained during the speech.
“When we first got together, I had people question the legitimacy of our marriage. I've had people ask me, like, ‘Are you sure he's not just marrying you for citizenship?’ I used to joke, if only our marriage could have done such a thing, that would have been wonderful.”
She looked at Jesus, dressed in a red-wine ironed shirt, gray pants and black shoes.
“He told me, ‘I feel guilty that you guys have to leave your country.’ I'm like, “It's my choice to go with you ... You can't keep me away from you, if you, even if you try.””
Then she smiled. “He's kind of cute. I like him.”
Jesus said later that her speech made him “fall in love with her again.”
Katerina said that being up there, speaking out, was the beginning of something. It had been only three months since the family arrived. Katerina found a bilingual school for Adero, Jesus had a job and she was in the process of applying for residency. She was also picking up some Spanish by watching cartoons with the kids and is enjoying that her children will grow up bilingual and bicultural.
“I feel like we surrendered to a journey that was wonderful but forced upon us,” she told the rotary club.
That night, after her speech, the Barrons went for a walk downtown.
The sweet smell of corn with cream from street vendors floated in the cool air as they made their way through El Jardín, the garden around Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel. The lights in the parish did make it look like a castle, just as Adero described it.
A group of tourists rode on horses while the music of half a dozen mariachi bands spread through El Jardín. Adero played with a blue toy snake strapped to a long wire. Sedona bounced a Peppa Pig balloon.
“It blows my mind that we live here,” said Katerina. Sometimes, she said, it feels like living in Disneyland.
A few months later, Katerina asked her new friends for furniture for a family that was deported like hers. She got donations of pots and pans, too.
“First thing you need is a place to sleep and something to cook in,” Katerina told a woman named Gloria who was worried about her move to Mexico. “I always told her, ‘I’m a few steps ahead of you,’ and that helps.”
Other people found Katerina, too. They read her story, published on PRI.org while researching how to move.
One of them was six months pregnant, trying to figure out if she should move to Mexico to have the baby with her husband, or if she should stay in the US without him.
Katerina cried to Jesus about that story. The woman had no family support.
On Sept. 5, Katerina’s birthday, the Trump administration announced the revocation of DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which gave protection from deportation to some undocumented people brought to the US as children.
“There’ll be younger people with US-born children moving to Mexico,” Katerina said.
In October, she wrote to Robin Loving, the advocate for migrants: “I have all these families, and I can’t do this alone. We need help. We need resources. We need a place for them to stay when they get here.” By November, she joined the steering committee of the relief group, Caminamos Juntos, to help others who are deported.
She’s decided to keep telling her own story of reuniting her family in Mexico, too.
“People need to know about this. It’s very exciting but, yes, it’s really hard. In that moment there’s no going back. Your life is different forever.”
Valeria Fernández is a fellow of the Adelante Latin American Reporting Initiative, part of the International Women’s Media Foundation. The foundation provided support for this story.
*Correction: We initially reported Jesus Barron's verbal estimate of the cash tips he made at a San Miguel restaurant as $2 to $10. He has since revised this estimate. We have attempted to verify this information with a manager of the restaurant, but as of Jan. 18, have not received an on-the-record estimate or documentation of the tips they say he made.