BY ALVARO CÉSPEDES
Ana Laura López, 43, was about to board a plane from Chicago to Mexico City on September 30, 2016. She remembers the date clearly, as her life would never be the same again.
“I never thought this was going to happen to me,” said López, sitting on a couch in a small studio in Colonia Guerrero, a middle-class neighborhood in downtown Mexico City.
After migrating to the US from Mexico City, she had been living, working, and studying in the United States for the last sixteen years as an undocumented immigrant. She settled in Chicago, where she met her current partner and had three children.
López saw an opportunity to request legal documentation in order to start the process of becoming an American citizen. She was told that she had to do that from Mexico. “I wanted to set my papers straight,” she said. “I had no criminal background, not even a parking ticket in sixteen years. I was always very careful about this, as it was always my dream to become an American citizen. It still is,” she added.
Just as she was about to board her plane, two immigration officers blocked her way. They asked her to follow them into a separate room, where, “very quickly,” she had her fingerprints scanned, was asked to sign some papers that she did not read carefully, and was escorted back to the plane.
“I thought they were going to take me to some detention center, but they took me to the same airplane,” she said. “I felt so ashamed, everyone kept staring at me,” she added, tears falling from her eyes.
López is one of the more than 240,000 people who were deported from the United States in 2016. Of those deportees, more than 60 percent were Mexican citizens, but only a tiny fraction of them ended up in Mexico City, an urban center that has not historically been linked with immigrants returning from the United States.
During the flight, López read the paper she had just signed, and only then did she realize that she had signed her own deportation. “I felt so stupid,” she said. “It’s like I turned myself in and even paid for my own plane ticket to get deported.” She spent the journey back to her hometown feeling homesick, confused, and alone.
In Search of Community
Since arriving in Mexico that morning in 2016, López has worked to build a community of support and kinship with the growing number of deportees from the United States. In Mexico City, a place far away from the US border, she noticed a lack of sense of community with her fellow deportees—and learned that she was far from the only one.
The Ministry of Labor of Mexico City has been working to make the capital a “more hospitable, inclusive, and safe” city for deportees, according to a recent publication. Local authorities have pushed forward programs to place these individuals in jobs, offering workshops, and deportees can receive a small amount of unemployment insurance upon arrival.
It was in one of these workshops that López started meeting others in her situation, most of them male. Along with some of them, López founded Deportados Unidos en la Lucha (Deportees United in Struggle) in December 2016. It is a collective that was created to help deportees find their way back into a country that many of them don’t feel connected with, having left it so long ago. López and her colleagues offer temporary shelter, a support network, and access to documentation, legal representation, and healthcare to newly arrived deportees in Mexico City.
The collective found its main source of funding through serendipity. After attending a workshop offered by the Labor Ministry of Mexico City, López and other deportees learned to master the technique of serigraphy—printing designs on textiles. She and her colleagues were new to this craft, but thought that it could be useful to get their message out. They started to print and sell t-shirts, bags, and mugs under the name Deportados Brand. This is now the main source of income keeping the support group and temporary shelter running.
At the Deportados Brand workshop, Gustavo Lavariega, deported from Washington in 2014, stands in the back. He operates “the octopus (el pulpo),” the wooden machine that the collective uses to print their clothing. He had never used one of these machines before joining Deportados Unidos en la Lucha, but is now experienced with its operation.
Lavariega had been painting houses in the US for seventeen years. He was just about to open his own construction paint business in early 2014, when one day, he walked out of his house and there were three ICE vehicles waiting to detain him.
Upon arriving in Mexico City, where he was born and raised, Lavariega also felt alone and confused, but the community that López created has helped him feel a little better. “This collective is my family now. It’s my home, and I like to learn new things every day here, always trying to become a better person,” he says, while López stands by him and smiles.
A New Episode in a Long Journey of Activism
Deportados Unidos en la Lucha is only López’s latest effort in a long career of trying to help others in vulnerable situations. In Chicago, she was an active member of her community, volunteering, organizing, and teaching other immigrants about their labor rights while working for Arise Chicago, a local nonprofit organization that focuses on labor rights advocacy.
After being fired from a company in which she tried to unionize her fellow workers, López quickly developed her potential as an organizer at Arise. She was frequently invited to workshops, conferences, and meetings around town. López focused on organizing women around their labor rights and teaching them community leadership skills. “That was a really nice time. I was very happy,” she said.
She believes her work as an activist in the United States is what ultimately got her deported.
“After I started to organize political campaigns with congressmen, some ordinances were passed. I contributed in the fight for paid sick leave and the raising of the minimum wage,” she said proudly.
By this time, López had begun appearing in the media, with interviews on TV and in local newspapers in the city. She believes that this is why the immigration officers were waiting for her at the plane. “Why me? This never happens. It all looks like it was because of my activist work,” she said.
However, López had tried to enter the United States illegally in 2001 and was caught by immigration authorities at the Tijuana-Otay border. This record of a previous deportation was used against her when she was stopped at the airport in 2016.
Building Community through Serigraphy
Back in her hometown of Mexico City, López knew that she had to contribute to her community in some way. Working as an activist in Chicago, she “learned the importance of feeling that we are together,” said López.
In one of the serigraphy workshops, she met Diego de María, 37. He had recently been deported from Dalton, Georgia, where he had also been living and working as an undocumented immigrant for sixteen years. He was driving with his six-year-old son one afternoon when he was stopped by a police officer and was found to be driving without a license. Four months later, he was sent back to Mexico City.
He had not been acquainted with serigraphy, either. Never having graduated from middle school, de María had been working for different factories in the carpet industry in Dalton. In Mexico, he quickly picked up serigraphy and started his own brand, F*ck la Migra. He now sells his shirts and stickers online. With these earnings, he partly pays for the lawyer who is helping him regain custody of his son, who, like Lavariega’s and López’s children, is still in the United States.
De María thinks that the community building started by Ana Laura López is important. “This support network is what keeps us alive here. We have started crowdfunding campaigns to help each other in cases that are similar to mine,” he said. He has also joined López in her activist work. “When the [Central American] migrant caravan arrived here, we were there, supporting and helping those people on their way to the US,” he added.
United by a shared history of having lived in the United States, López, Lavariega, de María, and many others continue to work and support each other in Mexico City. They sell their clothing, offer guidance and legal counseling to those who arrive feeling lost, just like they did some years ago, and they work to find ways to return to the United States to be reunited with their families and friends.
Their stories are different, but they share the yearning for a country that feels close and yet far, and the family they were forced to leave behind.
“We all live the American dream differently,” said López. “Mine was to have a house with a backyard and a family. I like that stereotype, which was one that I could never imagine in Mexico,” she added, before staying quiet for some time.
Alvaro Céspedes is a Mexican journalist who recently graduated with a dual master’s degree in Journalism and Latin American Studies from The University of Texas at Austin. His journalistic works focus on stories related to the intersection between immigration, social justice, and culture. In the United States, he has done freelance work for outlets like NACLA, Texas Observer and Texas Standard. In Mexico, he has worked with Gatopardo, Letras Libres, and Vice. He believes in the power of words as a means for change.