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It was a baseless rumor. But when word spread through Mexico, in the fall of 2019, that the Trump administration was welcoming refugees from narco-related violence, it spurred a rush of hopeful migrants to Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas. The refugees arrived with tragic stories. One man showed his fingers, cut to the knuckles by cartel henchmen. Others told of beatings and rapes. A tent village grew on the Mexican side at the foot of the international bridge.
The Ortega family, housed in a big blue tent on Benito Juárez Avenue, had suffered a recent tragedy. Only months earlier, cartel members had raided their farm, near the southern coast of Michoacán, and killed their 60-year-old father, José Luis, and a 24-year-old brother, Hiberto. It’s still unclear why the thugs, who seemed to be operating independently of their cartel, targeted the two farmers. In the following days, rumor spread that other family members would be next. So the family matriarch, Rita, mother of 11, traveled 1,400 miles north to the border with her four children still living in the vicinity and their respective families. Their goal: to join one of their sisters who had been living in California for a decade.
In the following months, the large Ortega family would scatter across much of the North American continent. Some dodged border police in the United States while others faced narco cartels back home. A grinding U.S. judicial system utterly foreign to them would further split up the family, moving two of the sons from one detention center to another. Within months, the pandemic would strike both countries.
In the traditional view, North American migration flows from the south to the north, from violence and poverty to a land of opportunity, with only the border dividing the two. But the Ortegas’ family odyssey, like many others, operates more like an army during wartime. It features advance scouts, networked communications, daring incursions, and supply lines of money and goods. There are plenty of maddening stalemates, and many retreats to the home base.
This is the story of a family hunting for safety and sustenance—a home—in today’s North America.
Ramón remembers the day of the murders. There had been threats for weeks, and violence in the region had been picking up as a rival organization encroached from the north. Ramón had been picked up twice by corrupt Michoacán state troopers. Once, they beat him with AR-15 rifles and shocked him with a cattle prod in hopes he’d admit to working for a rival cartel. They let him go when blood started dripping from his ear.
His brother-in-law, Fabian, 17 at the time, had been detained at a community police checkpoint in a nearby town. The vigilantes held his fingers between hedge shears and punched the back of his head while they demanded he admit to working for a cartel.
When he heard on that April afternoon that his father and brother were missing, Ramón rode his motorcycle toward their ranch. He found them dead on the side of the road. Ignoring friends’ advice to leave right away, Ramón cleaned and dressed the corpses for the burial services the following day.
This was the environment Ramón was hoping to escape when he and his family traveled north and camped out by the bridge. Around Christmas, with dropping temperatures and diminishing savings, some of the group gave up and returned to Michoacán. But finally, on a cold January morning, those remaining were allowed to cross the bridge and tell their story, Ramón’s mother and 17-year-old brother were granted temporary residence in the United States pending an asylum hearing. But Ramón and another brother were tossed into separate pathways, being sent from one detention facility to another.
Ramón spent almost four months in detention centers in New Mexico, Texas, and Georgia. His court date was pushed back again and again due to complications related to the spreading pandemic. He saw television images of overflowing morgues. In April of 2020, fearing he’d die of the disease while locked up, he asked to be deported.
His hope was to move his wife and two daughters to another, safer state, but when his wife, Rocio, lost her two brothers to narco violence and her father to natural causes, they were forced to move back to be with her mother in El Chico, Michoacán.
Ramón and Fabian have used money sent from the U.S. to plant their own papaya field. They also work as day laborers for other farms.
In 2021, cartel violence receded as the warring groups joined together to resist the encroachment of the stronger Jalisco cartel from the north. The united cartel now dominates the region, and has become the de facto government. This allows the Ortegas to relax a bit. In his free time, Ramón hunts iguanas and other small game with a handmade rifle, and on a Sunday, takes his family swimming.
Money from family in the United States remains crucial for the family in Michoacán. There’s a steady flow for day-to-day expenses, and also funds for religious services and remembrances. Earners in the U.S. send money through Western Union, which the family in Michoacán collects in the closest city, about an hour and a half away.
In December of 2020, relatives in California paid for mariachis to perform at a wake for the murdered brother and father.
When relatives in the United States feel a need for a favor from above, whether for confronting a health crisis or overcoming troubles at work, they sponsor a religious service followed by a party back home.
The United States
In early March of 2020, Ramón’s younger brother, Jesús, was booted out of detention and deported back to Ciudad Juárez. He had been shuttled, for two months, from one center to another in Texas and New Mexico, and was elated to be free, even if it was on the wrong side of the border.
His next option was to sneak across. Jesús had relatives in California who knew a coyote, a person who smuggles migrants across the border. But his rate had ballooned to $14,000. They shopped for a cheaper option, found one for $9,000, and lent Jesús the money. He flew from Juárez to Tijuana. His crossing, he learned, would pass through the desert east of the city.
At six o’clock one morning, the coyote and his associate took him and one other man to the starting point, a hill overlooking the border. Over the following hours, the coyotes, watching them through binoculars, gave the two men precise instructions by phone: Go left, hide behind that bush, climb down the red rocks. As the sun set, they hid in a small thicket of trees. It was getting cold. They were thirsty. Around 10 p.m., they were instructed to wrap blankets around their feet to hide footprints, and to run. They reached a highway, where they had been told to wait. By this point, they were famished and freezing, and the phone battery was nearly dead. It wasn’t until the middle of the following afternoon that they were picked up, given water, and taken to a house in California’s Imperial Valley, and from there to San Bernardino, where they were in a house with 16 other immigrants.
If they had never come for us, I would have stopped a car and asked for a ride. When you’re right there in the middle of the action, you’re not scared. It’s only after it’s over that you realize how dangerous it really was.
Looking back on the whole ordeal, Jesús is amazed he made it across. “If they had never come for us, I would have stopped a car and asked for a ride. When you’re right there in the middle of the action, you’re not scared. It’s only after it’s over that you realize how dangerous it really was.”
A brother-in-law was supposed to pick up Jesús, but he canceled, because he had a funeral to go to. This upset the coyotes, who threatened to dump Jesús back in Mexico. In the end, the brother-in-law gave them another $1,000 to transport Jesús to Oakland.
Jesús heard about construction work in a Northern California town that had been damaged by wildfires. He found a job there on day one.
As a full-time worker in the United States, making more than $25 per hour, Jesús is a source of wealth for the family in Michoacán. But this also brings dangers. After all, the murders of Jesús’ father and brother coincided with a recent expansion of the family ranch.
His plan is to make money in California for five years, and then to return with his saved-up money to Michoacán. He’s already buying parcels of land in the area.
But he also enjoys California, especially its natural beauty. He has a mountain bike. On weekends, he rides it in state parks and forests, a northern version of the coastal forests where he and his brothers used to hunt iguanas and chachalacas with slingshots. He feels freer, he says, without papers than family members making their way through the legal immigration machinery. They have to wear surveillance bracelets on their ankles and show up for hearings and meetings with lawyers. He’s free in a wealthy and beautiful part of the world. Yet he still longs for Michoacán.
He’s eager to reverse the poverty of his childhood. He and his siblings were shamed at school in Mexico for their ragged clothes. They all dropped out of the rural school by the time they were 12 or 13. The worst memory is of losing his little sister Lupita. She was just 8 when she started losing weight and vomiting up food. Eventually, they took her to the hospital, but the doctors could not save her.
But now, Jesús is pursuing a goal: to make enough money to return to Michoacán, but this time as a man of means. He has direction.
Unlike Jesús, the family matriarch, Rita, seems lost. She lives with her son, José Alfredo, who is now 19. He works in construction. But for months after she arrived in California, still grieving for her husband and son, Rita would sit silently and draw. Sometimes, it was the forms of the letters she recalled from her one year of education, and sometimes, the ranch they were terrorized to flee and left behind.
After many generations in the coastal hills of Michoacán, the Ortega family has all but disappeared from the region in just two decades. Jesús, his brother José Alfredo, their two sisters Alma Delia and Francisca, and their mother, Rita, are in California. Their brother Eduardo and sister Jatziry live in Puerto Vallarta. Eduardo earns good money in construction using the skills he learned in California years ago before being deported. María, another sister, is farther north up the Michoacán coast with her husband, whom she met in California. They live in a modern beachside house built with American savings. Ramón and Aurora are the closest to the ancestral home, living a few miles down the dirt road on the coast. They visit the ranch sporadically, sometimes for a party or to perform basic upkeep. However, neither sees a future in the dangerous and poor region. They want to get to America, to give their young children better lives than they’ve had.
Ramón says he’s more motivated to go to the U.S. for his daughter’s future than for any other reason. “I want her to study and to have a nice house to live in. But we’ll see when we get another opportunity to go, because it’s not up to us, it’s up to God.”
I want her to study and to have a nice house to live in. But we’ll see when we get another opportunity to go, because it’s not up to us, it’s up to God.
Henry Craver graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in history in 2014. He spent the next three years working as an English teacher, first in France's overseas regions, and then in Spain. In 2017, he moved to El Paso to work as a grant writer at a small nonprofit legal aide center. In 2018, Henry began working as an editor at The City Magazine, a local El Paso publication. In late 2019, he left the magazine to work full-time as a freelance photographer. When he's not taking photos, Henry likes watching Romanian soap operas and reality television.