VOICES--The question of what happens to people forced from their homes due to politics has a long history, but from where I come from – Los Angeles, a destination for all manner of refugees – the answer usually means new neighborhoods appearing with names like Little Saigon and Little Armenia.
So, considering what’s been happening back in the U.S., I wasn’t surprised to stumble upon a place called “Little L.A.” in the heart of Mexico City, adjacent to the Monument to the Revolution in a colorful, diverse neighborhood called Tabacalera. (Photo above: Israel Concha. By newcomienzos.org)
Tabacalera is the kind of place where outsiders settle, not just because it’s an affordable urban environment, but because it also happens to be where a number of call centers are located. For returning Mexican-Americans, deported from the U.S., it’s a godsend. Their English skills are highly valued – in fact, sometimes the language of el norte is all they have, especially “Dreamers” (young people who arrived in the U.S. illegally as children, protected from deportation by the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA), who often speak very little Spanish, having spent their entire lives since infancy in an English-speaking environment.
I walked up from the busy Hidalgo subway stop, past hotels which are one of the mainstays of Tabacalera. But it’s not a tourist district, as these hotels are generally used by Mexican businesspeople, and on some streets they rent by the hour. It’s an old part of town, so the streets are narrow and crowded with food stands selling gorditas, tacos and fruit juices, squeezed up against little mobile stores set up under blue tarp tents.
Israel Concha saw all this two years ago. And in it, he saw opportunity. He arrived here a couple years ago after spending two years in detention when he was found to be undocumented during a routine traffic stop in San Antonio, Texas. His son was born while he was in detention, and once Israel was dropped on the other side of the border, he not only lost the opportunity to be with his boy, but he was immediately kidnapped and held for ransom for three days, a more common occurrence than you’d think. Because if you think the cartels and coyotes make money off desperate Central American immigrants, just imagine the kind of money they can make off a recently deported Mexican-American who has a family back home with a savings account.
I was able to schedule an interview with Israel after running into a couple of his staff on the street, unaware that they were working with Israel’s organization, New Comienzos (New Beginnings), which helps orient returnees and deportees, directing them toward jobs, shelter and services. I’d approached Antonio when I saw the Pittsburgh Steelers logo on the ribbon around his neck that held his ID badge. Knowing there are only Cowboys and Raiders fans here in Mexico City, this looked promising, and as I got closer, sure enough I heard the cadences of English as he was instructing a young woman on how to find an office down the street.
“She’s going to an AT&T call center,” he informed me. “She just came down from Pachuca, where she was staying with a relative. There’s nothing there for her, so like everybody else, she came down to Mexico City to find a job. AT&T will put her through three interviews so the process can take several weeks, but we have a shelter and food vouchers, so she has somewhere to stay and something to eat while she waits.” He then introduced me to Luisa from Chicago, a Dreamer who self-deported with her sister and mother. “I couldn’t drive, I was facing all sorts of hassles with wanting to go to college to pursue a career,” she said. “And there was Mom. And I was like, what am I doing? I get it. I’m not welcome here.”
So the family came back to Mexico City, and with a new law that the Mexican government passed recently, she was able to get her school transcripts transferred without the hassles and delays that were characteristic in years past. Though not all the credits were honored, she was able to make up the required classes and enter university, where she studied international relations.
Antonio and Luisa told me a bit about the neighborhood, how there was a deportado who sold California-style burritos and another who was a cobbler. They mentioned Casa de los Amigos, which was the shelter Antonio had mentioned. I wasn’t sure who they were working with, and asked them if they knew a guy named Israel Concha. They both laughed. He was upstairs.
I scheduled a time to meet with Concha, and in the meantime took a walk around, and visited the shelter, which is in a beautiful old building designed by noted Mexican architect Luis Barragán, and was once the residence of one of Mexico’s greatest muralists, José Clemente Orozco. Casa de los Amigos was founded by Quakers in 1956, and with private rooms as well as dormitories for up to 100, it’s one of the cheapest places to find a bed on short notice.
I also went by a little shop where Luisa and Antonio had mentioned there was a poster that was beginning to appear around the neighborhood: “Nuestro Negocio Apoya a la Communidad Binacional” (Our Business Supports the Binational Community). And there was Israel Concha’s face above the wording. This guy was clearly a leader.
On my way back up the street to meet him, I stopped by a 7-Eleven and a restaurant and asked the workers there what they thought of the sudden influx of American deportees. Most smiled. They said things were generally fine, although locals were sometimes put off by Americans’ penchant for tattoos and clothing that suggested what would here be considered the look of a criminal. Mexico’s is a more traditional society, and though many young people sport tattoos in La Capital, it’s not common outside the metropolis, or among anybody over 30.
When I got back to New Beginnings, I met an American while waiting for Concha to appear. Adam had retired with his wife to Mexico City and had gotten involved as a volunteer, manning the toll free number for psychological counseling that Concha had set up for newly arrived deportees traumatized by deportation. Had Israel thought of everything?
* * *
Israel Concha appeared a moment later, an athletic-looking man, well-appointed and professional in a dress shirt, slacks and polished shoes. Handsome, he has a strong jaw and eyes that give him a firm, yet boyish look. He speaks fluently in both Spanish and English, and having run a limousine service back in San Antonio, has the confidence, assertiveness and creativity of a successful small businessperson. And that has made all the difference here in Little L.A.
“I started this with my own money, and it’s run by volunteers. It’s hard to raise money in Mexico, but I wasn’t going to let anything stop me. We can have the American dream right here,” he stated emphatically. He pointed out the window at the enormous Monument to the Mexican Revolution. “We are starting a revolution right here.” He’s charismatic and polished, and before my cynicism could overtake me, I found myself taken in. There must have been 30 to 40 young people here on laptops, all of them cheerfully helping other deportees to find food, shelter and a job. It’s clear that much of the force behind this effort are the Dreamers, some having left to accompany deported family members, and others like Luisa, having self-deported out of frustration, intent upon building their future here in Mexico.
Concha has found a number of creative ways to obtain the elusive funding. He set up a logistics co-op with former truck drivers, using his tech skills from his time in Texas to help streamline Mexican trucking companies. He also set up a language school where deportee volunteers teach English. And he’s attracted several U.S. universities that have sent scholars to study the deportee community, their grants covering office space and sometimes even hiring staff.
I asked him if there were any problems obtaining documents here in Mexico. He said that it was a problem during the election last year as the government stopped issuing voting cards, the best document to have to gain employment, housing, benefits, etc. Nationalized health care is available in Mexico, and social security and unemployment too, but while the government encourages deportees to apply, they rarely get results.
Concha figured New Beginnings has helped about 20,000 people, and the group even sends volunteers to the airport to meet with the up to 600 deportees who arrive daily. He mentioned that businesses are beginning to take note of their work, not out of charity, but because they see an opportunity to hire better-skilled Americans with superlative English for the burgeoning global economy.
He added that he would be part of a panel discussing immigration and deportation at Casa de la Universidad de California, located in the San Angel neighborhood. He invited me to come, so later that afternoon I jogged across the courtyard through the afternoon rain into a beautiful old house, where a series of panels had been going all day, curated and hosted by Robert McKee Irwin, a University of California, Davis, professor, who in his passion for a humanitarian immigration policy has produced numerous videos and spent time in Tijuana and Mexico City, and encouraged and facilitated much research on the issue.
Some panelists compared detention in Mexico vs. in the U.S., and the challenges faced by Central Americans journeying north. Concha took the microphone and walked into the crowd. He talked about the opportunities available to recent deportees, including in tourism, call centers, logistics and tech. He has started a digital agency in Guadalajara, Mexico’s Silicon Valley, to take advantage of, and expand upon, deportees’ tech skills. There was mention of a group called Hola Coda, a software start-up founded by Marcela Torres, which offers a five-month training program for recent deportees, and ODA (Otros Dreams en Acción), an advocacy organization that founded [email protected] House, a gathering place and community center for deportees and returnees.
But I think I was most affected by a panelist wearing the hot-pink T-shirt whose big white letters read, “Dreamers Moms.” Maria Jiménez left four children behind in the U.S. when she was deported, three of whom are native born and one who is a Dreamer. Her group works for family reunification — offering support to other moms and helping them to obtain visas to see their children. Jiménez was clearly a strong woman, determined and committed to her work, but tears formed in her eyes as she talked about family separation, which is clearly one of the greatest and most preventable tragedies of current U.S. immigration policy.
It was still raining when I left, and I dodged carefully across the cobblestone streets of San Angel, looking for a coffee shop to wait out the storm as the traffic rushed by and dusk fell upon the city. Heading home in a week, my passport like a subway card, allowing me to come and go with ease, I felt both grateful and guilty, consoling myself with the thought, “Thank goodness for Skype, so Maria Jiménez and Israel Concha can speak with their children.”
Something is happening here, both tragic and beautiful. Tomorrow’s leaders are building a new community. You can go down and meet them. They’ll even talk to you in English. They’ll remind you, without saying a word, that history is being written and that people and problems don’t go away. They just go somewhere else. And one day, maybe they come home. And where that is or what that means we can’t really know.
(Posted first in the excellent Capital & Main.)