Divided Families

Divided Families: Death in the Desert,1560


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Cronkite News Service

DURANGO, Mexico _ Hector Valdez walks daughters Sandra and Nancy to school, holding their backpacks until he kisses them goodbye and watches them march away wearing their uniforms and smiles.

“The hardest time of the day is when they leave for school,” Valdez said. “I come home and I miss them.”

Being a father to these two girls is a new experience for Valdez, as is discovering his daughters’ personalities. He’s found Sandra, who is 12, to be quiet and shy. Nancy, 11, is a budding writer who enjoys working on stories.

Slowly, Valdez is learning other things _ the little things _ about Sandra, whom he hadn’t seen in nine years, and Nancy, an adopted daughter he had never known.

As he learns about these two young girls and gets reacquainted with an adult daughter in Mexico, Valdez also is adjusting to life in a community and a country that he hasn’t lived in for nearly a decade. He was a welder in Phoenix when he received the call that brought him back, bringing along a 21-year-old son.

Almost a month after setting out from this colonial city in north-central Mexico, Valdez’s wife, Maria Graciela Hernandez Escobedo, has accomplished what she wanted so dearly: to reunite her family. But instead of starting a new life in the United States, she, too, is back in Durango.

Later on this fall day, Valdez, Sandra and Nancy, along with relatives and friends, will gather to pray for Maria’s soul.

In the United States, if Maria is remembered at all it will be as a statistic, one of the many who perish trying to enter the United States illegally by crossing the unforgiving Arizona desert. Some might recall a newspaper article about a mother who died as her two young daughters huddled around her, the three of them abandoned by smugglers.

But in Durango, Maria is remembered as a wife, mother, daughter, sister and friend. Her death forever altered the lives of those around her and in many ways created a new family starting again here in Durango.

Leaving Home

Valdez, 42, left Durango in 1998, crossing the border illegally and finding work as a welder in Phoenix. He left behind Maria and their children: then 1½-year-old Nancy, 13-year-old Elsa and 12-year-old Hector Jr.

Life is hard in Durango _ a skilled worker here makes about 50,000 pesos a year, or about $4,500. Valdez said he felt that it would be best for his family if he was working in Phoenix and sending money home.

Hector Jr. joined his father in 2003 and worked with him as a welder. The other children stayed behind with their mother.

Maria, who was 39 when she died, was alone in Durango with her two children when she made the decision two years ago to adopt Sandra from her sister, who was suffering from alcoholism. Valdez agreed.

The long-distance relationship was hard on both Valdez and Maria, who married when Maria was 16.

“It feels really uncomfortable when we are living knowing that half of our family is in Mexico,” Valdez said.

Valdez said that he made about $480 per week and would send home about half of that to his wife and daughters. Maria was paying rent for a house with the money, he said.

The Cost of Separation

Valdez and Maria’s long separation is rare, according to Emilia Banuelos, an immigration lawyer in Phoenix. Men usually return to Mexico after four or five years, he said.

The separation is especially difficult for children, Banuelos said.

“They have this attitude toward mom and dad that, ‘They left me,’” he said. “They are very resentful.”

One medical case study found that men who are separated from their children suffer feelings of powerlessness, jealousy, inadequacy and more, according to the National Information Center on Fatherhood.

And a study done by the Pew Hispanic Center found that negative effects of such separations include feelings of abandonment and resentment.

‘Sad and Alone’

Nine years passed, and Maria began to feel abandoned.

“When Hector left, she thought he was going to return soon,” said Ramona Escobedo, Maria’s mother. “But time went by, and he never did.”

“We talked a lot,” said Maria Luisa Hernandez Escobedo, Maria’s sister. “She was sad and alone.”

Maria was half-blind and was often walking the streets supported by Nancy and Sandra. Her sisters worried about her.

Maria Luisa knew that her sister was desperate to go to Phoenix to be with Valdez and her son.

“But at the end when she left, nobody told us she was leaving,” Maria Luisa said. “She just left, and we didn’t know that she was there. She didn’t tell us.”

Valdez, her mother and her sister-in-law were the only people Maria told before leaving Durango for Phoenix in September.

“I wanted to see my little skinny boy,” Maria told her mother before leaving.

Valdez said he discussed the trip with his wife before she left for Phoenix.

“We thought that at the most, the trip would be two hours,” said Valdez, who set up the trip through a smuggler.

Maria’s motivation to leave is common. Latina women who are separated from their children due to immigration to the United States may experience psychological consequences, such as an increased risk of depression due to the separation, according to a study by the American Psychiatric Association.

Death in the Desert

The anticipated two-hour trip turned into three days as the party that included Maria and her daughters crossed the high desert southeast of Bisbee, Ariz. It was mid-September, but the temperature still reached above 100 degrees.

Nancy and Sandra told the Mexican consulate that their water ran out as smugglers led the group among the canyons and cliffs of the Mule Mountains. Maria became dizzy, then delusional.

The smugglers placed Maria under a bush and gave her some of the remaining water, but she didn’t improve. After a few hours, the smugglers decided to move on.

“Please don’t leave us here,” the girls cried.

“We’ll go get help nearby; the nearest highway is close by,” the smugglers told them. “Help will arrive in 30 minutes.”

The smugglers and others in the party walked away from Maria, lying under the bush with Nancy and Sandra at her side.

Hours later, there still was no help, and Maria was getting worse. She was unresponsive and could not get up.

The girls finally decided that one would stay and the other would go find help.

Nancy made it to Highway 80 at dusk. She flagged down a Border Patrol vehicle and led agents to her mother and Sandra.

When medics from Bisbee reached Maria, they pronounced her dead at the scene. The girls didn’t learn Maria’s fate until later, after she was taken away in an ambulance.

Maria died of dehydration, according to the autopsy report.

From Oct. 1, 2006, to Sept. 30, 2007, approximately 243 undocumented immigrants were found dead in the Arizona desert bordering Mexico.

La Novena

“Hail Mary, full of grace. Our Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”

Friends and family are gathered at Maria’s home for “la novena,” a Roman Catholic tradition in which God receives Maria’s spirit.

Among those chanting is her mother, Ramona, who learned of Maria’s death from her daughter Maria Luisa.

“I wanted to die,” Ramona said. “You can’t even imagine.”

Maria Luisa was given permission from the Mexican consulate to pick up her nieces from Agua Prieta, Mexico, after Valdez was not able to show the proper paperwork. She, her husband, Valdez’s brother and Valdez’s mother all traveled 16 hours to pick up the girls from the border city.

“I have so much sadness,” Maria Luisa said.

The Mexican consulate paid to return Maria’s body to Durango, something the Mexican government does for each person who dies crossing the border.

Their heads held high, the mourners fill Maria’s living room with echoing prayer.

“Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and in the hour of our death. Amen.”

La novena continued for nine evenings before Maria’s funeral Mass, which was held in an open-air space filled with metal folding chairs.

The small community of Colonia Asimientos Homanos participated in the Mass. Fathers, mothers and children mourned Maria and supported her family.

“What’s better, to be happy here or there?” the priest asked, pointing to the sky.

Returning Home

Valdez is looking for work in Durango, where he plans to stay, even though life is harder.

“My plans now are to do the best I can for my daughters,” he said. “It is my obligation to be here.”

The girls also have the support of their grandmother and their aunt, who live close by. “We are going to lend a hand to the girls,” Maria Luisa said.

As Valdez adjusts to life here and as the girls adjust to life without their mother, Hector Jr. is planning to head north. He has a girlfriend in Phoenix and misses his life in the United States.

And Valdez will wish him well when he goes.

“I support him because life here is hard and he will most likely try to go if he doesn’t want to be here anymore,” he said. “You can’t make a person stay because then they will leave without telling anyone.”


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Nancy Valdez, 11, and her father, Hector Valdez, stand side by side during a Mass in memory of Hector’s wife, Maria. He returned to Durango to care for his daughters after his wife’s death. (Cronkite News Service Photo / Ashley Lowery)

Maria Luisa Hernandez Escobedo (left) mourns her sister during a gathering at the family home in Durango, Mexico. (Cronkite News Service Photo / Ashley Lowery)

Sandra Valdez, 12, waits for her sister, Nancy, 11, to tie up her hair before they leave for school. (Cronkite News Service Photo / Ashley Lowery)

Sandra and Nancy Valdez wait in front of their home for their father, Hector Valdez, to walk them to school. (Cronkite News Service Photo / Ashley Lowery)

Hector Valdez says goodbye to his daughters after walking them to school. “The hardest time of the day is when they leave for school,” he said. “I come home and I miss them.” (Cronkite News Service Photo / Ashley Lowery)