A migrant’s journey: From the cornfields of Oaxaca to running North Richmond’s Urban Tilth
on December 6, 2018
María Hernández has faced death twice seeking a better life for herself and her family.
The first time she crossed the border from Mexico, she was a 16-year-old crawling over the skeletons of others in a dark and humid tunnel on the journey to the United States.
On her next trip as a 40-year-old mother of five, she slipped crossing a mountain in the desert, and would have fallen off a cliff if someone hadn’t grabbed her.
Now María is a 56-year old grandmother living in her own house in Richmond. She is the project coordinator at Urban Tilth, a North Richmond farm where she plants, waters and harvests all sorts of fruits and vegetables.
You would never guess the resilience that lies behind her deep belly laughs and constant smiles. Her voice is so sweet it’s almost like she’s singing, even if she is only speaking in whispers. Only her wrinkles bear testimony to the harsh days of sun and the wind that whipped her face.
Her story is one of struggle and determination, like the tales of millions who seek a better life in America. It is a story about holding on to family on both sides of a border, its deadly crossing; and about finding love and joy.
Her small, two-story house lies only one mile from Urban Tilth. We are sitting in her small but colorful room. A beautiful altar stands right by the door with green candles, saints, rosaries, angels, orchids and pink and purple tablecloths carefully put in place to worship the Virgen de Guadalupe, the mother of all Mexicans. An old faded photograph hangs above on the bright yellow wall, featuring her dad wearing glasses and a straw sombrero and her mom in a pink and purple dress.
It is in this well-lit and carefully-tended house that María lives with her husband and five other members of her family.
María was born in Oaxaca, in a family of campesinos who planted and harvested corn, a poorly paying job back in Mexico. She was the oldest of seven siblings. In search of better opportunities, she moved to Mexico City when she was only 13 years old, a place with 20 million more inhabitants than the little town where she was raised.
María worked there for three years in whatever jobs she could find, mostly cleaning houses for rich people in the colorful neighborhood of Coyoacán. When she was 16 years old, it was time to go pa’l norte, or go up north, as her family used to say. With only one pair of jeans, some money and an extra sweater, her journey to the United States began with a three-day bus trip to Tijuana. Little did she know what to expect.
Once the bus got to Tijuana, she joined a crew of 40 men and 40 women who were to travel with the “coyotes,” the intermediaries who for $150 smuggle people into California. Hidden in the lush vegetation that prevented helicopters from seeing them, they traveled for a month by foot and van.
That was 40 years ago, in 1978, but María remembers that time vividly: “We walked for more than 15 days,” with only water and no food, she said. “I watched my uncles crying. Their lips were dry, chapped and split with hunger. They wanted to give up, but I said, ‘No.’ We had to keep going.”
One day, she couldn’t take it anymore. A perennial nurturer, she volunteered to buy some bread and water from a nearby store to share with everyone in the group. María, another woman and two coyotes pretended to be couples going out on a jog and tried to casually stop by a store. They got eight loaves of bread and four gallons of milk to share with their group of 80.
“Poor people,” María said. “They grabbed the bread from each other. They were so hungry.”
Then came the tunnel. The one she faced is one of more than 168 along the Mexican border with Arizona and California, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. She thanked God they had eaten something before they rushed through the dark, humid nightmare where the lack of sunlight and air hadn’t allowed the dead bodies along the way to fully decompose. María respectfully set the bones aside. There was no time to pray for them.
Since then, humid air brings back the smell of death for María.
But she survived. Out the tunnel, she ran across fields and hopped into a moving van. She hid herself as the coyotes drove her group to el paso — the borderline —just as the border patrol officers were changing shifts.
After waiting in a safe house for a few days, she was taken to Los Angeles and eventually to Clovis, where she settled into a job making tortillas at a shop where she fell in love with a coworker, José Hernandez, whom she would later marry.
“When I met her she had another boyfriend,” José said. “But the other one did not work at the tortilleria, so I had an advantage.”
They fell in love, and María had her first child, Yuri, when she was only 20 years old. Soon after, Jose’s mother fell ill and the couple decided to return to Mexico and spend time with her. They had four more children over the next 20 years.
Once in Mexico, María and Jose made the decision that she would stay behind in Guanajuato with her in-laws to raise the children while José traveled back and forth, crossing the border by foot every time. But when you don’t have papers, a passport or a legal identity that validates you as a human being, traveling is nearly impossible — and deadly.
During most of those years, José worked in Richmond where his brother lived. He made tortillas, built houses and worked the fields making $7 an hour. He sent his family in Mexico $50 to $100 each week, but sometimes it wasn’t enough for them. María then bought cheese and cajeta to sell in Mexico City. She would come back with presents for the family, mostly things to eat.
Back at her house in North Richmond this November, 36-year-old Yuri Hernandez, the eldest Hernandez child and only daughter, came into the living room and sat down to talk to us.
She lives next door and was making shrimp soup that night for everyone.
Here, the family has more opportunities. In Mexico, food was scarce and the meals monotonous.
“We would celebrate every time we had ham or cereal in the house,” she said.
In 1999, José grew tired of traveling and risking his life every time he crossed the border. With big dreams, María and four of their children headed north that year.
Yuri, who was born in America and is a citizen, could take a legal route to Oakland. But for the rest of the family, it meant another dangerous journey.
José borrowed $10,000 to pay a “coyota,” a Latina woman whose children were American, to drive his children over the border and pass them off as her own. Though they were young at the time, the drama of the border crossing remains a vivid memory for the Hernandez children.
“It was a very dark night when we crossed,” said Victor Hernandez, who at the time was 10 years old. “The coyota gave us new clothes and a haircut so we looked gabachos (like Americans). … She told me to sit tight and pretend I was asleep in the car. We were kids. The cops did not ask us anything.”
María took the harsher route: through the mountainous desert with nothing but water and limes to prevent dehydration. It took her a week to hike from Mexicali to Calexico along Cerro Centinela — one of the most dangerous routes to cross and a common route for human traffickers.
“The hardest part was the sacrifice. What one sees. How dead people lie in the desert,” María said.
Migrant bodies have been littering the desert for decades, unburied. Their deaths go unnoticed.
Inside her Richmond home, recounting the passage, María took a deep breath to calm herself. She tells her stories slowly, pausing with each word, respecting every scene, every conversation and every feeling.
“We walked for a week, and that’s when I tripped on a rock and fell,” she said. “The mountain was very steep. If it wasn’t for the other people who grabbed me, I would’ve died.”
She rubbed her left arm signaling the place burnt and scarred from the fall.
On Jan. 1, 2001, she made it to Los Angeles for the second time, and then to Fresno where her sister lived. She was dirty, hurt and weary.
The next day, her husband picked her up and drove her to Richmond to what she calls her “montoncito,” or her bunch.
“She looked really happy,” José said. It was the day after the start of the new year, and the family received her with a feast of warm tamales, buñuelos and pozole in their small one-room apartment, which was all they could afford.
“My heart came back to my body,” María said in Spanish, smiling as she explained the relief and joy she felt.
Insider her home as our interview wore on, darkness began to fall and the late autumn California chill began to settle in. María rubbed her hands, put a sweater on and heated up some homemade tortillas for the both of us.
The family gathered around the table to eat the shrimp soup Yuri had prepared. María’s two little grandchildren, Yuri’s children, had just come back from school. “Gueeelaaaa, gueeeeelaaaa,” they yelled, without being able to properly pronounce the word abuela, or grandmother, in Spanish. As they played “trick or treat” behind the kitchen closet, their English was nearly perfect. María hugged them close to her chest. Her little granddaughter was wearing a huge pink bow, Nike shoes and a matching T-shirt that said “I love my family” in gold letters.
After dinner, María took a shower and got ready to leave for Richmond High School where she’s taking adult English classes three times a week. After submitting all the necessary paperwork, María at last became a legal resident in America in July. Despite that, though, the current administration’s strict immigration policies have her family on edge. Her next hurdle is learning to speak English fluently.
“You never know with that Trump,” she said. “We have to be very well prepared.”
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