Editor’s note: The second in a series of articles about the lives of U.S. deportees living in Mexico.
Fernando Santos’ life these days doesn’t exactly fit his old nickname:“Drifter.” Instead of wandering the land, the former U.S. resident takes care of others who answer the call of the road at the budget hotel he manages in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Santos’ digs are comfy, with a down-home atmosphere enlivened by paintings and photos of Frida Kahlo and Pancho Villa. The long table in the common room is a place where members of more than a dozen nationalities can swap war stories while taking in a few Coronas.
“Every person who is traveling should consider themselves an ambassador,” Santos waxes philosophically. “I’d say 90 percent of the people who come here are good people, but then you have the oddballs.”
An easy-going man with a stocky build and a ready laugh to boot, Santos says he could never imagine how his life would eventually turn out when he was a young man gangbanging on the streets of Los Angeles and Denver.
Mexico-born, Santos was brought to the U.S. by his family when he was only four years old. Early in life, Santos became fatherless.
Back in the late 1970s, while he was headed to the United States, Dad simply vanished in the northern Mexican border state of Tamaulipas. Time passed but the man never returned home. Family members eventually poked around the borderland searching for their loved one, only to be warned to “stop asking,” Santos recollects.
He suspects that his old man, who liked playing cards and shooting pool, ran afoul of the wrong situation.
The youngest of six children, four sisters and two brothers, Santos was raised by a suddenly single woman who struggled to maintain a family in the tough Los Angeles County city of Compton. The older brother “headed for the streets and I followed,” is how Santos describes his youthful years.
“(Gang life) is what we saw. That’s what we did. There comes a point when you have to change your life, and that is what I did,” says a survivor who is now approaching the early stages of middle age.
Yet before the changes came, Santos’ life took big institutional detours. First, he whittled away nine years in juvenile and adult correctional facilities. Later, he was funneled through the labyrinith of the U.S. immigration system.
In 1998, Santos was slapped with a 48-month federal prison term for selling heroin to an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent in Denver, Colorado. The sentencing judge, U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch, was the same one who presided over Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVie’s trial.
The young Santos was shipped around between different federal prisons, including La Tuna near El Paso and El Reno, Oklahoma, in a shuffle he calls “diesel therapy.” The former inmate attributes gang associations to a two-year, sun-deprived stint in El Reno’s solitary lock-up, “That’s when you know who you are,” Santos says of the experience.
Due to his immigration status, Santos was subjected to deportation proceedings prior to the end of the prison sentence. The DEA, he says, played the immigration card, urging the young prisoner to inform on his dope supplier in return for being allowed to stay in the U.S. Rejecting the snitching-for-citizenship deal, Santos took the rap on the chin. “Growing up on the streets, you don’t (snitch),” he says.
Consequently, Santos underwent his first deportation. In 2002 the U.S. authorities transported the newly-released prisoner to the border of Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, telling Santos to look south and “keep walking.” Ironically, Nuevo Laredo was the possible place where Santos’ father disappeared long ago.
By the time Santos set foot on Mexican soil, Nuevo Laredo was if anything only a meaner place, with the war for the border city between the Sinaloa and Gulf drug cartels primed to explode.
Finding Nuevo Laredo a hostile-looking town and not knowing anyone in the city, Santos immediately took a bus to Tijuana. There, he found willing coyotes, immigrant smugglers, who agreed to cross him over to the U.S. for $3,000, a task which was easily accomplished after calls were made to relatives on the U.S. side and a deal struck to deliver Santos in return for the money.
Santos headed back to Denver, where his mother was living, landing a job in construction as a heavy equipment operator with a former employer who was unconcerned about the ex-con’s legal hassles. “He didn’t care,” Santos says. “He knew I was a hard worker.”
But Santos’ return didn’t last long. One day in 2003, he says he was arrested when he could not produce an i.d. during a traffic stop. The U.S. immigration authorities gave him two options: sign a voluntary deportation or contest it. When Santos leaned toward the former, he was surprised to hear officials’ reactions.
“’Are you sure you want to get deported’?” he remembers officials saying. “’You don’t even sound Mexican’.”
Although the child of Mexican immigrants is quite adept at speaking Spanish, he considers English his primary tongue: “I think in English.”
Opting for voluntary deportation, Santos was sent to Mexico the second time courtesy of the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez borderland. He quickly hopped aboard a bus in Juarez for the Bajio region of central Mexico, where relatives lived.
As Santos recalls, “It was cool. I had some money saved up. I had two cars. I decided I was done with (criminality).”
Perhaps suprisingly, the 39-year-old expresses no bitterness or regrets about his expulsion from El Norte. “Everything I did was bad and I’m not crying.” Santos adds. “If you get in jail and get deported, you have no one else to blame. That’s why I keep a light attitude.”
As the evening progresses, two women from Spain, Maria and Monica, sit down at the common table under the watchful eyes of Frida Kahlo.
The talk turns to travels through Maya land, the economic disaster in Spain and the massive migration shifts around the globe. Jobs might be few and far between in Spain, but desperate migrants from sub-Saharan Africa continue arriving looking for whatever scraps of employment they can find in order to simply eat another day, the women say.
Like the U.S.-Mexico border, the passage from Africa to Europe is deadly. In recent weeks, at least 27 African migrants were killed attempting to cross the sea between Morocco and Spain.
Back to Fernando Santos’ story. After living a couple of years in his new Mexican home, Santos was invited by a relative to Canada. The old wanderlust back, he moved to London, Ontario, joining a handful of Mexicans in a medium-sized city that nevertheless had a growing Latino population, mainly Colombians and other immigrants from South and Central America.
Santos later headed west, securing a good-paying job in Vancouver as a concrete finisher. In the interim, he met a Canadian woman, got married and had a son.
But Santos’ U.S. past followed him to Canada. He applied for Canadian residency but was rejected. Undeterred, he tried again but was advised by his lawyer that the applicant’s chances would be better if he returned to Mexico during the time the petition was under consideration.
As in the United States system, family separation was an immigrant’s lot. According to the prospective Canadian, the current immigration rules oblige his sponsoring wife to show at least six months’ worth of annual income earned while residing in Canada.
Going on four years later, Santos still hasn’t heard the decision on his application.
“I’ve been waiting ever since,” he says with a sigh of resignation filling his voice. “They keep telling me they’re waiting for background checks.”
Santos is pretty certain that his tatoos and U.S. criminal record are making the application a long, drawn-out ordeal. Yet again, he conveys no bad feelings. “I can understand why they are looking at me, and I think they are waiting to see if I give up,” he speculates.
Though he is separated from his family, Santos carefully weighs his past, present and future. Looking back, Santos’ life fortunes resulted in a far different outcome than the fate of his brother, who was beaten to death with a bat in 1991, or of his cousin who was murdered, or of his old homeboys who are dead.
“I’m here and the people I grew up with aren’t. I consider myself very lucky,” he says. “In retrospect, I think it was good what happened to me, because otherwise I wouldn’t have been to Canada and had a son. Deportation has opened so many doors in itself. In a way it is going to sound crazy, but I am grateful I got deported.”
Still, Santos acknowledges that the seemingly endless Canadian residency application process is taking its toll on family unity.
The manager says he makes a decent salary by Mexican standards, but does not earn enough to support his family up north. Moreover, his wife, who works as a massage and physical therapist, is now scrambling after contract changes hit the Canadian health system last year.
“She’s barely making ends meet,” Santos continues. “Right now, she’s working three jobs parttime trying to make ends meet, and that puts a lot of pressure.”
Santos credits the daily phone calls made via the low-cost Magic Jack phone company for keeping the family together. “So far, it saves me a lot of money, and my relationship,” he chuckles.
As the late winter days grow hotter, the good-natured, two-time deportee puts in long hours on the job, meets the youthful travelers of the world and dreams of being with a family in another land. In the blue waters of Banderas Bay below the hotel, other travelers are stirring. Soon, the great humpback whales will commence their long, migratory trek north to U.S. and Canadian waters.
Fernando Santos, meanwhile, waits for that bureaucratic decision which will allow him to make a similar journey back home.