On a sunny March afternoon in Sonsonate, El Salvador, five gang members pulled Juan Vicente into a narrow alleyway. Vicente grew up around Los Angeles and had just been deported to El Salvador several weeks before. The gang wanted a better look at the tattoos scrawled on Vicente’s arms -- they were the names of his children.
One man in the alleyway pulled at Vicente’s shirt, ripping off the buttons. The five men encircled Vicente to inspect his skin for tattoos from rival gangs. Another gang member ordered him to take his pants off.
“The only thing I had on was my boxers,” Vicente said. “A cop even walked by, but he didn’t say anything.”
Vicente is 49 and stocky, with short, silvery hair and a bristly mustache. He lived in Southern California for more than three decades, but has been deported twice. On the streets of El Salvador Vicente’s tattoos have attracted suspicion from gang members, even though he was never part of a gang.
El Salvador is one of the most violent countries in the world outside of an active war zone. And it’s a country where thousands of immigrants deported from California each year have to decide between starting a new life or trying to return to the United States as undocumented immigrants.
Both possibilities feel increasingly precarious—as high levels of violent crime continue in El Salvador and U.S. attitudes toward immigrants have become increasingly hostile.
The Trump administration’s recent decision to end Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for El Salvador puts 200,000 Salvadorans at risk of deportation. California has the largest Salvadoran population in the United States. And even before the end of TPS, many Salvadorans with roots in California had been deported to an unstable country where they have almost no family and few resources to get back on their feet.
The men who forced Vicente to strip in the alley let him go after they couldn’t find any gang tattoos and decided he was “clean.” But the experience changed Vicente. Now he mainly keeps to himself and tries not to walk in unfamiliar neighborhoods. After the gang let him go from the alleyway, Vicente felt he could never live in El Salvador.
But for Vicente, the hardest part of life after deportation is the separation from his family. His mother, siblings and seven children all live in California, scattered between Bakersfield and the San Francisco Bay Area.
“My home has always been the United States,” Vicente said, sitting in a neighbor’s house in Santa Ana, El Salvador, half a block from the house where his grandparents used to live. “I was born in El Salvador, but this place has never been my home.”
Vicente has only childhood memories of El Salvador. His mother migrated to L.A. County by herself in the 1970s, hoping to one day bring her children to the United States. Vicente and his two younger siblings spent their early years living with his grandparents in Santa Ana, a bustling city tucked between dry, rolling foothills in western El Salvador. As a kid, Vicente rode a 24-inch mountain bike around streets lined with leafy almendro trees, his dog Dukie perched on the handlebars.
Those carefree, youthful days in Santa Ana ended in 1979 when civil war broke out in El Salvador between the government and leftist guerrillas.
Vicente recalled stepping over dead bodies on the way to school in the mornings. Every few days soldiers would storm into his grandparents' house to recruit him to fight -- sometimes it was the army, sometimes guerrillas. Vicente was only 10 years old at the time. His grandmother hid him under corn sacks until the soldiers left. Recruitment of child soldiers was common during the war. Vicente remembers watching other kids march down the street carrying weapons.
“The rifle was bigger than them,” Vicente said. “It was bigger than me!”
His mother was anxious to get her children out of the country.
She returned to El Salvador in 1981 to take Vicente and his younger brother and sister to California. She had married a U.S. citizen and become a legal U.S. resident. And she obtained residency for her three children as well. The entire family flew to Los Angeles and entered the country legally. Vicente’s new stepdad picked them up at LAX in a long, 1978 Chevy station wagon. As they cruised around town, past Disneyland and the tall buildings of downtown Los Angeles, Vicente’s mouth dropped open. Everything in California looked so beautiful.
California was a safe refuge from El Salvador, but trauma from the war haunted Vicente as a teenager. He grew up and went to school in Bell Gardens, just south of Los Angeles. Kids made fun of Vicente’s accent. He felt different, even from other young immigrant students at school. The teacher of an ESL class once asked Vicente and the other students to write an essay about why they came to the United States. Vicente said the Mexican students in the class talked about poverty. But Vicente had fled a war zone.
“When the teacher asked me to read what I’d written, I wasn’t able to,” Vicente said. “I was crying.”
Looking back on his younger years, Vicente believes the violence he witnessed as a kid had a big influence on him as he grew up. He started drinking as a teenager and hanging out with “the wrong crowd.” At the time, Central American gangs like MS-13 and 18th Street formed in Los Angeles. Gang members even tried to recruit Vicente, but he steered clear of them.
To keep him out of trouble and away from gangs, Vicente’s mom sent him away to Bakersfield to finish high school. Vicente worked in the oil fields in Bakersfield when he was a young man and later became a forklift driver at Trader Joe’s. But he struggled with alcohol when he was younger and got three DUIs that would come back to haunt him later in life.
In 2003, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agents showed up at Vicente’s work and arrested him. He was held at an ICE detention center in Nevada for more than a year and, even though he had the help of a lawyer, he finally gave up and signed the papers for a voluntary deportation to El Salvador.
Vicente immediately made his way back to California. He took a bus across Mexico, getting off to walk around Mexican immigration checkpoints, and crossed the border illegally into San Diego. He lived under the radar in Southern California for more than a decade. But after a police officer pulled him over for a traffic violation in 2015, he was deported again. Now, with two deportations, Vicente says the punishment he would face for returning to California just isn’t worth it.
“I’d get five years in prison, federal,” Vicente said. “So I don’t want to do that. I’m too old to spend that much time in prison."
Instead, Vicente dreams of starting a new life in Tijuana, a city where his family in California could easily visit. He has seven children in California -- all of them adults and U.S. citizens. Vicente tried to get to Tijuana last year. But Mexico is also cracking down on immigration, deporting thousands of Central Americans each year as part of an initiative called the Southern Border Program, supported with U.S. funding.
After hopping on freight trains and hiking around immigration checkpoints last summer, Vicente got as far as Chahuites, a dusty railroad town in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Vicente found a construction job in Chahuites, but one day after work, Mexican immigration agents spotted him as a migrant. They arrested Vicente and, once again, he was deported back to El Salvador.
Central American deportees face unique challenges.
Unlike Mexicans -- who are deported to a country that boasts the second-largest economy in Latin America -- deportees repatriated to the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras return to violent nations with few job prospects. Although Mexico also suffers from rising insecurity and a weakened peso, many Central Americans feel there’s more opportunity there than in Central America, and far less risk than trying to re-enter the United States. But Central American migrants in Mexico also live with the threat of deportation and they earn just a fraction of what they would in California.
Today, Vicente lives with a cousin next to a Seventh-day Adventist church in the same neighborhood in Santa Ana, El Salvador, where he spent his childhood. Although the civil war is long over, the same gangs that formed in Los Angeles have destabilized cities and towns all over El Salvador. Deported gang members started setting up shop in El Salvador during the ‘90s, extorting local businesses and killing those who don’t pay.
“Every day they kill somebody over here,” Vicente said.
Starting a new life in El Salvador after his deportation has been especially hard for Vicente. He can’t get a job because he doesn’t have a Salvadoran ID. The building that had a copy of his birth certificate was blown up in the civil war. So in order to prove he’s Salvadoran, he’d have to hire a lawyer, which he can’t afford. In the meantime, Vicente gets by with a little money that his mother occasionally sends him.
Days in Santa Ana drag on as Vicente waits and hopes for his luck to change. He has been deported from California. And deported from Mexico. And he’s technically undocumented in El Salvador, too.
“I don’t have nothing,” Vicente said. “No papers. No family.”
Thousands of Salvadorans are also in the same boat. On the streets of Santa Ana, Vicente frequently runs into other people who have also been deported from California. They exchange memories of their other lives, or joke about arranging straw marriages to return legally.
For the moment, Vicente’s only connections to California are a telephone and Facebook.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Vicente punched the numbers of a prepaid calling card into an old cellphone to call his mother. She answered in her mobile home in Fontana, California, and told her son about the pupusas she was making. Her voice came through scratchy from a bad connection, but Vicente’s mouth cracked up into a big smile as they talked.
Their weekly conversations make Vicente wish that he could do everything over: Not been such a drinker in his younger years, not gotten those DUIs, not lost his green card.
“I was young and stupid,” Vicente said. “I had the American Dream. And I lost it.”
Thousands of deported Salvadorans battle with similar regrets about how they might have also avoided deportation. But you can’t turn back the clock. And instead, deported Salvadorans have to start new lives in a dangerous country far away from California, the place many people, like Vicente, consider their real home.
“I love you, mom,” Vicente said, in English over the phone.
“Call me later OK, baby?” His mom asked before she returned to making pupusas in California.
Then he hung up the phone.