Maria Mendoza-Sanchez sits on a couch in her Oakland home on Aug. 16, 2017, hours before she, her husband and son leave Oakland for Mexico City. Her daughter, Melin Sanchez, 21, cries as she watches her mother with concern. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)
In the winter of 1990, a private plane carrying a small group of passengers crashed on the high-altitude plateau of central Mexico.
For Maria Mendoza, the accident started a chain of events that sent her on a northward journey all the way to Oakland, California. And eventually, years later, back to the small town in the Mexican state of Hidalgo where she was born.
Sitting in her mother’s living room in Hidalgo on an armchair draped with a bright serape blanket, Maria reflected on the nursing career and family she built in California, and the deportation that wrenched her away -- unexpected outcomes of that long-ago crash.
She was just 18 the day the plane went down, and had already earned an accounting degree and gotten a good job as a secretary in a hospital near Mexico City. In addition to answering the phones, a doctor often called on Maria to help attend patients -- including the pilot injured in the plane crash. Maria got the pilot necessary blood transfusions, and his uncle was so grateful that he offered Maria a place to stay with family in Tijuana and promised to help her find a better hospital job in northern Mexico.
Opportunities had never just fallen into Maria’s lap. Born in Santa Monica, a small village with just 120 residents, Maria grew up with a father who farmed the land and resented the fact that most of his children were girls. Maria left home at 14 to work and put herself through school in the Mexican capital.
“I had to raise myself,” Maria said.
Maria took the bus to Tijuana, hoping to advance her career. But when she arrived in the distant border city, the pilot’s family refused to take in a stranger. Maria says they abandoned her.
She found a job exchanging money at a casa de cambio in Tijuana near the San Ysidro port of entry into San Diego. Sometimes Maria would walk on the bridge above the Tijuana River and watch Border Patrol agents on the U.S. side chase migrants trying to run over the nearby hills into California.
“I never understood why people would want to risk their lives trying to cross the border into another country,” Maria said. “That wasn’t part of my dream.”
Love changed things.
While living in Tijuana, Maria started exchanging letters with an old boyfriend, Eusebio, who had also grown up in her hometown of Santa Monica. Eusebio was one of those migrants who, at age 18, ran across the border from Tijuana and crossed into California. He settled in Oakland, and Maria got a U.S. tourist visa to visit him.
Maria eventually decided to stay with Eusebio and they started a life together as young undocumented immigrants in California.
Almost three decades later, the couple has four children and a three-bedroom house in East Oakland. The letters they once exchanged are stored away safely in a plastic box in their house. The kids are in the house, too.
But Maria and Eusebio are more than 2,000 miles away in Hidalgo, Mexico, deported and separated from their children.
Today Maria is 47, with wavy hair highlighted auburn. Every afternoon she video-chats with her kids in Oakland.
“How was school, baby?” she asked her 12-year-old son, Jesus, one recent evening.
“School was good,” Jesus said, his voice crackly over the line. The internet connection in rural Mexico frequently fizzles out and drops the calls.
Maria’s kids range in age from 12 to 24. As a young woman, Maria went back to Mexico to give birth to her first child, Vianney. Then she crossed back into California with the baby, illegally. The rest of Maria’s children are U.S. citizens. Vianney, now 24, is protected by the Obama-era DACA program that shields young adults who came to the U.S. illegally as children from deportation.
Now Vianney takes care of her siblings in California. And Maria is a long-distance mother, parenting her children over the phone.
Years earlier, Maria and Eusebio tried to avoid the situation they most feared -- deportation -- by attempting to regularize their immigration status.
Jesus had been born with congenital heart disease and the couple argued in court that he would suffer extreme hardship if his parents were ever deported.
Both parents were granted work permits in 2002 as their case slowly worked its way through the courts. While they waited for a decision, Maria studied nursing and eventually became an oncology nurse at Highland Hospital in Oakland.
In 2011, a judge ruled that Maria and Eusebio couldn’t prove their children would suffer enough hardship to justify giving them legal residency. But under Obama-era priorities that favored keeping families intact, Maria and Eusebio were granted stays of deportation and continued work permits.
Last spring, things changed: The two parents received news that they would be deported in 90 days as part of the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants.
The couple returned to Mexico last August and have lived with Maria’s mother in a small orange house in their hometown of Santa Monica for the last nine months. No proof of hardship experienced by their children could save them.
“I guess nobody thought about the significant amount of emotional distress that the kids are going through right now,” Maria said. “That’s already a hardship in itself.”
Santa Monica is a quiet town with a cemetery, a school and a couple of stores, set in an arid expanse of prickly pear cactuses and mesquite trees about two hours north of Mexico City. As the setting sun poured through the windows of her mother’s home, Maria pestered her son to prepare for an upcoming exam at his Oakland middle school.
“You have to eat a very good breakfast before you go off to school,” Maria told Jesus over the phone. “No excuses.”
After Maria hangs up each night she says she can breathe easy for a moment, knowing all the kids are safe and sound at home. She has spent hours researching how she might get a U.S. visa to return. But Maria and Eusebio are both currently barred from returning to the U.S. legally for 10 years.
Her deportation has taken a physical toll. Maria has grappled with depression and a heart condition that worsened in Mexico because of all the stress. This whole process has been devastating. Maria said her anxiety began during the 2016 election.
“The night of the elections, as the map was turning red, it was like if somebody was stabbing me little by little,” Maria said.
After President Trump was elected, Maria started working extra shifts at the hospital to save up money for the kids in case she got deported. She figured every day of work could pay for one week of food for her kids.
The extra money Maria saved became vital. Paying the mortgage and putting four kids through school is hard enough in the Bay Area. But supporting a family in Oakland from rural Mexico is impossible -- Maria says nurses in Hidalgo make only $12 a day. Maria and Eusebio’s savings won’t last forever. Soon the kids will have to pay their mortgage.
Vianney and her younger siblings live together in the family home in Oakland with a flock of chickens out back. Inside there are family photos scattered throughout the living room and a big table in the kitchen where the family used to gather for meals.
Not long ago, Vianney was a college student. Now she’s the one who does the Costco runs, drives her siblings to school and cooks the meals. All of these new responsibilities have helped Vianney understand and respect her mother more. But parenting weighs heavily on her.
“I can't afford to let anything happen to me,” Vianney said, “I don't know what would happen to my siblings if I wasn't here.”
Before her parents were deported, Vianney thought about following in her mother’s footsteps and becoming a nurse. Now her dreams are on hold.
Her sister, Melin, 22, has struggled to finish her last year at UC Santa Cruz with a degree in human biology. She goes home to Oakland every weekend to help. She says the family’s troubles make it tough to concentrate on her schoolwork.
“I have much more anxiety and my classes are getting harder because it’s my senior year,” Melin said.
Not long ago, Melin also had plans to go to medical school and become a pediatrician. But like Vianney, she can’t continue her education now. She expects to move home and help provide for her siblings.
Maria and Eusebio thought about bringing their kids to Mexico. But Maria says they have far more opportunities, like better schools, in California. Many people in Santa Monica raise sheep, herding flocks along dirt roads in the desert.
Locals in Santa Monica make a living selling lamb tacos in Mexico City at street stands on weekends. But the cash they earn makes them targets for extortion by criminals. Maria’s sister sells tacos and was recently robbed at gunpoint in her own house.
This is not the life Maria wants for her kids.
“Sometimes you don't even make enough to survive and then on top of that you have to give some to criminals,” Maria said.
Maria still holds out hope that she can find a way back to her kids in California. Her old employer, Highland Hospital in Oakland, has even applied to bring her to the U.S. on an H-1B visa for skilled professionals. But those visas are chosen through a competitive lottery system. It’s still a long shot. And even if she were granted a visa, she would have to win an exemption to the bar against returning to the U.S.
Sitting on the serape blanket at her mother’s house, Maria said that her deportation has forced everyone in her family to grow and ultimately become stronger, better people. She has started to accept that things will never be the same. And she no longer sees herself as a victim of immigration laws that separate families.
“The system is broken,” Maria said, “and it just happened to be that I was there when that broken system became even more broken.”
Maria is proud of how her kids have stepped up during her absence.
Despite how hard the last year has been, her children in California still have far more advantages than Maria did when she set off to Mexico City as a 14-year-old with dreams of getting an education. And she’s found comfort in that.
If Maria gets denied for an H-1B visa to return to Oakland, she plans to apply for hospital jobs in Canada so she can pay the mortgage and put her kids through college and graduate school.
With a Canadian work visa, Maria could pay the kids’ tuition. But she won’t be able to attend their graduation.