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Divided by death and the Mexican border

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Alberta Trujillo felt the baby coming. She woke her fiance, Margarito Garcia, and told him they needed to get to a hospital.

Neither had a car or a driver's license. So they bundled up and started walking to East Los Angeles Doctors Hospital a block away.

Trujillo had to stop across the street from the emergency room as Garcia ran to get help. He returned with a wheelchair and an attendant, and the couple headed into the hospital.

They knew they were having a girl and had already chosen a name: Nicole.

But now the baby's heartbeat was dropping, so as soon as the doctor arrived, Trujillo started pushing.

"I was worried," Garcia said. "I didn't know what was going to happen."

Nicole was born at 4:22 a.m on Jan. 25. But she wasn't breathing, and her heart had stopped. Doctors were unable to save her.

Garcia was holding Trujillo's hand a few minutes later, trying to comfort her, when she started throwing up blood.

"Don't let what happened to our baby happen to me," Trujillo begged, crying.

The doctor took Trujillo into surgery to try to stop the bleeding. But by 1 p.m., she was dead.

"I wanted to die too," Garcia said.

His troubles were not over. As he mourned the deaths of his fiancee and daughter, Garcia soon found that his decision to sneak across the border four years earlier was about to backfire.

At a time when most families come together to grieve, families like Trujillo's are separated -- by their initial decision to illegally cross the border, by their desire to bury relatives back home, and by their fear of never being able to return if they travel to Mexico.

The Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles pays for an immigrant's final journey home if the family is unable to do so. In the last four years, the consulate has shipped more than 1,000 bodies to Mexico for burial. Consul General Juan Marcos Gutiérrez-González said the situation for undocumented relatives who cannot travel with the bodies "is the worst of the worst."

"It is the most direct experience of human suffering," he said.

But Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said that is the price illegal immigrants pay for breaking the law.

"We have borders and we have immigration laws," he said. "People who choose to jump the line have to deal with the consequences of that."

Garcia wanted to bury Trujillo and their baby in Los Angeles. Trujillo's family -- both in the U.S. and Mexico -- wanted her to be buried in the town where she was born and where her parents still lived. Three of her children from a previous marriage also lived in Mexico.

"My sister always fought to have a better life here," said Elizabeth Trujillo, who lives in Los Angeles. "But we are Mexicans and we want to return to where we were born."

Alberta Trujillo left her village of Pericotepec when she was 11, quitting school to go with her older sister to Mexico City. She wed as a teenager and had four children. Her marriage was strained for many years and ended badly, her family said.

In 1999, Trujillo decided to head north, leaving her children behind and crossing illegally into the U.S. She lived in East Los Angeles, supporting herself by cooking in a lunch truck and by selling beauty products and Tupperware. Trujillo sent money home to her family to buy some land and build a home just outside Mexico City. Trujillo returned in 2001 to see her children and her home and to finalize her divorce. Her eldest son, Miguel Ramos, came to live with her. She talked of building a second story on the house and opening a small store nearby.

But after four years, Trujillo decided to go back to the U.S. to earn more money. She wanted to bring her children, but only her two daughters made the journey with her. One returned to Mexico not long after.

Ramos, now 22 and still in Mexico, supported his mother's decision to leave, even when she missed his graduation from college and even when she missed the birth of his first child.

"More than anything, I wanted her to be happy more than I wanted her to be with me," he said.

On Christmas Eve 2006 in Los Angeles, Trujillo met Garcia, who was working in construction and living with friends. She was 37 and he was 26, and they started dating despite the age difference. On Valentine's Day, he told her he was in love with her. He didn't have much to offer, but he promised to take care of her.

"I wanted her to have a life of kings and queens," Garcia said.

For the first time in many years, her siblings said, Trujillo seemed happy. Garcia, who had lost both his parents, also hoped for a new beginning. They moved in together and Trujillo learned she was pregnant in the spring.

"We were expecting this baby with such excitement," Garcia said.

The coroner determined that Trujillo died when amniotic fluid got into her bloodstream. Her baby died after an abruption of the placenta caused her to lose oxygen and blood supply. Emergency Medi-Cal paid for their time in the hospital.

Each night, family and friends gathered for a rosary beneath a white tent in the driveway of the East Los Angeles home where Garcia and Trujillo had lived. They placed candles and bouquets around a framed photo of Trujillo and a printout of the baby's ultrasound. A banner on one of the wreaths said in glittery letters "Descanse en paz" -- Rest in peace.

They prayed. They sang. And as they ate tamales and drank hot chocolate, they told stories of Trujillo. Inside the house, Nicole's bassinet sat untouched, carefully made up with Winnie the Pooh bedding and filled with diapers, baby powder, woven booties and baby clothes still bearing the tags.

Garcia and four of Trujillo's siblings in the U.S. are undocumented. Returning to Mexico with the body would mean a costly and dangerous journey back across the border to their jobs and U.S.-born children. They decided that the bodies of Trujillo and her baby should be shipped to Mexico and, reluctantly, that they would stay behind.

"Here she lived, here she died," said her brother Fernando Trujillo. "But there, people are waiting for her too."

Garcia sought help at the Mexican Consulate, which agreed to pay for the expenses and referred him to a local funeral home.

One evening, Garcia went to the funeral home to deliver clothes for Trujillo and the baby. He reached into a plastic gift bag and pulled out Nicole's clothes one item at a time: a yellow shirt, a pair of socks and a sleeper.

"This is, I don't know, a little hat?" Garcia said, holding it tightly.

The viewing and Mass took place on a Thursday night. At the front of the chapel, Nicole lay cradled in her mother's arms in a plain, black casket. Trujillo wore a white button-down shirt beneath a black suit. Her lips were painted pink and her hair was pulled back.

Standing before a mural of Jesus above the clouds, a priest sprinkled water on Nicole's head and baptized her into the Roman Catholic faith. Then he called Garcia up to the casket.

It was the first time he had seen his fiancee and child since they had died. Garcia made the sign of the cross and quickly returned to his seat, trying to hold back tears. At the mortuary the next morning, Garcia held his baby in his arms and looked at her pale face. "I didn't want this to happen to you, precious," he whispered as he kissed her forehead. "Sleep, my baby. I love you very much, my love."

Then he walked over to the casket. He lightly touched Trujillo's cheek and adjusted her beaded necklace.

"One day we will be together," he said, his voice quivering. "I am now married to you. You are the love of my life."

In Cholula, Mexico, Trujillo's sister Felicitas and brother Artemio went to a funeral home to pick out a casket. The family was using donations to buy a new coffin to replace the plywood one donated by the Mexican Consulate.

"Of the pine, which is the cheapest?" Artemio asked one of the mortuary employees.

"That one, 4,800 pesos" -- about $450, the man responded. "That's very simple. . . . This one is pretty. How much is it?"

"6,000 pesos," he said.

Felicitas put her hand on top of the casket, which had a relief of a sorrowful Virgin Mary. Artemio took a photo of the casket on his cellphone and sent it to siblings in Los Angeles who would help pay for it.

The bodies traveled on a cargo flight from Los Angeles to Mexico City. Workers from the Cholula funeral home retrieved the casket, drove it to the mortuary and unloaded it from the hearse.

As the men transferred the body into the new wood casket, they handed the dead child to her aunt. Felicitas Trujillo held the baby briefly, saying only, "chiquita" -- little one. Then she held her sister's hand before turning away.

Felicitas said that she knew Garcia wanted her sister to be buried in the U.S., but that this was where she belonged.

"I thank him for all the time he made my sister happy," she said. "But here is all the family. . . . Here there are other traditions that they don't do there."

In Pericotepec, a pueblo of 700 residents, Trujillo's parents had been waiting more than two weeks for their daughter to return. When the hearse from Cholula pulled up just before 6 p.m., they stood among two lines of relatives holding candles and flowers.

"Applause!" one woman shouted, prompting the others to clap and yell, "Alberta!" Under white and black balloons and ribbons, a large sign read, "Welcome the Deceased Alberta Trujillo Hernandez."

The sad homecoming underscored the difference between how illegal immigrants are viewed in Mexico and in the U.S. In Mexico, they are often seen as heroes who worked hard and make tremendous sacrifices to support their families.

Trujillo's three eldest children helped guide her casket onto a table. Anabel Ramos, 21, arranged flowers around the edge of the table. Josue, 17, put his head down on the casket. Miguel Ramos looked down at his mother's face and took a deep breath.

They arranged white roses and gardenias inside the casket, along with a thorny rose stem so Trujillo could ward off enemies on her way to heaven. They also included bottles of water and milk for Nicole.

Trujillo's parents said they didn't understand why she went north. What's more important than being close to family? Even after she met Garcia, she could have come home with him, they said.

"She would have been very poor, but she would have been close to us," said her mother, Delfina Hernandez, 66. "And I could have seen her one more time alive."

Her father, Eduardo Trujillo, 70, said he did what he could to make his children happy in Mexico so they wouldn't want to travel to the U.S. Now, with the first death among his 12 children, Trujillo said he wanted them to return home.

"We would like all of our children here, in their land, in their country, Mexico," he said. "But they decide, not me."

Throughout the night, neighbors and friends came to the house. Every few hours, someone led the crowd in prayer in front of the casket. Women cooked and washed dishes under a large mesquite tree. Men huddled around a fire, drinking arroz con leche. Pigs and roosters roamed nearby.

At one point, some of Trujillo's relatives gathered in a room in the house to watch a DVD of photos from the U.S. There were pictures of Trujillo and her siblings, barbecuing and playing with children.

Trujillo's brother noticed an unfamiliar man and asked if that was Garcia.

"Margarito?" said Trujillo's son, Miguel. "I don't know. I never met him."

On the day of the burial, two young girls sprinkled flower petals as they led the procession down the main road of town toward the cemetery. Dozens of mourners, holding incense, candles and flowers, walked alongside men carrying the casket. As they walked past the elementary school and houses, the church bells chimed and a warm breeze blew dust through the crowd. Mariachis -- dressed in sharp suits and red bow ties -- sang songs of love and loss.

Metal crosses, dried flowers and handwritten headstones dotted the small cemetery.

Few words were spoken as friends and relatives kissed Trujillo's casket and prayed aloud. Trujillo's mother sat down on the dirt and covered her face in tissues. Relatives rushed to offer her water and fan her with hats.

"I ask you, God, care for her soul," she cried.

The gravediggers used thick ropes to lower the coffin deep into the ground.

"Little by little," Trujillo's father said, guiding them. "Slowly, muchachos. There."

Women rushed to arrange bouquets of lilies, roses and gardenias. Everyone held hands and said a final prayer. Trujillo's three children were the last to leave.

Miguel Ramos leaned against a tree with his fists clenched. He wished everyone could be together during this time of mourning, but he has grown used to the fact that his family is separated by the border.

"In moments when we need support, we are united," he said. "It doesn't matter if we are here or there."

anna.gorman@latimes.com

Life in the Shadows is one in a series of occasional articles.

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