Maria Barrancas stood in the backyard of her mother-in-law’s home, alone but for a pig and some hens. It had been about a week since she packed up her life in Gardena and left for Mexico with her partner and their two children.
There, in the small, dusty Sinaloa town of El Aguaje, the isolation hit her. Her three older children were still in California. She was in a country she hardly remembered, having left for the U.S. 32 years ago at age 15.
She broke down in tears but wiped them away before walking inside to her family. She didn’t want them to see that she was afraid.
Left, Ricardo Madrigal stands in the barred doorway of his family's new home in Tlaquepaque. Left, Alejandro Madrigal, 3, runs around while his mother, Maria Barrancas, cleans up after dinner in a small porch off the kitchen of their rented home in Mexico. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Back in their two-bedroom apartment in Gardena, Barrancas and Ricardo Madrigal had dreamed of one day owning a home nearby. They made money buying and selling used cars. Every other day, Barrancas would see her then-21-year-old daughter, Cynthia, and granddaughter Hailee, who lived five minutes away.
But all that felt stable came unmoored when Donald Trump was elected president. Barrancas watched as Trump said he did not want people like her and Madrigal in a country he boasted he’d make great again, in part, by getting rid of them.
The couple were in the country illegally. Jobs already felt hard to come by, and the anti-immigrant climate added to their stress.
They decided to leave in August, heading for a border they had long avoided — a process some refer to as “self-deporting.”
In Tijuana, their daughter, Luz, then 6, clung to them, sobbing to go back. Barrancas held her tight and told her everything would be OK.
“We’re starting a new life today,” she said.
The family stopped briefly in El Aguaje before driving six hours to Tlaquepaque, in the Mexican state of Jalisco. They had chosen to move there because it felt safer than Sinaloa — where they were both born — and because Madrigal’s sister lived there.
They had enough money saved to breathe easy for a little while. But with Luz’s private school costing $100 a month, plus about $130 for rent, $50 for water and electricity and even more for gas and food, they would need an income within eight months.
The prospect of making $50 a week — or the average minimum wage in Mexico of about $5 a day — working for someone else held little interest for them. So when Luz would leave for school in the mornings, Barrancas and Madrigal would head out with their 3-year-old son, searching for a place where they could open a business.
They wanted to work together again, like they had in California. In their car, they passed men on horses clopping along graffiti-marked streets and overgrown lots.
The plan had been to run a mechanic’s shop. Barrancas also considered opening a restaurant because she thought the food she cooked was better than most she’d had so far. Anytime they saw a sign for rent, they would get the number and set up an appointment, visiting 20 different places. Each time, they were shown around a space that was too small, with a rent that was too high.
When they saw spaces available at a plaza right outside of Villa Fontana, where they lived, they grew excited. The owner was from California, and they thought the location was perfect.
In English, the owner said they’d have to pay 25,000 pesos a month, over $1,000, put down three months’ deposit and agree to a three-year lease. When the couple got home, they did the math, totaling up the down payment, the deposit and additional fees. They didn’t know if they’d make it one year, let alone three.
It was too great a risk.
Top, Maria Barrancas looks over homework for daughter Luz Madrigal before school in Tlaquepaque, Mexico. Left, Luz Madrigal talks with her father, Ricardo Madrigal, in front of her new school in Tlaquepaque. Right, Ricardo Madrigal watches as his daughter, Luz, walks to her classroom. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Before they left Gardena, Luz had told her father she wanted a house. He promised to build it for her in Mexico. He would even plant trees in the backyard.
Months passed, but Madrigal, 40, couldn’t find the right land.
“I brought Luz on lies,” he said. “It hurts me not to fulfill my promise, to give her what she wants in her life.”
The couple had enchanted Luz with ideas of better things to come. They even convinced themselves.
“We had it in our minds that it was a beautiful place,” Barrancas said. “Now we know it was a tale that we were telling Luz.”
Maybe if things didn’t get better, Madrigal said more than once, they should go back to California.
When those conversations came up, Barrancas shut him down. If he left, she wouldn’t go with him.
It wasn’t that she loved Mexico — in fact, she hated what she’d seen so far. She hated the overgrown weeds in front of the town homes, with no homeowner’s association to regulate appearances; she hated how many cars she saw broken down, tires popped off by poor road conditions; she hated that sometimes she couldn’t understand words in Spanish; and she especially hated the burden she’d left on Cynthia’s shoulders to keep track of her 31- and 28-year-old brothers back in California.
But in crossing the border, she felt she had made a decision that was irreversible. The only way she could return to the U.S. would be to cross illegally.
“I’m not happy here, but I don’t want to go that way again,” she said. “I’m not going back, regardless of the situation. If I don’t have papers, I’ll stay here.”
Clockwise from top left, Maria Barrancas hangs laundry in the front yard of her rented home in the town of Tlaquepaque, Mexico. Luz Madrigal looks over her birthday cake for her school party a Guadalajara Costco. Maria Barrancas sorts through boxes stored in a small bedroom of her family's rented home in Mexico. All of their belongings did not fit in the home. Maria Barrancas gets into her car to go shopping in Tlaquepaque. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Barrancas put aside her frustration that she didn’t see her sister-in-law as often as she’d like, that it didn’t feel safe to walk around Tlaquepaque at night and that she didn’t feel at home. She focused instead on making sure her children didn’t feel as lost as she did.
The few words little Alejandro knew in English became Spanish. And Luz, who worried before the move that she wouldn’t have playmates, befriended a neighbor and students in her first-grade class.
Barrancas practiced the Mexican national anthem with Luz, who admitted that she was forgetting the Pledge of Allegiance she’d say every morning before class in Gardena.
Luz still struggled with rolling her Rs and figuring out when to use “mi” and “me,” but she worked hard to get perfect 10s in her classes. When her parents met with the school psychologist in October, she told them Luz was gifted.
One November morning, Barrancas sat parked outside the metal gates of her daughter’s school. She watched with a smile as Luz, looking lost, found a couple of friends to sit with.
To comfort themselves with familiarity, the family would make frequent trips to the Costco in nearby Zapopan. Luz’s favorite pepperoni pizza, the hot dogs, the red-and-white Kirkland umbrellas outside and the American products lining the aisles reminded them of home. When she turned 7 in November, Luz picked out her gift at Costco.
For all her struggles, Barrancas did not admit regret over leaving.
“I might be suffering, I don’t feel like I’m in the right place, but I think it was the right decision,” she said. “It’s so hard right now, but I have faith that we’re going to do it over here.”
By December, four months had passed since the family left for Mexico. They had let Thanksgiving pass without mentioning it.
A trip to Agua Verde, Sinaloa, to visit Madrigal’s sister was the bright spot in what felt like months of darkness. The family had visited the beach and Madrigal had gone fishing, catching robalo and shrimp. It was the first time in months that Barrancas had seen a real smile on his face.
In the way they had romanticized Jalisco from afar, they had feared Sinaloa. But they came to understand that everywhere in Mexico was dangerous. At least in Sinaloa, both of their families were close by. They needed those bonds to succeed.
At Christmas, the family headed to Culiacán, Sinaloa, to celebrate with Barrancas’ brother.
Luz spent the trip running around with her cousins. Barrancas’ brother asked why the couple wasn’t selling cars as they had in Gardena.
In January, Barrancas and Madrigal headed to Tijuana to pick up cars and start working once more. If things went well, Barrancas said, they would adapt their plans to the new reality they found and move to Sinaloa.