CUATRO MILPAS, MEXICO— In this hardscrabble farming village, an American teenager like Luis Martinez was bound to stand out.
Raised on Little Caesars pizzas and Big Gulps, Luis, 13, was portly. The village kids, subsisting on bowls of chicken broth, were all bones and elbows.
Luis wore Air Jordan high-tops. The kids wore sandals made of rubber tires.
He shot at birds with his BB gun and pedaled around on a Mongoose bike. They scurried up mango trees and chased iguanas.
He seemed like many visitors from America, with new clothes and good health, and the quiet confidence of someone who knew he wouldn’t have to endure this place very long.
Then one day Luis and his step-grandfather, Juan Leyva, started standing up sheets of scrap metal on a treeless patch of dirt. They covered the jagged edges with cardboard, straightened the frame and slid corrugated metal sheets atop the walls, fastening it all together with electrical wire.
The teenager they had treated like a rich American cousin was going to live with his family in a shack, next to a chicken coop.
That summer night in 2010, Luis fell asleep on a squeaky mattress next to his baby sister and his dog-eared Harry Potter book, one of the treasured possessions from his days at James Madison Elementary School in Ogden, Utah.
“He was a very good kid,” said Daniel Ibarra, 43, who had watched Luis patch together the shanty on that summer day. “But he was poor — poorer than the poorest person here.”
Luis never imagined living a peasant’s life in Sinaloa. But like other children whose parents or other family members were deported, he was swept into the current of reverse migration. Thousands of U.S.-born children of former illegal immigrants now live in cities and towns across Mexico. Disoriented by cultural differences and often unable to speak the language, they often struggle, clinging to one another in a society that views them with a mix of envy and pity.
Luis’ life spiraled further than most. After Leyva, the breadwinner of the family, was deported in 2010, the family languished in Ogden. Eventually, Dominga Leyva, 49, the boy’s maternal grandmother and a U.S. citizen, packed her grandson and his 3-month-old sister, Amor, into their Oldsmobile Alero and drove to the Mexican border town of Nogales.
Juan Leyva got in, and they began the 500-mile drive to the western Mexican state of Sinaloa, passing endless rows of vegetable fields to a one-road village where shirts hung from barbed-wire clotheslines, stray dogs feasted on corn husks and boys playfully swung machetes at stick fences.
“Dónde está Ooo-tah?” the students asked the chubby-cheeked norteamericano with the gringo accent. Where is Utah?
Luis told them of days ice fishing and snowboarding, of falling asleep on the couch watching horror movies. Back there, he had five video game players, indoor plumbing and shelves full of comics.
It seemed far-fetched; many of the children at the two-room schoolhouse considered them tall tales. When they asked why he came to Mexico, he told them that Leyva had been deported for driving without a license. “They called him a dummy,” Luis said.
But Luis could never blame Leyva. His U.S.-born mother, who struggled with drugs, was in prison, and he never knew his biological father. Luis loved his step-grandfather — he called him Dad. Leyva, a wiry man with an easy smile, told everyone that Luis was his son.
In Utah, Leyva had supported the family by working on construction crews, a roofer for all seasons who drew curious stares from passers-by when he pounded shingles in snowstorms. “A man in a car called him ‘crazy Mexican,’” Luis recalled proudly.
In Sinaloa, Leyva, 39, toiled even harder, but snow wasn’t the problem.
He picked vegetables in the torrid plains inland from the Sea of Cortez, where his family had worked for generations. His light skin would shrivel and turn red, earning him the nickname Ciruela, or prune.
At school, Luis ducked behind torn textbooks, a teenager unable to read Spanish in lessons aimed at 7-year-olds. He soon dropped out, hoping to boost the family’s finances by joining Leyva and his grandmother in the jalapeño fields. He got sunstroke the first day and his skin blistered and turned red. The villagers started calling him, Ciruelita, little prune.
On many days, Luis picked vegetables alongside the same children who had envied him when they first met. Now they felt sorry for him, urging him to cloak his skin in a flannel shirt and a hoodie. But Luis withered in the intense heat.
One day a crop-duster zipped low over the tomato fields. Everyone ducked, except him. He was sprayed with a pesticide that coated his arms in an orange liquid. He scrubbed it off in the irrigation canal, but it did not stop the itch.
Luis returned to the fields, this time wearing the tool belt of a chanatero, a human scarecrow tasked with ridding tomato fields of chanates — blackbirds. Up and down the rows he walked, rattling rock-filled bottles, firing off bottle rockets with a flame-tipped stick that he wielded like a wand.
His newfound ability to paint the sky black with flocks of startled birds delighted a boy who enjoyed the fantasy tales of Harry Potter. Alone in the maze of tomato plants, he could raise a ruckus, set off explosions, shout at the top of his lungs.
“It was like yelling out your anger,” Luis said. “I liked that part.”
The harvest season ended. Luis took to walking up and down the canals and railroad tracks, scavenging for tuna cans and metal scraps. His clothes turned to rags, his weight loss accelerated. He looked like a scarecrow.
“The poor boy. He lived a precarious existence,” said bodega owner Jesus Alfredo Gaxiola, who often gave the teenager and his sister crackers and Coca-Cola. “I would ask him, ‘What are you doing here? You have [U.S. citizenship]. You’re only suffering here.’”
After a year earning only $10 per day in the fields, Leyva and Dominga were almost broke. Even the money they got selling the Alero was gone. One morning in May 2011, Leyva and Luis woke up and started taking down the walls of their home. They reduced the shack to a pile of scrap within a couple of hours. A recycler gave them $40 — enough money, along with some borrowed funds, to buy four bus tickets to the border.
At the border crossing station in Nogales, Ariz., the U.S. Customs officer eyed Luis’ creased birth certificate. According to the document, the youngster was born in El Paso. But was this scrawny boy in front of him the same Luis Martinez listed on the paper?
Luis watched the plump people in clean clothes walking through the turnstile into Arizona, hoping and praying he would soon be following them down shop-lined North Grand Avenue. But agents at the Nogales port of entry were on guard against one of the oldest smuggling tricks: American women attempting to pass off illegal immigrant children as their own grandkids. They were also on the lookout for child abductions in disputed custody cases.
Dominga Leyva didn’t share the children’s last names. Nor could she show proof of custody. With her Utah driver’s license and birth certificate, she was free to enter the U.S., the officer said, but not the children — at least not until she provided a power of attorney document, signed by the boy’s biological mother. But Dominga’s daughter was in prison in Utah.
Dominga grabbed the documents and turned back, crying. Luis walked past the long line of people waiting to cross. The looks of pity angered him. “I felt really bad, like I was being betrayed by my own country,” Luis said. “I wanted to yell, ‘I’m an American!’”
Sinaloa had been harsh. The Mexican border city of Nogales was harsher.
The family slept on park benches next to a four-lane highway. They scoured the streets for aluminum cans. On good days, they earned enough for a loaf of bread and some slices of ham. On many days, they went hungry. Once, workers at a migrant shelter took pity on the bedraggled American family and let them dine with deported illegal immigrants.
Luis dropped to 115 pounds, 50 pounds lighter than his Utah days. Dominga had to re-stitch his nylon basketball shorts so they wouldn’t fall to his ankles. Leyva sought day labor work, waving at passing cars to no avail. The guilt of seeing his family suffering weighed on him.
“If I’m hungry, I can endure, but the children can’t,” Leyva said.
Leyva hatched a desperate plan. He found smugglers willing to guide Dominga, Luis and Amor through the high desert. The smugglers wondered: Was it even illegal to smuggle U.S. citizens into their own country? The risks would be lower — they just needed to get the family to Nogales, not through the checkpoints farther inland. They offered a discounted fee: $500.
Much of the money for the trip came from a most unexpected source.
Every day in late spring of 2011, giant construction cranes rose above the border. Hard-hatted U.S. government contractors were tearing down the border fence to make way for a taller barrier. Every day, they flung pieces of the old fence into Mexico, where frenzied mobs vied for the scraps.
Some people used the metal panels to build shanties. Luis and Leyva had other ideas. Scrap was selling for two pesos per kilo, so each 80-pound sheet could fetch about $8 from recyclers. It would take a small mountain of scrap, but they could start.
Each day they awoke at 2 a.m. and walked into the hills toward the construction site. When they came upon a fence panel, each would grab a jagged end and haul it to a waiting recycling truck. Then they would scramble back into the unruly line for a chance at another piece.
Three miles of fencing was replaced. Luis and Leyva shadowed the crews almost the entire way.
The two smugglers kept a fast pace through the canyons of the Pajarito Mountains. Luis struggled to keep up, his arms sagging under the weight of his 20-month-old sister. He looked back and saw his grandmother illuminated under the crescent moon, her labored breathing drowned out by the rustling of mesquite bushes. She was hobbling on her arthritic knee, clutching her purse, which contained their birth certificates.
Leyva had stayed behind, holding back tears as he watched them get into the smugglers’ van. He would try some other day, he promised.
The men kept their flashlight beams low. Luis remembered their instructions: Don’t talk, don’t look at anyone on the trail and, if U.S. Border Patrol agents appear, claim to be lost hikers.
For nearly two days, they walked under craggy ridges and limestone bluffs. Luis never slept, fearing the smugglers would abandon them. At times, Amor’s cries pierced the silence. Luis would play with her to calm her down under the impatient stares of the smugglers.
The smugglers were edgy for good reason. A few months earlier, bandits had ambushed a squad of U.S. Border Patrol agents, killing one. The smugglers had already stumbled upon one standoff between groups of Mexicans. They kept their cool and led the family down the trail, away from trouble.
When the group emerged from Peña Blanca Canyon in the predawn darkness, a car was waiting for them near a small lake. They jumped in and sped out of the wilderness, passing a sign on the twisting road: “Smuggling and illegal immigration may be encountered in this area.”
The smugglers dropped the family at a Food City supermarket in Nogales, Ariz. Luis watched his grandmother count out 75 pennies from her pocket, all they had left for food.
A year later, she is still counting her pennies. The family lives in a creaky single-wide trailer on the edge of Nogales, the rent partly covered by disability benefits Dominga received since her arthritic knee gave out.
Earning money at a car wash on North Grand Avenue, Luis regained weight eating fast-food burgers and pizza. He was baptized into a local Mormon church, where volunteers had provided food and clothing after the family’s desert journey. Last month, he entered Nogales High School in Arizona. He has his high school identification card and birth certificate to identify him as a U.S. citizen.
Twice a week, he crosses the border to Mexico, clutching grocery bags filled with fresh meat and vegetables. Waiting for him on one such visit was Leyva, wearing a crumpled cap and a weary smile. Only a few days had passed since Luis last saw Leyva, but he looked even skinnier.
His step-grandfather still couldn’t find steady work, even after passing his sixth-grade equivalency test, which he incorrectly believed would make him eligible for a job in a factory assembling goods for export into the U.S.
The American teenager and the Mexican peasant walked through downtown, up a steep dirt path to the hillside shack where Leyva lived. Leyva fired up the oven top, grilled the meat and stuffed it into a tortilla. He gave the first one to Luis and prepared another for him.
“No. Save the food for yourself,” Luis remembers telling Leyva.
Luis and Leyva talked about school, and about Dominga and Amor, as the sun dipped over the shanties. After a while, they walked quietly down the hill and said their brief goodbyes at the border fence. Then Leyva turned and climbed back up the hillside, and Luis walked down North Grand Avenue into Arizona.
Read from from The Times series: Without a Country