Fleeing a gang, Pedro Cordova joined thousands traveling north last fall from Tegucigalpa, Honduras. He endured tear gas and days without food, trekking thousands of miles to Tijuana in November. But it wasn’t the complicated U.S. immigration policy or active-duty troops deployed to the border that slowed Cordova’s northward journey.
It was Linda Romero Sánchez, a 29-year-old from Ensenada. She’s the coordinator of the Movimiento Juventud 2000 shelter in Tijuana and a mother to three children.
From the moment he laid eyes on her, right there on Avenida Constitución, less than a block from the U.S.-Mexico border, his journey norte was forgotten.
“I started passing by every day just to catch a glimpse of her,” Cordova said. “Her smile just fixed everything for me.”
Romero works long hours, sometimes 15 hours a day, helping thousands of migrants a year.
There have been times when she’s had to put her body in between domestic violence victims and their abusers, and when she’s had to “show cartel members the door,” as she puts it.
One morning last week, she apologized for nearly dozing off between intakes.
“We didn’t get to sleep last night until after midnight,” Romero said with a yawn. “I didn’t even feed my own kids until after 10 p.m.”
Tijuana shelters are once again crowded to the brink of crisis, and shelter workers are bracing for more arrivals as people are sent back under the new U.S. “Remain in Mexico” policy.
“OK, breakfast is at 8:30 a.m. There is a schedule to charge your phones. At 7 p.m., it’s bedtime for all the kids,” Romero explained to a new arrival — a young woman with long, curly hair and a toddler on her lap.
“Do not leave your child here and go somewhere. They must be taken care of by you at all times. When you take a shower, they go with you to bathe.”
Once the paperwork was done, Romero slumped back down toward her desk, nearly drifting off, until something caught her eye from clear across the building.
It was Cordova, her new husband.
As the 32-year-old Honduran navigated his way through rows of bright-colored tents where the migrants slept, Romero came back to life, sitting up straight at her desk and flashing a smile.
“When I see him,” she said, “it’s like I have all my strength back with me.”
Cordova arrived with the caravan of Central Americans in November, and the two had a whirlwind romance, quickly falling in love.
They aren’t the only ones to have found love in the time of caravans. News reports document at least a dozen marriages between people who have met amid a migration movement that has garnered international news attention and prompted angry tweets from President Trump.
The pair celebrated their wedding Dec. 28, 2018, at Movimiento Juventud.(Romero didn’t want to leave the shelter for the whole day.)
“It happened very fast. Everything happened so fast with our wedding,” she said. “I called my mom, and it was a big surprise.”
They tell their love story over the laughter of about a dozen children watching a movie in the shelter.
“I told her I would take care of her and I just wanted her by my side,” said Cordova, who now works in a partner shelter around the block to be closer to Romero.
Between the two of them, they have five children. Two are in Honduras, and Cordova doesn’t know when or if he will ever see them again.
“He cries about that sometimes,” Romero said.
Cordova said he had not yet applied for permanent legal status in Mexico.
He keeps his feelings guarded, but it’s easy to see how proud he is of her, a woman who has dedicated her life to welcoming those who walk a similar path he has as a migrant.
When the movie is interrupted by a fight over pan dulce (pastry), Cordova steps in to back up Romero, sending the offending youth to his tent while she wraps her arms around and comforts the other.
Romero said they thought about getting regular jobs to have more time with her kids and more money.
“But I like working with people who need me,” she said. “Someone has to have a heart or nothing will change.”
They both know how it feels to be desperate.
Cordova said he fled gang violence, leaving everything he had behind — even his children — and that he would never return to Honduras.
About 10 years ago, Romero’s family fell on hard times, and she came to Tijuana with her children looking for work. They struggled to find shelter.
“I knocked on door after door after door and no one would accept me,” she said.
Before that, she spent parts of her childhood begging in the streets for change.
“My mom never said to me, ‘How are you feeling today? Do you want me to play with you? Do you want me to help you with your homework?’ ” she tearfully recalled.
Here, she’s able to make sure children get the love and comfort they all deserve, she said.
They say love can conquer all.
For Pedro and Linda, overcoming the past may be their biggest obstacle. The two are grappling with how to blend their very different families, now stretched thousands of miles apart.
The future looks challenging too.
Recently, Linda didn’t have money to buy her 11-year-old daughter a birthday present. The migrants at Movimiento Juventud chipped in to buy a birthday cake.
Their family shares a one-room apartment; the kids sleep on blankets on the floor, and there’s a baby on the way.
Linda said before she met Pedro she never liked her own name because in Spanish “linda” meant pretty.
“When I was in grade school, kids would tease me that it wasn’t for me,” she explained.
“The truth is,” Pedro countered, “she’s a beautiful woman with a wonderful heart.”
All Pedro knows is, when he looks at Linda, he sees the most beautiful woman he’s ever laid eyes on. And in Pedro, Linda found what was missing all her life. She finally has someone on her side.
Fry writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune