She begged him not to leave Mexico again. But the lure of America was powerful, and deadly

Agustín Poblete Ortega knew that sneaking into the United States had become more dangerous than ever. Yet he yearned for paychecks that would allow him to save a little, instead of just barely scraping by.  “This is the last time,” he promised his y


Back to Malinalco

She begged him not to leave Mexico again. But the lure of America was powerful, and deadly

For decades, millions of Mexicans crossed into the U.S. in one of the largest mass migrations in modern history. But stricter immigration enforcement and new opportunities in Mexico have reversed the trend. Now, many are returning to towns like Malinalco, a rural community southwest of Mexico City. But coming home, it turns out, can be complicated.

On a cloudy morning last October, Agustin Poblete Ortega stopped by his wife’s house to tell her he was leaving again.

Rosa Icela Nava, then 27, didn’t want him to go.

Her whole life she had been surrounded by men who had gone north, and sometimes never returned.

And while her relationship with Poblete had been rocky over the last year — she had moved out of his family’s house because of his drinking — he was a good father to their two young daughters.

She wanted to ask him to stay, to tell him about the sick feeling in her stomach. But Nava kept her feelings inside, as was her habit.

“I can’t stop you,” she told him.

“Take care of the kids,” he said.

If Poblete was addicted to alcohol — he could never have just one tequila or beer — he was also addicted to American wages. On his five previous trips north, he had grown accustomed to earning $15 an hour. Back in his hometown of Malinalco, Mexico, he chafed as bosses handed him the equivalent of just $10 after a day of hard work.

He had been part of a large wave of Mexicans returning home in recent years, a phenomenon fueled by harsher conditions in the U.S. and new opportunities back home that is upending the immigration narrative on both sides of the border.

Coming back to Mexico is not easy for everybody. For Poblete, who had tasted the good life north of the border, the real winners in Mexico’s growing economy seemed to be the millionaire business and political leaders who arrived by helicopter to play at Malinalco’s exclusive golf resort — not high school dropouts like him.

Poblete knew that sneaking into the United States had become more dangerous than ever. Migrants died dodging immigration agents in the desert heat, drowned crossing the Rio Grande and suffocated in the back of sweltering tractor-trailers.

This is the last time.

— Agustin Poblete Ortega

Yet he yearned for paychecks that would allow him to save a little, instead of just scraping by. He wanted to build a home in Malinalco for Nava and the kids and get his life on track.

“This is the last time,” he promised his younger brother before he left.

For the next nine days, Nava’s phone lighted up with messages as her husband made his way north and then waited at the border. Criminal groups were moving drugs across the desert, Poblete told her in a phone call, and his smuggler had counseled waiting till it was clear.

Then Poblete sent a message saying he would be crossing that night. “Take care of the kids,” he implored again. He told her he would call soon to say: “Hey, I made it.”

But several days passed and the phone didn’t ring.

Some of his friends figured he had been caught by immigration agents. Or assumed he had been robbed, and couldn’t call home.

Nava kept her darkest fears inside, where she kept most things. And she waited, because there was nothing else to do.

Nava was 19 years old, shy and just out of high school, when she first noticed Poblete walking down one of the city’s narrow, cobblestone streets.

Born and raised in a poor Malinalco family, Poblete, like his three brothers, had left for the United States as a young man. He had come back to Mexico to visit his family after working there on and off for more than a decade, his suitcase stuffed with a television and other gifts for his parents.

Malinalco was teeming with ex-migrants like him.

There was the taxi driver who worked for years as a coyote in Arizona, earning $200 per person to ferry migrants who had just crossed the border to cities like Atlanta, Los Angeles and Chicago. There was the man who came back from the U.S. with thousands of dollars in savings, enough to build a modest resort for vacationers visiting from Mexico City. There was the restaurant server deported from Illinois who worried about never being able to see his children again.

Ex-migrant musicians sang ballads about life in the U.S. Others formed activist groups to demand more help from the Mexican government. One was even running for governor of Mexico state, where Malinalco is located.

Poblete, like others who had come back from the U.S., was different than those who had never left. While many in this stretch of Mexico still wear boots and cowboy hats, Poblete favored long shorts, polo shirts and baseball caps. They were the kind of clothes you’d expect to see at a weekend barbecue in Georgia, where he had spent his most recent years, not in rural Mexico.

He sported just one marker of his place of birth: a drawing of the city of Malinalco tattooed on his right calf.

Nava doesn’t remember what he said the day when he first approached her on the street, but she remembers noticing how he filled a room, joking and making friends with everybody, at ease as the center of attention. Although he had been gone for years, he had many more friends than she did, and in every part of town.

He was 13 years her senior, but she was so impressed with the adventures he recounted and the flowers he brought that she didn’t think about the age difference much. Soon he was spending nights at her house and they were arguing playfully over which music to listen to — Nava’s favored cumbia, or Poblete’s beloved brassy, bouncy banda.

Four months later, Nava was pregnant. Six months after that, Poblete left her for the first time, heading north along with her sister’s husband. Both men were about to have families and wanted to earn fast cash.

Nava didn’t want him to leave. She worried that a man settled in the U.S. might forget about her. It had happened before.

She was 13 when her father had left for the U.S., part of a wave of migrants who fled Mexico in the 1990s and early 2000s because of soaring unemployment and inflation. Her dad promised to send money home and quickly return, but instead he had stayed, developed an alcohol addiction and started a whole new family.

Nava had dreamed of getting a degree in psychology, but without money to pay for university, she was forced to stop studying after high school. Her brothers couldn’t afford to continue their studies either, and both left for the U.S. to try to help the family. Only one of them came back. The other is still in Sacramento, where he has several U.S.-born children.

As her stomach grew rounder, Nava spoke to Poblete daily. He wasn’t there for the spring delivery, but they decided together to name their little girl Abril, after the month she was born.

Abril was already a year old when Poblete came home, but she took to him immediately, laughing as he tossed her in the air. Soon Nava was pregnant with another girl, Michelle.

When the money Poblete had made in the U.S. ran out, his mother hired him at the small restaurant she ran near the river on the edge of town.

She had opened the restaurant — a little stall next to a man-made pond stocked with trout — decades ago. Locals would come, catch a trout, and then have Poblete’s mother cook it for them with a little pineapple and salsa.

But now the area had transformed. After Malinalco was named a “Magic Pueblo” by the federal government, crews had paved the roads near the trout lake, and dozens of other restaurants and two water parks had opened nearby. Mexico’s expanding middle class meant that each year, more and more tourists poured into Malinalco on weekends to escape smoggy Mexico City, two hours away.

Poblete and his three brothers had grown up near the stand, earning their first pesos cleaning fresh-caught fish. After years earning much better money working in construction in Georgia, he wasn’t happy to be back.

He started spending his nights drinking with friends. If there was a party, he’d be the first to arrive. Sometimes he would show up to work so hung over he could barely take orders. Sometimes he wouldn’t show up at all.

Exasperated, his mother fired him. That’s when the downhill spiral accelerated. Poblete never hit Nava, but he was a mean drunk. She decided to move her daughters to her grandfather’s house so they wouldn’t see their father so out of control.

Not long after she moved into his house, Nava’s 85-year-old grandfather was hit by a motorcycle as he walked in Malinalco’s central plaza. That fall, he died. She was reeling from his death when Poblete came by to tell her he was leaving again.

As the days and then weeks passed with no word from him, her stomach did somersaults. She wasn’t prepared for more loss.

Day of the Dead was around the corner — time to prepare an altar for those who had died in the previous year. She was with her mother, arranging an offering of marigolds and sweet mole at an altar for her grandfather when Poblete’s mother called, hysterical, and told her the news.

She had been contacted by the Mexican Consulate in El Paso. A body had been discovered in the New Mexico desert. They believed it was Poblete’s.

The next days were a blur. Nava traveled an hour away to Toluca, the state capital, to look at photos of the body taken by the coroner’s office. She broke down. There was the tattoo of Malinalco on Poblete’s calf.

I'm afraid they'll see me cry

— Rosa Icela Nava

Back home, she didn’t have the heart to tell her daughters, although they knew something was horribly wrong. Days went by without Nava coming clean, even after Abril started wetting the bed, even after one of her younger daughter’s classmates told her: “Your dad is dead.”

“I’m afraid they’ll see me cry,” Nava explained to Ellen Calmus, director of an immigrant advocacy organization that was helping her get Poblete’s body transported back to Mexico.

“Maybe seeing you cry will allow them to experience the pain,” Calmus told her. In the end, it was Calmus who told the girls what had happened.

Nava felt like there was no room for all her agony. Her mother, who had persevered after her husband made a new family, told her to concentrate on being a strong mom.

“Focus on the girls,” she said. “Your pain is huge, but their needs are greater.”

This time, Poblete came back from the U.S. in a hearse. Migrant deaths are so common, the Mexican government sets aside special funding for the dignified return of bodies.

His funeral drew 300 people to the soaring old cathedral in the center of town. Then began the somber procession toward the graveyard, about a mile away.

As the family trudged slowly to the cemetery, a band appeared. Poblete’s friends had hired it, and had brought bottles of beer. Nava was sobbing, but as the men drank and danced alongside his coffin, she knew that if Poblete was watching from somewhere, he would be happy to see that his funeral had turned into a fiesta.

For months, Nava struggled to get up in the morning. Christmas passed. Then New Year’s Day. Her daughters’ grades were plummeting, and both girls had been in trouble for fighting.

Around Easter, there was a week when Nava didn’t leave her bedroom for days.

Her mother, who had urged strength, realized her daughter needed help.

“You have to go to a doctor,” she said.

The antidepressants Nava was prescribed have helped. Now 28, she smiles more, and is more affectionate with the kids.

“I think it’s just the pills,” she said, smiling sheepishly. “But that’s OK.”

On a recent stormy afternoon, she was getting ready to finish her shift at Poblete’s mother’s restaurant, where she recently got a job serving trout and frothy piña coladas.

She had hoped to leave early to take the girls to a street festival in town. But then a large family of tourists walked in just before closing, and asked to eat. About half of them were Mexican American — U.S. citizens visiting family members who live in the area. Their legal immigration status meant they could come and go and be carefree together, drinking their piña coladas and laughing, their lives unscarred by the border.

By the time Nava arrived to pick up the girls at her mother’s house, it was dark and pouring rain. Abril was sick and had been throwing up all day.

“I’ll take her to the doctor tomorrow,” Nava said.

“You need to take her tonight,” her mother insisted.

So she took her girls by the hand and headed for the clinic, walking past the festival, where a banda group had taken the stage. The musicians wore cowboy hats and shiny red suits, and each made the sign of the cross before starting to play.

“Give me the blame, give me all of it,” the band leader wailed. The crowd swayed together under a giant tarp.

Her husband, Nava thought, would have loved it.

Additional credits: Produced by Iris Lee