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“I wanted to be just like them”


Twenty-six-year-old Cesar Ibarra came to the United States when he was four months old, crossing the border with his mother, sister and brother. As he tells Hispanic News, he grew up in San Bernardino, California in the inland empire.

“We already had uncles over there. … My mom was the last person to go over. I never knew my father. My mom used to tell me he died. She said he was shot in Tijuana and died. … I don’t care about him. I grew up just fine without him.”

His admits his youth is a fog. He started smoking weed when he was nine, influenced by the examples of his older brother and one of his uncles whom he described as having the cold stare.

“I wanted to be just like them. I wanted to be cold-hearted, straight gangster. I don’t know. … I never knew my uncle Raymond until l was 14 because he was locked up. … I heard stories about him being in jail and I was like, ‘I want to be like that.’”

Though Ibarra was attending school, his aspirations were in the street. He was an aggressive kid, always a fighter, instigating fights between the students. When he was twelve, he was given a psychic exam. He was prescribed Ritalin, which he refused to take and instead substituting pot.

He was jumped into a gang at thirteen. His street name was Little Oso, in respect to his older brother who was already in the gang. His brother tried to keep him out of the gang, but it was too late. Ibarra was already a gangster by reputation.

Denied full entry into the gang he found another outlet. He transferred his anger outward. He became more aggressive in an effort to establish an identity and respect within the gang.

The family grew. His mother took up with a man that abused her physically and gave her three more children. He recalls she was not around as much as he would have wanted because she was always working to keep the family together. They spent a lot of time in the streets and his nickname became Vago or wanderer.

His first exposure with the law was when he was 14. A drug deal in a school bathroom led to juvenile detention. He remembers getting out and going harder into the drug trade. He also found crack and became addicted.

He admits, his aggressiveness was fueled by a profound sense people did not respect him. He became a violent offender, using knifes or shanks to intimidate others. By the time he reached high school, he had a reputation of a bully taking other kids’ money, manipulating others into fights.

The hardest time came when he was 17 years old. He recalls it was Mother’s Day. He was in the 11th grade and hanging out with friends outside of the apartment the family lived in, when two police officers came buy and accosted them.

An altercation ensued. He was put into the cop car and saw his mother and aunt watching from the drive crying. He began to bang his head against the plexiglass of the interior cab till he broke it. He was hogtied and taken to the county jail. The memory of his mother and aunt crying as he is taken away haunts him to this day.

He served two years, got out and was not deported to Mexico. He committed some crimes that if caught could lead to a longer jail term. He decided to cross the order on his own, but like a brother before him, his habits followed. He went on to a hardcore, drug-fueled existence. Like a code of honor he pledges he never tried cocaine, or heroin. At 22 years old he began to question his situation.

He recalls going to a Posada getting drunk and doing coke. He overdosed. His heart stopped three times, only the amount of cocaine in his system kept his heart going. He began to change after his release. He admitted it was hard, finding that the less he depended on the drugs, the more his violent nature showed.

Eventually he stopped, helped by the security of a paycheck. He was working at call centers.

“I liked the atmosphere,” he says. “I liked everything because it felt like I was in a little United States because there were a lot of people that had been in jail or were Chicanos that only spoke English.

He met Robert Hernandez following the lead of his brother who had come to Casa de Vida looking to get clean. He liked the atmosphere and ended up moving in.

“I saw that the people here were all homies. I feel good right here,” he said. “I feel like I am at home because my family out there, are not family for me. I feel like they are all hypocrites. They all talk behind my back and criticize me. All the family I have is back in the United States. When I am here, I feel like I am with my carnales, my homies.”

He credits Hernandez’s lessons and patience in helping knock sense into him. He wants others to hear his story.

“If this story gets out to where I am from, I want people to know that if you are ever going to be deported just come through Guadalajara. We have people that understand you. There is no abuse here like other places. Just come through and we’ll find a way to help you.”

Tomas Ortiz grew up in the Northeast area of Kansas City. He also found his way to the Casa de Vida. His story mirrors what others have said, but in the telling he keeps it brief.

“I was born in Parral, Chihuahua. I am 29-years-old and I will be turning 30 here in Mexico. When I was 11, my mother decided that we needed to move to Kansas City. I grew up there until I was deported and ended up here in Guadalajara.”

Later he adds, “I was incarcerated for about four years.” When he got out they told he was going to be deported and “I was like, I don’t know Mexico.”

To survive he adapted one of the few skills he was able to develop in prison. He took to art and opened a tattoo parlor in his hometown. He wanted to take his art to a higher level, create a scene and bring more people into the shop. He wanted to expand his offerings to include body art, henna and body piercings.

He realized quickly that because of the taboo nature of body art, there aren’t too many places that offer training, especially in Mexico. He found a place in Guadalajara. With the help of a sister in the United States he traveled there last summer.

“I had never been to any other place in Mexico outside of Chihuahua before I came here to Guadalajara. I felt odd. At times my Spanish lets me down. I also had a fear since I had been deported, what would there be for me?” he asked.

The truck that brought him to Guadalajara dropped him off at a plaza and he was directed by a friend to what is called an Anexo, a community center of sorts offering drug and alcohol treatment and other social services to indigent or troubled people. It also provided a place to stay.

The place was regimented. There were doors that locked behind once you were inside. He was just trying to find a place to stay while he finished the course work but ended up attending the therapy sessions.

He stayed quiet not engaging in the conversation but listening to others talk. He heard stories that were culturally relevant but uniquely different than his own. He eventually told a little of his story.

After a week, a new group of people came into the therapy session. They shared their stories of life in prison and the way they adapted. But then came a discussion that affected him greatly.

According to Ortiz, the testimony one of the new arrivals gave talked casually about abusing children, boys and girls, things he rejected. Under the rules of the discussion, the men were to respond with the word Puente if it was something they had experience or still did. He was troubled by how many said Puente.

He got up determined to do something. He went into the kitchen looking for a knife. A homie instinctively knew what was going on and met him in the kitchen. He tried to talk sense into him, telling him that it was not worth the punishment to retaliate.

The situation was tense with others wondering what was going on. He had to get out of the place and walk away. His friend walked with him out onto the street to the plaza. Along the way he told him about this other place full of other homies - people like themselves, from the other side, deportees. This was a place where they spoke English. They came from the same place, the same streets, the same culture.

He returned to the Anexo, made his arrangements and left the next morning.

“When I got here the first thing I noticed was they were speaking in English. They came up and say ‘what’s up homie? What are you doing? Who are you?’ They were all bilingual people and I felt like I can talk Spanglish if I want to. I don’t have to be another person.”

The conversations with Robert Hernandez who runs the Casa de Vida were illuminating.

“He told me he understood what a person goes through when they come out of prison and get put in a situation like the Anexo.”

He found that reinforced when he joined the group therapy sessions. “Being in a prison for a long time and juvenile centers, it never occurred to me that I would meet a clinical psychiatrist or talk to a person that could have any understanding of where I had been.”

He has progressed a lot in the years since he left for Mexico but also admits that there are things that happen when you are in prison that take a long time to reconcile. There is the pervasive sense he must always be on the defensive. Trust is a commodity he has little of. It is hard to accept a hug or show the affection that a union requires. It has affected his work and his personal relationship.

“Our life has been a scene composed of four walls and these walls are not in your head only, they affect you physically, spiritually, emotionally. Those walls don’t disappear the minute you leave here and are on on the street. You feel like this will always be with you. … But here I have found people that have gone through some of the same damage, the same trauma as I have.”

The experience of the deportations only reinforces the isolation and the trauma. According to Ortiz, you are taken out of prison, put on a plane, taken to the border and sent across. There is no official welcoming committee except young recruits from the cartels on bicycles counting the number of people crossing the border. There are also con men looking to sell cheap “legitimate” papers.

He remembers asking for contacts from officials for agencies that could offer humanitarian support. The numbers given are never answered. Though many try to stay together, they are separated in the multitudes that assemble to take advantage of the new arrivals. Taxis overcharge and will take them to the same hotels that are used by the cartels to ferry immigrants in the other direction.

They are lucky if they make it with their backpacks or what little money they may have managed to hide. The options are limited and many end up in the streets, the gangs or the cartels. Some make it to families they have never met.

The isolation is a constant and a phone, absent any trustworthy contacts, becomes the prized possession.

Ortiz relates the words of a woman that helped them. “Tell your friends over there, that if they come here they will be detained, kidnapped, forced to join the cartels or killed. Better to stay there.”

Ortiz adds, “Look, there are some homies that have come here and found their way and can show us that. This is the path to find your freedom, to find some work, a way to a rebirth. … This is a Casa de Vida and for all the homies that are locked up and have no plans of where they will end up, here is where you can come.”