Yolanda Varona is kneeling next to her bed flipping through her weathered diary. It's filled with her hopes, pains and frustrations, poured from her heart to the page. Scattered on her bed are photos of her daughter, son and grandchildren, with whom she has had next to no physical contact since her deportation. Those photos are kept in a box under her small bed in a 10-by-5-foot concrete room in Tijuana's Deported Veterans Support House that is now her home. That box contains the life she is fighting to get back to, away from her current reality trapped behind an ever-imposing fence.
"Here is where I first wrote that my daughter was a star in the sky that I named after her," she says as her eyes shimmer with oncoming tears.
Varona was deported on Dec. 31, 2010. The former fast food restaurant manager had crossed the U.S./Mexico border on a tourist visa with her then-fiance, a U.S. citizen, and his elderly aunt, who asked for a ride to Tecate to be with her family on New Year's Eve. Even though her son and daughter had begged her to not cross that day, Varona chose to help the elderly aunt get to her family gathering rather than leave her to walk across the border alone. She hasn't returned since. The only souvenirs she has left from that life-altering trip is a mountain of regret and regular pain stemming from a border agent dislocating her shoulder during her detention.
"In that moment, I felt that I was lost," she says. "I was thinking what were my children going to do."
Deportees like Varona often spend years running in circles struggling against a broken immigration system, attempting to return to their families in the U.S. with legal documentation. Throughout that seemingly endless cycle, they are separated from their children. Some are lucky and are able to get regular visits from their U.S.-born children. Others can catch a peek and chat with their families through the fence at Friendship Park. Many go years without seeing their loved ones at all. These parents miss out on the major milestones and moments of parenthood and childhood. Among those moments they miss is reading a bedtime story. A new project, however, is remedying that missing piece from the lives of 10 deportee parents.
The idea for "Cuentos Para Dormir" ("Bedtime Stories") came from youth educator Sophia Sobko after hearing a piece on NPR about a summer camp for children of prison inmates. She thought about children of deportees and how they deal with the same pain and anxiety of being deprived of their parents.
"Here's this population right here that's suffering. I had read in the news about [these kids] and have known kids whose parents were deported," Sobko says. "From there, I thought 'What's something a kid is missing when they don't have their parent?' and I thought of the ritual of reading bedtime stories and how that was a thing in my family, and how much comfort it gives a kid just to hear their parent's voice, and how these kids don't have that."
She contacted Enrique Morones of Border Angels, a nonprofit that serves individuals dealing with immigration and deportation issues, with her idea. He told her of a group of activist mothers that meet weekly at the Deported Veteran's Support House called Dreamer's Moms. Varona founded and co-runs Dreamer's Moms with Robert Vivar, who was deported in 2011 by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the construction job site in Corona, where he was working at as a foreman.
A slew of agents arrived with a camera crew and photographers in tow, and took Vivar away. He had been living in the U.S. since age six with a green card. Vivar admits to having some drug issues in the past that led to troubles with the law and a prior deportation, but had cleaned up his life and returned to the U.S. to care for his sick wife. At the time he was taken by ICE he was living in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant.
"It kind of feels like the end of your life. The first thing that comes to your mind [when they're taking you away] is when you'll be able to see your family again," says Vivar, fighting through tears as he sits in the main lobby of the Deported Veteran's Support House, which is covered in American flags. A cross painted red, white and blue and reads "Bring U.S. Vets home" sits leaning against a wall.
For Vivar and Varona, "Cuentos Para Dormir" serves as a chance to tell their stories and hardships to their children and grandchildren who are themselves fighting to survive without their parent and grandparent's much-needed support.
Vivar's bedtime story is called "Mi Sueño," or "My Dream." The idea for his story came to him in a dream. In his story, a man is standing in an empty green pasture with a giant fence behind him and a large mountain before him. The man starts to run towards the mountain, knowing that beyond it is his ultimate treasure.
"In the story, I'm running but not going anywhere. I'm stuck in the same position," he says. "I'm desperate and sweating, but I can't understand why I'm not getting closer. I look down at my legs and they're still moving. Even though I'm not gaining ground, I'm still moving."
For Vivar, his bedtime story has offered him the opportunity to tell his wife and children that he's "never going to stop trying to reach them" despite every setback he faces in the process.
Varona had been writing her cuento long before Sobko came around, jotting little stories about a star in the sky that she named after her daughter. In "La Ciudad Mas Triste del Mundo" ("The Saddest City in the World"), a mother firefly fights to get back to her children, two bright stars, after she is sent to The Saddest City in the World. Eventually, her tears create a large wave that enables her to get closer, then a pink bubble carries the mother firefly over the fence keeping her from her stars.
The pink bubble serves as a metaphor for Varona, who truly believes it will take a miracle on par with a magical bubble to get home to her family.
"I'm not sure if that miracle will happen," she says. "But I'm willing to do anything. If I could have my children and grandchildren here with me, I would never leave Mexico, but it's not possible. It's not natural to be separated from your children. With my story, I want to show my daughter that the tower I'm building is to be with her. I want her to know the love I have for her and the guilt I feel for leaving her, and I want my grandchildren to read the story and know they were always on my mind."
Another cuento author is Hector Barajas, director of the Deported Veterans Supprt House. Barajas served six years in the U.S. Army under a green card. He was arrested and deported for discharging a firearm at a vehicle, though he was actually only in the car with the individual who shot the firearm. This is no longer a deportable offense, so Barajas is working to return home to his daughter. Under the current law, deported veterans can only return to the U.S. as Americans after death so they can be buried in a military cemetery.
"Writing my story is very important because I am able to tell my daughter about our situation and that it's going to be okay," says Barajas, whose story revolves around a young princess who must save her father and his fellow soldiers from an evil king. "To have a story that has a happy ending will help her know it's going to be okay, and it's therapeutic for me as well. I can't wait to give it to her for Christmas."
Sobko began raising funds for the "Cuentos Para Dormir" project on through a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. They surpassed their $2,000 goal after just 11 days. The money they raised will provide a hardbound copy of the illustrated cuentos to the children, the authors, Dreamer's Moms/Border Angels archive, Sobko's own archive and a lending library for schools and nonprofits. All additional funds will go towards creating digital videos of the parents reading their stories in English and Spanish so they can share them to an even wider audience.
"My goal has always been to get this to the kids but it's also important to me and the parents to be able to use this as an advocacy tool," Sobko says. "That's a big thing they're concerned about; how people vote and raising awareness. I feel like this is a positive way to reach out to people and touch them emotionally. It's very easy for people to be jaded and numb about these issues."
Sobko says many struggled with how to end their cuento, seeing as they're still stuck in the middle of their real life story unsure if they'll get a happy ending.
"Half of them used a happy ending where they get reunited with their family, and the other half left it ambiguous and tried to end on the truth where they're telling them, 'I'm not giving up, I'm still fighting for you, but this is how it is," Sobko says. "That message of 'all I can do is fight,' for readers and families, it's a really strong message."
All images courtesy of Sophia Sobko.