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.
As the cell door slammed behind him at an immigrant detention center in Detroit, Jose Roberto Tetatzin knew his life as an American was about to come to an abrupt end.
He thought about all the things he had acquired over 10 years of hard work in Michigan: the apartment full of furniture, the cool clothes, the cars.
And he thought about his daughters, 7-year-old Angela and newborn Lesli, both U.S. citizens who until that morning had such bright futures ahead of them.
Tetatzin knew he was going to be deported to his native Mexico. Now he and his partner, Judith Cristal Gudino, would have to decide what to do next.
Should the girls stay in the U.S. with Gudino, or should the whole family relocate to Mexico?
At night, he talked through the dilemma with other detained immigrant fathers in the same situation, men from Central America, Africa, even the Middle East. Sometimes, they cried together.
When Tetatzin was finally deported in 2015 in connection with a drunk driving conviction two years earlier, he was part of a large wave of Mexicans returning home.
More Mexicans have left the U.S. than have migrated to it in recent years, data show, a reversal of the largest flow of incoming migrants in modern U.S. history and a significant new chapter in the immigration narrative that has long dominated U.S. politics and culture.
Some have returned to reconnect with family or take advantage of new opportunities in Mexico, where a declining birth rate means less competition for jobs. Others have been forced out, either deported, like Tetatzin, or deciding to leave because, in Donald Trump’s America, they felt less welcome.
In any case, the trend has sparked both hope and concern in Mexico. Many view the large numbers coming back as brimming with potential. Many returnees bring home English and other skills learned in the U.S. But others in Mexico are concerned; they fear unwanted competition for jobs, or worry that deportees sent home for committing crimes could worsen the country’s already high levels of violence.
On the day of his deportation, as his parents picked him up at the airport in Mexico City and drove him home to Malinalco, Tetatzin saw a town full of fancy new hotels and restaurants that had appeared during his 10-year absence.
Global companies seeking cheap labor and easy access to U.S. markets had opened factories in parts of Mexico and poured in investments. Though wages were still much lower than in the U.S., the middle class was growing, and its members wanted to buy cars, build homes and take vacations in pretty towns like Malinalco.
At first, all Tetatzin could think about was getting money together to pay a coyote to smuggle him back north. It hurt watching Lesli celebrate her 1st birthday in Michigan by video chat from 2,000 miles away.
“Don’t,” Gudino told him. If he was caught, he would be charged with illegal reentry, a felony punishable by up to two years in prison.
“Stay in Mexico,” she said. “We’re coming.”
After Tetatzin had been detained, Gudino’s blood pressure had shot up, and she had fallen into depression. She had signed up for food stamps.
Studying in the U.S. was a great opportunity for the girls, she told him, but they need you more.
“They need your fatherly support,” she said. “And as a wife, I need my husband’s support.”
So she sold all the cars, furniture and electronics they’d amassed during their decade in America and bought three plane tickets back to Mexico.
They left as soon as the girls’ royal-blue U.S. passports arrived in the mail.
How do Mexicans live?
Angela’s fourth-grade teacher wrote that question on the whiteboard and gave his students 15 minutes to compose a response.
Now 9 years old, with shiny brown hair tied back with a bow, Angela brought the tip of a worn pencil to her lips as a warm breeze parted the curtains. Outside, a burst of fireworks exploded over Malinalco in celebration of yet another feast day.
How do Mexicans live? Angela was still figuring that out.
A year earlier, it had already been dark when she, her sister and her mother first arrived at what would become their new home. Past an imposing metal gate near the center of town, they entered a concrete patio lined with pots of fragrant flowers. On one side was the house where Tetatzin’s grandmother, uncles and cousins lived. On the other was the still-unfinished house Tetatzin had helped pay for, little by little over the years, by waking up before dawn on cold Michigan mornings to plow snow.
Tetatzin tearfully embraced Gudino and the girls, and then introduced them for the first time to his parents and his younger brother. His family retreated to bedrooms upstairs. Tetatzin and his brood took over a single room on the first floor.
Those first days, everything was confusing.
Angela was used to grocery stores so big a child could easily get lost in the aisles, not a weekly street market where farmers laid out tomatoes, chile peppers and tropical fruits on blankets on the ground.
She was used to the menus at McDonald’s and Subway, not small stands where women fried quesadillas and gorditas on the street.
Her stomach, unused to the bacteria unique to Mexico’s tap water, staged a revolt. Her baby sister, who had never tasted real cow’s milk in her bottle, fell ill, too. A doctor recommended that Angela go easy on the spicy food and that the baby get powdered formula.
On her bewildering first day at Miguel Hidalgo Elementary, Angela didn’t know that her school’s namesake, the dour, white-haired man whose face graced her blue uniform, was a leader of the Mexican War of Independence. Her parents didn’t know that they were expected to bring her a meal at lunchtime, so she went hungry, too embarrassed to ask the other kids to share.
Despite the fact that many American citizens have been enrolled at her school—nearly half a million children who are U.S. citizens are enrolled in Mexican schools, according to the government—there was not a single English-speaking teacher on campus. When she replied to her teacher’s questions in her native tongue, all he could do was shrug his shoulders apologetically while her classmates laughed.
Angela didn’t know that one was expected to greet strangers in Mexico with a soft kiss on the cheek, or how to ask for a soda at the corner store.
“People thought: ‘Who is this weird little girl?’” her father said.
Tetatzin, who knew exactly what it was like to be a stranger in a strange land, was determined to help.