Rogeste Mercy, 36, and his wife Magalita Bordes, 37, lost their apparel business and their livelihood in Port au Prince, Haiti, to an earthquake that jarred the island nation in 2010.
“We lost everything,” Bordes recalls. “Everything.”
Aware that Brazil had become an economic powerhouse during the first decade of this century, the couple eventually decided they would sell their home in order to go there for work. Brazil offered Haitians generous work visas following the 2010 temblor.
It was never the couple’s plan to join the ranks of the then-thriving and growing middle class in Brazil. They aimed instead for Rogeste to earn money in São Paulo and send it home to his wife and children back in Haiti where they were staying with her sister. The plan was for the couple to reunite and rebuild their business, their family, and their lives together.
“Rogeste found a job in São Paulo,” recalls Bordes, speaking in her native Haitian-Creole French as we amble on foot along the sidewalks of downtown Tijuana on a blue-skied day in April. “But his job in the building trade, in construction I guess you would say, turned out not to pay even enough to live there and not enough to send back to Haiti or to support me and our children. Then I got a Brazilian working permit later,” Bordes recalls, adding that there was nothing left in the way of opportunity back in Haiti.
“He went first; then later on I went to join him. But I couldn’t find any work in Brazil.”
When Bordes failed to find work, a three-month, nearly 10,000 mile journey — much of it on foot — toward the United States began. It was a trek that ended just a mile shy of their final destination — at least for Bordes. Her husband Rogeste Mercy’s journey ended with a flight back to Haiti courtesy of the government of the United States.
Like many Haitians, Magalita Bordes is reticent, though her upright posture is poised to the point of defiance. Walking has become less of an action for her and more of a state of being.“It is very natural for me now,” she sighs and chuckles in a barely audible tone.
Since her husband submitted himself to a U.S. immigration system that proved unmovable by his family’s plight, missing him and longing to see their four children again has also become a way of life for this unexpected Tijuana resident.
“I begged him not to go,” Bordes says, recalling Mercy’s decision to complete the last mile of their now 15-month sojourn. “I cried, ‘Please, don’t go, Rogeste! Please, just stay here and we will see what happens! Stay here in Tijuana with me.’ But he believed America would welcome him. I knew that was not so; and of course, I was right. Unfortunately, I was right.”
Tears well up in her eyes. “Oh, Rogeste.”
Bordes is circumspect, yet far from jaded when asked if she feels that God has forgotten about her and the growing mass of Haitian immigrants for whom Mexico has become an unplanned long-term stopover.
“It would have been easy for people to think that God forgot about the people of Israel,” she says. “But after so many years, after so much time, God freed the people of Israel. But the last will become the first. I know that. God sent Moses to the people of Israel. The last became the first.”
Haitians, says Bordes, are the Israelites of 2017. But she says, the gates to asylum and refuge in America, a former haven for immigrants, as well as for refugees and asylum-seekers, have slammed shut in the faces of people like her. Yet, all is not melancholy in Mexico for Magalita Bordes. “I am building my Mexican dream.”
She and untold numbers of other international migrants see the United States of Mexico — the formal name of the nation that borders us to the south — as an unexpected promised land.
“We did not plan to stay in Mexico,” Bordes continues. “When we left Haiti, we wanted to go to Brazil. Then, we wanted to go all the way north, all the way to America. But I don’t want to go there now. I love Mexico, and I want to stay here, always.”
Following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, which according to the government killed 220,000 people, Bordes and her husband tried to regain their financial footing. They struggled for years to make a living in their home country even after the temblor obliterated their apparel business.
A devastated economy and a practically non-existent job market was worsened by a cholera outbreak shortly after the quake.
“Everywhere in Haiti was dying and death,” Bordes says.
Even before the quake, Haiti, long known for being the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, had been the scene of a multi-year United Nations peacekeeping mission following a military overthrow of democratically elected president Jean-Paul Aristide in 2004.
In April this year, the United Nations voted to remove its “blue helmet” force from the island. The mission is now in its 13th year. During those 13 years, the New York Times notes, the mission became mired in scandals, including its role as the main culprit in causing the cholera outbreak, followed by an effort to deny it had any part in the epidemic.
Then there was a child-sex ring perpetrated by Sri Lankan peacekeepers in Haiti acting under the auspices of the world body. At least nine Haitian children were victimized.
Brazil was the designated leader of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti, hence its role as the nation of first-choice for Haitian refugees and asylum seekers looking for opportunities to earn money abroad.
“There are many reasons to seek asylum and refuge and to leave Haiti,” laments Bordes. “Too many reasons to leave Haiti.”
We finish the initial part of our interview after lunch at Cafe Praga as one of Tijuana’s signature, zebra-striped donkeys whinnies as if to cue that it’s time for us to swig down the last of our iced teas and head out onto Fourth Street. I ask Bordes what has surprised her most about Tijuana, about Mexico moreover.