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.
“It is very, very big!” she exclaims without hesitation. “The highways are very big. The flags are very, very big. The sky is big, too. The hills and mountains... Mexico is very, very big.”
Joined by our translator, Bordes climbs into a Jeep Renegade driven by Lucila Conde of San Diego. Conde grew up in a house in Tijuana that her parents left to her and her brother, Gilberto Conde, who speaks several languages — including French and Spanish. Gilberto is our translator for the interview with Magalita Bordes.
The Renegade climbs up a steep road into a middle- to upper-middle-class Tijuana neighborhood. There, Bordes has found a comfortable and quiet living situation in which she earns room and board by taking care of the homeowners’ dog (Laika) and their housesitting needs.
“The house has been vacant for a while and had fallen, as you can see, into quite a state of disrepair,” explains Lucila Conde. “I live in San Diego and we’re trying to restore it slowly.”
A college professor, Gilberto Conde works at a think tank in Mexico City. He also speaks Arabic and Russian. His sister Lucila is a social worker by profession. She is between jobs and is making ends meet back home in the U.S. as a Lyft driver — a job for which her shiny new Jeep comes in handy.
The Condes’ late parents had little in the way of formal educations, yet their father was a self-taught, classical musician and well-known songwriter.
“They were more educated than most people with degrees,” says Lucila Conde. “And they made sure we got our educations.”
Lucila points out that most of the neighborhood’s surrounding homes are constructed on a grander scale than hers and her brother’s familial home. She glances knowingly at Gilberto, whose 12-year-old daughter (also multilingual) helps fetch drinks for the folks who’ve come from el norte to document Magalita Bordes’s migration story.
“But, we had something the neighbors didn’t have, didn’t we Gilberto?”
“Yes, we did,” her brother replies with a sly up-tone in his voice.
“We had a library,” Conde finishes. “All the rich kids would come to our house to do their homework because we had all these books and a real library right here in our house.”
The home is indeed in shambles now. Vandals have ripped out much of its interior fixtures and furnishings and stolen valuables. Yet many books and other items remain. But one can easily envision the home’s former status as — and hopeful return to being — a genuine outpost of hard-earned, mid-level Mexican gentry.
Bordes and the Condes’ affable shepherd-mutt mix have become new fixtures in the house. They are the home’s new masters.
“It gets lonely here sometimes, but I have Laika,” Bordes says in French. Gilberto Conde translates as softly as she speaks.
The dog jaunts about the floor from person to person near the kitchen table, returning always to Bordes. Meanwhile, Bordes sits stroking Gilberto’s daughter’s long hair. The girl sits on one of her knees. It’s plain to see that Bordes has bonded with the girl, whose ability to speak French and whose age no doubt remind her of her own child.
“I love this house and I love taking care of it for Lucila and Gilberto.”
Lucila and Bordes found each another online. “It was on a protest site,” Lucila recalls. “It’s a site protesting Donald Trump and the anti-immigrant movement in the United States. I saw Magalita’s post and I kept going back to it. I just somehow knew that we were going to meet. I was drawn to her face.”
The site is a Facebook page for the Committee for Strategic Humanitarian Aid, Tijuana. The page has posts and links to resources in Tijuana for immigrants “stranded at the border,” as a post describes the migrant situation in Tijuana. Many of the resources are faith-based; there is immigration news on the page. It ranges from Haitian-Mex recipes to stories of families separated at the border, not unlike that of the Mercy-Bordes family.
“When I’ve come to Tijuana from San Diego to check on her and bring her groceries, Magalita has made for me some of these kinds of new Haitian-Mexican dishes and recipes you’re starting to see as Haitian and Mexican food and cultures are mixing together,” says Lucila Conde. “She makes mango tamales, and they’re delicious!”
A recent non-culinary news story that appeared on another site and its associated Facebook page that perked up the spirits of Haitian refugees in Tijuana was on the English-Spanish news site San Diego Red.
“Unable to Enter U.S., Haitian Refugees Get Legal Residence in Tijuana,” reads the headline.
Drawing a contrast to current American immigration policy toward Haitian and other refugees, the story’s subhead reads: “With a process that lasts a few days, they receive their humanitarian visas from Mexico.”
In decades past, a Haitian family escaping their war-torn country after a devastating earthquake followed by an unprecedented cholera outbreak (which for its role the United Nations finally apologized late last year) might have found its plight more than enough to at least warrant temporary refuge in the United States.
Shortly after our conversation, I learned that one of Bordes’s daughters in Port au Prince had fallen seriously ill. At the time this article was filed, the source of her illness was not known. In today’s Haiti, when a family member gets sick, thoughts of cholera are staved off as much as possible.
“I’m worried,” says Bordes. “I’m worried about my daughter, all of my children, and Rogeste.”
By the time former United Nations secretary seneral Ban Ki-moon offered an apology back in December of last year for his organization’s part in it, about 9000 people had already died in the cholera epidemic and ensuing pandemic.
Cholera had been unknown on the island, at least for the past century, according to a Tufts University study quoted by the New York Times. Cholera can kill within days or even hours by causing fierce bouts of highly liquified diarrhea, which was traced to United Nations peacekeepers from Nepal.
By all accounts, not least among them the United Nations’ own reports, Haiti became a living nightmare following the 2010 earthquake and the ensuing cholera outbreak during October of that year.
“So we had gone to Brazil,” recalls Bordes, now completely alone in Tijuana except for a day or two every other weekend when Lucila Conde visits with supplies. Of course she has the company of Laika.
“But by September, 10, 2016, we knew we had to leave Brazil.”
She and her husband were running out of money. They jump-started their journey northward toward the U.S. by buying a plane ticket from São Paulo in the south of Brazil.
“From São Paulo to Porto Velho [in West Brazil], we had to take a plane, because it’s a huge country,” she says. By foot and rides when they could get them, the couple made it over the Andes to Ecuador. “From Ecuador to Colombia, we took a boat. In Colombia, we found communities of other refugees also traveling north. From Colombia to Panama it was very tough because we had to go through the mountains on foot, through rivers and through forests.”
In Panama, the reality of being a refugee set in. Exposure to the natural elements became brutal. The journey had begun in a manner not unlike that of tourists, complete with luggage and boarding passes. Now all of those first-world trappings had to be abandoned in favor of basic survival.
At one point Bordes, her husband, and their fellow travelers walked for three days straight. Bad planning and an inexperienced guide who abandoned them left the group without water for two days. They nearly died of thirst.
“There was nothing, no water to drink,” she said. “A man died.”
Then, when there was water, the elements left her wet and cold. “It rained and we slept outdoors,” Bordes shivers involuntarily as she recounts the experience, even though it’s warm inside the house where we’re talking.
“Our clothes were drenched; then they dried and shrunk a little bit. But we had nothing else to wear by then except the clothes on our backs.”
Some of the voyage was conducted with the help of “guides.” Some of the guides demanded to be paid $1000 per person. These men are essentially human smugglers with networks of helpers who shepherd immigrants, with varying levels of customer service, along the way. Not paying them was a sure ticket to jail, being beaten, or death. The quality of service ranged from lacking to tortuous. One leg of the journey proved fatal for some of the couple’s fellow travelers, Bordes says.
“The mountain between Colombia and Panama was very steep,” she says. “That’s where we had to abandon our valises [suitcases].”
From a financial and security point of view, walking across Nicaragua was the hardest part of their journey.
“In Nicaragua we walked across the whole country; and when the police stopped us, we had to pay them. We had to bribe them each time in order to keep going,” Bordes says.
“We were never free on this journey,” she continues. “We were always hostages who had to pay to move forward. We had to spend money the entire journey from Brazil onward.”
Although they tried, the couple was never afforded opportunities to work or replenish their meager savings along the way. And, as September became October, Bordes looked for news about the elections in the United States.
“I was watching it unfold. I told my husband, ‘I think this is bad,’” she says. “‘I have a bad feeling. That man might be president of the U.S.’”
“The Hondurans were a surprise,” Bordes says. “Honduras was the country that really opened their doors to us. I will never forget the kindness they showed us.”
Instead of demands for bribes, deprivation of basic needs, or closed borders, in Honduras, Bordes says she found warmth and love. “‘Welcome to you, Haitian woman,’ is what they said,” she recalls. “Welcome, do you need a ride? Would you like some food? Do you want a little bit of rest?”
“After Honduras was Guatemala and then Mexico,” she says. “When we got to the southern [Mexico] city of Tapachula I didn’t have my passport. I left it in São Paulo with my husband’s cousin. I didn’t want to lose it. I knew there was going to be a lot of peril along the way.”
Despite the growing swell of refugees in the Mexican state of Baja California and her lack of a passport (which she’s since had forwarded to her in Tijuana) — all of those challenges notwithstanding, Bordes and her husband were allowed to cross Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala without issue.
After spending some time in hotels, missions, and other tenuous situations in Tijuana, the day came when her husband Rogeste decided it was time to take the plunge and face the post-election United States immigration authorities.
“I begged him not to go,” Bordes repeats, looking into space as she sits among her new friends. “Oh, Rogeste.”
After he was detained at the border by American immigration officials, Rogeste Mercy became depressed and lost about 20 pounds during the three months he was in detention, according to Bordes.
“He looked very ill,” she says.
With a new dream in her grasp, her new “Mexican dream” as she calls it, the only thing Magalita Bordes fears is the specter of a Mexican nationalist movement like the ones that swept Britain and the United States last year.
“I have not seen any bad signs here yet,” says Bordes. “Maybe they will come. But so far, the people here are welcoming.”
Recent stories in the media about rises in Mexican nationalism have mostly been in the context of responses to Donald Trump, such as a Los Angeles Times piece headlined, “In Mexico, Trump triggers a surge in patriotism, anti-American sentiment.” That article made no mention of Haitian immigrants to Mexico and noted that only anti-immigrant sentiment south of the border as that pertaining to Americans.
Now, an estimated 40,000 Haitians are on their way to Tijuana, reports Vox News; 16,000 have already arrived.
“These numbers do not include the people who at times were forced to sleep on the streets outside the doors of different casas [sanctuaries]because there was literally no room at the inn,” says Father Patrick Murphy, director of Centro Scalibrini, in a plea at Center for Migration Studies.
Casa del Migrante is a program of the center. After decades in services to migrants headed north, the Catholic priest is in a position to know an unprecedented migration phenomenon when he sees one. Father Murphy says he has never seen anything remotely like what is happening now in Tijuana. As early as the summer of 2016 he was already sounding the alarm.
“Our situation has reached a critical phase, and we are experiencing a full-blown crisis at the border of Tijuana [and] San Diego.”
Nevertheless, Father Murphy and his volunteers, relief and social workers in northern Mexico, continue to show up for the hordes of Haitian, African, and Central American migrants whose ranks are now bulging at the country’s border with the United States.
“What started as a trickle in late May of 2016 has become an eruption of humanity,” he continues. “Diverse men, women, and children are flocking to Tijuana on a daily basis in the hope of starting new lives in the United States. The bad news is that this situation will not end anytime soon.”