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A foreign world

Casandra Gonzalez was only 13 when her father fled to Mexico

It’s been six years and Casandra Gonzalez still feels caught between two worlds.

When she recalls how her family abruptly fled the United States, the feeling is so palpable it reduces her to tears.

"I will never forget how extremely hard it was for me and my family after we left America and came to Mexico," said Casandra, who is now 19.

Casandra’s father, Miguel, moved the family to Tala, Mexico in 2011 after Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents showed up at the factory where he worked.

The ICE agents discovered 18 of the company’s 180 workers had used fraudulent and counterfeit documents, such as Social Security cards and driver’s licenses, in order to secure their jobs.

Casandra’s father was one of them. He had a legal U.S. driver’s license, but all the rest of his papers were fake.

He had been working at Emerald Packaging for more than 20 years. In that time, he had built a life for himself, his wife and three U.S.-born children, Casandra, Miguel Jr. and Alexandra, in the middle-class suburb of Tracy, California.

Casandra was 13 when her father lost his job that day. A gifted student, she was about to start high school and dreamed of going to a good American college.

But those aspirations were overshadowed by a heavy family secret.

"I remember being two or three years old and [my parents] telling me to be careful with the cops because you never know if they’re going to ask for our paperwork or something," Casandra said.

She didn’t really understand what that meant. "I just knew it was wrong and that it was a secret. It was hard living with that secret," she said.

As she grew older, she felt fear and dread. "I used to have nightmares that [my parents] would get deported and that we would be left by ourselves," said Casandra.

When she told her friends why she and her family had to leave the U.S. and move to Mexico "they didn’t completely understand," she said. "For me, it was like the end of the world to leave them and my life in California." Her friends baked her a goodbye cake.

Once the family settled into their home in Tala, Casandra was placed in a public school that had as many as 40 students crammed into a classroom.

Everyone spoke Spanish.

"I didn’t speak Spanish well enough to suddenly switch schools like that," she said.

Her younger brother and sister didn’t speak the language at all and had a hard time with the Spanish-language curriculum.

Miguel Jr. struggled the most. "He still isn’t completely fluent," Casandra said. But he had an easier time making friends by bonding with other boys over sports.

"My little sister was bullied a lot. Kids can be mean. They would make fun of our accent," said Casandra.

Money was also tight.

"My parents didn’t have enough sometimes to buy food for all of us or to pay the bills," she said.

While her father immediately joined the family’s small brick-making factory, her mother did whatever she could to make money.

At 13, Casandra helped her mother sell toys and homemade sandwiches on weekends at a local market. At 15, she took an after-school job at a local supermarket, earning an average of $9 a day working six days a week. "I was only paid in tips with no holidays off," she said.

Increasingly, Casandra became anxious about the poor education she was getting in Mexico.

"School wasn’t challenging. I had so much potential and moving back here felt like I was wasting myself," she said. "I was desperate to go back [to the U.S.]."

In the middle of her junior year, the family had saved enough to send Casandra back to California to stay with a friend’s family and finish at her old high school in Tracy.

About six months into the school year, Casandra took a job at a Sonic Drive-In, working five hours a day after school and on weekends. She didn’t have a car, so she walked the two miles from school.

Casandra said her dad’s story helped her push through the loneliness and fatigue. "I saw how hard he worked for us," she said. "So I saved my money as much as I could." Within one year, she had saved $900.

"My dad told me I was making more money in one day at the restaurant than he was making in one week back in Mexico," she said.

By her senior year, Casandra knew that she wanted to go to good college and pursue a degree in international business. She applied to a few state and private schools, including San Francisco State University and University of the Pacific, and was accepted by all of them.

University of the Pacific was her first choice. She had visited the campus and loved it. But it would cost her about $60,000 per year.

She received a $500 academic scholarship from a local Hispanic business group, a $3,500 scholarship from University of the Pacific and a $6,500 President’s Scholarship for academic excellence. She also received $5,000 in financial aid. "That whole process was very complicated for me," she recalled. "I had to send paperwork back to Mexico. No one knew how to help me, especially with my parents’ situation."

Ultimately, however, it wasn’t enough.

"My parents weren’t going to be able to pay for my tuition fees, room and board, food, transportation," she said. "They assured me they would find a way, but I was tired and missed my family."

A dream re-imagined

Overwhelmed, Casandra returned to Mexico in June 2016.

"I didn’t get to enjoy my teenage years because of the constant stress I was in. I wanted to be home," she said.

Casandra has been back in Mexico for over four years now. She lives with her family and tries to support herself as much as she can.

Last November, she was accepted into the University of Guadalajara, Faculty of Dentistry.

"I don’t want to be a doctor. I don’t want to work in hospitals, so dentist it is," she said.

She expects to graduate in five years. The tuition amount varies on the curriculum and materials used every semester, but is still much cheaper compared to U.S. colleges. She’s in her first semester and has so far paid $200 in tuition.

"I use my money for school. Whatever I have left, I contribute to pay for groceries for the family or give to my mom for whatever she needs," said Casandra.

At times, she wonders what life would be like if she went to college in the U.S., but she tries to move beyond the what-ifs.

"I like my life here in Mexico now," she said. "I don’t want to live in America anymore."

Her brother Miguel, 17, says he wants to return to the U.S. to work. This makes Casandra uneasy. "He thinks he can go and easily get a job and make lots of money. It’s not like that. I know from experience," she said.

"I don’t want him or my sister to go back to America," she said. "There’s no point. I tell them that whatever they want to do there, they can do it here."

Reported & Written by Parija Kavilanz