Rescuing My Deported Aunt from a Hole in the Tijuana Canals

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Editor’s Note: When he saw his aunt profiled on a
Spanish-language TV news special on ñongos -- underground encampments of the deported and homeless built in the canals of the U.S.-Mexico border - Yaveth Gomez knew he had to go save her. The family piled into a car, drove down to the border, and pulled her out of a hole in the ground -- literally.

We took Interstate 5 South on a mission to rescue my tía Martha. After 30 years in the United States, she was deported three years ago to Tijuana, the bottom of California - el culo del diablo. We hadn’t heard from her since.

It was because of the Mexican TV news program, Televisa, that we were able to find her.


A reporter for Televisa, Vanessa Job, did a report on the ñongos -- undergound bunkers in the canals of the Tijuana border, where camps of deported and homeless people are living in subhuman conditions. The term ñongo has several definitions in Spanish, including being in a dificult situation. Growing up, I knew the term to mean a knot -- a tight spot, between a rock and a hard place.

Televisa interviewed my aunt in March 2013. A month later, after stumbling upon a rerun of the program, my aunt’s sister-in-law contacted Martha’s oldest son Lupe to show him where his mother was.

I was at home in Tracy, Calif., when my dad called me to tell me that they had seen a video of my aunt Martha in Tijuana. He told me to go on the computer and look at the YouTube video, and find out where exactly she was. As I watched the video, I was delirious. The pixilated digital image of my aunt on the laptop screen wasn't the same as when I saw her in the flesh. Watching footage of my aunt living in those bunkers felt like watching a tragic movie. Our family contacted the reporter, who found my tía
, and they followed us as we traveled south from the Central Valley to find her.

José, Martha’s older brother, rented a Ford Flex and the group of sons, brothers and sisters piled in, ready to get Martha back to safety.

We started from Tracy and went through the fields of the Central Valley where my family first worked in this country, down to Southern California’s coast, and into Tijuana, Mexico.

By the time we arrived, it was still hard to believe Martha, my aunt -- who watched me grow up, who’s children all were born in the United States and came to my birthday parties -- ended up in a ñongo
in Tijuana. The makeshift bunkers were built by the community living along the Tijuana canal of the border between Mexico and the United States. The canal is a long bed of cement about a football field wide. The ñongos stretch about half a football field long. The way they are all cobbled together in dirt mounds along the edge of the cement canal was a testament to the human spirit of survival, like a hobo version of Atlantis.

All of Martha’s belongings -- including her cell phone containing her family's numbers and her legal papers -- were destroyed in the ñongos
. So she was a person with no money, no home, no identification or documents, and no contact with any family members in a strange city on the other side of the border. Eventually, she joined the community of ñongeros who were facing similar problems. This homeless immigrant refugee community attracted the attention of Televisa in Mexico City due to the rising problem of deportees in the city of Tijuana.

When we found her, Martha was, as her son put it, one step above her grave. She was about a meter deep underground, hiding in the only bunker that was left after they were burned down by the Tijuana Municipal Police.

The reporters followed my 21-year-old cousin Junior as he pulled his mom out of the hole and into the daylight like a groundhog. Her eyes gleamed, standing out from her sun-crisped skin. She stood at about 5’1”. I could have sworn she was a lot taller, but I was just a kid when I last saw her. Her cheekbones showed profusely as if she were just a skeleton of my tía
. She had nubs for fingers, without nails. But I was happy to see her alive and I was focused on baby steps to get her out of her predicament. We got my aunt out of the hole and took her to eat.

My tía
was so happy that day, just as I always remembered her. We ate tacos and chit-chatted about life there. She told me that a couple of days ago she had seen her friend murdered in cold blood right before her eyes. She told me she missed us all and wanted to go back to the States. I did not know what to tell her. I knew she would not be able to go back. I consoled myself knowing at least she would not have to go back to the ñongos.

She is now living with family in Mexico, recuperating.  Her children are making plans to go visit her.

Later, when I was back home in Tracy, I watched the news with the footage of my father, my tía
and my cousins. I thought, ‘What a beautiful thing we did, to go over there and reunite with our family member.’ But I also thought, ‘What about all those people who still need to be rescued?’

Ñongeros
have families. It just so happened that my tía had a family that saw her on TV.