Jossimar Diaz-Castro stands with his arm around his mother, Catalina Castro. As a student at EMU, Diaz-Castro works to put his turbulent childhood in the past, while continuing to strive for the future his mother fought to give him after fleeing Mexico. Photo by Samantha Cole.

Plight of Undocumented Immigrants, in Actuality and in Drama

“We put one foot in front of the other and asked God for help with the next,” writes Kara Hartzler, in the voice of Marcela.

A Guadalajaran woman crossing the border from Mexico into Arizona, Marcela is one of four immigrant characters Hartzler created using a combination of her training as both a playwright and immigration lawyer, in “No Rooster in the Desert.”

The play is fictional – based on fieldwork and research into real events – but tells a story familiar to thousands of immigrants crossing into the United States each year.

Last year, the Department of Homeland Security apprehended more than 640,000 foreign nationals; 76 percent native to Mexico, according to a 2011 enforcement actions report.

“One of the things I set out to do was not write a depressing immigration play,” said Hartzler, an EMU `94 graduate, from her Arizona home. “To make the characters real and accessible … [some people] view immigrants as either stately victims or law-breaking thieves. I wanted to present them not as … extreme but really human people.”

From stacks of immigrant interviews and her years working in Arizona with detainees, Hartzler premiered, “No Roosters in the Desert,” in Mexico City in 2010.

A Real Story

By then, Catalina Castro and her children were already long gone.

Jossimar Diaz-Castro arrived at the cafe, kissed his mother on the cheek and slid into the booth beside her. She poured a cup of tea for him, and they started to remember.

Catalina was a single mother in Mexico City, separated from her children’s father and working at all-night diners to make ends meet.

“I was working so hard in my country … but it’s very difficult for girls,” she recalled. Slowly, she was saving money to build a safe home for her growing family. The father of her children had bribed the authorities to evade paying child support, and the married women in her community looked on Catalina’s life with paranoia and suspicion.

They held hope for a stable home, but Catalina was tired.

“Frustrated?” Jossimar said.

“And just tired, too,” she continued. The memory etched her face. “My kids cried for me, and I was at the restaurant working all night … ”

Eight-year-old Jossimar and his baby sister spent many Mexico City nights alone. “It was a traumatic experience for me,” he said. “I don’t think about it, to tell you the truth, but it did instill in me an instinct of fear: Fearful of darkness, of ghostly potential creatures … which developed into something more broad, a fear of the world.”

One wouldn’t guess the now high-achieving senior, an honors student in theology and philosophy at EMU, carries a childhood that narrowly missed his mother’s violent stalkers, his father’s substance abuse and eventually led him to the floor of a packed van.

Crossing Over

Catalina had lost everything in fleeing from an abusive relationship, but her brother in Atlanta, Ga., seemed to have the solution.

She sold everything and borrowed money for the trip. “And we started to travel.”

Holding her children tightly to her chest for one night in a van, then walking in the desert for two days, Catalina finally crossed into the United States.

Along with a crowd of immigrants, mostly men, they jumped into a van to make the last leg of the journey into Houston.

Jossimar hid on the floor. Her daughter was given sedatives to stay quiet for the 12-hour ride. “At that point, I said, I want to come back … I felt so, so bad,” Catalina said.

The American dream became a nightmare. “You think once you’re in the U.S., it’s all good,” she said. “But you don’t speak the language, know nothing, can’t drive … ”

Jossimar cried to return to his homeland. The boy fell into a depression. “I said, `I love you but now I can’t give you anything,’ ” she remembers. “I want to have you with me, but in this situation there’s no saving you, there’s no life here.”

Nightmare Becomes Dream

The young mother made the choice to send Jossimar back to live with his father. She called the man; here, her heart breaks again. “I love my son but in this situation – this really hard situation – he needs you,” she told him over the phone.

Soon after, her daughter fell ill. Doctors told her that, without proper health care she could die. Catalina made another phone call, to her mother.

“Life is more difficult here,” she remembers crying. Her mother had a coldly realistic reply: If you don’t come with money, don’t come back.

Sending her daughter back to Mexico was the final thread snapping; she’d lost everything in an attempt to gain a better life. “I felt like a bad mom, so I never stopped working,” she said. Money earned from her three jobs was sent to Mexico, and to pay back debt to her brother.

After a long pursuit by a seemingly respectable Puerto Rican man, Catalina married. He then turned ugly.

“The big reason my mom endured being with this man, despite the deep abuse he was inflicting upon her, was that there was a legal process of documentation in the works,” Jossimar explained, his arm around her shoulder.

When the abuse became too much, Catalina ran. It was only a matter of time before he found her; at the point of a gun, he heaped on more unspeakable abuse, until the police saved her.

Now, the documentation process took a new direction: a case of domestic violence, not marital union.

Catalina called Jossimar in Mexico with the news: In six months, their four-year nightmare would end, and they’d be granted documentation.

Brand New World

“This country gave me opportunity,” Catalina said, the tea now cold and the dessert cake eaten. “We passed hard times, but I found God here.” She smiled describing their life now: an honorable husband, a stable job that brought them to Harrisonburg four years ago, two smart, successful children and two more sons.

“I see my all mother’s work being fruitful,” Jossimar said. “We see life much sweeter, and look forward to better things.”

Courtesy Daily News Record, Oct. 27, 2012