By Manuel Ayala
Tijuana, Mexico, Jul 12 (EFE).- After nine deportations and 20 years in the United States, Esther Morales now lives permanently in Mexico’s northern border region and heads up a project that offers hot meals to stranded migrants.
Aware of the needs at migrant shelters, particularly acute now due to US restrictions that make it harder for asylum seekers to make their way across the border, Morales launched her “Comida calientita” (Hot Food) initiative in 2016 and began delivering meals to those establishments once a month.
She was able to expand her operation in 2020 after obtaining the sponsorship of the Al Otro Lado organization – a bi-national advocacy and legal aid organization serving migrants, refugees and deportees in the US and Mexico – and currently is able to provide those meals twice a week.
A native of the southern state of Oaxaca, Morales emigrated to the US in 1989 to escape a life of poverty and hardship in her home town, following in the footsteps of other family members who had previously made that same journey.
Morales lived for two decades in Los Angeles despite having been deported on eight different occasions, finding her way back to the US every time she was repatriated to Mexico.
“I had problems with deportations until they deported me definitively and I stayed in Tijuana, a city I was completely unfamiliar with,” she told Efe on Tuesday.
IN SEARCH OF REFUGE
Morales’ life changed in 2009.
In her last attempt to return to LA – where her daughter, who holds a PhD in psychology, lives – the US authorities detained and jailed her and sent her back for what proved to be the final time.
In need of a place to go, Morales took refuge at Tijuana’s Madre Asunta shelter for women and children, where she experienced first-hand the hunger and lack of basic necessities that migrants endure.
That ordeal motivated her to launch a tamale business known as La Antiguita that is based in the heart of that border city south of San Diego, California.
“My love for all this began back then, because when I arrived (in Tijuana) without knowing anyone, I was living in shelters and I know that path, the hardships,” Morales said. “I know there’s no food and there’s nothing. That’s where this love for my migrant brothers and sisters was born.”
After starting to make money with her business, she returned to the shelter that had earlier served as a place of refuge and initially provided meals once a month.
Now, with the support of Humanizing Deportation, a community-based digital storytelling project that documents the human consequences of the current migration and border control regimes in the US and Mexico, Morales has enlisted the help of more people to distribute the meals, including university students in the US.
She now provides meals to a dozen shelters twice a week, delivering plates of food to more than 200 people on each visit and treating those migrants to her specialty: Oaxacan-style tamales.
THE PAIN OF DEPORTATION
Morales can speak from personal experience about the pain of family separation, having been forced to live apart from a daughter who occasionally crosses the border to visit her in Tijuana.
“You experience loneliness, sadness, family separation. It’s something very sad and painful for a human being, being separated from your family, being separated from the life you made in a city” and having to begin again, she said.
Yet despite her troubles, her spirit of solidarity with migrants remains unbreakable, as is her desire to do even more.