Betty Uicab is a stranger in her own land. She wears skinny white jeans, see-through blouses, blue contact lenses, and speaks with an especially strong Tex-Mex accent. Though she was born in Tunkas, she grew up in the United States. She even thought for many years that Mexico was not her home.
“Now, I can say that I feel part of the town, that I was born here, that I belong here, that people here are my people,” Betty says. She’s been back in Tunkas for two years since being deported from Dallas.
“Buenas tardes,” she says to some of her neighbors as her golden bracelets and rings tinkle with the waving of her hand. Flashy jewelry like this is something most women of Tunkas can’t afford, if they want to be able to feed their kids every day.
Unlike most of the women in Tunkas who ride around town with one or two of their kids on one bike, she drives around in a sand-colored Jeep. In Tunkas, the car stands out like a fire engine.
Yellow and green butterflies fly through the hot humid air along the road to this jungle village. Migrants get to enjoy the colorful parade when they come back home, if they come back home. Betty Uicab knows the pattern well.
At the age of 34, she took that same road twice on her way to the United States. Both times just to find herself deported back in Tunkas, according to U.S. federal documents.
The last time she came with a broken heart because her U.S.-born son, Anfronee, refused to leave the United States. He now lives in Carrollton, Texas.
At age 34, Betty Uicab’s dream is to see her son again, to be able to hug him and kiss him. “I told him to come over here to finish his school here. I was gonna do anything for him to be and live here well,” she says, as her eyes fill with tears, “He said ‘No, Mom, I’m American, I can’t go there. It’s just not for me, mom.’”
After being deported twice, Betty can’t go back to America. Doing so, could risk a prison sentence under tough U.S. immigration laws. She grew up in California and Texas. But now she rebuilds her life in the little migrant town of Tunkas, where she was born.
She works at a cantina and sends money to her son who lives in Carrollton, a Dallas suburb. Her only connections to him are through phone calls or phone texts. She wishes she could see her son grow, instead of experiencing it through the photographs he sends her. Her big hope: A reunion through a U.S. visa that allows a Texas visit.
“They told us to hold hands and never let go,” says Betty Uicab about her family’s journey into the north.
Life back in Mexico wasn’t easy. She didn’t speak Spanish very well. She didn’t even know what buses she had to take to go south to her family’s original home in the Yucatan peninsula. With the help of her family, she managed to get to Tunkas, her birthplace. But she felt like an outsider.
After a few weeks, she realized she didn’t want to live away from her son who by that time was 8 years old. Her husband, Marvin, stayed in Texas but he sent Anfronee back to Mexico.
After three months, Marvin asked her to come back. He was ill, he said, and he needed his wife and child near.
“So I decided to go back,” Betty says. “That was a big mistake. I re-entered illegally.” She passed through Juarez. Anfronee was a U.S. citizen so she had someone else take him legally past immigration guards.
She remembers being scared. She couldn’t make any mistakes or she would be back in jail. As many immigrants used to do, she paid to use somebody else’s papers to get to the other side. The false papers showed a woman’s image who resembled her. It was enough to get her past the border.
After a few hours of anxiety, Betty’s family reunited in the United States.
She would never have imagined how different life would be from there on. The place that had been her home now seemed entirely different. She was scared of doing everyday activities. Driving, working, nothing was safe. At any moment, police could come get her and put her back to jail or, even worse, take her back to Mexico.
As the years passed she had to overcome these fears. She had to go back to work. Marvin became sick and the strange illness made him worse by the day. His bones hurt, but doctors couldn’t tell what it was.
“[Marvin] let me know he had cancer when he only had three months left”, she recalls, her voice cracking. On June 30, 2011 Marvin died. Betty was left to raise her teenage son by herself.
On Jan. 27, 2012, Betty emerged from her workplace, still in her uniform. In the restaurant parking lot, as she was heating her car, two police officers knocked on her window. After interrogating her for a while, they asked her for her papers. She had neither a driver license nor insurance.
Betty was charged with possession of a controlled substance, but denies she was guilty. Dallas county legal filings show the charges were later dismissed. She, however, was deported by federal immigration officials because she had re-entered the country after a previous expulsion and now, she says, she faces a ten-year bar on returning.
Betty’s greatest fear was realized. She was taken away from her son and placed in deportation proceedings.
At the age of 34, she took the same road twice. Both times just to find herself deported back in Tunkas. The last time she came with a broken heart.
Betty was one of 23,184 people who were convicted for re-entry during 2011, a year with the highest number of re-entry convictions in at least a decade, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
“I called my son to tell him that I wasn’t going to be with him anymore,” Betty says. “It was hard because he had just lost his dad.” She spent a year behind bars.. During those 12 months she read books, went to school and did three prison jobs. She worked the elevator crew, in visitation and on suicide watch.
Loneliness dominated that year, Betty remembers. Her family visited her every once in a while, but never her son. She still keeps the letters he sent during that time.
Betty was finally deported in 2013. For the second time, she would have to find her way back to Tunkas. The way home was easier than in 2006. She now spoke Spanish fluently and knew the route.
This time her compatriots weren’t very welcoming. She was robbed in Monterrey on her way back to the Yucatan peninsula.
Betty knew she had no other choice but to stay in Mexico this time. She talked to her son by phone. “I told him to come over here to finish his school, I was going to do anything for him to be and live here good,” she says as her eyes fill with tears, “He said ‘No, mom, I’m American, I can’t go there, it’s just not for me, Mom.’ ”
"I told him to come over here to finish his school here. He said ‘No, mom, I’m American, I can’t go there, it’s just not for me, mom.'"
Now Betty works in the Bronco Shot Bar, one of the most popular cantinas in Tunkas. Men sit around for hours with Corona beers, limes and salt on their tables. Every now and then someone stands up to play some music from the old red jukebox that sits at the end of the room. Five pesos for one song, ten for three.
The walls of the cantina are decorated with license plates from Texas, California and Washington along with portraits of semi-naked girls and equestrian paraphernalia. Apart from the girls on the walls and Betty behind the bar, women are rarely seen here.
Most of the time she is accompanied by the owner of the cantina, her second husband who is known as El Bronco, the untamed one.
Life in Tunkas is vastly different from life in Texas. The pace is more relaxed. Betty’s days are filled with cleaning the house and working at the cantina. Dressed in the clothes her sisters send her from the U.S., she goes wherever her new husband goes. Spanglish is the most common language spoken between them and on the phone with their kids. El Bronco left eight kids back in the U.S., where he, too, had been an immigrant.
The couple lives in a big green house in Tunkas built with migration money. Locals can tell the difference between the houses of people who have a migrant in the family and those of people who don’t. “Migration houses” are made with bricks and cement, often painted in very bright colors. The rest, most of them located away from the center of town, are small wooden cottages with thatch roofs and gardens filled with vegetables.
In this migrant family, the money flows the other way.
Both Betty and El Bronco send money to their children in the U.S. Anfronee, now 17, receives money from his mother every month to live independently in Carrollton.
Anfronee recently left his aunt’s house to live with his friends. Betty feels like sending money is not enough to be a good mother. She wishes she could be there to fix any problems he is having.
Mother and son talk over the phone and text each other every day. Betty has watched her child become a man over the past couple of years through photographs he sends her and through social media.
“My sacrifice is that I have to stay here in Mexico for him to come and visit me. At least I’ll be able to hug him and kiss him”, she says. The last time Anfronee came to visit was in November 2014 after she had an accident.
Betty’s biggest dream is to have a U.S. visa in order to be able to visit her son. She wishes she could be in Texas for his graduation, for his wedding or just to meet the grandchildren she may have in a few years, but she knows it is unlikely.
Anfronee has said that when he becomes 21 he will fight for his mom’s papers. But Betty knows that going back to the US legally will be very difficult.
“Mis sentimientos” by Los Ángeles Azules, a song about abandonment, fills the cantina while Betty plays cards at the bar with El Bronco and two regular customers.
When men come to refresh their drink, El Bronco hands out a caguama, 32 ounces of beer. Betty takes the money and puts it away. She barely talks to anyone. They play one game of cards after another. The bet is 10 pesos for each game. Nobody keeps count of who has won after most hands.
Every now and then Betty stares anxiously at her phone or looks sadly around the room as if she were looking for someone. Then she goes back to the aces, jacks and eights in her hand.