About three hours south of Phoenix, the twin cities of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, are not one. They are divided by a wall separating a population of approximately 450,000 people in Mexico and that of a mere 40,000 people in the United States. Some wait 45 minutes to an hour depending on the day to get into the United States. Many who returned to Mexico had McDonalds in hand. Many kids, still U.S. citizens, returned from school across the border to their home in Nogales, Sonora: their parents deported because they were not citizens, their families uprooted. The majority who made the cross between the two cities did so as part of their daily errands.
Upon entrance into Mexico, you are welcomed with warning posters against bringing guns across the border, and yet with a push of a button a green light gives you the pass to enter. Your first steps are an unsure dance with those eagerly waiting to make a few American dollars for a cab ride or by way of pharmaceutical drug stores that are close to the port of entry. Elote and the smell of warm butter, the cool of paletas de fresas con crema grace the cocinas.
But it is in one of Nogales, Sonora's most impoverished neighborhoods of Bella Vista where HEPAC resides; Hogar de Esperanza y Paz translates to mean the Home of Hope and Peace. Only three miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border, it is a refuge for women and children. The surrounding hillsides are a dichotomy of houses painted bright colors, some in disrepair, others grand and of the few wealthy. Maria Esther Torres Robles, cook and founder of HEPAC, estimates that about 150 kids visit the center. It is down from the estimated 450 kids in the 1980s and 1990s because there are fewer people crossing the border, she says. According to the Department of Homeland Security there has been a 32-percent drop since fiscal year 2008 when 705,005 people were estimated to be apprehended when illegally crossing the border. In contrast, in fiscal year 2014 approximately 479,377 migrants were apprehended.
Children returning from school ran into the cafeteria, signing in with their name and shirt size before receiving their trays. The shirt sizes are to give the ladies who volunteer their time serving food in the cafeteria an idea of how many sweaters to knit for Christmas. Different food is served daily. From chicken broth to spaghetti it depends on what they have for the day. They "depend on donations," Robles said. Lunch included refried beans and tortillas and soon the entire cafeteria was beaming with hungry faces. A young girl and boy, siblings, smiled to one of the ladies serving them food; their foreheads touched the countertop, their hands outstretched and welcoming when they received a second tortilla.The children's high-pitched voices tripped over one another in rapid Spanish as they turned away from the camera.
Mia Anahi, 9, had experienced displacement when her family was deported from the United States. She wrote a letter to other children who have gone through the same.
"Don't feel alone," Anahi wrote. "The kids of Mexico are fighting so you can leave the place where you guys are. We care about you a lot."
Anahi wishes to go to school on the other side of the border, and to one day become a doctor.
Since many of their parents work long hours at the Maquiladoras, they are unable to feed them after school. HEPAC provides the children a place to go that serves foods concerned with a balanced and nutritiously-aware diet. They provide a safe haven to gather and socialize in play afterwards. HEPAC is a support for families along the border.
Swinging from monkey bars, the crunch of gravel beneath bicycles tires, kids gather together after a hot meal. Some are flying off and on the playground's merry-go-round. They are seen, they are too fast to be caught, their home is a state of in-between.