Poster Child

This March 7 photo of 2-year-old Tomasa Mendez, crying in her mother's arms because her father was suspected of being in the U.S. illegally, has become iconic in the immigration debate.
This March 7 photo of 2-year-old Tomasa Mendez, crying in her mother's arms because her father was suspected of being in the U.S. illegally, has become iconic in the immigration debate. (By Peter Pereira -- New Bedford Standard-times)

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By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 20, 2007

The girl in the picture has grief in her eyes, fear on her lips. Only later, when you meet her, do you realize she has world-class dimples. In the picture, fear has swallowed her dimples, while a maternal hand, with fingernails gnawed to the quick, strokes her head.

This is Tomasa Mendez -- or her image, at least. At 2 years old, she cannot comprehend the drama swirling around her, the national debate she has come to symbolize. But she can miss her "Papi," and cling ever tighter to her fuzzy green Dora the Explorer blanket.

She is a girl who became a picture who became a poster who became an icon -- or a piece of propaganda, if you like -- in the push and pull over immigration reform. The girl in the picture visited Washington the other day, where she kept coming face to face with . . . the girl in the picture, her picture. And more cameras, making yet more pictures.

What is the degree of separation between the girl and the girl in the picture? Some pictures mean exactly what they say, and that is why they are seized upon by shrewd adults to make into icons.

Some background: Tomasa lives in New Bedford, Mass., where on March 6, agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided a factory and detained 361 workers suspected of being in this country illegally. The workers at Michael Bianco Inc. were making backpacks for U.S. military personnel. Tomasa's father, Hector Mendez, was one of those arrested.

Tomasa's mother, Dominga, ran toward the factory with Tomasa in her arms. There were people in uniforms everywhere. "La policĂ­a," Dominga said to Tomasa. (Dominga asked that her last name, different from her husband's, not be published for fear that authorities would detect her own undocumented status.) The parents came from Guatemala six years ago. Tomasa, who was born in this country, is a U.S. citizen.

The next day, families crowded into a church basement for information and assistance. Tomasa was crying in her mother's lap.

Standing nearby was Peter Pereira, a photographer for the New Bedford Standard-Times, who had been taking pictures on this big breaking story for two days.

A priest started talking. Everyone hushed, except for one little girl, who couldn't stop crying. Pereira understood enough Spanish to know that Dominga was trying to reassure Tomasa that "Papi" would be all right. He raised his lens to shoot . . .

Let's freeze the frame right there, with the photographer poised and the girl not yet a picture. It is 3:04 p.m. on March 7, and here the stories of the girl and the girl in the picture diverge. They'll meet again later, in Washington.

The girl: Tomasa's father was the family's provider, bringing home about $300 a week. Dominga hasn't found a job because she can't afford the $160 a week that she says it would cost for child care. (Tomasa has two brothers, Diego, 7, and Melvin, 5.)

"They say, 'Why doesn't my father come home?' " Dominga says in an interview in Spanish. "I don't know how to answer them."


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