Going home after half a lifetime

Guillermo Mendoza, who will soon lose his permission to live legally in the United States, visits loved ones in his native El Salvador and contemplates building a life there.

Going home after half a lifetime

Guillermo Mendoza, who will soon lose his permission to live legally in the United States, visits loved ones in his native El Salvador and contemplates building a life there.
Matthew Mendoza, 10, puts his arm on his uncle Adonay Mendoza’s shoulder as they sit with his cousins on a hill overlooking their family’s farm in El Salvador. Matthew’s dad, Guillermo Mendoza, has been in the United States for 18 years but brought his wife and kids for a visit for the first time in February, after the Trump administration said it would end deportation protections for Salvadorans in 2019.
Story by
Photos by Sarah L. Voisin

Guillermo Mendoza boarded the flight from Virginia to San Salvador, nerves jangling and suitcases heavy with gifts. He was going home for the first time in 18 years.

At 36, he had achieved his version of the American Dream: Married, with two children, a work permit, a six-figure salary as a construction safety manager, a sprawling house in Silver Spring, Md.

Matthew Mendoza, 10, puts his arm on his uncle Adonay Mendoza’s shoulder as they sit with his cousins on a hill overlooking their family’s farm in El Salvador. Matthew’s dad, Guillermo Mendoza, has been in the United States for 18 years but brought his wife and kids for a visit for the first time in February, after the Trump administration said it would end deportation protections for Salvadorans in 2019.

But his permission to live in the United States was soon to expire, because of the Trump administration’s decision to end federal programs that allow Mendoza and some 300,000 other immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti to work legally on U.S. soil.

So Mendoza had to consider where else he might go. Among the options: Whether he could begin again — with his American-citizen wife and U.S.-born son and daughter — in the small, troubled country he fled half a lifetime ago.

Like millions of others living in the United States without permanent residency, Mendoza had resisted going home for years, fearful that the U.S. government might not let him return. Then the grandmother who raised him fell ill and he applied for a travel permit, hoping to see her before she died. The pass arrived four months too late.

But Mendoza decided to visit anyway, eager to see the rest of the family and loved ones he’d left behind.

He still worried about being allowed back into the United States, aware that President Trump’s immigration crackdown had given more latitude to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents and included travel bans that left other foreign-born residents stranded overseas.

At Dulles International Airport, when a clerk asked whether Mendoza had a one-way ticket, he answered with an edge in his voice.

“No,” Mendoza said. “I’m coming back.”

Guillermo Mendoza holds his 1-year-old daughter, Katia, at their home in Silver Spring, Md.

A growing distance

The road home has never been easy for immigrants who cross the border to build lives in the United States. But it became measurably harder starting in the mid-1990s, as a series of U.S. presidents — both Democrats and Republicans — beefed up border security and signed stricter laws that made travel riskier for undocumented immigrants or those with temporary work permits.

Mendoza and others with temporary protected status, which the United States granted undocumented Salvadorans after a pair of powerful earthquakes hit their country in 2001, can apply for permission to travel overseas.

They do not have U.S. passports or green cards, however, and the application for a travel pass — called an “advance parole document” — comes with a stern message from the Department of Homeland Security: “WARNING: DHS may revoke or terminate your Advance Parole Document at any time, including while you are outside the United States.”

Many immigrants make do for years with phone calls and online chats with relatives who depend on the dollars they send home.

“There are millions of people,” said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute’s New York office. “I have always thought that the biggest hardship, which people never understand . . . is that you cannot attend a funeral or the major milestones in your family’s life.”

Once he arrived at the airport outside San Salvador with his wife, Emily, one-year-old Katia and 10-year-old Matthew, Mendoza hugged his parents and the siblings he’d last seen as a teenager.

He noticed the white in his stepfather’s mustache and the lines in his mother’s face. His once-little sister, Vanessa, 28, a wisecracking nurse, now had a 7-year-old daughter.

He shook the hand of his brother, Adonay, a 21-year-old college student who had been a toddler when he left. To himself, he thought: “He looks shorter than he does over the phone.”

Adonay was thinking the same thing.

Everyone gawked at Mendoza, as if an alien had landed from outer space, except his mother, Natalia, who held him and sobbed.

“I thought I was never going to see you again,” she said, wiping her eyes with a hand towel.

Mendoza's mother, Natalia, squeezes him tight at the airport near San Salvador, their first hug in 18 years.
Mendoza's grandfather, Gilberto Climaco, greets him after failing to recognize him at first. His uncle Benjamin Climaco, left, had recently returned from the United States.
Mendoza‘s aunt Elvira Climaco weeps as she embraces him.
Mendoza laughs with his cousins, Marcelo Henriquez, left, and Rodrigo Marroquin outside his childhood home in San Vicente.
TOP LEFT: Mendoza's mother, Natalia, squeezes him tight at the airport, their first hug in 18 years. TOP RIGHT: His grandfather, Gilberto Climaco, didn't recognize Mendoza at first. His uncle Benjamin Climaco, left, recently returned from the United States. BOTTOM LEFT: Mendoza‘s aunt Elvira Climaco weeps as she embraces him. BOTTOM RIGHT: Mendoza laughs with his cousins, Marcelo Henriquez, left, and Rodrigo Marroquin outside his childhood home in San Vicente.

The family piled into matching Kias, grabbed takeout pupusas for dinner and drove to the little blue house where they’ve lived for the past nine years.

Mendoza opened his suitcases and gave out coffee, chocolate, Barbie dolls, books, sneakers, purses and tops. As relatives streamed in, they repeated the same words: Tanto tiempo. So much time.

The next day, the family caravaned to Mendoza’s grandparents’ farm in rural San Vicente. Everyone called him Alex, the middle name he’d used as a child. His aunt Elvira, who lives next door, nearly collapsed from emotion when Mendoza stepped out of the car.

“How my mother wanted to see you,” she wept.

Hours later, Mendoza’s grandfather marched into the yard, waving a stick at the ornery cow he’d just purchased at an auction. A day shy of 88, Gilberto Climaco sported a cowboy hat — embossed with a scorpion — and a long machete attached to his belt.

Mendoza, tears in his eyes, stepped forward to hug him.

His grandfather did not recognize him.

It’s Alex, relatives murmured.

“He’s so pale,” his grandfather said.

Relatives guided Mendoza down a stone cow path in the fading sun until they arrived at a clearing overlooking miles of green pastures. Three graves were covered in plastic flowers. One belonged to Mendoza’s grandmother, Cruz Alfaro de Climaco.

She was a bright and beautiful woman who handled the household finances and could butcher a cow. She took in Mendoza, whose father was killed in El Salvador’s civil war, after gang members overran the neighborhood where his mother and stepfather were raising him.

Mendoza’s accomplishments in the United States had filled his grandmother with pride, but she never stopped wishing for him to visit.

Her death “is the last thing I imagined,” Mendoza said in the silence, bending down over her grave.

“She loved him,” Elvira said, as they all walked home. “She didn’t call him ‘my grandson.’ She called him ‘my son.’ ”

Mendoza visits his grandmother's grave for the first time, with his aunt.

Weighing the options

Over five days, Mendoza focused on reacquainting himself with his Salvadoran family and introducing them to his wife and kids. He rocked Katia in a hammock on his grandfather’s patio and ate tortillas his aunt Irma flipped by hand on a firewood stove.

Emily, who learned Spanish in the Peace Corps and is a nurse like Vanessa, chatted with her about medicine. Matthew, a budding hipster with blue-rimmed eyeglasses, listened to Kanye West with Adonay on a pair of shared ear buds.

Whenever possible, Mendoza dispensed advice and suggestions, as if to make up for his long absence. He prodded his sister to lose weight and told his niece to save her money instead of buying Barbie dolls.

His mother, a seamstress at a hospital, called his visit “the happiest days of my life.”

So much had improved since he left El Salvador. His parents live in a relatively safe neighborhood in San Salvador with paved roads and almond trees. San Vicente largely recovered from the 2001 quakes and is humming with new construction, markets and stores.

Mendoza wondered whether it would be enough to make a life.

He had been among the first in his family to leave after the country’s civil war, and his success inspired others to follow. But some had already come home.

His uncle Jorge Marroquin returned in 2003, when his wife insisted that she shouldn’t be alone with their young son.

His uncle Benjamin Climaco, 41 and a former window washer in Massachusetts, came back last year to raise cattle and finish building a house with spectacular views of his family’s farmland.

Benjamin Climaco pets a cow during Mendoza's visit to his uncle's property.

Visiting that house one morning, Mendoza stood on the porch and wondered whether he could buy the land next door.

“Having breakfast out here would be a luxury,” Mendoza said, flinging his arms wide.

“Wait till I fix it up,” his uncle, who was more like a brother, answered with a smile.

But there were plenty of reminders of why Mendoza left El Salvador.

Everything was a struggle: His sister works the overnight shift at a hospital for $350 a month. His brother is earning a business degree, but jobs remain scarce. A cousin who studied nursing sold water from a rolling cart for years before he found a job in his field.

El Salvador has one of the world’s highest murder rates, and theft and gang activity are rampant. Even in his parents’ new neighborhood, windows are barred and razor wire runs across roofs. Armed muggers robbed both of his siblings for their phones. Miguel, his stepfather, quit jogging after he witnessed a murder. Now he tinkers on his indoor patio, guarded by a fierce-looking pit bull named Joker.

Then there was Edwin Climaco, Mendoza’s cousin, who worked construction with him in Maryland. Months after he returned to El Salvador in 2007, Climaco was fatally shot outside the house he’d built in San Vicente with money he earned in the United States. He is buried next to Mendoza’s grandmother.

Mendoza watched his cousin’s funeral on a videotape his family mailed to him in Maryland.

Miguel Mendoza, left, shows his stepson the home where his cousin Edwin Climaco was killed.

In San Vicente, Mendoza visited Climaco’s 11-year-old son, who was a newborn when his father was killed. His mother has since moved to the United States; the son lives with his grandparents. Mendoza brought him video games, sneakers and chocolates.

Later, Mendoza made an unannounced stop at the house Edwin built, now occupied by a renter. He parked and stepped onto the dusty road, Miguel beside him. They stared at the red-roofed house. And they looked down at the cross on the side of the road.

“This is where the boy fell,” Mendoza said.

He took a breath, focusing on the fence that surrounds the house. It should be taller, and topped with razor wire, Mendoza said. His stepfather agreed.

“He had a tremendous house,” Mendoza said, and glanced over his shoulder at the empty street. They hurried back to the car.

Mendoza knows that even if Emily successfully sponsors him to become a U.S. citizen, the Trump administration is trying to prohibit immigrants like him from bringing parents and siblings to the country. His wife was open to the possibility of leaving the United States, based partly on her Peace Corps stint years ago in Central America.

But he was skeptical about what they could achieve in El Salvador.

Maybe, Mendoza told his family, we should all consider buying a farm in Costa Rica. Or perhaps Adonay should immigrate to Canada and put his business skills to use. For now, Mendoza said, his parents should build a second story on the little blue house so that Vanessa, a single mother, could live with them.

“Here, we cannot work,” he concluded. “We can only survive.”

Mendoza's wife, Emily, looks after their daughter, Katia, during a family party at his childhood home.

An anxious return

The next morning, they rushed to the airport. Mendoza’s mother had refilled their empty suitcases with local cheeses, beans and other snacks. Then she retreated to the patio so he wouldn’t see her cry.

At the airport, Mendoza pulled her in for a long hug, convinced he would not move back permanently but also reluctant to let too much time pass before his next visit.

“God willing, Mom, in six months, I’ll be back,” he said.

He didn’t tell her he was worried that he might not be admitted into the United States. He and Emily had married weeks before the trip, a legal commitment that the longtime couple figured would solidify his status. He’d also applied to renew his TPS work permit one last time.

On the flight home, the plane smelled of bags of fried chicken from Pollo Campero. The restaurant chain is familiar in the United States, but some homesick immigrants insist the crispy chicken tastes better when made in Central America.

After landing, Mendoza’s heart pounded as he waited in the customs line with his family.

He watched the uniformed officials direct worried-looking travelers carrying foreign passports to a second inspection.

Finally, it was Mendoza’s turn.

A bearded federal agent, who seemed friendly, scanned his fingerprints and asked where he was traveling from. The agent even high-fived Katia, who bobbed in Emily’s arms.

Then he plopped Mendoza’s Salvadoran passport into a red box and escorted him and his family down the hall for more questions.

An hour passed. Guillermo and Emily sat in silence, not wanting to imagine that they might be separated after all these years. Other immigrants were there, too. A man whose children waited outside. Another man carrying home a bag of chicken. It was late at night. Everyone wanted to go home.

An official asked Mendoza for his Maryland address. He gave it. The official stamped a piece of paper, then waved them through.

The family burst through the doors together, sleepy and hungry and ready to wash up. Mendoza said he never would have booked a flight arriving in El Salvador after dark. But in Virginia, he felt safe. Relief washed over him as he walked toward the airport exit.

It felt good to be back in America. He just didn’t know how long he would stay.

Mendoza and his family head home after being delayed for an hour by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Dulles International Airport.
Credits: Story by Maria Sacchetti. Photos by Sarah L. Voisin. Designed by Madalyne Bird. Photo Editing by Mark Miller.