Luis Barcenas still recalls the terror of being kidnapped at gunpoint while driving a truck on a Mexican highway 14 years ago, a traumatic two days that compelled him to move his family to Chicago in search of a better life.
But after years of disappointment in the United States that left the future uncertain for their two children, Barcenas and his wife, Xochitl, are ready to give their native land a second chance.
Scraping together $20,000 to buy a battered diesel truck and return to Mexico's dangerous roads seems to Barcenas a safer bet than the sporadic, hard labor that barely sustained him, his wife and their two sons during eight years in the U.S.
"I'm not so young," Barcenas, 46, said at his home north of Mexico City. He recounted days spent ripping asbestos from old buildings around Chicago and heaving heavy pallets on the graveyard shift at a Northbrook bread factory, all the while worrying about his illegal immigration status.
"I told Xochitl: 'With this type of heavy work, I have five more years to give,'" he said. "But what's going to happen after that? How will I be? In a wheelchair? Or, with crutches? And for what?"
Their children, Mexican-born, still consider Chicago their home and long to return. One wears his Chicago school sweater over the uniform issued by his Mexican school. His classmates, noting his fluency in English, call him gringo. But his parents are certain they have made the right choice, even if the boys were on a path to qualify for legal status in the U.S.
In Chicago and across the country, immigrant families are making the same calculations. Their American dreams have clashed with the reality of low-paying jobs that offer little chance for advancement or middle-class security.
With opportunities limited by a still-struggling economy, the historic wave of Mexican immigration appears to have reversed after decades of growth that transformed the U.S., according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonprofit research group.
With the change of direction that may again reshape communities in both countries, about 1.4 million Mexican immigrants in the U.S. returned home from 2005 to 2010, most voluntarily, the center reported last spring. That number, which also includes deportations, is roughly double the number of Mexicans who left the U.S. between 1995 and 2000.
"I believe the era of great Mexican migration is probably over," said Allert Brown-Gort, a fellow at Notre Dame University's Kellogg Institute for International Studies who has written extensively about Latin American immigration in the Midwest.
With jobs lacking, "slowly but surely your options start getting cut down," Brown-Gort said. "What's going to happen in Chicago if these workers go back, to the extent that they're younger workers, is that it will be taking a wedge out of certain areas of the economy."
Over the past decade, Illinois has lost hundreds of thousands of jobs in construction, manufacturing and other industries — the very work that lured many of the state's estimated 711,000 Mexican-born residents. Now, eight families on average go to the Mexican Consulate in Chicago each month seeking help to move back home. No one knows how many more Mexicans have just packed up and gone home.
They are returning to a nation that still is embroiled in a raging war with drug cartels that has led to an estimated 50,000 deaths since 2006. Moreover, the country's government is once again run by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which earned a reputation for corrupt leadership during its previous 71 years in power.
Yet Mexico's economy has expanded annually by 4 percent in recent years, creating a steadily growing middle class. The U.S. economy, while much larger, is growing at a rate of about 2.7 percent.
Mexico's new president, Enrique Pena Nieto, vowed to focus on job creation when he took office in December. The goal is to create more than 1 million jobs per year, fueled by $15 billion in long-needed infrastructure improvements and other actions geared toward fostering certain industries, said Emilio Lozoya, one of Pena's top advisers.
"Jobs will help mitigate security problems and will probably help (the U.S.) with immigration reform because fewer Mexicans will want to cross the border," said Lozoya, who was recently appointed to lead Pemex, the national oil company. "We will need people to fill them."
The people leaving Chicago all have a story of their own. Many, like the Barcenas family, sought safety and opportunity. Their children grew up in Chicago, melding into the city's schools and playgrounds as generations of Poles, Irish and Italians did before them. And, they hoped that Chicago would be where they would find happiness and a home.
Now those dreams lie elsewhere.
Seeking a new start
Luis Barcenas flew north first, in 2004. His family came several months later, during the Fourth of July weekend with fireworks flashing across Chicago's sky. At O'Hare International Airport, Luis greeted his family with a rented limousine — a lavish gesture meant to symbolize a new beginning after leaving behind the fear caused by his kidnapping.
Six years earlier, Barcenas, a truck driver hauling goods for the Price Club-Costco company, was returning to Mexico City with $100,600 worth of electronic equipment and other items.
In the pre-dawn light, he saw a police roadblock. He stopped and prepared to pay a bribe, a routine cost of doing business in a country where corruption remains rampant.
But the uniformed men instead began to beat him, he said. After he was pulled to the back of a tiny store, one of the kidnappers forced a gun into his mouth and asked the others: "Why do we have him here, wasting time? Let's finish him."
"I can't end here. I won't see my son," Luis recalled thinking.
Someone intervened, and Luis was told to falsify a police report. If he didn't comply, his captors told him, they'd murder his family.
He was dumped bloodied and beaten several miles away from where he was abducted, and then he did as he was told. The encounter left him and his wife anxious, even as they carried on with growing a family and a hauling company that allowed them to buy a townhouse inside a gated suburban community just north of Mexico City.
When another would-be bandit approached Luis in that neighborhood and threatened to kill him if he didn't help him pull off a heist, the couple decided it was time to leave.
In Chicago, the city's gleaming skyscrapers and shimmering lake spoke of unlimited possibility, Xochitl Barcenas, 42, recalled.
"There were so many people outside, shopping, walking around," she said. Amid the Fourth of July celebrations, "It was all very festive."
But the wonder faded.
They came to the country on tourist visas, which expired in less than a year, leaving them among the estimated 11.1 million people in the U.S. illegally. Without work permits, the couple found it difficult to get steady work. They also discovered that Chicago was not as safe as they had envisioned.
Seeing the baleful blue lights of a police camera in the Humboldt Park neighborhood where they first settled, Xochitl Barcenas asked her husband: "This is a First World country?"
"It was the first time I heard the word ganga," she recalled, citing a Spanglish term for "gang" that her sister-in-law used when scolding her for venturing into Humboldt Park with her sons to see the picture-perfect lagoon one summer afternoon.
The family moved to a basement apartment in Elmwood Park, and while the area was safer, life did not get much easier.
Xochitl Barcenas, who studied English at Mexico City's National Polytechnic Institute while pursuing her bachelor's degree in tourism, nonetheless struggled to communicate with her new neighbors. Luis Barcenas, without a license to drive a truck in the U.S., became one of thousands of other immigrants competing for manual labor work in Chicago.
That world bustles with workers striving to out-hustle each other to get jobs, often taking dangerous risks to get ahead.
"And, every time, it's more and it's more, and people who are more capable arrive, and those who are old, they put them to the side, while the rest of us are killing ourselves," he said.
On top of the hard conditions, immigrant supervisors who doled out jobs favored family members or paisanos, people from the same country or region, making it even more difficult to catch a break, he said.
Barcenas became certified by the state to remove asbestos and lead from old buildings. But jobs continued to be spotty, and the work was miserable, carried out in heavy protective gear to guard against the cancer-causing materials that erupted in clouds of dust.
Barcenas sometimes returned home so tired he could hardly speak.
"I felt his head one day. He had a bad fever," Xochitl Barcenas recalled. "I thought, 'This can't last.'"
He was thinking the same thing, even after he left asbestos work and began the graveyard shift at a Northbrook bread factory, a $14-per-hour job that allowed him to see his family only briefly during the week.
By then, Xochitl Barcenas had found work as a hairstylist in Evanston, which brought in a bit more money and allowed the family to move to a new apartment in West Rogers Park. Things were looking better, and Luis Barcenas was happy one day to accommodate a foreman's request that he train a new young worker from Mexico.
It turned out the worker was the foreman's nephew. A few months later, a supervisor's position opened up, and the nephew was promoted ahead of Barcenas. It was another lesson that the U.S. was not the meritocracy he envisioned.
"That boy who I taught, he rose ahead and took the position that was to be mine, and I had to accommodate myself to the same salary, the same station (in life)," he said.
Then came two events that finally prompted the couple's decision to move back to Mexico.
The first was the poor health of Xochitl's father, Jose Chiapa, whose diabetes led to the amputation of his right leg.
Then their eldest son, Aldo, was accepted into the prestigious Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center in the North Park neighborhood. It was good news, but Aldo let his parents know that he understood how, without legal status and money, his good grades were no guarantee of a bright future.
"What's going to happen to me after?" his father recalled his son saying. "Are you going to be able to pay for a university?"
"That touched bottom," Luis Barcenas said. "Without a Social Security number? Without permission to work? We realized it's hard."
Even so, the couple agonized over their decision to return to Mexico, especially for what it would mean to their sons. They had constantly emphasized to their children the American ideal of using a good education to climb as high as you can in life.
Both boys — Aldo, 14, and Andy, 12 — are gifted students who could one day have been put on the path to citizenship through the federal DREAM Act legislation, an 11-year-old proposal aimed at students and military personnel brought into the country illegally as children.
More immediately, the boys were eligible for an Obama administration program implemented just before they left the U.S. in August. It grants two years of temporary protected status to students who arrived before they turned 16 and have lived in the U.S. for at least seven years.
Their friends said the family was making a mistake.
"Specifically, the mother of one of my son's classmates called me anxiously on the telephone and said, 'Don't go! Don't go! You don't know the harm that you're doing to your sons!'" Xochitl Barcenas recalled. "One who is a mother, obviously, gets frightened, and you think, 'Well, what am I doing?'"
But the couple had carefully weighed their options and made their decision. With their combined incomes in the U.S., they could not afford to send both children to a good American college.
They concluded that the whole family would have a better future in Mexico, where the boys' diligence in school and fluency in English and Spanish would likely get them into a top-tier Mexican university with a more affordable tuition.
In an increasingly global economy that is less dependent on the U.S., they told their children, success is possible anywhere.
In Mexico, "we know how to move the levers," Xochitl Barcenas said. "We know the system."
"If you want to return to the United States, you can return with an international company," her husband told their sons. "Or, if you prepare well, you can fit in anywhere."
Back on native soil
The sun hung orange one recent morning above the Zona Escolar neighborhood just north of Mexico City, a rapidly growing community of concrete homes that wraps around an overcrowded metropolitan jail and floods into the surrounding hills.
As dogs on terrace rooftops barked frantically at whoever passed below, Aldo and Andy marched up and down a narrow set of stairs 20 times inside their grandfather's modest home. The daily exercise is dictated by their parents because they consider the neighborhood too dangerous for their kids to venture out in alone.
The family is living here until next summer so Xochitl Barcenas can care for her father. The couple plan to move their family back to the gated community townhouse that they've rented out since leaving the country in 2004. Xochitl Barcenas hopes to find work as an English instructor.
Luis Barcenas tended to his truck outside the house, wiping clean a grease-caked axle that would have to hold up during long trips on the road. He planned to replace two balding tires on the truck and hoped the crack creeping across its windshield wouldn't get worse.
Once his documents are in order, he will haul goods for the Walworth company, a Mexico-based manufacturer of industrial valves with clients in South America, China and several U.S. cities. Among its biggest clients is the Pemex oil company, putting Walworth at the center of the Pena Nieto administration's plans to ramp up oil production in Mexico.
Nevertheless, Barcenas' family worries about him traveling through the countryside again where highway robbers still lurk.
"I do have my doubts," he said. "I don't know very much what will face me on the highway. But I see thousands of trucks dedicated in the same way, and it would be really bad luck if (bandits) hit me again like they did some years ago."
The boys attend school at 2 p.m. and get out at 8 p.m. as part of a split schedule meant to alleviate overcrowding. Neither of the boys, who continue to speak English to each other, is thrilled about being in Mexico, as much as each tries to adapt.
"When you wake up, it's like: You know what? I'm going to be here, so I might as well enjoy it," Aldo said, away from his parents. "And then there's something that keeps on dragging you down. Every day, there's something new that's bad for me."
Part of the problem is fitting in, a mirror image of what Aldo experienced as a 5-year-old new to the U.S.
The plan was for the boys to keep a low profile about being from Chicago. But on their first day of school, Aldo's homeroom teacher, learning of their past, happily spoke to him in English. Word spread quickly around the school, and the "gringo" nickname took hold. The taunting sometimes bothers Aldo, but he embraces the outsider role.
Over the school-issued green sweater that identifies students by their name and grade, Aldo wears his white and blue sweater from Greeley Elementary School in Lakeview.
"It kind of reminds me of my life from over there (in Chicago)," he said.
Aldo held up his Greeley sweater, saying, "I consider this one my school. I don't feel, really, afraid with it."
Luis and Xochitl Barcenas strive to get their sons to see beyond the incessant news reports about Mexico's violence — visible in graphic detail at every newsstand.
On weekends, the family takes day trips to Mexico City's cultural attractions, a way for the parents to get their children to appreciate their native country's rich heritage.
Near the city's historical center one afternoon, the family walked past day laborers leaning against a Spanish colonial-era wall toward the Zocalo, the cacophonous main square.
Indigenous dancers moved to a steadily beating drum near a large model of Tenochtitlan — the elaborate Aztec city upon whose ruins part of Mexico City is built — as the family walked into the National Palace.
They stood before a stairway mural by Mexican artist Diego Rivera that depicts the country's beauty and its bloody past — including the 1910 revolution, a time dominated by rival generals and warlords whose savage battles for territory echo in the carnage wrought by drug cartels today.
"This is one of the most important artists in the world," Xochitl Barcenas proudly told Aldo, who hopes to become a graphic designer. He smiled.
Back home the next day, the family prepared for school.
They walk together to the same campus that Luis and Xochitl attended as children.
The route there is marked by yapping dogs, street vendors, mom-and-pop stores and several houses with exposed rebar revealing unfinished plans for second stories.
Past an all-dirt soccer field, a crowd of chattering children dressed in white shirts and green sweaters filed into the school.
The boys said goodbye to their parents, who lingered for a while to watch them walk toward class.
Luis and Xochitl Barcenas then walked home, where his truck was parked and the road ahead awaited.Copyright © 2015, CT Now