PURISIMA DE TEMASCATIO DE ARRIBA, Mexico — The six brothers and sisters ambled down the hill in this ranching village, singing, laughing and kicking rocks, serenaded by cock-a-doodle-doos and baaa-baaas.
There were Omar and Teresa and Noe and Maria and Carlos and Marcos, followed by their mother, Gabriela Ireta, who shooed away stray dogs and steered her children around the puddles and potholes.
"Here comes the mama duck and her ducklings," the villagers liked to say.
In their cluttered one-room house, six backpacks hung from a wall, six plates of chicken and beans lined the table at dinner, six bikes and helmets crowded a corner. The boys slept in one bed; the girls in another. In the morning, they would shower in groups and barrel out the door to get to school on time.
Bus drivers did double-takes. Schoolmates jostled for a peek. Teachers came from miles around to study their progress. Sextuplets! In this part of Mexico, the central state of Guanajuato, no one had ever seen such a thing. Only four other sets of sextuplets existed in all of Mexico.
"We saw them as a blessing," said Janet Ramirez, who watches the family walk by her house on the way to school.
But others didn't know what to make of the sextuplets, who showed up one morning three years ago, not long before their sixth birthday. When Teresa and Maria skipped rope, they counted in English. And the boys preferred passing a football instead of kicking a soccer ball.
At home, the children would badger their mother: When will we see our father again? Will we ever get our own beds to sleep in? Why do people call us gringos?
Carlos, the quietest and most curious of the bunch, could never grasp why he and his siblings could get on a plane and fly to see their father in California, but their mother couldn't.
"Because I was born here in Mexico," Gabriela said. "If I try to cross into the U.S., the police will take me to jail."
It was the summer of 2004, and Gabriela's belly was heaving on her 30th day of bed rest at UC San Diego Medical Center. Benigno, her house-painter husband, held her hand as a team of 40 doctors and nurses gathered in the delivery room.
Gabriela, then 24, suffered from a hormonal imbalance, polycystic ovary syndrome, that prevented her eggs from being fertilized. Fertility pills hadn't worked so she started taking hormone injections.
They were too expensive for immigrants like Gabriela and Benigno, then 32, who were in the country illegally; Benigno for 10 years; Gabriela, four. Their doctor, Johanna Archer, paid for the treatment. "I felt they deserved the chance to have a child," she said.
Benigno showed his appreciation the only way he could.
"He offered to paint my house," Archer said.
Archer thought the injections would help fertilize at most two of Gabriela's eggs. Instead, four smaller eggs also bloomed embryos.
On Sept. 15, 2004, the babies were born over a six-minute span. They were five weeks premature and ranged in weight from 1 pound, 14 ounces to 2 pounds, 4 ounces. Omar and Maria had weak immune systems and hematological conditions, but none of the siblings had signs of cerebral palsy or other disabilities associated with multiple births.
It was believed to be the first birth of sextuplets in San Diego County. Nurses encouraged the parents to go public so they could receive donations. A cable television station inquired about doing a show. Two other sets of sextuplets born in the United States the same year, including the Gosselins of Pennsylvania, would eventually star in reality television shows.
But on his way home from the hospital, Benigno would walk past the local media camera crews, never revealing that he was the father. He had a reason for wanting to remain anonymous.