Cristina often found herself wandering the streets of the Mission District for hours, without direction, contemplating suicide.
“I just wanted to be alone,” she said — so much so that when she saw her son or husband looking for her, she would hide in the bushes. Doing that brought back memories of the year before, when she jumped into some bushes after spotting a Border Patrol van in the cold Arizona desert.
That, she said, is where her “American nightmare” began.
Cristina — whose full name is withheld for her protection — survived a horrific journey across the border during which she witnessed sexual assault and violence. Her story is similar to that of thousands of immigrants who attempt a border crossing each year, only to find themselves in the hands of unscrupulous human traffickers.
That’s because crossing has become riskier as border enforcement drives up the price, said Belinda Reyes, an economist with the Cesar Chavez Institute who studies immigration patterns. In past decades, migrants with roots in the United States relied on trusted smugglers who were known to their family. That has changed in the last few years, she said, as human smuggling grows into a vast, impersonal business.
“The smuggler networks are becoming more complex; it’s becoming more profitable, so a lot of people are getting into smuggling,” including the cartels, Reyes said. “It’s a huge industry.”
Unlike Cristina, many immigrants with post-traumatic stress disorder go undiagnosed and turn to self-medication, said Felix Kury, a psychotherapist at the free Mission District health care facility Clinica Martin Baró, who arranged for treatment to help Cristina.
“These issues that affect [immigrants] don’t come from their internal psyche, but rather from the external factors,” Kury said. “I also know that there are people who have conditions that need medication, but many of the problems that affect our community come from the environment.”
Cristina woke from her fantasy of an American dream, she said, after she was helped at Clinica Martin Baró and found empowerment through programs like Mujeres Unidas y Activas, a program for Latina immigrants that offers counseling, crisis intervention and workshops in San Francisco and Oakland.
Cristina’s trip began in 2010 in the Arizona desert, as she was crossing the border with her male cousin. “You have to stay together,” her husband had told her.
In the desert, it didn’t take long for Border Patrol agents in an SUV to spot them and come roaring down a hilltop, their vehicle lights shining. Her cousin ran away. Cristina jumped into a cactus, where she played dead.
“The next thing I felt was an officer who picked me up from my shirt,” she said. Unable to find her cousin, the agents threw her into the back of the van. She complained that it was too cold.
“We are not going to treat you like a queen around here,” the agent told her before turning on the air conditioner.
From there, she said, her journey was a kind of meat market, in which she constantly found herself for sale.
At the Border Patrol intake facility in Arizona, she repeatedly asked where her cousin was, but got no answer. After a few hours, she was released back across the border to Mexico and was out on the streets alone, scared and crying.
That’s when a woman with a kind voice asked her, “Do you have a place to sleep tonight?” It was the nicest anyone had treated her throughout her journey, she said.
She walked with the woman to a large home with a security guard at the entrance. Inside, she knew immediately that something was wrong: there were bunk beds and chains, and a man was raping a girl who appeared to be about 16.
The man turned to her and said, “Just wait a second. You will be next.”
“I don’t remember if I was raped or how I escaped,” Cristina recounted. “I think my mind is trying to block it off.”
She called her husband from a pharmacy telephone and could only think to ask where her cousin was.
“He already crossed,” her husband said.
“When I heard that,” she recalled, “it felt like a dagger.”
She was so distraught that the clerk at the pharmacy had to take the phone and tell her husband: “Señor, your wife is not doing good right now.”
Cristina’s husband arranged for a “coyote” — a smuggler who transports immigrants across the border — to pick her up from a plaza in Sonora, Mexico.
That’s where her second trip across the desert began.
After days of walking in the desert, Cristina made it across the border, into Douglas, Arizona, where she confronted “another sale.” This time she ended up in the home of an American woman who constantly threatened her and fed her greasy tacos while she enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner.
Soon after came “another sale,” this time to a man who would transport her and another woman from Arizona to the Bay Area. Riding in a pickup truck, she watched as the driver touched the other passengers’ breasts. When they made a stop, she refused to go to the bathroom because she was afraid they would leave her behind. She wound up urinating in her pants.
Once in the Bay Area, nothing was the same. Cristina couldn’t speak to her family about what she had seen because of shame. She attempted to take her life once by cutting her wrist. It was then that she turned to the Clinica Martin Baró, a free clinic where bilingual health care services are offered by the University of California, San Francisco, medical school.
She was referred to treatment. She also joined Mujeres Unidas y Activas, where she became an activist for domestic workers like herself. During her time with the group she amassed dozens of certifications on advising victims of domestic violence.
She proudly shows photos of her trips to Sacramento to lobby with Mujeres Unidas. “Every testimony is important,” she said.
Two years after Cristina came to the United States, her mother became terminally ill. She decided it was time to go back to Mexico.
She arrived as an undocumented immigrant and departed as one. She left her husband and son behind, and hopes to return one day, ideally through legal channels.
On her last day in America, Cristina reflected on her experiences.
“The best treasure we have is our life, and we have to value it,” she said. ”Now I am learning to live. Before I was just surviving. Now I am learning how to live with quality and love.”
Her experiences have made Cristina an advocate for immigrants and women in the United States, and now in Mexico, where she plans to join an organization that helps women who are victims of sexual assault.
Cristina came to the United States under a cloud of fear and vulnerability. Despite the trauma of her journey, she said, she left the country empowered, even though she never achieved the “American dream.”
“I want someone to read my story and identify with it,” she said. “I want to give them hope.”