When veterans of the American military are deported to Tijuana, the former soldiers turn to Hector Barajas for help. He's the founder of the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana, which provides clothes, food and a temporary home for veterans who find themselves unable to return to the United States. The house acts as a gateway to their new life in Mexico, often bringing together veterans from the long history of American military intervention, from Vietnam and the Persian Gulf to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The U.S. government has been deporting veterans since 1996, many of them legal permanent residents who have served their time in the U.S. military. Even though they are now located in Mexico, the veterans who show up at Barajas' facility usually are still involved with the bureaucracy of the U.S. Veterans Administration, so he assists streamlining their benefits, and provides emotional support to the soldiers who left their families behind in the United States.
Filmmaker Riccardo Ferraris recently visited the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana and produced a short portrait of Hector Barajas for L.A. Weekly. In this Q&A, Ferraris reflects on his time documenting an afternoon at the Deported Veterans Support House.
Tell us about how Hector Barajas ended up being deported to Tijuana.
Hector Barajas served nearly six years in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division before he was honorably discharged. He was brought to the United States as a child, but got his permanent residency and green card.
He was deported in 2004 after spending some time in prison for firing a gun from his vehicle.
Barajas received a pardon for his crimes from Gov. Jerry Brown in April 2017 and said he is hopeful he is going to get a chance to return to the United States, regardless of what happens to the bill. His daughter lives in Los Angeles.
He opened the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana to support deported veterans staying at the “Bunker” on their path to self-sufficiency by providing assistance in the realms of food, clothing and shelter as they adjust to life in their new country of residence. He advocates for veterans and their families.
How did you first find the Deported Veterans Support House?
A friend of mine moved to Tijuana few years ago. She was the one who told me about the Deported Veterans Support House. The headquarters is located a few blocks outside downtown Tijuana in a semi-remodeled two-apartment unit. Hector lives on the first floor; the basement is his office. It has enough space to welcome two or three veterans in a comfortable environment: a TV, books, a couch. The area is not fancy but it is probably one of the few places where you can taste the real Tijuana: food carts, street musicians, messy roads.
Who were some of the people you met there and what are some of the more memorable stories about them?
I met Yolanda Varona. She is in charge of the Dreamers Mom program in Tijuana, a self-organized group of moms and dads who have been deported from the United States and are fighting to be reunified with their loved ones. She showed me her amazing project, Cuentos Para Dormir, a illustrated book for her children, which is a way to explain to kids the circumstances of their separation and to show their enduring love.
Why can some veterans be deported from the American military?
It's a bumpy road. They are people who joined the Army when in the process of citizenship. After the military, they were arrested for crimes usually connected with their PTSD (bar fight, possession of illegal weapon, domestic violence). So they have been deported.
Do the deported veterans in Tijuana feel more like Americans or Mexicans? Do they ever want to return to the United States?
They feel 100 percent American. They not only miss friends and families left on the other side of the border but also everyday life, like watching a football game or celebrating the Fourth of July.