It has been almost 12 years since Guadalupe Ortiz Lopez has walked the dirt streets of her native Mocorito, Mexico, or seen the sunset splash the nearby western Sierra Madres in shades of brilliant yellows and golds.
Sometimes it seems so distant and strange that it is difficult to recall what she now calls la otra vida , the other life.
"It's another world there, otro mundo, " she said. "This is my home now, but my heart will always be there. Maybe one day I can return."
And perhaps she will. Ortiz, her husband and their two children were among the estimated 150 people Saturday who turned out for an amnesty fair at Cal State Fullerton organized by a coalition of immigrant rights groups.
Although organizers said the turnout was disappointing--they had expected 2,000 people--those who did attend, like Ortiz, were treated to free legal counseling and inexpensive medical examinations to comply with Immigration and Naturalization Service guidelines for legalization.
Ortiz and her husband, Manuel Lopez, apparently have little to worry about. They have lived in the United States since 1976 and have papers and documents to prove it.
"I have never been back, even though I've wanted to," said Ortiz, a resident of Whittier. "If we do get our papers, I want to go see my mother back in Mexico. She is very old and frail. It has been so long since I've seen her."
Like thousands of others, the family entered the United States illegally in 1976, paying a coyote to smuggle them across the border near Tijuana. Lopez, the father, first came to California in 1971 to work the fields as a day laborer near Soledad.
He liked what he saw and by 1976, the entire family was in the Los Angeles area. Lopez now works for a roofing company.
"For me," said their daughter Marlene, 15, "I want to know something about my native country." Marlene was just 4 years old when she crossed the border in her mother's arms. "I'd like to know my grandmother, who is in her 90s. I'd like to see her before she dies. And I'd like to know how the people live down there. My family in Mocorito say they remember me, but I was so young I don't remember anything."
Although the deadline for applying for amnesty is still five months off, organizers of Saturday's amnesty fair said it was important to get people to sign up as soon as possible to avoid a bottleneck of applications at the very end.
"A lot of people are still scared to come forward," said Robin Blackwell, coordinator for the Orange County Coalition for Immigrant Rights, an umbrella group that includes Catholic Charities, World Relief, the Episcopal Service Alliance and other groups.
"We are really disappointed with the low turnout today," she added. "We think it was probably bad timing. We shouldn't have had it so close to Christmas when people don't have a lot of extra money."
Blackwell said a second amnesty fair will be held in Santa Ana on Jan. 23, probably at the Minnie Street Community Center.
Of the estimated 126,000 aliens living in Orange County who could qualify for amnesty, the INS has said that only about 40,000 have come forward to fill out applications.
The coalition offered complete medical examinations and AIDS tests, as required under law, at a cost of $30 per adult and $10 for children under the age of 14. The going rate for such exams ranges from $60 to $120.