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Mother Remembers 'Inseparable' Pair

May 17, 2003|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

NAUCALPAN DE JUAREZ, Mexico — A family portrait in his mother's living room shows Jose Antonio Villasenor Leon proudly hoisting his young son, Marco Antonio, his fingers interlocked around the child's waist.

That is how they lived: A loving father and son drawn even closer after the boy's mother left home in February. A struggling taxi driver holding a 5-year-old kindergartner as they set off last week on the adventure of their lives, a clandestine journey from a poor, mean Mexico City suburb to a fresh start in the United States. Inseparable.

And that is how they died.

Their bodies were among 17 recovered Wednesday from a sweltering, airless tractor-trailer on a roadside in Victoria, Texas. Two others trapped with them died later in the hospital in one of the deadliest attempts to sneak illegal immigrants into the U.S.

Watching television news that day, before any victim was identified, Cristina Leon Soto feared the worst for her son and grandson. Survivors told of a man holding a young boy up to a tiny air hole in the trailer crammed with about 100 people in an effort to save him, before both perished.

"I knew then, right away, that it was my Jose Antonio, because he was always embracing his son," said Leon, a tiny woman of 56, weeping at times during an interview Friday after Mexican authorities confirmed their deaths. "I had begged him: 'My son, the journey is full of danger. Leave the child with me.' But he could not let go."

The family's tragedy underlines the risks millions of poor Mexicans take in the belief that a job in the U.S. can bring a quick change of fortune. The agonizing scene in Texas has added urgency to President Vicente Fox's appeal for a migration accord that would allow more Mexicans to work legally in the U.S.

About 350 would-be immigrants from Mexico have died annually in the last decade, and stepped-up U.S. checkpoints in populated areas along the border since the mid-1990s have only prompted the undocumented migrants to take more perilous paths.

Talks on Fox's proposals have been shelved since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks turned President Bush's attention from open borders to tighter security.

U.S. and Mexican officials joined this week in condemning gangs of traffickers who profit from the dreams of migrants and often abandon them in the desert and inside sealed rail cars and trucks.

But a statement this week by Mexico's Foreign Ministry said "the lamentable incident" in Texas, which claimed the lives of at least 10 Mexicans along with other Latin American migrants, also "shows the need for and importance of achieving safe conditions on the border for migrants, and the need for safe, legal and orderly migration."

The Mexican government said it will reinforce its campaign to educate people in more than half of Mexico's 31 states about the dangers of crossing illegally.

Two other migrants who died in the trailer were Serafin and Roberto Rivera Gamez, brothers from Pozos, a farming community of 2,100 people in Guanajuato state.

Serafin, 34, had spent two years picking tomatoes in Florida before returning home for Christmas. Unable to find work at home, he and his 24-year-old brother, who needed money to support his soon-to-be-born second child, paid a pollero, or smuggler, from a nearby town to arrange transport to the U.S.

"I understand that this pollero charged each of them $1,800 -- $1,800 to abandon them to their fate and let them die," said Eleazar Ruiz, a Mexican Foreign Ministry official assisting the dead migrants' families.

Like the Rivera brothers, Jose Antonio brushed off warnings about the dangers of illegally crossing the border, according to relatives gathered at his mother's modest home here, in an alley on the northwest edge of Mexico City. The taxi driver told them that his pollero was a trusted acquaintance and was getting nearly $6,000, about twice the going rate, to meet him in the Mexican border city of Reynosa and ensure private transport for him and his son in a car -- not a jampacked truck.

"Jose Antonio never told us who the pollero was, and we never asked because we saw he was confident," his mother said.

Jose Antonio was more fearful of life in Mexico. Twice in the last two years, thugs had stopped his green Volkswagen Beetle taxi, beaten him and taken his day's earnings, which averaged about $11.50.

Then on April 30, celebrated as Children's Day in Mexico, his estranged common-law wife returned to Jose Antonio's apartment in the eastern suburb of Nezahualcoyotl and, as a man waited in a car outside, tried to nab her son, relatives said. The boy screamed, the father confronted her, and she left.

That's when Jose Antonio decided to sell his belongings, including his taxi, end his lease on the apartment and hire the pollero. It was time the boy learned English, the father told relatives. Without a clear idea of where he might settle, Jose Antonio said he would seek work as a driver or auto mechanic.

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