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Luis Martinez holds his younger sister Amor during a visit to the river wash where they and their grandmother ended their nearly two-day walk with smugglers who guided them to Nogales, Ariz.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

American citizens Dominga Leyva and her grandchildren, Luis and Amor, visit the Arizona end of the smuggling route they hiked from Mexico. "I thought I would be scared to come back here," Leyva said. "But I think it's a big relief that I have now. Thank God we were OK."

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

Luis Martinez, left, sits with his sister Amor and his grandparents during a visit to Nogales, Mexico. A year before, they had slept in this park after Luis and Amor were denied entry into the United States.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

Dominga Leyva holds corroded pennies she scavenged on the streets of Nogales, Mexico, where she and her grandchildren were homeless and destitute.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

Dominga Leyva stands with Amor and Luis at the pedestrian border gate in Nogales, Mexico. This is where the grandchildren were denied entry into the United States because they lacked proper identification. "I felt really bad, like I was being betrayed by my own country," Luis said. "I wanted to yell, 'I'm an American!'"

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

Children play in the dirt yard of the two-room elementary school next to Luis Martinez's aunt's house in Sinaloa, Mexico. U.S.-born Luis went to school here but dropped out because he couldn't learn in Spanish. He later went to work in the fields.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

One of Luis Martinez's cousins carts dried corn through his impoverished farming village in Sinaloa, Mexico. Nearly every house is patched together by hand, and clothing is washed in an irrigation canal.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

One of Luis Martinez's favorite ways to cool off under the hot sun in Sinaloa, Mexico, was to play in the irrigation canal with friends.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

Friends and relatives of Luis Martinez enjoy sodas at his cousin's store in the farming village of Cuatro Milpas, Mexico.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

Cowboys young and old herd livestock in the village where U.S.-born teenager Luis Martinez learned to ride and rope.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

"Chuey" Hernandez lights a bottle rocket to scare crop-eating birds in Sinaloa, Mexico. Luis Martinez says he enjoyed his days working as a chanatero -- a human scarecrow. He split the $10-a-day wages with his grandmother.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

Luis Martinez, right, brings food to his step-grandfather, Juan Leyva, in Nogales, Mexico. With his school ID and birth certificate, the teenager can now make weekly trips across the border to visit Leyva.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

Night falls over Juan Leyva's hillside shack in Nogales, Mexico. Leyva was deported in 2010 and has been unable to return to the U.S. In Utah, he had supported the family by working on construction crews.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

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CUATRO MILPAS, MEXICO — In this hardscrabble farming village, an American teenager like Luis Martinez was bound to stand out.

Raised on Little Caesar pizzas and Big Gulps, Luis, 13, was portly. The village kids, subsisting on bowls of chicken broth, were all bones and elbows.

Luis wore Air Jordan high-tops. The kids wore sandals made of rubber tires.

He shot at birds with his BB gun and pedaled around on a Mongoose bike. They scurried up mango trees and chased iguanas.

He seemed like many visitors from America, with new clothes and good health, and the quiet confidence of someone who knew he wouldn’t have to endure this place very long.

Then one day Luis and his step-grandfather, Juan Leyva, started standing up sheets of scrap metal on a treeless patch of dirt. They covered the jagged edges with cardboard, straightened the frame and slid corrugated metal sheets atop the walls, fastening it all together with electrical wire.

The teenager they had treated like a rich American cousin was going to live with his family in a shack, next to a chicken coop.

Read Richard Marosi’s story, “Without a Country: Caught in the Current of Reverse Migration”


  1. October 21, 2012, 9:36 am

    Wow i couldn't….

    By: Funkangeles
  2. September 21, 2013, 5:00 pm

    Crazy! Myself being an American citizen, I can NEVER imagine the hardships they went through just to get here; on top of that, they're citizens!

    What is going on that it makes it difficult for them, and others, to get the right papers to cross into their own country?

    By: daadf

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