A visit to Mario Ramos' "heartbreak hotel," where he feeds people who have been deported from the U.S.
MEXICALI, Mexico — Mario Ramos stirs a pot of beans as the men crowd into the kitchen, the ragged line stretching out the splintered doorway.
Years ago, Ramos, 45, grilled up pricey seafood in a tiki-themed restaurant on Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach. He now serves starchy meals on plastic plates. One of his busboys worked at the Shanghai Grill in Beverly Hills; another is a 28-year-old Marine veteran.
The diners, who remove their sweat-stained caps to accept the food with grateful nods, have been deported from the United States as recently as eight hours earlier. They are penniless, unshaven. Some are barefoot.
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Mario Ramos has served thousands like them.
Some helped build Las Vegas subdivisions. There was a sushi chef from Anaheim, a tree trimmer for the city of Oakland and a man who swept the stands at Chicago’s Soldier Field. There was a pig farmer from South Dakota and a Hollywood High School graduate who helped design sets. A janitor from Philadelphia who had learned Hebrew working at a yeshiva.
Ramos keeps one eye on the food and another on the dining area with the torn tablecloths. He spots a man reaching for his plastic fork. “No eating until we pray,” he says. Heads bow after the last man takes his seat.
In this quiet moment, the men think about how they got to this decrepit hotel named for their plight: El Hotel Del Migrante Deportado — the Hotel of the Deported Migrant. Traffic infractions, drug offenses and drunk-driving tickets mostly; in some cases, violent crimes.
They blame America for exploiting their labor, then discarding them. But they also are haunted by their errors.
Honestly, the American dream is over.
A 39-year-old former day laborer dedicates a prayer to his teenage son in the San Fernando Valley: “For our families who lack food because of our absence, we pray that we are reunited one day.”
Ramos, too, feels the tug of family in the U.S. He lived in Rancho Santa Margarita until 2010, when he says police found cocaine in a car he was in with friends. Within weeks, he was deported and living at the hotel. Ramos plans to embark on an illegal journey back to Orange County. Until then, he cooks for dozens every day.
El Hotel Centenario was among the grandest in Mexicali, in an era when the arcades and honky-tonks of downtown drew round-the-clock revelers.
Vice blighted downtown over the decades. Drug addicts carved the Centenario’s 50 rooms into crack dens.
Two years ago, Sergio Tamai, a civic activist and candy-store owner, visited the building. He was searching for a place to house the rising number of deportees. “The hotel had been vandalized and destroyed,” he says. “It looked good to me.”
Mexicali, a long bus ride from major illegal crossing routes, had become a strategic place for the U.S. to send illegal immigrants. In 2011, some 63,000 deportees arrived in this sprawling desert city, the capital of Baja California Norte.
Many had spent much of their lives in the U.S. and were rootless in Mexico. They clustered around all-night taco stands, slept in parks and streets, cowered before corrupt cops.
A former Mormon bishop who slept on a cot in a print shop, Tamai had drained his business profits to bankroll causes helping the poor. With a flair for fiery rhetoric, the wiry 59-year-old had taken on governors and mayors over high utility bills. He had led protests at the border, wielding his bullhorn against U.S. and Mexican officials alike. “They can’t criticize the U.S. for criminalizing immigrants when we do the same here,” Tamai said.
In January 2010, temperatures dipped into the 40s and Tamai saw the number of shivering migrants keep growing. He rented the building for $1,000, using profits from his candy store.
Tamai rounded up deportees, handed out brooms and led them to the old hotel.
Over eight days, he watched them cart out the filth. There was no electricity, running water, functioning bathrooms or beds. But when the doors opened, the migrants came.
El Hotel del Migrante Deportado, the Hotel of the Deported Migrant, Tamai called it, and he hung a banner from its rose facade.
City officials donated water and electricity at reduced rates. Tamai sent the men out in four-person shifts, 24 hours a day, to roam the car lanes at the border, where they rattled tin cups asking for donations.
Tamai calls those who follow his rules, angeles sin fronteras, angels without borders. Fighting and drinking are not allowed. Those who slip from grace — los angeles caidos, the fallen angels — are banished to the building’s gutted first-floor storefront, where men sleep under pop-up tents. He calls this Area 2.
The procession of lost souls never ceases. It’s midnight when a group of men trudge up the staircase and enter a dim corridor, where a fat man with broken teeth and two missing fingertips rouses himself off a couch. Come in, he croaks.
They have come on the advice of strangers. But doubt grows as they acclimate to the half-light and stare at fractured walls and floors. Frigid air wafts through broken windows, and the floor pulses with the pounding bass from the hooker bar downstairs.
The night porter, Gerardo Cano, hands out blankets to the men. In the past eight hours, they have been flown in shackles from Texas to Arizona, bused through California to the border and dumped in this city at midnight.
They pepper Cano with questions.
“Do you have anything to eat?” asks a young man who once trimmed hedges at Napa Valley estates.
“How far is San Antonio?” a former busboy wants to know.
A shoeless man who cleaned carpets for a living wants to call his sister. “What time is it in North Carolina?”
Cano knows many of these men never will regain their lives in the U.S., and Mexico doesn’t offer much more than the cold floor they’re sleeping on.
“They need the rest so they can figure out what to do next,” Cano, 52, says later. “The world has changed.”
After breakfast, deportees crowd into the shelter’s cluttered office to plug their cellphone chargers into a dangling electrical cord. Two blocks away, an 18-foot-tall fence separates Mexicali from Calexico to keep people out, but not U.S. cellphone signals.
Men pace the corridors with phones pressed to their ears. Homes are on the verge of being lost to foreclosures and evictions. Wives and children have gone on welfare. One man cries after learning his wife is in a Riverside hospital giving birth to their fourth daughter.
Migrants in ripped pants take turns trying on donated clothes. A barefoot man finds scuffed work boots that fit him. He beams. The shoes take the man out the door, on his way to meet smugglers who promised to get him back to North Carolina.
“I tell them, ‘If you want to try, good luck, maybe you’ll make it and never return,’ ” Cano says. “But remember one thing: Stop doing the bad things you were doing over there. Change your lives, so your mom and siblings are proud of you again.”
Cano remains among the angels, minding the registry, sweeping the corridors. In the afternoons, he grabs a tin cup and begs in the car lanes, sometimes dancing a cumbia that gets him fistfuls of pesos.
Other angels tend to the building with skills they honed in the U.S. They patch drywall and ceilings, repair shattered windows, rewire rooms and replumb bathrooms.
The image, meant to reflect the perseverance of migrants, doesn’t inspire Cano. By his count, few migrants have been able to get through beefed-up border defenses.
Some of Cano’s fellow angels fear he may die at the hotel. His fistula seems ready to burst through his flimsy bandages. One day a man doubled over in pain from a perforated ulcer. A few angels helped him into a taxi for a ride to the hospital. No ambulance ever came.
By the time Cano finishes sweeping the corridor, only a few migrants remain slumped on couches. Many have rushed to the bus station to catch rides to hometowns across Mexico.
He never will join them. He has no relatives left in Guanajuato, the city he left 38 years ago. Nor will he go back to his home in Los Angeles. As a felon, he would receive a long prison term if caught.
Twice a year, home comes to Cano. Several brothers and nieces drive four hours from Los Angeles. They greet him with hugs before taking him to one of the city’s famous Chinese restaurants.
But they don’t ask to come upstairs and see where he lives. And he doesn’t offer.