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In a fluorescent-lit dual workshop and office space in the Santa María la Ribera neighborhood of Mexico City, Diego Miguel María pours ink onto a silk screen and presses it onto a crisp white T-shirt. He is making a sample for a potential T-shirt order through Deportados Brand, a collective made up of Mexican deportees from the U.S. that uses clothes to help them start a new life in their home country.
María is one of more than 200,000 people deported to Mexico in 2016. Once in their country of birth, returnees often discover that finding employment is a challenge. Many employers don’t recognize their work history outside of Mexico, and deportees have less-developed support networks to help them find work. They face discrimination based on their age, tattoos, or the simple fact that they were deported. There is often the misconception that people are deported because of criminal activity.
Deportados Brand, a new small business and clothing brand, is giving work to deportees who need a fresh start in Mexico. The group creates T-shirts with messages to promote immigrant rights, speak out against Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, and spread an overall message of resistance. For between 100 and 200 pesos ($5.47 to $10.95 USD), Deportados Brand sells T-shirts to activists, NGOs, and local businesses in Mexico and the U.S., either with their own designs or featuring customized designs for personalized orders.
Deportados Brand emerged in January 2017 as an offshoot of the collective Deportados Unidos en La Lucha (Deportees United in the Struggle), an organization in Mexico City made up of deportees who promote programs to support fellow returnees.
“Deportados Brand came about because of the necessity of the collective after many of us weren’t able to find work,” says Ana Laura Lopez, the head of Deportados Unidos en la Lucha and one of the four founders of Deportados Brand. “We needed funds to be able to have our meetings and activities.”
The group first sold Mexican candies, such as a treat with amaranth seeds and honey called alegría and a sweet and spicy tamarind candy, at fairs and events. They wanted to be recognizable, so they made themselves T-shirts with the message “Ni Una Mas,” or “Not One More,” asking to stop all deportations. Soon, people started asking where they could buy the T-shirts for themselves.
“I said to the boys, ‘I think we are ending up selling T-shirts instead of candies,’ and that’s how we started,” says Lopez with a laugh.
The group enlisted the help of another founder’s cousin, who works with silk-screen printing. At first, he lent them his workshop to make the T-shirts. They then presented the project to Mexico’s Labor Ministry, which loaned them equipment for their own workshop in June. If the project proves successful in one year, they will be able to keep the equipment free of charge.
Deportados Brand now offers a wider variety of designs, including one that supports DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program) and another with a fist raised in solidarity that says “Resistance.” The group hopes to continue expanding by offering more designs and taking on more personalized orders.
But Deportados Brand is more than just clothes. For the founders, it is a form of expression that helps them reestablish themselves in a country they haven’t known for years and that rejected them upon their return.
The four founders – Ana Laura Lopez, Diego Miguel María, Eleazar Hernandez, and Gustavo Lavariega — shared with Racked what the brand means to them.
Ana Laura Lopez
Lopez, who lived and worked as a community organizer in Chicago for 16 years, was deported to Mexico in September 2016.
“Imagine how my world ended — my work, everything,” said Lopez, 42, who has two U.S. citizen children who still live in Chicago. “It’s been really difficult during this time.”
About a year ago, Lopez arranged a trip to Mexico so she could voluntarily leave the U.S. and return to work legally. She had consulted lawyers and activists, who advised her to buy a flight back to Mexico, where she would need to stay for a few months to be able to come back to the U.S. with permission to work.
At the airport, as she was leaving the country voluntarily — which leaves undocumented immigrants more possibilities to return with a legal work permit — two ICE officials approached her. Within 20 minutes, she had been issued a deportation order and left the country on the same flight she had purchased herself.
“Why would they send me with a deportation when I was leaving voluntarily?” Lopez asked one day at the Deportados Brand workshop. She continues to grapple with her situation.
Lopez began searching for administrative work in Mexico that would require the skills she had learned at her job in Chicago, but she believes she was discriminated against based on her age and tattoos. Some employers immediately told her she didn’t fit the job profile when she revealed her age. Others asked her to cover her tattoos, including one on her wrist that would need to be covered with a glove.
Through Deportados Brand, Lopez has started to earn her own income to supplement the money her family sends her from the U.S.
Next, she wants to design a shirt with the phrase “hiraeth,” a Welsh word that loosely translates to “homesickness for a place you will never be able to return to and that was never yours.”
“That’s how many of us feel. The U.S. is a place we’ll never be able to return to,” she said.
“Deportados Brand has acted as therapy for me,” Lopez said. “I hope that Deportados Brand continues to be a form of expression for how we feel.”
Diego Miguel María
After being deported to Mexico in July 2016, Diego Miguel María felt hopeless. He had left behind his son, now 5 years old, and didn’t have much motivation to move forward in front of such a disheartening situation. Since working with Deportados Brand, that has changed.
“For the time that I am here in Mexico, I want to do good work,” said María, 36, who was detained after passing through a routine traffic checkpoint in Georgia while returning from breakfast with his son. María was taken into custody for driving without a license.
That was the last time he saw his son, whom he had temporary custody of at the time. María was then sent to a detention center in Atlanta where he stayed for four months before being deported to Mexico.
Without a high school diploma and after having spent his whole adult life in the U.S. — from ages 18 to 35 — María couldn’t find a job that paid him a decent wage.
“I was looking for any work, but then I lost hope,” he said. “I felt that I would be enslaved, not able to do anything and earning a miserable wage.
“The jobs here are really poorly paid, and besides that, I haven’t finished school. That makes my situation even more complicated, so I prefer to be here,” he said at the Deportados Brand workshop. In Mexico, the minimum wage is 80 pesos (about $4.39 USD) a day, or about $130 USD a month for 30 days of work.
“We don’t earn that much money either,” he said. “But I think we are doing something good and helping people.”
A workplace accident left Hernandez disabled in 2014 and he now suffers from chronic back problems and walks with the support of a cane. As a deportee, his disability added another level of difficulty in finding work.
“Here all of the doors have been shut for me. The government says that they are going to help us and you see them waiting for us with open arms, but they are not really helping us,” Hernandez said. “It’s all pure promises. Everything remains as a promise.”
Hernandez, who is 47, lived in Wisconsin for 15 years before returning to Mexico after his accident. He decided to file a lawsuit against the metal treatment company where he worked, but they retaliated by then pointing the finger at Hernandez and filing a countersuit. At the advice of a lawyer, whom Hernandez now believes offered poor counsel, Hernandez voluntarily returned to Mexico to avoid legal action against him. But he couldn’t find any work until Deportados Brand came along.
“Deportados Brand doesn’t deny me work because I’m disabled. They have welcomed me,” he said. “Here, when you are disabled, you are marked.
“To me, the project Deportados Brand means a lot because through it I’ve found support and understanding for my health problem,” he said. “It’s helped me be able to work, because in this country it’s difficult to find work as a disabled person.”
The most important message of Deportados Brand to date for Hernandez has been their #SupportDACA design, which reminds him of his two daughters in the U.S. who have benefited from the program.
After working towards financially stability for 17 years in Washington state, Lavariega found himself back in Mexico after being deported in October 2016, in an even worse situation than when he left.
“I left my daughters, all my things, my car, everything,” he said.
At the time, Lavariega was trying to open his own business after working in agriculture, restaurants, and construction for 17 years. He believes that as he filled out the paperwork for his business, ICE became aware of his presence in the country as an undocumented immigrant. (They would have his information since he had been deported in 2001 and returned to the U.S. shortly afterwards.)
Upon his return to Mexico, Lavariega, who is now 43, signed up to find work through a government program. But he struggled to find a placement without a record of his GED from the United States.
He considered moving to Cancún to work in the tourism industry, where wages are higher and he has an advantage since he speaks English. But ultimately, Deportados Brand gave him the opportunity to stay in Mexico City, and to be closer to his family.
“Deportados Brand is a better option for work because it is self-employment. What we are doing is for us. It’s not for someone else,” said Lavariega, whose favorite shirt design shows the middle finger with the words “Fuck Trump.”
For Lavariega and his fellow founders, Deportados Brand presents the opportunity for a new life in Mexico, even if it’s not the life they had originally planned.
“We have to keep following the path and we can’t get slowed down,” said Lavariega. “Now is the moment to show that if we could achieve the American dream, we can also achieve our dreams in our own country.”