When Waldo Martínez left Sensuntepeque in the early '90s, escaping El Salvador's civil war, he never thought he'd be back 25 years later with an American wife and four Las Vegas-born kids.
Sensuntepeque is a picturesque town about two hours from San Salvador. Cobbled streets weave around the mountain; old stone buildings dot the bustling town center. Yet, despite the quaint charm, Sensuntepeque is also fraught with gang rivalries and tensions.
When Martínez and his wife, Andrea Hernández, started a food business here last year, within a short period of time there were calls from gang members demanding payments. (Martínez was born Waldo Hernández, but elected to take his mother’s surname, Martínez, after he was deported. His wife and children still use the Hernández name.)
Martínez said "gangsters" have swooped up children at pick-up time from right out front of their school, so they arrive early every day and wait for their girls to finish school.
The block the family lives on is in the middle of a gang's turf. Police recently arrested a neighbor. Her house is now quiet, Hernández said. The neighbor's house used to be a "big hangout" for gang members, she added.
Hernández chose to bring her four children to live in Sensuntepeque for one simple reason: The family wanted to be together, and Martínez had been deported in October 2014.
There is nothing simple about the story of the Hernández family, and in many ways, it highlights the complicated choices families are faced with due to US immigration policy.
Martínez, 41, was born in El Salvador, and raised in Sensuntepeque. He came to the US in 1993, when, like so many Salvadorans, the civil war hit him personally. On arriving in Las Vegas, he applied for asylum. His asylum case dragged on, and he later applied for Temporary Protected Status. In 1999, his asylum case still pending, he married his workplace sweetheart, Andrea Hernández.
Despite 25 years in Las Vegas, and his marriage to a US citizen, Martínez never regularized his immigration status. When, in 2013, he landed in jail, and pleaded guilty to one count of failing to report an injury to a foster child in his care, he was deported.
Hernández, too, pleaded guilty to the same charge, something she regrets doing. She wished they had hired better lawyers and fought to clear their names. The consequences of their actions and the guilty plea were harsh.
Hernández and Martínez were foster parents in Las Vegas. Hernández said they had a long record of taking in the neediest kids — that social workers would call when they had a high-risk or emergency placement. They were trusted, she said. But in 2013, they were arrested and charged with multiple counts of mistreating two foster children in their care. Both Martínez and Hernández say the charges were false and trumped up. But they did plead guilty to the one count — failure to take a baby in their care into the hospital after he sustained burns on his legs. Instead, they treated it themselves with some creams.
"The crime we committed was failure to report. That's a misdemeanor in the state of Nevada," Hernández said. "But they piled on charges on charges on charges."
Despite her guilty plea, Hernández decided to gather evidence of her innocence to present at her sentencing hearing. So, with the help of her best friend, she compiled a 100-page response with evidence rebutting each of the charges.
"Our sentencing judge said, 'I've never seen anything like this,'" Hernández said. The judge, according to Hernández, told them: "I've never seen the prosecution so totally opposite of what the rest of the community and what your records are saying."
PRI was unable to independently verify Hernández's recollection of the judge's comments.
"I was able to answer each charge and say, 'No, we did not do this, we did not do that,'" Hernández said. Yet, it was too late to take back the guilty plea.
Judge Valorie Vega sentenced them both to five years probation. Hernández, who had been under house arrest, was released. She got her children out of the foster system, where they had been placed while both parents were imprisoned. Martínez was transferred to immigration custody and later deported to El Salvador.
Hernández found herself solo parenting their four kids. Life got incredibly hard.
"We went from making $90,000 one year to being on welfare," Hernández said.
She couldn't make it without Martínez. And they all missed him tremendously. So, despite not speaking Spanish, nor having ever visited her husband's native country, Hernández packed up her four kids and moved to El Salvador.
The family left everything behind and in 2016, arrived in Sensuntepeque. One of Martínez's relatives allowed them to live in an old home she used to use to store wood and other things. Slowly, the Hernández family began to settle in.
There is only a hammock in the large living room space, the bedrooms are sparse, as well — there are no closets so all the clothes hang on strings across the bedrooms. Instead of a door, a tarp closes off the toilet, and there is no separate bathroom or kitchen. Those spartan accommodations are now home to the parents and all four children — Ezekiel, 17, Lelix, 16, Andie, 9, and Elijah, 2.
"We survive over here," said Martínez. "It's tough, taking cold showers and stuff, but at least we're together, you know. We're together as a family."
Andie is afraid of the bedroom she shares with her sister Lelix, as it backs up to the large wall of chopped wood her aunt stores there, and a wall of wood logs makes a fantastic home for creatures of all kinds. Andie said she is constantly finding big and tiny four-legged critters in her bed.
Yet Andie is the Hernández child who seems to be adapting best to their new life. She's picking up Spanish and making friends. Kids in her class try out their English on her as they play.
For Lelix, it's been a tougher transition. "I miss speaking English," she said. She used to be a straight-A's ninth-grader, according to her mom. Now she struggles to keep up with her classmates, as everything is in Spanish. Not being able to communicate well compounds the frustrations, Hernández said. "It's already hard enough being the white kid in town."
But Lelix is persevering. "I thought it was cool because when I came here, I'd never seen one of these before," she said, scooping water into a large cup from a huge basin full of water. "It was really weird because you had to not turn on the faucet to get water to wash your hands. You had to [use] one of the cups, like this, and scoop the water out of the thing, and like, wash your hands in it. It was weird. I was like, what is this?"
The family survives with the help of Hernández's parents in Las Vegas and Waldo's relatives. Martínez said he hasn't been able to get a job, despite many job interviews.
"They ask you where you learn English, and you say, 'Well, I lived in the US and, you know, I marry a US citizen.' And they say, "So, you got deported?" And you say, 'Yes, and the interview's over,'" Martínez said. "You're not going to get a job."
The couple closed a just-opened small food business after gang extortion attempts. It wasn't worth it, Martínez says.
Not having jobs gives them lots of time for the kids.
"They say this is one of the worst neighborhoods in this town," Hernández said. "But we feel safe here," she said. The gangs have "taken us in, they accept us," she added.
It wasn't an easy process, coming to peace with being in the middle of gang turf. "They watched us for quite a while. They were not immediately friendly to us," Hernández said of the local gang members. "But I think acting nice to them and befriending them and them watching us and seeing that we're normal people, most people have accepted us."
Yet, this too is complicated, Hernández said. "Now, we belong to them, that's what the thing is," she said. "Someone gave us another house in another area — a rival area — but we could never accept it because if we went over there, we would be in trouble over there and then we could never come back over here."
So, the family goes on with life. Hernández is trying to get her daughter's school and medical records, and her mother in Las Vegas helps out. Hernández misses her parents, the kids miss their grandparents, and their friends.
"We have to find the positive in this situation because it's a situation we're forced to be in. But there's so much good that can come out of it. Especially for the kids. Learning two languages and learning about another culture, outside of the United States. [Learning] that the United States is not necessarily the dream they tell you it is in school, that there's another whole world outside," Hernández said.
In 2015, Hernández petitioned the court to allow her to leave Las Vegas, to modify her probation so she could reunite her family. Her request was denied. Hernández and the kids tried to make it without Martínez, but Hernández said they just couldn't. So, when she left Las Vegas for El Salvador, she violated the terms of her probation. There is a bench warrant out for her arrest.
This Las Vegas mother of four has decided to make the best of it in Sensuntepeque as she cannot return home without being arrested.
The reporting for this story was supported by the International Women's Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.