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Podcast explores a DACA recipient's journey back to Mexico after 30 years

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Let's admit it. There are just too many podcasts out there, and it's hard to find the really great ones. Well, we are here to help. Every week at this time, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED is going to play you a portion of a podcast we love from the NPR network. We're kicking it off with Finding Home Con DACA. It's a series from the LAist Studios podcast "How To LA," and it's hosted by Brian De Los Santos. He recently sat down with my co-host Ailsa Chang.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Even when we're lucky enough to have a chance to travel, the opportunity often comes with some anxieties.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "HOW TO LA")

BRIAN DE LOS SANTOS: Next thing is like, how do we even get there? And it's super expensive. Like, I got to leave in about two weeks, so I know that prices are not going to be pretty. What are the gay-friendly spots? I don't even have a damn suitcase - shoes, clothes, my gear for work. Are they going to give me the time off? Who's going to host the podcast? Got to talk to my manager, actually, that I'm leaving the country. Wait, where am I even going to stay?

CHANG: But what if an added anxiety was the possibility of leaving and being unable to return? For years, that had been the case for Brian De Los Santos. He's the host of the "How To LA" podcast from LAist Studios.

DE LOS SANTOS: I was told I was undocumented in middle school.

CHANG: He arrived in the U.S. from Veracruz, Mexico, at the age of 2. And in 2012, he became a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. That lifted the threat of deportation and allowed him to get a driver's license as well as other documents. But he could not leave the country because going back to Mexico would have risked his DACA status until very recently. He documented his trip back to his birth country for a special series called Finding Home Con DACA. Brian De Los Santos joins us now. Welcome.

DE LOS SANTOS: Hi, Ailsa. Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Hi. So before we get to your trip to Mexico, can you just first talk about what it had been like growing up to be from a country, a homeland that you had no real relationship with for many, many years?

DE LOS SANTOS: Oh, wow. Well, I think the most meaningful things when I was growing up was a visit from Abuela, which only one of my abuelas could actually come to LA and visit me - or those Skype or those telephone calls to Mexico. That was my only thread back to Mexico was those visits or those phone calls. And for me, I'm lucky I grew up in LA and I'm able to exist within my Mexican culture here in this city. But it was always this thing of, like, am I American? Am I Mexican? Also, the whole threat of deportation, of not knowing what my future looked like because I was undocumented until I was essentially 21, I just didn't know what my life would be like.

CHANG: Yeah. I mean, you talk about - in the first episode, you talk about how your immigration status before DACA puts you essentially in what you call survival mode.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "HOW TO LA")

DE LOS SANTOS: ...Be in the survival mode of, like, I have to be one step ahead with information, whether it was resources or even how to drive in certain streets, the LAPD versus the LA County sheriffs, you know, who was more pro-immigrant or who was more anti-immigrant in those departments. Since I found out I was undocumented, it's always been, like, a risk of just living here.

CHANG: Can you talk more about that? What did you mean by survival mode?

DE LOS SANTOS: I think it's always kind of, like, looking over your shoulders, not just, like, from police and from, you know, getting pulled over and not having a driver's license but also just, like, how do you kind of, like, be in stealth mode so people don't pay attention to you? For me, it was, like, kind of like, how do I survive in this country where I don't have permission to be here, essentially? When I became a DACA recipient, it was not just, like, becoming a DACA recipient. It was also like, OK, what do I have to do next to figure out how to stay here long term and eventually hopefully get a green card? And, you know, there still isn't a solution for DACA recipients right now.

CHANG: Exactly. And while you've been a DACA recipient, it's been unclear whether you could go back to Mexico without risking your immigration status. But eventually, you were able to leave California and go to Mexico. It's part of something called the Advance Parole program. Can you explain what that program is?

DE LOS SANTOS: Yeah. First, I want to say that I'm not a lawyer, and I'm not 100% a legal expert. I just know through my own process. And there are three ways you can get this document. You apply through U.S. Immigration Services, and you ask them through humanitarian reasons, which is you get to go visit family, loved ones in your home country or through school, which is, you know, you do a program or semester abroad or a business trip. And those are the three reasons you can apply for Advance Parole.

Now, you send your check in. You wait for your case number. You wait for immigration officials to essentially give you this document. But I do want to say - and this is why a lot of people don't do Advance Parole - you're not guaranteed reentry into the country. It says it right there in the letter they send you. It says in big, red letters that your reentry is at the discretion of the CPB official, essentially, when you're reentering the country.

CHANG: And you get to Mexico in late February of this year.

DE LOS SANTOS: Yes.

CHANG: And, you know, you describe this moment while you're sitting on a beach in Puerto Vallarta.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "HOW TO LA")

DE LOS SANTOS: I was at the beach earlier with a friend I met here in Mexico in Puerto Vallarta. There was a moment where the sun was just setting, and it was just so beautiful. I said, this is the happiest I've ever been in my life - the beach, the sun, no worries, no thoughts. And I don't think I've ever experienced that. I'm trying to be this journalist right now, recording. What are you feeling, and why are you crying?

CHANG: I mean, when I heard that, I thought, like, after so many years, Brian, in what you call survival mode, what was it that finally allowed you to feel that sense of happiness in that particular moment?

DE LOS SANTOS: I just felt like - the words that come to my mind right now is I'm here. And I feel like ever since I had that moment, whenever I think about that moment, I'm transported back to that beach, and it was this beautiful sunset. There was someone playing the trumpet in the distance. There were kids playing. And I was just like, my favorite place in the world at that moment was the beach. And it just felt like a weight lifted off my shoulders.

Like, I've always wanted to experience Mexico. I wanted to eat the food that people talk about on social media. I wanted to hear the stories that my family had, and I finally had this opportunity to just touch and feel it, you know? And when I was younger, I just heard the stories, and - or I heard the stories from my friends about going to these beaches or going to the city. And I just - it wasn't reachable for me. I couldn't touch it. And now that I was touching it, for me, it was like, this means the world to me. And, yeah, it was beautiful.

CHANG: And yet while you were there, you were constantly reminded of all the years that you had spent growing up in the U.S. Like in Mexico City, there was this point where you ask a friend who lives there if he sees you as Mexican or as a gringo.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "HOW TO LA")

DE LOS SANTOS: And I had to ask him how he viewed me.

(Speaking Spanish).

Am I Mexican? What do you see me as?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

CHANG: And he said, as a gringo.

(LAUGHTER)

DE LOS SANTOS: Yes.

CHANG: How did that feel, to hear him call you a gringo?

DE LOS SANTOS: Like a slap in the face, to be honest.

(LAUGHTER)

DE LOS SANTOS: But it also was a realization for me that I actually thought about throughout my whole trip in Mexico. It's also, like, the culture. Like, the references - I didn't understand some references that people, you know, said to me, and I had to, like, just ask them, like, what did you mean? (Speaking Spanish).

And so, like, I understood the privilege I had just being able to live and work in the United States. But I also felt the sense of like, OK, that's the way people see me. And I've never felt like I was American enough to say that I'm a gringo. But I did realize that I do carry American culture with me. I - my English and my Spanish are very different, obviously, from Mexicans in Mexico. But it's something that I - you know, I had to learn.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, then the moment that you said you had been waiting for your whole life was seeing one of your abuelitas, one of your grandmothers, in person after all those years.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "HOW TO LA")

DE LOS SANTOS: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

DE LOS SANTOS: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

DE LOS SANTOS: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

CHANG: What is the one thing that you will never forget about spending time with her in person?

DE LOS SANTOS: The food, obviously.

(LAUGHTER)

DE LOS SANTOS: It's that grandma's meal that she serves you. But one of the things that I was sharing with my family and friends is that people around me, they could go to their grandma's house. And I've never had that. I've never had, you know, going to abuela's house and be like abuela, (speaking Spanish). You know, I'm hungry. Like, what is there to eat? It felt like, this is what my life could have been in Mexico if I had stayed here, or if I had the documents to come here whenever I wanted to. And so it was bittersweet. And so the other bittersweet moment is when you have to explain to people, I'm only here for this one trip. I don't know when I'm back.

CHANG: You - so much of your podcast - it's about the heartbreak that many immigrants experience and maybe is more intense for DACA recipients specifically. And what I mean by that is, like, you know, on the one hand, you're trying to prove that the U.S. is where you belong. But at the same time, on the other hand, you have the pain of being cut off from your family, your heritage. Does someone ever reconcile those feelings, you think? Do you think you will?

DE LOS SANTOS: I have been learning a lot to let go of things I can't control. And this is just me speaking for myself. And I've learned that my status in this country is something that I can't really control. I do want to say that a lot of people have written to me because I've shared my immigration story before, not just on this podcast but in different places I've worked at in journalism. People ask me, well, why can't you just, you know, go and stand in line through the immigration process? And I tell them it's way more complicated than that. It's not as clear-cut as people may think.

And so me just being at peace that I'm trying my best to figure out where I stand in this country - and later, that does affect who I am in this country. I think I'm working towards, at least I got to do this trip and got to know a little bit of my heritage. I think there's always going to be a piece of me that I'm always going to be missing, just having the opportunity to be in Mexico. But I do realize who I am, and I'm still learning. I think that's what I want to say. I'm still learning who I am.

CHANG: I am, too. And I know that you've talked to other DACA recipients for this series who probably feel very similarly. Brian, thank you so, so much for this.

DE LOS SANTOS: Thank you, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCAMMON: That was my colleague Ailsa Chang, speaking with the host of "How To LA," Brian de Los Santos, about his three-part series, Finding Home Con DACA. The series follows De Los Santos' journey to Mexico, his country of birth, for the first time in 30 years. But it also beautifully incorporates the voices of other recipients of Advance Parole for travel, the program that allows certain immigrants to travel outside the U.S. and return lawfully.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "HOW TO LA")

RUBY FERGUSON: I'm Ruby Ferguson (ph). I'm 27. I received my approval letter February of 2022. I had not been to Mexico since I was 7 years old. I wanted to see my family. I wanted to see my grandparents. I can still remember every detail of the trip.

LUIS RAMIREZ: My name is Luis Ramirez (ph). I am 35 year old. I remember feeling like it was unreal that I had left the country. I had arrived at the airport in Guanajuato and was getting picked up by my mom and my cousin to drive over to the little town that I grew up in. Still felt very surreal.

FERGUSON: When the plane was landing into Veracruz, I saw the ocean. I saw the houses. They were so vibrant, the colors. That feeling of knowing that I had finally made it to my home country after all this time - my grandmother and my aunt standing there, being able to hug them after two decades.

RAMIREZ: There's just this magic, too. Being surrounded by family that just pour all this love.

FERGUSON: I am thankful that I had the privilege to make my trip possible. I hope that in the future I'm able to travel again, to see my family again.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLD SAW SONG, "DIRTBIKES OF HEAVEN, GRAINS OF THE FIELD")

MCCAMMON: Finding Home Con DACA is a podcast series from LAist Studios. You can find it in the "How To LA" podcast feed. And join us again next weekend at this time, when we'll bring you another of our favorite podcasts from the NPR network.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLD SAW SONG, "DIRTBIKES OF HEAVEN, GRAINS OF THE FIELD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.