Two countries, thousands of families, and a 16-year quest to identify a silent man in a bed
Because the beginning was lost, his story always began in the middle, but there wasn’t much to the middle either: Once upon a time, there was a pickup truck full of hopeful travelers, and then there was a crash. Bodies flew into the desert.
It was in California, near the Mexican border, and the other people in the truck had recently crossed over; it stood to reason that he had, too. One of them died, but he didn’t. Inside his skull, though, his brain shook like an Etch A Sketch: any clear image of his past, erased in a moment.
He awoke in a San Diego hospital. His eyes sometimes tracked people across the room, and his arms and legs sometimes moved, seemingly involuntarily, but he couldn’t speak or eat or even breathe on his own. “Persistent vegetative state,” the doctors called it. He had no way to tell anyone what his name was or where he came from or how he felt or who should be called to hear what had happened to him. There was no way to be sure if he himself still knew those things.
He had only his body to speak for him: a young, round face, dark fuzz on his chin and upper lip; black hair and wide, brown eyes; no tattoos or notable scars, except for the one the wreck had given him. He’d carried only a phone card, purchased in Mexico, and a few pesos and dollars. By the best guess available, he was somewhere between 18 and 20 years old.
Whoever he’d been before, whoever he still was inside, to the world around him, he was now a human riddle, a blank slate on which to write a thousand possible names and stories. Some of the nurses at the hospital — as they turned him and washed him and tended his feeding and breathing tubes and stretched his limbs and changed his diapers — took to calling him Pancho, a nickname for Francisco. Others tried out name after name — Juan, José, Jesús — hoping he would eventually react to one of them in some way, but he didn’t.
He needed a name for the forms and the charts and the billing, and so he was assigned one — a strange name whose origins have been lost in the nearly 17 years since the accident. It might have come from an auto shop to which the truck was taken or near where the accident occurred; some people heard it came from the truck’s route, or it was simply random. However it happened, legally he became Sixty-Six Garage. It wasn’t a good name — a social worker would later try unsuccessfully to change it, in an effort to offer him more dignity — but it was his now, one more part of the mystery that he had become. Nurses began to call him Garage.
That seemed to be it: the whole story, and not much of one. His life would, in all probability, end in a bed like this one. It might last decades more — he was young and his heart was healthy — but it would be a life that few would choose for themselves or their family.
And yet, as his story — or really, the news of his lack of a story — spread, people began to contact the hospital, to ask detailed questions about his moles or his scars. Their own family histories also included a journey across the border interrupted by a mystery. Each had a son or brother or husband or cousin or friend who’d headed northward and then disappeared, leaving no answers about what might have happened to him, whether he was dead or incarcerated or suffering somewhere, whether he’d abandoned them. In the anguish of their uncertainty, they looked to the man in the bed and saw hope. They peered into his empty past and saw the possibility of themselves.
The first year, there were dozens of these families. Eventually, there would be thousands.
“QUIERO PEDIRLES su ayuda para localizar a mis hermanos,” one Facebook post began — I want to ask for your help in finding my brothers. It continued without pause for punctuation: “The last time they were seen was in Ciudad Juárez four years ago they said they would cross to the USA via Juárez and we never heard from them again we don’t know if they crossed or anything.” Within six hours, more than a hundred people had shared the accompanying photo of two teenage boys. In the comments, they told the sister their own locations, where they would continue her search: Tampico, Tamaulipas; Fort Worth, Texas.
There’s a corner of the internet, a big one, devoted to efforts to track down missing would-be immigrants — or to find the families of people whose bodies have been discovered but not identified — by sharing photographs and ages and information about last known whereabouts as widely as possible. Seventy thousand people like a page called, in Spanish, Following Their Footsteps; 140,000 follow one that translates as Missing and Unclaimed on the Border. The group Searching for the Disappeared on the Border, with more than 125,000 members, lists its purpose as supporting searches for “loved ones lost while pursuing the American dream.”
Two years ago, a woman in McAllen, Texas, saw a picture in a Facebook group, whose name translates to Pathway to the North, that looked familiar. It showed a man lying in a hospital bed in San Diego, a breathing tube attached to his neck. She sent it to her cousin in Houston. Could this, she asked, be Gilberto?
Liliana Lara hadn’t seen or talked to her younger brother, Gilberto Lara Cerón, in more than 14 years. He’d disappeared when he was 19, around the time that an accident turned a young man with a name and a past into the bed-bound patient known only as Sixty-Six Garage. Since then, she told me, “We know nothing about him, nothing at all.”
They’d grown up close, the two youngest of seven children, in a small city called Valle Hermoso, in the state of Tamaulipas, an hour and a half from the Texas border. They were often on their own. Their other siblings were significantly older, their father was gone (he had another family with another woman), and their mother, Ofelia, traveled back and forth to Brownsville, Texas, for work cleaning houses and taking care of her employers’ children. It seemed she was always working. Gilberto was playful and outgoing, but he struggled with his parents’ absence and could be rebellious, said Liliana. “He grew up with a lot of sadness.”
In her early 20s, Liliana moved to Houston. She got married and crossed with a visa and later found work as a school janitor and set up a neat household with ornate furniture and pink walls in a trailer park outside the city. She found her new country strange. People seemed to stay inside a lot, with their doors closed, not walking around talking to their neighbors as they had in Mexico. Gilberto, too, was experiencing a shock. Liliana was the last of his siblings to leave, and now she was pregnant with a daughter, building a new life far away, and he was alone. He developed an interest in math and in the idea of finding his future in the United States. “He wanted a career,” said Liliana. “He had many hopes of coming.” The word she chose for hope, ilusión, translates not only as expectation and excitement but also as wishful thinking, delusion, mirage.
Before her brother was lost and she was initiated into the enormous subculture of the searching, Liliana thought little of border crossings: “It seemed easy.” But when she reported Gilberto missing, the Mexican Consulate told her there were many, many people in her position — people with no idea what happened to someone they love who set out for the border. Many migrants are abandoned along the way; sometimes they are kidnapped, and often families who’ve reported someone missing receive ransom notes and anonymous threats. Smugglers routinely tell their charges to leave all identification behind in case they are caught, which means bodies go unclaimed. In Texas, an anthropologist named Kate Spradley and her graduate students are trying to identify dozens of people whose bodies were exhumed from a mass grave; when migration routes shifted, the county, with no medical examiner and lots of bodies, found itself overwhelmed and simply buried them. The mass burial made headlines, but it isn’t an unusual problem. In Texas, with its 1,200 miles of borderland, only 14 counties out of 254 have medical examiners. “When you die in Texas,” said Spradley, “you’re usually just buried and kind of erased from history.”
Mexican consulates in the U.S. have staff members whose jobs are to try to find missing persons — their first step is usually to check detention centers, and their second is to compare forensic info to unidentified bodies. The consulates keep a DNA testing lab on retainer and maintain a database of the missing that includes more than 30,000 people. Each year, they solve only about 80 cases. Enrique Morones, an advocate for immigrants and the founder of Border Angels, a group that began with the mission of leaving gallons of water in deserts and canyons for thirsty migrants to find, says that when he visits small villages in Mexico and asks how many people know someone who died in the desert, only a few hands go up. When he asks how many know someone who planned to cross and then went missing, nearly every hand rises.
The last that Liliana heard from Gilberto was a phone call from Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, where the man who had promised to help him cross the border — a childhood friend of Ofelia’s named Efrén — had left him behind, saying he would send someone back for him. While they were talking, before she had a chance to ask him for a phone number or other way to contact him, the call cut out. He’d run out of credit on his phone card. He never called back.
After weeks with no word, Ofelia and two of Liliana’s sisters set out for Nuevo Laredo to find Gilberto. They went to the hotel where he said he’d been staying and the plaza where Efrén had left him. After finding no sign of him, they checked all the other hotels in town. When those were busts, too, they called prisons and hospitals, and then they called morgues. County officials showed them photos of the bodies of unidentified young men found in the desert, but none were Gilberto.
It felt, Ofelia said later, as though she were physically carrying her own soul from place to place. “But I endured. I endured until we returned home.”
That’s when the most agonizing part — the helplessness, the wondering, the endless scenarios — began. “It’s painful, day after day, to ask yourself, where might he be? Where? Is he alive?” Liliana told me. “Every day the hope dies a little, because you don’t know anything.” As the years passed, she began to think that he must have died; if he were still living, she felt, he would have found a way to get in touch. Ofelia disagreed. She was certain he was alive — she felt it in her heart, she said, and “the heart doesn’t lie” — but the trade-off for that hope was guilt. Maybe he was angry at her for working so much, for being gone, for being harried and strict, and that’s why no one had heard from him. Painful as the thought was — and to her remaining children, it seemed as though Ofelia was always crying — it was the possibility that she could bear.
Not knowing what happened to a missing family member “is a kind of torture that I wouldn’t wish on anyone,” said Chelsea Halstead, who works with the Arizona-based Colibrí Center for Human Rights, which has assembled databases of thousands of families who’ve reported missing people and of hundreds of bodies that haven’t been claimed, and does the grim, slow, relieving work of making the connections between them. (She’s frustrated that there aren’t more resources. “It’s not being handled as the mass disaster that it is, although more people died crossing the border than in 9/11 and Katrina combined.”) Families she’s worked with have gone to psychics, have been convinced by dreams, have fallen apart. Many have insisted that their missing person, against all odds, is alive and well but suffering from amnesia. “It’s a very specific kind of pain,” Halstead said. “Everything becomes possible. When you don’t have a truth, you create your own reality.”
When Liliana saw the photograph of the man in the bed, her daughter — a newborn when Liliana got that last call from Gilberto — was on the verge of celebrating her quinceañera. Liliana also had three sons by then. To her children, their uncle was a ghost. But now, this picture, this damaged but living, real person looking up at her — there was definitely a resemblance.
Liliana sent it to her mother, to her siblings, who responded with immediate joy: They had found Gilberto. “It’s him, it’s him!” Ofelia cried. He might never be able to speak to them, but at least they knew. “One part is pleasure, but another is also sadness, right?” Liliana’s brother, Graciano, later told a television reporter. “Because …” he paused to rub his eyes, which were full of tears. “Well, to find him like this ….” He tried to continue, but no words came.
“Only God knows,” he finally said.
The woman who took the photo never liked the name Sixty-Six Garage. She called it feo, both ugly and insulting. After a few months of visiting the man in the bed, she decided to call him José, after Joseph in the Bible: “Joseph passed through many difficult moments but ended up back with his family.”
In July of 1999, Paula Lemus and her brother Gabino went to a hospital in San Diego to visit a family member who was sick with cancer. Gabino overheard some nurses down the hall talking, and he started asking questions; soon he went to Paula and told her, “There’s a guy next door. They say he crossed the border and had an accident and lost his memory. He can’t walk; he can’t talk; he knows nothing of his family.”
Paula suggested that they ask permission to visit him — “Who knows?” she said. They’d grown up in Guerrero; maybe they’d get lucky and recognize him.
He didn’t look familiar, but Paula was overwhelmed by how vulnerable he seemed, how in need of her protection. She had a young daughter of her own, and she thought immediately of this man’s mother, of how she might feel if she could see her son like this. “It wasn’t pity I felt,” she told me later, “but the desire to never leave him alone, ever.”
She took his hand. “I promise I will keep visiting you,” she told him in Spanish. “I won’t forget about you.”
For the next 15 years, unless she was out of town, Paula was there, one to three times a week. She read to him from her Bible, prayed aloud for him, asked him whether he was comfortable, whether he was sad. She told him what was going on in her life, what was happening on the news, who was running for office; she kept him up to date on a world whizzing by without him. She brought members of her church and her own friends and family to visit him, though none had her stamina. Few returned more than once or twice.
Paula knew from the beginning that the doctors said he would never recover, but still she developed her own set of unlikely hopes for him. “One day, you’re going to raise yourself out of this bed,” she’d tell him, “and we’ll speak normally.” The nurses often left the TV on in his room, in English, and she joked that when he got his voice back he’d have forgotten Spanish. She was convinced that he answered her questions in a private language: two blinks for no, one for yes. Though they were close in age, she began to think of herself as a kind of mother to him, as well as a sister. “It’s like he’s my family. He is part of my family,” she told me. “I love him.” She said he smiled when she entered his room and seemed upset when she left. “Don’t despair,” she’d tell him. “One day your family will arrive.”
About a year after the crash, Univision did a segment on the man in the bed; because Paula was too shy to go on TV, she asked a friend from her church, who had also visited the hospital, to speak to the cameras. He told them that the patient made him think of his own brother, who had gone missing ten years earlier. He wasn’t alone: After the segment aired, a wave of families contacted the hospital.
“That happens every time a story happens. Anybody who has a missing son or husband or whatever — I’ve gotten calls from Ecuador, from Guatemala, from Mexico,” said Ed Kirkpatrick, the medical director of a nursing facility in Coronado where the patient now lives. Kirkpatrick discouraged families from coming in person, to keep the nursing home from becoming “a circus.” “We’re good at health care,” Kirkpatrick told me. “We’re not good at identification, CSI-type things.” Instead, he asked them to send pictures and describe the particulars of their case.
Meanwhile, Paula was doing outreach of her own. On Facebook, she posted a photo that she’d taken of the man she called José and asked her friends to share the post. “It’s very important that we help him to reunite with his family, which may think that he’s dead or that he forgot about them, when in reality he’s the one who appears to be forgotten,” she wrote. She shared it in a group dedicated to finding missing persons, and it began to take off. She got, she estimates, dozens of responses from sisters, mothers, wives. She replied to them all. But most, in their eagerness, had overlooked or ignored crucial details, such as the date of his accident, that made it clear he couldn’t be their match. Their answers were elsewhere, if they were anywhere at all.
The only case that matched came from a woman in Houston who’d lost her brother, Gilberto — the dates lined up, and the photo she sent looked hauntingly familiar. In return, Paula sent Liliana a YouTube clip of the Univision segment from 2000, the footage that would be most similar to the brother she’d known. (Though, as the years passed the man in the bed by, they seemed hardly to touch him. He was now in his middle or late 30s, and on his chin his beard had fully grown in, but his face — away from sunlight and the daily creases of laughter and anxiety and conversation — still looked nearly as smooth and unwrinkled as it had when Paula first met him.)
Liliana shared the video with her mother and siblings; it made them even more certain that they’d finally found Gilberto. Paula, who was thrilled to find a match after so many misses and who saw a likeness between the family members and the man she called José, was convinced. So were the people who’d gone with her to visit him. After they saw a picture of Gilberto next to one of the man in the bed, so were the commenters on Pathway to the North, who were following the case avidly. (Or most of them were convinced. Liliana got messages from people who thought the whole thing was a hoax, since it was inconceivable that the U.S. would go to such effort to keep someone without papers alive.)
Only Liliana had doubts. Something about the image didn’t feel right; she couldn’t explain precisely what. She prayed about it, asking God why she couldn’t share in the certainty of the others.
She went to the Mexican Consulate in Houston with both photos. That consulate called the one in San Diego, which called the nursing home. The family sent Gilberto’s military ID, which had a fingerprint they hoped could be compared to the man in the bed’s. The print on the ID turned out to be too smudged, so the consulate sent swabs for a DNA test. Both Liliana and Ofelia swabbed their cheeks and then waited.
Months passed with no answer. Paula called Texas from the man’s room and put the phone on speaker; she told the family he reacted to Liliana’s voice with what looked like pure desperation, trying to leave the bed. The family, meanwhile, tried to make peace with the state in which they’d found him. Liliana’s nephew Adan wrote and recorded a corrido — a traditional folk ballad, usually about oppression or injustice — addressed to his uncle:
A desperate mother
Looks for you by land and sea.
Doña Ofelia is very sad,
And she’s getting sick.
She’s so tired from searching for you.
She’s waiting for you in your house.
Your inconsolable siblings,
Their hearts are in pain.
They’re desperate to see you.
Hug yourself passionately.
Many friends and family
Wait for you with devotion.
Finally, Ofelia couldn’t stand the wait any longer. She didn’t have the papers to go to San Diego herself, so she told Liliana to go. You’ll know the truth, she said. “You truly know your brother; you know everything about him.” Liliana prayed again: If he is Gilberto, please let me know. Let me recognize him and be sure.
Paula met Liliana at the airport, and they hugged like family. They went directly to the nursing home. The man in the bed was asleep when they entered the room, but Paula woke him up and told him he had a visitor.
Liliana called him by her brother’s name. “It’s me, Lili, your sister,” she said. “Do you remember me?” She held his hand and felt him grasp hers, hard.
But she believed she already knew: This wasn’t her brother. There were immediate signs — his skin was a somewhat darker shade than Gilberto’s, despite years spent inside. He was missing her brother’s long eyelashes. Most of all, there was an indefinable gut feeling that this was not the boy she’d helped raise.
From his bedside, she called her family to deliver the news. They seemed not to hear her, not to accept what she was saying. He must, they said, just look different because of all the time, because of the accident, because of the medicine. And if he wasn’t Gilberto, where was his real family, where had they been all this time? Ofelia, sobbing, rejoiced that her family was reunited at last. So did the commenters on Facebook. “Everyone was sure,” said Liliana, “except for me in my heart.” She stayed with the man in the bed all that day, slept at Paula’s house, then returned to his bedside the next day and the one after. Paula remembers her crying nearly the whole time.
While the family waited for the results of the DNA test, they agreed to be interviewed on Univision for a segment following up on the one from 2000. Meanwhile, a journalist in San Diego, Joanne Faryon, wrote about the unidentified man in Coronado. The families who had been in touch before, it turned out, were a trickle compared to what was to come; the coverage, said Kirkpatrick, “opened the floodgates to everybody who has somebody who’s missing,” and the nursing home “got slammed.” Thirty families were so sure that they filed official requests with the Mexican Consulate. On Facebook, Paula spent the next four months replying to messages. “It was from the morning to the evening. I thought it was never going to end.” She was shocked to discover how many families were out there, looking for answers. “I realized it’s not a lot,” she said. “It’s thousands. It’s an enormous amount.”
Everyone told Paula “almost exactly the same thing. ‘He looks a lot like my son. My son disappeared the same year. I’m sure.’” Once again she felt the responsibility to reply to every single person, to leave none of them in limbo, and so she spent hours on the phone with an endless parade of mothers and sisters. Most were clearly grasping: The photos didn’t match or the dates were wrong. But they called anyway, and Paula understood why. “They wanted to believe.”
To person after person, she offered the same gentle phrase. “No te quiero ilusionar,” she’d say. I don’t want to give you false hopes.
Later, in an attempt to help all those families, Paula started her own Facebook group. She gave it the rosy name Reuniting Families. But the photos she shares — most are grim close-ups of the faces of corpses and of their tattoos and possessions — leave little hope for happy reunions.
Months after Liliana’s trip to San Diego, she was back in Texas, cleaning the school where she worked, when her cellphone rang. It was the consulate. The results were negative. “He’s not your brother,” the voice on the phone said.
Despite all her misgivings, Liliana found that she still had hope to crush. She’d wanted so badly to be proven wrong. When the consulate hung up, she called Ofelia, who had already told her neighbors about the miracle of finally finding her son. “I wanted to find him,” Ofelia told me later from Valle Hermoso. “Alive, dead, crazy, blind ….” Her voice broke. “I wanted to find him.”
Liliana called each of her siblings. “Only God knows where Gilberto is now,” said one. Liliana began to think that maybe this had happened for a reason, that her family was supposed to help spread the story. She posted the man’s photo — eyes closed, breathing tube attached — onto Facebook, describing, in Spanish, a young man “who suffered a terrible accident while seeking the American dream.” He wasn’t her brother, but she had no trouble identifying with his real family. She asked people to help share the photo, writing, “I know that miracles exist.”
More than 310,000 people posted the photo to their own pages, and Liliana was soon inundated with questions from eager families. One woman, who had two missing sons, told Liliana that she’d gone to San Diego, but the nursing home had turned her away. Another, from Jalisco, sobbed into the phone as she told Liliana that her son had crossed the border with a group of 30 people. Three died and three — her son among them — went missing. Maria Guzman, from Guanajuato, told me that she began to tremble as soon as she saw the photo in her Facebook feed; she was absolutely certain she was looking at her missing cousin. (Since he left, she said, “we know nothing about him.” A familiar phrase.) In fact, her cousin had last communicated with his family in 2005, six years after the man in the bed last spoke. Frank Bermudez thought the picture looked like his brother, missing for 15 years, but the photo that he sent me, of a man with a thin face and lighter, softer hair, bore little resemblance to the man in the bed.
“I’m a border angel, too,” Paula told Enrique Morones of Border Angels when she met him at one of the group’s events. At first he thought she meant she’d been a volunteer, but then she told him about the man in the bed, about visiting him year after year. Joanne Faryon, the journalist in San Diego, had put Morones in touch with the nursing home, and soon there was a gathering of officials. After all the years of uncertainty, all the questions, people with power now wanted the case solved.
Morones, who is well-connected in Washington, took the matter directly to the national chief of the Border Patrol, who asked the San Diego sector’s investigative arm to make the case a priority. The team went to the nursing home and scanned the patient’s fingerprints onto a laptop, which they ran through their database without luck. But when they took prints with paper and ink and put them into an older system, they got a hit. The prints matched those of a young man picked up by the Border Patrol for illegally crossing, just a few months before the accident.
The man in the bed’s fingerprints had been in the system all along. Right next to them was a birthdate, a name. An answer.
Now it was a matter of the consulate tracking down his family and explaining what had happened. His parents, who were from the Oaxaca area, were no longer living. But his sister was alive and willing to take a DNA test to remove any lingering doubt. She was in shock. She hadn’t spent the past 16 years on message boards searching for him; after a long silence, she had assumed that her brother was dead. Just before last Christmas, the DNA test came back positive.
In February, she visited the room where her brother had been living for the past decade and a half. She held his hand, just as Liliana had, just as Paula had. Remedios Gómez Arnau, the Mexican consul general in San Diego, went with her. “There were tears, as you can imagine,” she said — not just from the man’s sister but also from the staff, who were grateful to know whom they’d been caring for all these years. They couldn’t release his name — his family requested privacy — but they could call him by it, could use it among themselves, could finally put the name Sixty-Six Garage behind them. They could even celebrate his birthday, which had passed unnoticed 16 times. They wheeled him into the activity room and set up a video conference with his sister. There was cake, though he couldn’t eat it.
Paula learned about the DNA results when she walked into the man’s room one day and saw his true name on a piece of paper at the end of his bed. She celebrated for him but thought she saw him grimace when she called him by the new name. “You prefer José, don’t you?” she asked and says he blinked once for yes. She decided to stick with the name she had given him.
Soon after, she found out she wouldn’t be able to visit him anymore. Now that he had a family, nursing home staff told her, they were restricted in how they must protect his privacy and to whom they could allow access. Paula feels as though she, too, has lost a member of her family. Sometimes she gets a ride to Coronado anyway, just so she can spend a few minutes looking through his window from a parked car.
Liliana is glad that the man in the bed found his family; she didn’t like to think of him out there in California, alone. She doesn’t say what is surely echoing in her mind: the question of where Gilberto is and whether he is alone, of whether more miracles might be possible. She calls her mother in Valle Hermoso, and Ofelia’s voice crackles through to Houston. “Every day,” Ofelia says, “I ask God that one day, before I die, I’ll see him again.”
The photograph of the man in Coronado — the one that Liliana put on Facebook after she found out he wasn’t her brother, the one that’s been shared more than 300,000 times — is still live on the site. Among families like hers, it still bears a resemblance to hope that’s convincing enough. Nearly every day, someone new reposts it to her own wall, believing, or wanting to believe, in its possibilities.
But the photograph’s story — of a living but unclaimed migrant — is no longer true. Like so much else, it’s become an ilusión.