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Tucson siblings — separated from Mom by the border for years — find ways to thrive

  • 8 min to read

Naomi de la Rosa is undecided about becoming a nurse or a teacher — she just wants to help people, a lesson she’s been learning and putting in practice for almost 10 years now.

“I want to be a teacher because I love little kids. Basically because of Bobby, I had to take care of him,” she says of her 13-year-old sibling. And a nurse, “because of my dad,” who she’s also had to learn how to take care of.

During her recent high school graduation ceremony there were a dozen relatives and friends holding signs with pictures of her, proud of everything she had accomplished. They waited anxiously as she walked on the track field to her seat, and had smartphones in hand when school officials called her name.

But some of those closest to her were missing. Her elderly father was at home with her youngest brother, Bobby. The family feared it would be too hot and chaotic for the frail 85-year-old. Her mother was about 60 miles away in Nogales, Sonora, waiting out a 10-year immigration bar that prevents her from coming back to the United States.

Naomi and her three siblings have had to step up and learn how to be there for one another, and eventually to care for their father, since 2009, when Gloria Arellano de la Rosa went to Juarez, Mexico for what she thought would be an appointment to get her green card. She was following legal advice and was sponsored by her husband of more than a decade, but instead, she faced a 10-year ban from returning to the United States because years before she had crossed illegally after overstaying a visa.

The Arizona Daily Star first published a story about the de la Rosa siblings in 2015 in collaboration with Arizona Public Media titled “Divided by law: A family separated by the border.”

The oldest, Jim, 25, is now Arsenio de la Rosa’s primary caregiver and is about to finish work for an associate’s degree at Pima Community College. He plans to enroll at the University of Arizona this fall and to eventually go into law enforcement. Jim was in the Marine Corps four years but had to come back to Tucson to help take care of his family.

Bill de la Rosa, 24, graduated from Bowdoin College and is about to get a master’s degree in migration studies from Oxford University. He plans to get a second master’s in criminology and criminal justice there before coming back to the United States to get a law degree.

Bobby, 13, the youngest, is about to start eighth grade and still wants to become a veterinarian. He was not quite 4 when his mother was barred from returning.

Naomi, 17, graduated with honors from Pueblo High School with a long list of advanced placement classes under her belt — despite the balancing act she’s had to learn to master since she was 9. She was recognized as a Tucson Outstanding Teen Citizen and LULAC’s Arizona Youth of the Year. She will start at the UA this fall.

Jim de la Rosa fixes his sister cap during her graduation from Pueblo High School May 24, 2018.

When her name was called during the graduation ceremony her heart dropped, she says, and her eyes got watery because she knew her parents and brothers weren’t there to see her walk on stage. But she knew they were still cheering for her.

Her mother had called that morning to tell her how proud she was of her. “Eres una guerrera,” she repeated over and over. You are a warrior.

“Even though I can’t be with you physically, you are in my heart,” Gloria told her.

And although it wasn’t the same, it was not new, Naomi says. Her mother “wasn’t there for my fifth-grade promotion. It was Lety (a close family friend) and my dad. And she wasn’t there for eighth grade either, so I’m used to it.”

It was Lety Rodriguez who rushed to her after graduation and called out “Mi niña,” my girl, as she hugged her and kissed her forehead. She traveled from Texas to see her graduate. How couldn’t she? Rodríguez had been the one to look after them when Gloria couldn’t, to take her shopping, to give advice.

Jim, usually more reserved, arrived late because he was buying her a huge bouquet of balloons — just what Naomi wanted. The proud brother snapped a picture of her National Honor Society sash and was there to fix her cap for photos.

She was surrounded by her longtime friends, who stayed up late to finish congratulation signs, helped pick her graduation outfit and went to her house to do her hair and makeup.

Gloria called immediately afterwards. She had been watching the clock all evening, trying to guess what was happening on the other side of the border. How did it go? How did she look? How was she? She wanted to know.

“I couldn’t be more proud to call her my little sister,” Bill wrote on Facebook that day. “She’s inspiring, caring and a fighter. Naomi, while mom and I can’t be there tonight, we’ll be there to watch you receive your college diploma.”

Without their mother since 2009, Naomi de la Rosa, left, and her three siblings have had to step up and learn how to be there for one another, and to care for their father, Arsenio, 85.

Growing up overnight

When their mother told them she couldn’t come back, the family briefly considered moving everyone south. Bobby tried it briefly, but the consensus was that as U.S. citizens their lives were in the United States. Their futures were here.

So they stayed, even if that meant having to grow up overnight.

Naomi’s schedule starts early in the morning. She decides what to wear the night before so as to not waste time. Sometimes she prepares her dad’s breakfast so Jim doesn’t have to.

She plants a kiss on her dad’s forehead, “pa’ ya me voy,” I’m heading out, she tells him. Have a good day mijita, he responds, his voice quivering.

At the end of the school day, there’s a meal to cook, a house to clean and homework to do.

As they’ve grown older, they’ve all taken on more responsibilities.

Now, Bobby helps by taking out the trash, clearing the table and wiping the counters. He also helps with their father.

When Jim is not there, Bobby and Naomi both help Arsenio sit on the couch or one holds his hands while the other trims his nails, just to make sure they don’t cut them too short.

Gloria used to help more with Arsenio in Nogales, Sonora, but she was hospitalized last year with chest pain and has been diagnosed with coronary heart disease.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Gloria says, but God has rewarded her with her children and she is grateful that he didn’t abandon them.

In this file photo from 2015, Bobby de la Rosa, center, leans out to hug brother Bill before he leaves to head back to college in Maine. Bobby was not quite 4 years old when his mother was barred from returning to the U.S. for 10 years. He has a very close relationship with his sister Naomi, who he considers his best friend.

A larger purpose

For Bill, the decision to go to England is one he still grapples with.

“In the past, I had been very lucky that nothing tragic happened while I was away in college,” Bill wrote. But this time, as he saw his father’s health decline, “I thought that was going to be the last time I said goodbye.”

He also felt selfish. “I’m not sure I’ll ever be content with this decision. I do think that in the long run, I will be able to help my family in stronger ways,” he wrote. “And to sleep at night, I’ve convinced myself that there is a larger purpose to all of this. Although I have to carry this burden, I am optimistic about my family’s future.”

Before he left for Oxford, while he drove Bobby to school one morning, he talked to him about their family’s situation, that he knew their lives were difficult but that they would come out of it in due time. Bobby started bawling, which to Bill meant that was something he had been thinking about for a while.

Still, he “parents” from afar. He speaks to his siblings a couple of times a week, video-chats on Sundays and is always in touch with their teachers and counselors.

Bill De La Rosa, far left, speaks at the National Conference on Citizenship in Washington D.C. in October. De La Rosa, featured in the Star’s “Divided by Law” series last fall, won a Marshall Scholarship that covers a full-ride to Oxford University in England.

He sees himself as an “invisible hand,” he says, to guide them in the direction he wants them to go without them knowing.

He wanted Naomi to follow his footsteps and go to Bowdoin, where he had already built a network of support for her, but she has her own path.

She decided to stay close to home to help Jim and Bobby and be near family. She couldn’t imagine a life so far away in Maine, she says.

While Naomi missed out on hanging out with friends, she didn’t miss not being able to go to parties because she was needed at home.

She has a smile on her face and looks at the bright side, which is that she gets to come home and see her dad and play video games with Bobby.

Home is where family is.

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“At the end of the day, no one else is going to understand you more than your family,” she says. “Stuff you go through, you go through it with your family. They are the ones you can count on the most and they’ve lived through it as well.”

As the wait comes to an end, Naomi says she doesn’t really think about what it will be like to have her mother back.

But Bobby does.

“I told my friends I was excited about freshman year because my mother was going to come back,” he says.

Recently he’s been picturing her around the house, in the living room with his dad, cleaning, cooking his favorite dish, mole.

“What am I going to do?” it suddenly dawns on Naomi. “I’m so used to being on Bobby’s butt, telling him to help me clean, what the heck? I didn’t think about that.”

At least she’ll get to cook her own meals as her mom makes something else for Bobby, she reasons.

Naomi de la Rosa lets friend Berenice Ramirez do her makeup in preparation for her graduation ceremony at Pueblo Magnet High School. As for her mother’s absence, “I’m used to it.”

Surpassing expectations

“I can cite research that shows why our current immigration laws don’t work, how they are affecting children, families, communities and our country in the long run,” Bill wrote. “But this is about basic empathy. No child should ever have to grow up without his or her parent and no parent should be separated from his or her children, especially for ten years.”

Studies show that kids who grow up with undocumented parents, or parents who have been deported, are less likely to do well in school and more likely to live in poverty. They are more likely to battle with depression and anxiety because of the lack of stability in their family lives. But these siblings have defied the odds and surpassed all expectations.

For Naomi, not doing well in school and not succeeding was never an option.

“My dad can’t do much, so we have to take responsibility for our own actions. Keep an eye on ourselves, have integrity,” she says. “We have to make my mom proud.”

From early on they built a network of support, never afraid to seek help.

“She reached out to different people, different teachers, when she needed to, building her circle of support,” said Teresa Toro, Bill and Naomi’s counselor at Pueblo.

She never used her situation as an excuse, Toro said. “She didn’t lower her own standards.”

While their experience would have made many bitter, Naomi hasn’t “allowed what she’s gone through to tarnish her gentle and loving personality,” she says.

To the countrary, said Eleazar Ortiz, a Spanish teacher at Pueblo who has taught all three siblings, she encouraged him with her warm smile and positive attitude.

Ortiz became emotional as he recalled a picture he took with Naomi for the school magazine. In the caption, she wrote that she saw him as her “abuelito,” her grandpa, because he always looked out for her.

One of his proudest moments as a teacher will be having had the de la Rosa siblings as his students, he says. “I want to carry them in my heart always and want to thank them for having come through my classroom.”

Although he is about to retire, he half-jokes that he would consider staying on if Bobby says he wants him as a teacher.

What is Naomi’s dream? “That’s hard, I don’t know,” she pauses. “Just having a family united. Once my mom comes back, that’s like my dream, having the family together.”

Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at 573-4102 or ptrevizo@tucson.com. Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo.

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