For Mexican music star Luis Coronel, the plight of families separated at the border hits particularly close to home. The 22-year-old Coronel, who was born in Tucson, Arizona, lived that separation first-hand when his father, an undocumented immigrant, was arrested on illegal immigration charges, sent to jail in the U.S. for two years and eventually deported. For Coronel, only 10 at the time, the effects were lasting. “We always lived in fear,” he told Billboard. Two hours after this conversation, President Trump signed an executive order stopping his policy of separating families at the border. “It is an amazing start and it shows the result of what happens when we unite our voices. Yet this is only the beginning of something that we shouldn’t forget two weeks later from today.”
Here is Luis Coronel’s story on family separation, as told to Billboard‘s Leila Cobo.
I was around 10 years old the first time they got my dad. He was in jail for about two years. I remember that day as if it was yesterday. My father was driving, and he was already in the trailer park where we lived. I don’t know if it was ICE or immigration who got the call, but they pulled over my dad, and because he had no ID, and no proof of citizenship, they took him. And we had the experience of actually seeing my dad handcuffed by his truck and taken away. They took him away. And they gave him two years in an immigration prison. My mom wouldn’t let us go see him because she was always afraid something would happen to us as well if she took us.
Instead, my sister, my brother and I would sit down and wait for the mail to come in every Thursday. They allowed them to write these cards and notes, and he would send us a picture book so we could send it back with our pictures for him. After that, they deported him back to Mexico, and we would cross the border and go visit him every weekend and return late at night on Sundays. He always kept that hope that he would be able to come back. We’d say, ‘Dad, we’ll come live with you.’ And he always replied, “No, no. You stay there. I’ll meet you guys there. I promise. If not tomorrow, then I’ll try next week.” He always wanted to return, but he died when I was 15.
That was my separation from my family: my dad being taken away and sent to jail and deported. That always scarred me. I always grew up with fear because I literally lived with immigration knocking on my door. I was young, but I had to accept the reality of knowing we were in a tough position, knowing what was happening was real. And there was nothing we could do. We didn’t have a paper to show. I lived in fear since I was 8 years old until I was 19, 20. That fear of losing that motor I have inside me, which is my mom. I always thought: What if they also take away my mom? What will we do then?
And I also thought, why do we have to go through this, when my mom works, when she does everything possible to raise her children, to maintain her home?
I wish people could really understand and see the truth of what happens [to people like us] so they could understand the immigrant experience.
Obviously, I understand there are borders. But Latinos are the ones that are getting everything done: They work in restaurants, in construction.
I walk down the streets of my city and I see people who are obviously American, and they are out there in the street asking for money. Instead, the Latinos are saying, “Let me clean your windows.” They want to make a living. They’re not here to hurt anyone. Obviously, there are people that shouldn’t be allowed here, but not families that are here working and looking for a better life.
My mom didn’t come here to collect money or to collect food stamps. She was always wanting to work and give us a better future. And it was tough. My mom and my dad were never able to work where they actually wanted because they didn’t have their Social Security.
My mom was detained by immigration for two weeks, and when I see these videos of these kids in cages, that’s exactly what my mom described. At one point, they threw her into a cage, like a dog. And it’s so sad, because it’s the same videos that are coming up of these kids.
People that do this to these families have no heart. How can you do that? How can you have caged-up kids asking for their parents?
There has to be something we can do as human beings, all together as humanity, to let people know this isn’t OK. I don’t even know how to explain this. Don’t separate kids from their parents. We get it; they were doing something illegal. But don’t put them in cages and call them animals. No more families getting separated. These are people who want to have a better life. I just wish and pray and hope that all this separating families is over with.
I remember being a kid and I lived that one moment, and it was so, so traumatic and I never forgot it. That’s what those kids probably went through. My dad passed away Nov. 24, Thanksgiving Day, 2013.
He knew I liked to sing, but he never saw me become famous. He never saw me in the studio or on a stage. I keep positive by accepting what I need to accept, knowing what I’ve done wrong. And through my family.
I’ve struggled too much to come to this point and not be happy. I’ve already lost the biggest part I had of my heart, and God still has me here, and I’m doing so many amazing things. Being able to make people smile, my fans love my music, I’m here for a reason and I’m thankful. I struggled, yes, I lived it, yes, but I’m still going forward.
I still live with my family.
When I was beginning, I was out there by myself. I was able to drive a nice car, stay in a nice hotel, buy expensive things.
But as my mom says, material things are worthless. What really matters is what’s in your heart. My family grounds me, they keep me who I am. I remember.
Watch Luis Coronel talk about his father with Billboard last year here: