Big Pac-Man may be a big badass felon, but he became famous for crying. When reporters from Univision came to visit, they were so taken with the deported veterans that a three-part special report resulted. They followed Barajas around: attending church, talking to other vets, manning the computer workstations with Little Pac-Man.
And they taped him being a dad, Skyping with his seven-year-old daughter, Liliana, in California.
“Chicky-boo,” he called into the screen. He lit up with delight as the little girl’s face appeared. “Hey! Hi, Mama!”
“Hi,” Lily replied. She sounded muffled.
The pair giggled and started talking. Lily’s image was purplish. The slow internet connection made the conversation freeze and hop.
“It’s not enough,” Barajas said under his breath. “I can’t hold her.”
The Univision reporter, Santiago Lucero, next visited Barajas’s mom, Margarita, in the U.S. He taped a greeting from her to Barajas with an iPhone. Later, in Mexico, while Univision’s cameras rolled, Lucero played it for him. Margarita was tearful. She told Big Pac-Man she loved him, that she wished he could return soon. That she prayed for him.
Barajas sucked in a breath and looked away. His forehead crumpled under his beret. A tear ran down his cheek.
“Word of a mother, broken by her son’s deportation,” Lucero intoned in Spanish.
The camera cut away, leaving Big Pac-Man gasping for composure.
On any given day, those staying at the Deported Veterans Support House might be fielding phone calls, searching Tijuana streets for homeless vets, Facebooking maniacally or perhaps painting their names and a simple three-foot-high, three-character message—SOS—on the wall dividing Tijuana from San Diego. Really. No one who visits Tijuana’s most western edge, where the city meets the sea and Mexican beachgoers suck down mangos and gamy fish tacos, can miss the plea for help. Seen by itself, with no veterans present, the sign might seem baffling. Next to it, they painted a giant upside-down American flag: the soldier’s sign of distress.
It’s easy to get sucked in by Big Pac-Man’s laugh. He’s likable, charismatic, candid to a fault. At times you want to say, “Hector, stop it. Don’t tell me that. Too much, Hector.” Like the time he fell off the wagon in the support house earlier this year, after five long months of sobriety. “I like to get high,” he says. “I know I’m an addict. I know the bad outweighs the good.”
“Just sometimes I go, ‘Fuck it.’
”Big Pac-Man launches into the story. Yet another reporter was banging on the door of the support house, waiting to ping the vets with questions. Rebolledo didn’t know what to do. Maybe the reporter would just leave. Barajas had been up for days; when he heard the front door, he dived into the musty bathroom. Tweaking and terrified, he’d put up barricades. Rebolledo pretended no one was in the house and stayed silent.
Then a neighbor let the damn reporter in.
“Aw, man, it was so bad,” Barajas says. He rubs his hands over his head. “I go about a week and a half, no sleep, nothing. I get weird. Something like that could hurt the cause, the veterans. It could discredit me.”
But it doesn’t stop him from talking, from revealing. Big Pac-Man exposes himself. He lays it all out. You can like him or not, though it’s hard not to. He sparkles. And what’s clearer than anything is the fact that he’s trying as hard as he possibly can, and he wants people to know he’s trying.
He has broken ground. No one else has been able to organize the vets. It’s sort of like wading into the ocean and catching jellyfish by hand. Sometimes there are patches, two or three new deportees snared, a few more unofficial “intake” forms filled out. But for long stretches no new names appear. Lately it’s been a slow trickle.
Virtual vet hunting is almost a full-time job. Barajas and Rebolledo stalk around online, monitoring the news and online petitions and the go-to mainstay, Facebook. Then there are real-life passes through homeless territory, certain Tijuana streets lined with gutters of garbage and girls. High or sober, Big Pac-Man continually pulses with frenetic energy.
Barajas taught himself HTML so he could run the Banished Veterans website. His baby mama, whom he desperately wants back, now pays the domain renewal fees. The rudimentary lists of deported vets taped up in the apartment crawled off the walls and into Google Docs. With help from a MagicJack, the phone calls started: with lawyers (pro bono, immigration, criminal defense), congressional aides (anyone who answers), journalists and missionaries. Evangelist Tony Lamson, a former marine, brought food and faith, words of motivation to stay straight. The soldiers try.
Sometimes things get messy. Drama. Petty fights break out, over girls or slights or respect. Every day is a new set of challenges. The electricity shuts off. There’s no food. Someone gets drunk, crashes a car and runs away from the scene. Someone sleeps with a reporter. Old childhood friends from L.A., gangbangers, show up with goodies to inject or sniff. The deportee army is one band in a sea of borderland deportees flooding Tijuana. Sometimes Barajas’s perceived power is challenged in creative ways.
But whatever the reason—candor, relatable fuck-ups, nonstop leave-no-man-behind banter, genuine affability—Big Pac-Man continues as the unofficial leader of the Banished Veterans. And he’s not focused on deportees alone. He also tries to catch his “brothers in arms” before their boots hit foreign ground.