Concepcion set out from the state of Morelos, in Mexico, to visit her daughter in Pennsylvania. She made it to the border and was never heard from again.

Click the headlines on the left to view photos of Concepcion and her family.

Read Concepcion’s story below.

Two Weddings
The Missing
In the Desert
Church and Family

Missing and Missed

Maria Hernandez missed her mother’s long-awaited church wedding in Mexico City. But her mother, Concepcion Tlatenchi, did not want to miss Maria’s wedding day in Pennsylvania.

So Concepcion set out with Laura Delgado, a 21-year-old neighbor from the state of Morelos in Mexico, to make the precarious journey north. Concepcion was coming for Maria’s wedding and to visit her grandchildren. Laura was headed to join her father in New York.

They never made it.

The Women

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It’s been a year, and no one’s heard since from either woman or the man hired to smuggle them into the United States.

Their families’ hopes that they are alive fade a little more each day, just like those of thousands of families whose loved ones have disappeared in their attempts to enter the country illegally.

“I think the worst that happens to a person is missing someone that you love and living with not knowing where is that person at, and having that faith that one day she’s gonna appear – and that’s the worst,” said Maria, herself an illegal immigrant. “Because if your mother dies you… in your heart, you know that she is dead and you pray for her and everything, but you know that she is dead. But in my situation, I don’t know if she’s dead [or] she’s alive.”

Maria tries to keep hope, but her mind inevitably wanders.

“They say that they have people working like slaves, that they use their body and sell it, so many things I heard everywhere, and I’m always thinking where is she, where is she, and it’s very hard…If she’s dead, I only want to know where she’s dead so I can cry over her body.”

She feels pangs of guilt but says she went on with the wedding because that’s what her mother wanted.

“Sometimes I feel guilty because she came for me…she came to see me. She came for my wedding, she came to help me. And a lot of people told me to don’t get married anymore because she was not here. And I told them that was the [dream] of my mother, to see me with a white dress,” she recalled.

“I was gonna do it, no matter what, no matter if my wedding was not what I was expecting, to be the happy ceremony that I always expect but it was the wedding my mom always want for me.”

‘A Better Life’

What Maria’s parents wanted for her and her siblings was a better life. It’s a familiar story, one shared by her mother’s missing traveling companion as well.

As a child, Laura Delgado lived in San Carlos Yautepec, Morelos, with her mother, Maria del Carmen, and her brother, Jose Ernesto. Her father, Leonicio, had gone to the U.S. “to give them a better life,” he said in a series of e-mails.

“She was a very happy child and during that time we only talked by telephone,” he recalled.

Laura graduated from elementary and secondary school, but by 15 she was married and had a daughter named Maria Fernanda.

“But after the birth of her daughter, the husband practically abandoned her in Mexico,” her father noted. “Seeing herself the situation she was in, she told me she wanted to come to change her luck because she didn’t have any work and it was very difficult for her…She asked me to help her to come (to the U.S.) to give a better life to her daughter.”

She would send for her daughter when she could. Her boyfriend was in New York as well as her father.

Delgado said Laura took a bus to Mexico City on July 30, 2009, then took a plane to Hermosillo, Sonora. She arrived at 9:30 p.m. at a hotel named El Aguila.

“She sent a message to Carmen (her mother) asking about her daughter, Maria Fernanda. The next day she sent another message saying that she was going to try to cross the border and then we never heard from her again,” Delgado recalled.

The Search

Maria last communicated with her mother by text message. Then a week passed and she heard nothing. Worried, she used the only contact information she had for the man paid to guide Concepcion and Laura.

“First he says he didn’t know where she was, then he told me to wait, then passed two weeks, three weeks, and it was too much and I didn’t know where she was,” Maria said. “First he told me that immigration probably caught them and had them with them and that’s why he didn’t know nothing about them, then he told me that last time they see my mother was crossing the border from Nogales to Nogales, Ariz. in a town called Rio Rico, and then immigration comes and everybody separate and everybody run, and then that was the last time they see my mother. They never see my mother again.”

From Pennsylvania, Maria began to search for her mother.

“I call immigration and they look for her if they have her in there,” Maria said. “So I call them and I ask about her and they sent me to different places, and I call them and call them, and all of them told me that they don’t have no record of her in there.”

Maria also contacted officials at the Mexican Embassy; they had no record of her mother. She called Derechos Humanos — an immigrant advocacy group in Arizona, who had heard nothing. Maria asked the group for help checking the morgues. There was no trace of her mother.

Family members like Maria call anyone they think may have information or be able to help – local law enforcement, humanitarian groups, consulates, morgues and even immigration.

Detective Sgt. Jose Cota of the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Department says it is routine for family members of the missing to do their own investigations and to contact multiple agencies looking for information. They worry that officials will find the body of their loved one.

“That’s what they fear the most,” Cota said. “That this person is now dead.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not have a centralized place for family members to call, but the agency lists its detention centers and contact information by state on its website.

In Tucson, the Mexican Consulate has set up a 24-hour call center that has fielded inquiries from all over the world. There are also non-governmental organizations like Coalición de Derechos Humanos that help family members track of missing persons.

Kat Rodriguez of Derechos Humanos guides callers through an intake form used to collect information that can identify someone by physical characteristics – height, weight, hair color, scars – or track possible places to search – date of crossing, who else was traveling in the group, where they were going to get picked up and if anyone else in the group was apprehended.

“They call. They find us online. We try not to go back and forth because we don’t really want to re-victimize people, so we get the data, as much as we can,” said Rodriguez. “If there was somebody in the group, that’s ideal, and I’d rather talk to that person than third hand through the father who the cousin told the father… so I go directly to the person.”

In cases like Maria’s, there’s little that officers or officials can offer.

“They only told us to wait and wait and wait,” Maria said. “And next Monday’s gonna be a year, waiting, on what’s going on, and nothing happened – nothing happened, and it’s already a year waiting.”

Without answers, families struggle to cope with uncertainty.

“My dad is so desperate to find her,” Maria said.

When no more information came, her father, Nicolas Hernandez, contacted psychics.

Nicolas also went to the Mexican side of the border himself to look for his wife, checking with police, government groups, border crossing points and even the hotel where she may have stayed in hopes of getting more information. On the U.S. side, Laura’s father did the same.

Both families were left with a sense of uncertainty.


Maria says short moments and mundane activities take on new meaning when a loved one is missing.

“It’s hard. It’s hard because you don’t know to cry of her death or cry because you don’t know nothing about her or be happy because probably she’s alive or…” Maria said, pausing. “You gonna eat something, and you don’t know if she’s already ate something, you’re happy and you don’t know if she’s happy.”

Two Worlds, Two Weddings

There are two sets of wedding photographs in Maria’s living room. One set is from her mother’s day and the other from her own. Each is a daily reminder of what the family has gained – and what it has lost.

Maria’s parents spent over 15 years in New York, bringing their two children to keep the family together. But after a brush with immigration and several failed attempts to get legal residency papers, Concepcion and Nicolas decided to retire to their house in Morelos, Mexico.

Their younger children, Hector and U.S. -born Elizabeth, went back, too. But Maria had recently relocated to a small town in Pennsylvania with her long-term boyfriend and her two U.S.-born. Maria stayed.

The transition was tough for everyone. Her parents had to deal with a harsher side to life back home.

“They saved a little bit of money, but the money over there go fast, and when they end up with they almost have that their savings is gone, and when my dad start working, and he find out that the money over there is nothing, it goes very fast, and there’s less,” Maria said.

While Maria’s parents struggled financially, her children asked about their grandparents frequently.

“It was lonely,” Maria said.

Even celebrations turned bittersweet. Having been together over 30 years, Concepcion and Nicolas decided to get married by the church. Maria and her family were unable to attend; they’re missing from the pictures on the wall from Mexico City.

Then it was Maria’s turn to plan a wedding.

She remembers telling her mother that she was engaged.

“She said she wanted to be in the wedding, and I told her no because it was too dangerous,” she said. “Then she said, ‘I’m going to do everything to be in your wedding.’”

Everyone was aware of the danger.

“Everybody told her, ‘Don’t do it,’ and it was something she wanted to do it so badly so she didn’t even tell us when she was coming, she called me and she told me, ‘Oh, I’m on my way,’ and I told her, ‘Don’t do it,’ but she didn’t listen.”

Moving On

Maria has attempted to make the most of her life in America. In New York City, she had volunteered at a radio station that wanted to hire her but couldn’t because she had no Social Security number. She is now active in community affairs, serving on the board of directors of her church and a community group. She works as a translator.

She has agreed to speak about her mother in the hopes of finding her, in spite of the possibilities that she may put herself in legal jeopardy. She’s going on with her daily life, but there are constant reminders of the uncertainty of her mother’s situation.

Maria’s children ask about their grandmother – at bedtime, at special events, at church.

“We stopped talking about it because of the health of my kids, and I want — I keep everything for myself because I don’t want them to see me sad all the time because now I’m living for my kids right now,” Maria said. “I want them to be happy and not grow up with the depression I have and being OK, and I try to not talk about it. And this affects me a lot.”

When it gets too much to handle, she talks to her husband and to her family in Mexico – her father, her brother and sister, her mother-in-law and brothers-in-law.

Maria and her husband sometimes talk about going back too.

“When you have a birthday or something, you feel lonely because you want your family to be with you. No matter how good the party is or how good everything is, you know you’re missing something.”

But like her own mother, Maria wants her children to do better than she did.

“My kids were born here, my son wants to do something in life, and we take him over there, it’s gonna be hard for him,” she explains.

Her son, Julio, is an honors student. He wants to be a neurosurgeon and at 14 is thinking ahead towards medical school and a practice, possibly back in New York City.

Maria looks forward to the day when he will graduate.

“I will feel very proud, I will feel that all the sacrifice that I’m doing is going to be rewarded,” Maria said. “Cause I’m teaching my kids to be good kids, to be good citizens and to help whoever ask for help, no matter who or what, what color, what person, what age, they always has to help people.”

By Rebekah Zemansky