ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico – Even the most courageous heroes can fall into oblivion, as evidenced by the case of Antonio Díaz Chacón. Apparently, his humble and discreet life has not changed much since almost six years ago when he risked his life to save six-year-old Ashley Vega from her kidnapper.
Chacón, who is now 29, still lives with his two daughters and his wife in a mobile home in Albuquerque and works as a mechanic in the same car business as his cousin. The tributes, gifts, interviews and letters from admirers ended within a few months of the rescue. The mayor of his city, the Republican Richard Berry, designated a day of the calendar in his honor but only celebrated it the year of his heroic deed, in 2011.
For him, it remains a "beautiful memory." "I still feel the same," he told Univision during a recent visit to this city.
In the days after the rescue, Chacon told Univision – in one of the many interviews he gave about his precarious life avoiding arrest on the streets of Albuquerque – that he had been living without papers since crossing the border from Mexico four years earlier. This detail gave new life to the rescue story.
Immigration activists spread this positive news featuring an undocumented worker. They were tired of how some right-wing media and politicians magnify any murder or crime committed by undocumented immigrants. Chacón's exemplary behavior was one more reason why immigration authorities should leave the undocumented in peace, they said. In New Mexico, they used the Chacón case to campaign against the plans of Governor Susana Martinez, who wanted to withdraw their right to obtain driving licenses.
But now, six years later, the dark image of the undocumented as a threat has regained force. The president has used Kate Steinle's murder in San Francisco by an undocumented immigrant and other such cases to justify his policies.
Ashley's rescue seems like a Hollywood movie. The six-year-old girl was playing at the door of her house on a sunny summer afternoon in the trailer park of Vista del Sol. Her mother, Griselda Vega, was answering the phone inside her mobile home when she heard a commotion in the street. It was the voice of her daughter who shouted in English for help and the cries of another neighbor yelling in Spanish: "Suéltela, suéltela" ("Let her go, let her go").
Vega only managed to glimpse the green-blue Dodge Caravan van of her daughter’s abductor, Philip Garcia, 29, as he sped away. It was the same car she had seen wandering around the neighborhood in recent days and that had provoked a strange feeling inside her.
Chacón witnessed Ashley's abduction by chance. That afternoon he and his wife Martha had gone to her mother's house in Vista del Sol to wash their clothes because his washing machine was broken.
They both saw Garcia already inside the car pushing Ashley's head down so that she would not be seen from the outside. Chacón jumped into his Chevy Silverado and told his wife, "We have to save her." They did not know the girl, although Martha believed she had seen her playing in the street with her eldest daughter, Brisseida.
At an intersection, Chacon and his wife spotted a security guard at the door of a building and Martha got out to ask him to call the police. Garcia accelerated when he realized that he was being followed but Chacon continued his pursuit through narrow streets in the suburbs of Albuquerque.
Chacón, who had himself had become a father only six months earlier, remembers that in those minutes his only thought was how scared the girl's parents must have been feeling.
After about 15 minutes, Garcia's van crashed into a post on a corner of 118th Street with Dennis Chavez, about four miles from the scene of the abduction. The kidnapper fled across the arid plateau of New Mexico. Chacon, who was unarmed, got out of his car and Garcia briefly locked eyes with him. That was the only time he was afraid, he says, because he thought the abductor might have a gun.
Chacón returned to the park of trailers of Vista del Sol with the girl in his arms and handed her to her mother to the astonishment of police, witnesses and his own wife.
Garcia, a U.S. citizen, was arrested shortly after returning to his car. Inside the vehicle the police found scissors, ribbons and straps.
Sgt. Trish Hoffman of the Albuquerque Police Department said Chacon "had done an incredible job and had saved the little girl's life."
"Calling Mr. Diaz Chacon a good Samaritan is insufficient," Mayor Berry said at a tribute ceremony four days later, on August 19, which was designated the "Day of Antonio Diaz Chacón."
There have been other news stories about heroics involving undocumented immigrants or people who came to the country as such. On the day of the Boston marathon bombing of 2013, Costa Rican Carlos Arredondo rushed to help the victims just after the explosion of the two bombs. He made a tourniquet for Jeff Bauman, a victim who lost both legs. His picture in a cowboy hat next to Bauman in a wheelchair circulated around the world.
José Gutierrez, the first American soldier killed in combat after the invasion of Iraq, on March 21, 2003, was an orphaned Guatemalan who had entered the U.S. at the age of 22. Damián López Rodríguez, a Mexican from Nogales who crossed the border as an undocumented immigrant with his family, also gave his life fighting in Iraq. He died on April 6, 2007, along with two other soldiers when their Humvee was hit by home-made bomb.
To these we should add the cases of undocumented immigrants who succeed in the arts, sports and business as well as the stories of sacrifice of millions of undocumented workers that are not unusual enough to appear in the news.
But the stories of undocumented immigrants that most interest Trump are those of a few "rotten apples," say pro-immigrant activists.
In the United States, there are more than a million violent crimes per year, according to FBI figures. The vast majority never make headlines, but some right-wing websites and politicians are sure to amplify any crime committed by an undocumented immigrant. Here are several examples from recent days: "Widow tells of the murder of her husband by an illegal immigrant" ( Breitbart); "Suspect in murder in Denver was wanted for possible deportation" ( Fox News); "Illegal formerly deported kills a Desert Storm veteran" ( Infowars).
The sensationalism of news about criminal undocumented immigrants generates the false impression for many that immigrants are to blame for more crimes than people born in the U.S. That despite study after study showing that's simply not true. The incarceration rates of the U.S.-born have been two to five times higher for decades than for immigrants.
Experts call this phenomenon "the paradox of the immigrant" and attribute it to the fact that, for those who make the great sacrifice of emigrating to another country, it makes no sense to jeopardize their new life by behaving in a bad way.
Trump rode to his electoral triumph by ignoring this data and recounting the same tabloid stories from the alt-right and other media. He invited the so-called "Angels Moms," whose children died at the hands of undocumented people, to the stage of his rallies to share their stories.
A few days after becoming president, he gave orders to publish weekly the list of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants in sanctuary cities and districts. He also called for the creation of the office of Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement ( VOICE). Last Tuesday, he invited relatives of some of these victims to his address to Congress.
Mark Potock, a leading expert on extremism, says that the demonization of undocumented immigrants has reached the highest level since memory and Trump is largely responsible.
"It's repeating the same propaganda that used to be used only by the far right," says Potock, who is a senior partner at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Others would have let the attention go to their heads, but Chacon's attention and praise for Ashley's rescue did not affect him. The next day reporters found him in the machine shop where he continued his routine.
He said days later that the best reward for his action was when little Ashley handed him a letter: "I will always be grateful to you for saving my life," she wrote in Spanish. For months, letters of appreciation from all over the United States came from people who did not even know his address. They sent them to the police who periodically brought the letters to his house.
Chacón hangs the acknowledgments he received from different authorities on the wall of the living room of his mobile home.
After the rescue, he and his family moved to Fort Davis, Texas, to a village where their in-laws live. He returned only a year ago, and since then had no occasion to see Ashley or Marco Vega, with whom he had been in frequent contact before his departure to Texas.
But in a reunion on the occasion of Univision's visit, the parents of the girl received Chacon at their house on the other side of the city with euphoric hugs and tears. Then they had chicken soup and quesadillas.
"Chacón is an angel that God put in our way," Marco Vega told Univision. "I will be indebted to him all my life."
The Vega family, also undocumented, received a U visa for crime victims because they cooperated with the police. The lawyer who took their case, Sarah Reinhardt, says she does not know if other victims in the Trump era would be as lucky as the Vegas. "Since the police began cooperating with ICE, undocumented immigrants no longer know whether the police will continue to help them or arrest them," Reinhardt said.
Garcia, who committed the crime, was convicted of child abuse and kidnapping, among other charges, with a 19-year prison sentence.
Ashley, now 12, went to therapy for two years. His father says that every time she saw a man with glasses she would hide because the kidnapper was wearing glasses on the day of the kidnapping. Ashley is a very studious girl and aware of the discrimination suffered by Hispanics. She says that she wants to be president when she grows up. "I think politics is very important for the country, for schools, for jobs, for civilization."
Chacón does not follow politcs closely, but he gets angry when he talks about Trump. "How can you choose a president who discriminates? I have never liked discrimination because in the end we are all the same, black, white, Latino."
The next day in the living room of his house next to his wife Martha, Chacon watched Trump's speech to Congress. In silence, they both witnessed the homage of several family members of "heroes" invited by Trump. The widow of William Ryan Owens, the first soldier killed in combat during the president's term, was cheered for two minutes. Also applauded were the orphans and widows of victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.
One of them was Jenna Davis, whose father, deputy sheriff Danny Oliver, died along with another police officer in California in 2014. An undocumented immigrant with a criminal background and two previous deportations, Luis Enrique Monroy Bracamontes, is accused of murdering the two.
Trump said, "Jenna, I want you to know that your father was a hero and that tonight you have the love of an entire country supporting you and praying for you."
Chacón was not impressed by the more sober tone of the president's speech. Trump gave a generally positive view of the country – except for immigration. He continued to attribute much of the country's problems to immigrants.
In the speech, Trump recalled that he had ordered the creation of the VOICE. "We are giving a voice to all those who have been ignored by the media and silenced by special interests," Trump said.
When it comes to caring for forgotten victims, Chacón proposes Trump expand the number of offices: "Why doesn’t he make another office for the undocumented immigrant victims who have been killed by the Border Patrol, or the blacks and Hispanics who die at the hands of the police? "