U.S. Army veteran Héctor Barajas-Varela has sworn his allegiance twice to this country. And, despite being deported and away from family for 14 years, he continues to encourage others to join the U.S. military.
The Fresnillo, Zacatecas native, who served in the Army from 1995 to 2001, made national headlines in 2004 when he was deported for a crime.
In full Army regalia, he marched on the Assembly floor on May 7 and was received the Achievement in Military Service and Advocacy award at the Latino Spirit Awards at the state Capitol.
The awards were organized by the state Latino Legislative Caucus.
Barajas, who received an honorable discharge from the Army in 2001, had his green card revoked after spending time in prison on a criminal charge for shooting into an occupied vehicle. He spent nearly two years in prison, and, has since, apologized for his action. Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned him last year, thus providing the opportunity to become a naturalized citizen.
At 41 years old, he again swore his allegiance to the U.S., this time for a naturalization ceremony in April in San Diego.
“I’ve finally achieved my dream to come home to my family, but there’s still many that need to be brought home. I’m going to continue my work and my service for my community. I have the opportunity to be a father for the second time,” said Barajas-Varela, who was separated from his wife, who chose to keep her name out of the newspapers, and daughter, Liliana, who is now 12.
Barajas, whose family came to the U.S. when he was 7 years of age, was one of nine Latinos honored at the 17th annual Latino Spirit Awards, a program that recognizes community leaders, comedians, actors, athletes, business people, among others, for their service and accomplishments.
Barajas stood at attention, like every soldier and veteran in the military does, during the pledge of the allegiance.
“It’s amazing that I’m able to be honored around all these wonderful people. It’s been a long road,” said Barajas, adding that he was ecstatic to hear of the governor’s pardon last year.
The biggest transition, he said, was the time lost and the rebuilding of the relationship with his wife, and his daughter, Liliana, a middle school student.
“She’s very smart, but emotionally wise, psychologically, I think she’s still dealing with a lot of stuff,” he said.
“I know what I’m going through, but it’s hard to see with children because they’re not able to communicate as well as we are. It’s difficult, but we’re slowly working our way to regaining our relationship, and working on being a father because I haven’t done that in the past 8 or 9 years.”
When he was deported, Barajas lived in Tijuana. He advocated for other deportees and founded the Deported Veterans Support House, known as The Bunker, a foundation that provides vital resources to deportees.
“One of the things we need to do is choose the legislation or bills or policy that makes people automatic citizens, so that they don’t get trapped in the deportations. And also, at the moment, to stop the deportations and repatriate the ones that have already been deported,” he said. “To be honest with you, the most important thing that I can do here is tell my message to others, so that people can help us bring these veterans home because I’m one of hundreds, if not, thousands.”
His parents, Natividad and Margarita Barajas, immigrated the family to the U.S. 34 years ago.
“We originally moved to Gardenia, then to Compton, where I lived most of my life. At that time, it was two sisters and myself that were living in California,” he remembers.
Despite the deportation, Barajas remains staunch about serving in the U.S. military. He continually advocates for the military, and wants his foundation to be there for current military members and veterans.
“I became an American citizen because of my service, and the pardon from Gov. Jerry Brown. Immigrants have served in our service since the beginning of this country. The commendable service that they’ve done; all these wars and medals. I think it’s very important that as immigrants, we continue to serve our country and do our part in our nation,” said Barajas.
Profile of other Latino Spirit Award recipients: vidaenelvalle.com