Twenty-two years ago, Maria Perez Cardenas’ 16-year-old son set out from their hometown in Jalisco, Mexico, to find work in the United States. 

His quest was successful, and over the years he got married, had children, and carved out a life for himself in a new country. 

Cardenas kept in touch with him as best as she could through phone calls and video chats. But seeing him in person was out of the question: she lacked the legal documents to visit him in California, and he lacked legal documents to return to Mexico. 

After several failed attempts, she recently secured a visa through a special program that helps seniors from Jalisco reconnect with their families in the U.S.

The heart-stirring moment finally came on March 30, Holy Saturday, at a special reunification ceremony at St. Frances Cabrini Church in South Los Angeles.

“We tried so many times but were unsuccessful,” she said, her eyes brimming with tears. “Thanks to God and to these people who have helped us, we are here today.”

Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Matthew Elshoff, right, stands with several of the organizers who helped put on the reunification event. (Victor Alemán)

Cardenas was among 33 seniors who received visas through the program — led by the Asociación de Clubes Jalisciences de California (California’s Association of Jalisco Clubs) — and made the 2,500-mile trek on Good Friday so that they would arrive in time to celebrate Easter Sunday alongside their families. Participants were expected to stay with their loved ones for three weeks before returning home.

The reunion — nearly two years in the making — was the fruit of efforts from community and church leaders on both sides of the border. Organizers said that they felt compelled to assist the visitors as a way to answer Christ’s calls to unity, compassion, and service, and to help them share in the joy of Christ’s resurrection by reuniting with their long-lost relatives for Easter. 

After landing at LAX early on Holy Saturday, participants were shuttled to the church hall, where about 20 parishioners had spent several hours preparing for their arrival by cleaning, decorating, cooking breakfast, and praying for all involved. 

The seniors were reunited with their kin during a 10 a.m. ceremony in the hall, which began with remarks from organizers and a welcome from Auxiliary Bishop Matthew Elshoff, on behalf of Archbishop José H. Gomez.

“Your presence with us is a privilege as we start the Easter season,” Elshoff told the crowd. “It’s a time of joy and hope, and we are experiencing the resurrection of the Lord in this moment as you are here with us and with your families once again.”

Javier Wenceslao, the association’s president, took to the mic to thank the church community for its hospitality, drawing a parallel to its namesake. 

Traveling to a new country can be scary for some, he said, but the hospitality the group received from the parish and the archdiocese made them feel right at home. 

“It’s a great honor for us to be welcomed into this church named for the missionary saint St. Cabrini who, like us, also came here as an immigrant,” he said. 

Bishop Matthew Elshoff welcomes the seniors from Mexico when they arrived from the airport prior to reuniting with their families. (Victor Alemán)

Then, finally, the moment everyone was waiting for: One by one, the travelers walked up to the front of the hall, where they were received by multiple generations of relatives carrying balloons, flowers, and other gifts. 

The families spent a few tear-filled minutes embracing in front of a crowd of about 150, then made their way together to their seats. 

Jose Toscano was among those who reconnected with their parents during the event. He’d been separated from his mom, Alicia Rafael Bernabe, for decades, and although the two communicated regularly through Facebook, he still couldn’t wait to see her. 

“Seeing her on a video call is not the same as being able to hug her in person,” he said, with his arm around his mom’s shoulder. “We’ve been waiting for 20 years for this moment.”

Like Cardenas and Bernabe, many of the participants’ children made the trek to the U.S. 15, 20, or nearly 30 years ago, but for various reasons were not able to return home to their parents. 

For Antonia Bernardino Toscano, it had been 23 years since she’d seen her daughter and 20 years since she’d seen her son. The native of San Andres, Jalisco, said she found out about the program through Facebook and spent nearly two years completing the steps to obtain her visa.   

She said she was so excited to see her adult children again that she stayed awake all night on the plane ride, and hoped to spend the next few weeks reminiscing with them and making up for lost time.

“I am so thankful to my God in heaven for getting us to this step,” she said.

For some participants, the years spent apart from their children also brought chronic illnesses, the death of a spouse, and other unexpected situations. 

Many of the reunited families had children who left Mexico for the United States decades ago and hadn’t seen one another in person since. (Victor Alemán)

For Juana Seda Vazquez, 27 years had passed since she last saw her oldest son, who came to the U.S. at age 13. Although her vision is nearly gone now, the thought of seeing her four children in person — instead of on a phone screen — was almost too much. 

“I give thanks to God for allowing me to come and see them,” said Vazquez, who had never been on an airplane before. “I feel like maybe I’m not going to be able to handle it.”

Gladys Oliver, who led the ceremony and reception planning, said she and other parishioners got involved to help unify families across borders, evangelize through hospitality, and heed Christ’s call to put themselves at the service of others. 

“As long as we have life and Christ lives in us, we will be able to serve our brothers,” she said. “Just as the gospel tells us, we need to become one.”  

Looking to the future, Wenceslao told the crowd that his group will work to reunite more families going forward. 

“There is much need and many more people to help,” he said. “We will continue doing what we can to make a little bit of a difference so that others like you can be reunited with their parents, so that there is hope for families.”