A watchdog does not guard the home of the Espinoza family; angels do. Lined up, one by one, ceramic figurines sit untouched along the path to the front door. Inside, a family of five lives with an understanding: they are not completely free. Branded as “illegal,” Alabama law constrains them, forces them to think twice about stepping outside. Their house is a fortress, guarded by faith alone.

That journey began in Oaxaca, Mexico, a sleepy agricultural state nestled along the country’s southwestern coast. Rugged landscapes isolate communities, allowing for the survival of indigenous cultures and traditions. That isolation, however, comes at a cost. With just over half of the population living in rural areas, the state’s educational and financial opportunities are limited. Residents attend school for an average of six years. According to Conapo, a Mexican government agency, 80 percent of the towns within Oaxaca do not meet the minimum requirement for education and housing services.

Such a lifestyle did not appeal to Lilia and Teodoro Espinoza. Along with their marriage vows in 1993 came a promise to build a better future, away from their hometown.

“We came here with a dream,” said Teodoro, 43. His eyes gleamed behind square glasses as he brought his fingers up to caress his now graying beard.