A Modesto man is paying the price for a 1955 decision he had nothing to do with. Mark Hernandez Chacon can’t renew his driver’s license, can’t work, can’t fly and can’t draw on the Social Security he paid into for more than four decades.
All because Eva Hernandez Chacon, who raised him as her son, gave him the birth certificate of her child who died at just 8 days old. When authorities discovered that fact more than 60 years later, it wasn’t long before they came knocking — loudly and early in the morning — at his door.
Sitting with her parents and sister in a Modesto business center recently, Tina Aguilar spoke of Nov. 15, 2017, when California Department of Motor Vehicles investigators and Modesto police officers served a search warrant at the family home.
“When Dad opened door for them, four officers rushed at him to bring him down to handcuff him,” she remembered. “We have no idea why they came in with that much force. I’m telling them, ‘He can’t go down to his knees because he had a knee replacement and his leg doesn’t bend right. He’s not resisting you.’”
Shoeless and still in nightclothes, the family — Chacon and his wife, Aguilar and her daughter — was ordered outside while the house was cleared.
“I can only assume they thought we had an ID-theft ring operating in the home,” Aguilar remembered. The investigators took her dad’s prints and found nothing, she said. They kept insisting he was not cooperating, and demanding that he tell them who he really was.
“And we’re telling them that what is on the birth certificate is what he knows to be him,” Aguilar said.
The original Mark Hernandez Chacon was born in Visalia Municipal Hospital on Jan. 30, 1955, and died the following Feb. 7. The man who’s lived his life by the same name now is clueless about where and when he was born and who his biological parents were. Recent DNA testing shows that Eva Hernandez Chacon, who died July 4, 2013, at the age of 93, was not his birth mother.
‘I feel like nothing’
In a conference room near his daughter’s business, Chacon talked about his life in upheaval over the past two years. At one point in the conversation, the soft-spoken man said, “I feel like nothing” since federal and state authorities shattered his identity.
The 64-year-old’s (if that’s even an accurate age) knowledge of who he is, and who his mother was, began crashing down on Oct. 25, 2017. Chacon got a letter from the DMV that a stop had been placed on his record and he would not be able to renew his driver’s license because of an investigation.
Then, just weeks later, came the raid at his home. Chacon was arrested on suspicion of identity theft, filing a false document and perjury. He’d been caught up in a nationwide federal crackdown on Social Security fraud in which names that correlated with death certificates were turned over to state and local authorities.
“Just like that, my dad’s entire life, dignity, integrity, honor and pride were ripped away from him,” Aguilar said.
Chacon has lived in Modesto most of his life. He attended Modesto High School, married his wife, Vickie, when they were in their early 20s, raised children, bought a home, worked at the same food plant 45 years and paid his taxes every year, Aguilar said.
“And when he needed to pull on the Social Security Disability at the age of 63, that he paid into all his life, he was shown a death certificate for a newborn who died while in the hospital eight days after being born.”
Chacon never was prosecuted.
“We rejected the case from the beginning, never filed a criminal complaint because there was no proof of any criminal intent to defraud anyone,” Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office spokesman John Goold told The Bee. “The guy had no record, worked all his life, paid into Social Security under his name, and for all intents and purposes believes his name to be the one his mother told him.”
The woman he always knew as his mother, Eva Hernandez Chacon, gave teenage Mark a “certificate of live birth” when he needed identification to get his driver’s license, he said. He had no idea the child on the paper wasn’t him. The family has a copy of baby Mark Chacon’s Tulare County death certificate, which shows he was a preemie born with duodenal atresia and a congenital heart defect.
Among the many questions the family now faces are why Eva Chacon used her dead child’s birth certificate to establish the identity of this Mark Chacon, how he came to be with her, and where and when he really was born.
Chacon is living in limbo: Can’t drive, can’t fly anywhere, can’t draw on the Social Security he paid for 45 years. His only income is one of his pensions, from when he worked for Kraft.
“He is basically a prisoner in his own home because he now has no ID, no drivers’ license — he will not drive without a license,” Aguilar said. “So other than walking across the street to the grocery store or the bank, that’s it, (her father and mother) don’t go anywhere unless we take them.”
Vickie Chacon worries that because her husband’s identity is in question, so, too, could be the legitimacy of their marriage. She also has feared the government will try to deport her husband — but to where? Because just as there’s no accepted documentation he was born in the U.S., there’s none that he wasn’t.
Chacon said his wife has become depressed because of their situation. As for himself, he said, “I feel like nothing, like I’m not ... (he pauses) I can do nothing. I stay still and I cannot even move. That’s the point, that before I can do anything I wanted, and now I can’t.”
A childhood in Mexico
Chacon’s earliest memories are of no help to his case. He recalls spending his early childhood with a family in Mexico. Eva Chacon would visit, and she brought him to live with her in Tulare County when he was about 6. Later in his life, she told him she left him with the family when he was a baby.
He was told by his mother that he was the fourth of her five boys. Yet he was the only one living with her as he grew up from age 6. “The others were given to other family members to raise,” Tina Aguilar said.
Eva didn’t allow her son to attend school, Aguilar said. Instead, her dad had to work the fields up and down the San Joaquin Valley. “They moved among New Mexico, Arizona, California, wherever the work was,” she said.
By the time her dad’s identity came into question, all but one of his siblings had died, and the surviving brother had long been estranged from the family, Aguilar said.
Just recently, the family had DNA testing done on Mark Chacon and the daughter of one of his brothers. There was no match. “We know that from DNA testing that he is not biologically (Eva Chacon’s) child,” Aguilar said.
Two years of fighting to restore Chacon’s name “has gotten us nowhere but in debt,” his daughter said. He has no Social Security, no job, no way to get a job. “And we have talked to so many attorneys,” she said, none who have been able to help. One suggested a type of immigration amnesty he could apply for. Another spoke of suing Social Security, but warned it would be a long and costly process.
Social Security has pointed the family to no path that would let Chacon draw benefits despite his recorded history of paying into the system, Aguilar said. Basically, the administration has told her dad how he can start from scratch with a new SS number, she said.
A Social Security spokeswoman told The Bee, “We cannot speak to the specifics of an individual’s case, due to privacy laws. In general, all individuals needing to prove his or her identity are required to present documentary evidence. Acceptable documents are based on three factors: the applicant’s age, the applicant’s citizenship/alien status, and the relative probative value of documents.”
The DMV, meantime, has told Chacon he must visit a field office and provide valid proof of his true identity to apply for a driver’s license. “A valid birth certificate is one of those items of proof,” a DMV spokesman told The Bee in an email. “To get a birth certificate, a person must contact the jurisdiction in which they were born.” Which Chacon, not knowing where he was born, can’t do, of course.
‘They say he doesn’t exist, but he’s right here’
It angers Chacon’s youngest daughter, Francisca Trickler, that the Social Security Administration never had any issue with her dad all the decades he paid into it, only now that he needs it. Likewise the DMV, she said: He gets vehicle registration renewal notices, and pays them, yet he can’t renew his driver’s license.
“At the end of the day, they say he doesn’t exist, but he’s right here, and he’s been the most noble, strongest person in my life,” Trickler said, starting to cry as she gestured to her dad from across the conference room table.
“The foundation that he put forward as a hardworking individual has grown in this family to where he has 10 grandchildren, one of whom graduated from a university — the first one in our family.”
A grandson serving as a military police officer is willing to lay down his life for the same country that’s put his grandfather in this bad situation, Trickler added.
Stanislaus DA’s Office spokesman Goold said he can’t believe Chacon would be the only person in this situation. But Ian Lee, communications director and senior adviser to U.S. Rep. Josh Harder, D-Turlock, called Chacon’s “a situation I have never heard of.”
Harder’s office has offered to work with Chacon toward resolving his problem. The offices of the Modesto man’s state legislators, Assemblyman Adam Gray and Sen. Anna Caballero, also have been asked for help.
“We’re just trying to restore what’s his, what he’s worked all his life for,” Aguilar said.