Hanging on for Dear Life

Before we learned to swim, my brothers and sisters delighted in hitching a ride on my dad’s broad back and hanging on for dear life as he swam out into the deeper end of the local public swimming pool. It is a memory as fresh as yesterday, perhaps because of the terror that lay at the heart of the experience—it was hard to hang onto to his slippery skin, and the water was deep and I didn’t know how to swim.

Two weeks ago, that memory came back in a different way. On June 26th, Oscar Alberto Martinez, a father from El Salvador, and Valeria, his little girl, drowned as they tried to swim across the Rio Grande. The United States would not let them enter the country by crossing a bridge, so the family decided to give the river a shot.

One can understand the temptation, for the Rio Grande is relatively narrow as it passes between Brownsville and Matamoros. It is a river, however, that carries a deep and strong current, a river that has claimed victims in the past, and one that now took this dad and his little girl as well.

A photo surfaced of two drowning victims. They are lying facedown on a bank of the Rio Grande, Valeria’s arm around her father’s neck, Oscar’s shirt holding her fast to his back. The image touched hearts from around the world, causing many to compare it to the iconic photo of Alan Kurdi, the three year old child whose body washed up upon a Turkish beach nearly four years ago.

The deaths of Valeria and Oscar, however, did not take place in a country far, far away. They died just a little ways away from where I live. Indeed, many of us have acquaintances that spoke with the family, some of whom tried to convince the father that swimming across the narrow Rio Grande is a dangerous proposition, for the river can be deceiving.

For a brief time, Oscar and Valeria were our neighbors.

In Brownsville, soon after their deaths, there was a Sunday evening vigil. A hundred or so people gathered at a spot that overlooks the river in which Oscar and Valeria had drowned. There were earnest prayers and speeches, but it was a moment that demanded either profound silence—or unending shrieking. The unnecessary death of an almost two-year old pokes holes in the hearts and minds and imaginations of anyone with a scintilla of sensibility, and the words that fall out of those holes are   inadequate, the thoughts insufficient and the rage unfocused. But that evening we formed a community as we stopped for a moment to gaze at the river, and to acknowledge, formally, the evil that caused these deaths. And then, necessarily, we went back to attending to our duties, amongst them, in a now literal way, working feverishly to save the lives of these who are our neighbors.