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.
Last week I was at a shelter in Brownsville, Texas visiting with a group of Guatemalans who had recently crossed the Rio Grande into south Texas. After five days in detention, the Border Patrol had released them, and they were now getting ready for a long bus ride to join family members near New York City.
We chatted for a while, and then I asked them about their time in Border Patrol custody.
“What was the most difficult moment for you?” I asked.
A thirteen-year-old girl told me the worst part for her was at the beginning, when a detention center guard had separated her from her father soon after the agents had picked them up.
“It was a woman guard and she told me, you come with me, and then she took me to another cage in the room,” the girl told me.
“Did the guard tell you that you would see your father again soon?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “And I didn’t see him again until about three days later when I spotted him walking to the restrooms. He was way over there (on the other side of the building). I shouted loudly, but he didn’t hear me.”
I thought a bit about what that would be like, to be thirteen and to be in a strange place, with guards, and to have your dad taken away from you, and then know nothing about him, or really, what was going to happen to you, for three long days.
I also thought about how, one year ago, during the Trump administration’s implementation of the practice of family separation, the same guard could have taken her away and she might well have never have seen her father again, nor he, her.
I said to her, “Those must have been three long and hard days for you.”
She glanced up at me for a brief moment, but said nothing.
Her father looked up at her and said, quietly, “I missed you.”
One of the volunteers from the shelter called out her family’s name, announcing that they were to be leaving soon for the bus station. She and her dad quietly said to group, “Con permiso,” got up from the table, each of them taking the small backpack that contained some water, a snack and a blanket. That, the clothes on their back, and their traveling hopes were their provisions for this new chapter in their lives.
That night I was texting with an old friend from Guatemala. I told her that I had met a family that day from her part of the country. I told her that they seemed to me to be worn out by the journey. She responded that she had known many people who had tried to make the trip to the US, but who had been deported back to her region.
My Guatemalan friend is a spiritual director, and so I was not surprised to hear her say, “We worry about these people. It is as if they have lost a bit of their soul along the way. They are not the same people as they were when they left, especially the ones that have lost their children.”
“But,” she continued, “Guatemala is complicated and very dangerous and they have no choice but to leave. But their souls keep leaking away. I so worry about my people.”
I thought about that father and his daughter, about what they had left behind, what they had lost along the way, and what they still carried with them.
I was happy that I had gotten to see them leave the shelter, his hand lightly on her shoulder, her face looking up at him with the gift of a smile as they stepped through the door into the bright light of a Texas afternoon.
Over the first couple of weeks of May, a time when so many of us celebrate mothers, I kept running into moms in different places here on the border. Two of them struck me in particular ways. The depth of one mother’s sorrow, and her ability to express pain left me speechless. The hope of another mother reminded of there is so much of life that escapes me. Lessons for me, by mothers.
The first mother I met on the first Saturday of the month. She was from Honduras, and someone had called me from the local shelter concerned that the woman could not seem to not stop weeping. The woman was seated at a table with her two teen-aged daughters. They were waiting for their bus would start to Minnesota. The mother had left Honduras a couple of weeks ago, with the two teenagers, and as well as a two-year-old nephew that she had raised since the day that he was born.
Now, however, the mother was without the boy she had raised as a son, and she was bereft.
“My sister lives on the street,” the woman said by way of explanation, “and so she gave me the little boy at birth. She knew she could never take care of him. But when I was in immigration, even though I have the papers giving me custody over him and everything, they still took him from my arms. I knew that your government sometimes separated families, but I thought that they had stopped,” she said.
As she recounted her tale, she began weeping again, the two girls on either side, trying to hold their mother’s heart together. I called a friend of mind who has dedicated her life to healing, or, lacking that, at least to holding together broken hearts. I asked my friend, herself a mother, to come sit with this woman’s grief for a while.
My friend dropped everything, came over to the shelter and sat with the small family for a good two hours. After a while, the tears dried up, although it was hard to know if was therapy, or exhaustion or that wonderful elixir of care shared between strangers.
When I finally left them at the bus station, the mother had dropped into a deep sleep, laying across her daughters’ knees, ever so much a pieta, clearly deeply missing her baby. The daughters, young teenagers, had again taken their places on either side of their mom’s prone figure.
I met the other woman on the following Wednesday, when I went to visit a shelter for immigrants in Matamoros, the Mexican sister-city to Brownsville, Texas. Our team of immigration advocates had been looking forward to the visit, as there are very few shelters for immigrants in Matamoros, and we wanted to get a sense of what the existing ones looked like.
The refuge was extraordinary in every way. Located in the middle of a poor neighborhood, the program managers for years had offered hospitality for the abandoned and the dying. On the day that we visited, there were several elderly women with what appeared to be dementia, a middle-aged man bed-ridden with paralysis, at least four people confined to wheel chairs—and about fifty Central American and Cuban refugees. “We had our hands full with our sick, but no one else was helping these people (the immigrants), so we opened up our doors to them,” the kindly director told me.
The immigrant women stay in a dormitory on the second floor. While most of them were waiting at the international bridge for the unlikely chance that the US would respect its own laws and allow the asylum seekers into the country, there were two women who had just arrived. One of them, Natalia, from El Salvador, told me that it had taken her a year to cross Mexico.
Natalia had sad eyes and a worried air. “I am not sure that my cousin will even allow us to live with her,” she told me, “It has taken me so long to get even this far.”
The windows were open and we could hear the sound of children playing at a playground that was part of a primary school next door.
“That is a happy sound that they make, all those children” Natalia said, and I nodded in agreement.
Her son, a long-legged thirteen year old, had a sweet smile that told me that he knew of his mother’s love for him. “Happy Mother’s Day, a little bit early,” I told her, and she looked at her son, and she said, “Yes, I am happy to be his mother.”
Her son gently took her hand. The wind blew through the windows, the sound of children’s play rising above us.
We could have been anywhere. The children’s laughter was contagious, the breeze was warm, and the hope in these mothers’ eyes still visible.
“It is a very long walk from hell to wherever it is that we are going,” the woman said, referring to what forced her to leave behind all she had.
“Do you think we will make it?” she asked me.
I said, “Of course you will, and you will be fine.”
It was Mothers’ Day, after all, and that gleam in Natalia’s eye was not illusion. It was a mother’s hope.
This past Sunday, Christian churches throughout the Rio Grande Valley celebrated Palm Sunday, a commemoration of the time Jesus of Nazareth led a convoy of people into Jerusalem. The civilized Roman authorities responded to this non-violent action by having Jesus executed, and the gripping drama of those moments continues to be relived in churches some two thousand years later.
There is considerable scholarship dedicated to the notion that Jesus’ crucifixion was the logical, violent conclusion to a process of scapegoating. At the time, people were restless and the authorities needed someone to blame, and Jesus fit that bill to a “t”.
It is fitting to have this liturgical moment front and center these days, in our small part of the world, as the nation’s contemporary scapegoats are gathered just across the river from Brownsville, some five hundred immigrant families peacefully awaiting entry into the United States. Unfortunately for them, politicians have once again chosen the immigrant as the national scapegoat of the moment.
Jesus’ crucifixion, for all of its horror and injustice, was a politically justifiable action.
I had Jesus’ crucifixion in mind when I learned last week that Customs and Border Protection agents had gathered on the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville. The agents dressed in riot gear, launched what appeared to be smoke bombs, and pulled out their weapons. The incident was caught on video by passers-by who were astonished and confused by this exhibition of law enforcement drama.
The confusion is understandable, as the only conceivable reason for such activity was the 150 or so immigrants awaiting just a few blocks away on the Mexican side of the bridge. These people were families waiting their turn in line to cross into the United States so that they could begin their asylum process. Despite having had to live on the Matamoros, Mexico city streets for two and three months before being allowed their (legal) entry, none of them had rushed the bridge and none of them had threatened violence. Indeed conversations with the immigrants revealed, over and again, that they were fleeing violence, not looking to incite it.
This was not the first time that US Federal agents have put on this kind of show of force. In San Diego the “practice” became a shameful reality when CBP agents launched tear gas at women and men and their children. This was not the first time such a practice had taken place at the Brownsville bridge. But for a year now the federal government has exercised a series of aggressive actions against these immigrant families. A sensible person watching last week’s “practice” on the international bridge would reasonably wonder if the next steps might be some US authority sanctioning agents to fire upon unarmed, nonthreatening men, women, and children. This may sound like an outrageous consideration, but just a couple of months ago it was unthinkable that the US would fire tear gas at children, and, as a matter of fact, US courts continue to entertain arguments about whether or not it is permissible for US agents to shoot people in Mexico with impunity.
The immigrants themselves, then, are in a horrific situation, trapped on a sliver of land between the narco-violence of northeastern Mexico and the state-sponsored, threats of violence of the United States.
Armed federal agents, however, are not the only ones who prepare to respond to the presence of immigrants waiting at our ports of entry. In our community, Brownsville and Matamoros civilians continue to bring the immigrants food and clothing, an effort that requires its own type of coordination and planning. As a part of the preparation for this work, first-time volunteers are reminded that the immigrants “are people who may have suffered unmentionable trauma,” and the volunteers are encouraged to be sensitive to this, with an emphasis on having a kind, quiet disposition. This they do, and this they have done, for nearly a year now, working in their own way to soften that space between the rock and the hard place that these families live in.
This past Sunday, around noon, I was sitting across from a woman named Erica at a table in a shelter in Brownsville. It had been “twenty-six, no, twenty-seven days” since Erica had fled her home in Central America. I was helping her figure out the complicated bus trip between Brownsville and southern Florida where her sister lived.
“You will have a layover of four hours in Houston,” I told her, tracing the route on a small map. “Then you will get on a bus that will take you to a place called Mobile…yes, it is difficult to pronounce in Spanish. There you will only have a half hour before you take your next bus to a place called Tallahassee. You don’t have to pronounce that, just show them your ticket.”
She processed that information for a bit, and then she said, “I am very worried about my twelve year old (daughter).”
I asked her why, and she said, in a low voice, “Well, just in the past six months everyone in our family has been murdered by a gang. They killed my dad and my mom. Then my two uncles. Then they killed my girl’s father. Now all that is left is me, her, her little brother, and my sister in Florida. They killed our entire family…and she saw every last murder. My little girl is not doing well. If she sees a policeman with a gun, she throws up.”
Erica then called her daughter over and introduced me to her. The girl was thin, and shivering in the air-conditioned room. Her mother took one of her hands and said to me, “Look at her fingers.”
Her daughter had chewed her fingernails down to the cuticles. The girl snatched her hand back from her mom and went to another place to sit down.
I said to her, “Well, about an hour and half’s drive from here there is a border patrol check point, and an armed agent will get on the bus to look at your papers. So you need to know that. But, in any case, she will be fine—you have very good papers. And you then are going to be in a big city that has many resources. You will find someone who can help her with her trauma.”
The woman got very quiet. Then she said, “Thank you. You have been kind to us.”
This particular family had left Central America three weeks ago. They got to the border where they crossed the river in a rowboat (as there are 752 people waiting on a list to cross over the international bridge, and, as the US is only letting in two or three people a week, most people take their chances crossing the river). Erica’s family surrendered to the first Border Patrol agent that they could find. They spent five days in a processing center, where they were given a cold ham sandwich in the morning, another one at noon, and a third one at 8pm. The family was separated from each other by hurricane fencing. They slept for four nights on a cement floor under the glare of overhead lights that were never turned off. They were each given a mylar (foil) “space blanket” to keep warm with.
I asked Erica if she wanted to register a complaint about her time in custody, and she said, “No, the food was horrible, inedible, really—and we were hungry! The water had so much chlorine that it was hard to drink, and the guards were rude—but we were safe. That is all that matters, right?”
I rummaged up a thin sweater and a blanket for the twelve year old. She took my offering, her head still down.
This morning I heard on the news that Kirstjen Nielsen, the Secretary of Homeland Security, was resigning. The president apparently did not find her tough enough, and, in the interim, has chosen Kevin McAleenan, the head of Customs and Border Patrol, as her (standing) replacement.
The president apparently likes McAleenan’s suggestion of a “binary” approach to families seeking asylum. Upon apprehension by border patrol, a parent would get to choose between being incarcerated with their children, or having their children taken from them. If Erica had arrived a month or so from now, she may well have been faced with this 2019 version of Sophie’s Choice.
But on Monday, Erica boarded the bus that would take her to Florida and to her sister. Erica was concerned to know about her court date and the next steps in the asylum process. She believes that her sister, and her sister’s larger American community can save her and her family.
When I left the shelter on Sunday, I looked back and waved at Erica. Her girl was sitting beside her, chewing on her nails. But she looked up me, and she smiled.
It seemed that she had hope.
Two weeks ago, on a Sunday afternoon, as the nation was being reminded over and over again about the “national emergency” on our southern border, I decided to face my country’s fears head on. I met up with some friends in Brownsville. We loaded up a couple of small wagons with some cases of cans of black beans and condensed chicken soup, tossed in several bags of McDonald’s hamburgers and walked across the national emergencied international border between Mexico and the United States into Matamoros.
Our group was just one very small part of an enormous, region-wide effort to offer aid and comfort to refugees coming to our region. Today’s task was to bring lunch to the more than one hundred souls who had been waiting for weeks to enter the USA “the right way.”
Our first challenge was the Mexican customs officer, who gave our groceries a close review. “We don’t want you giving those people any thing that is expired,” the officer said, with a smile.
We then passed two Mexican Marines, “Good afternoon! We have come to visit the immigrants!” we greeted them, and they, too, smiled, and waved us along.
We pulled the wagons up a small hill into an area just off the entrance to the international bridge. People got from where they were sitting, and came down to meet us, eyeing the food, mostly, but also shyly offering their hellos.
There were 126 refugees there on that Sunday afternoon, most of them from Central America, although there were some people from Cuba and Venezuela as well. The children were all Central Americans, tired looking, but each with their special smile. They were all stuck in a hard place, bullied by a new policy put in place by the US government which, illegally, stopped allowing asylum applicants efficient, safe entry into the country. Some, with their children, had been living on the streets for nearly two months.
As we set up our small food service, the refugees formed a line for lunch, the kids being served first. They took their cheeseburgers over to a wall where they sat and had their happy meals, seeming, to me at least, a little more excited about this gift than the Clemson Football team at the White House a couple of weeks before. We visited for a time, then picked up the trash and prepared to head back into the national emergency that is Brownsville.
It is, however, always hard to leave that space. People want advice and information and above all else assurance. Each one has a slightly different story; each one has a slightly different need. The conversation takes time, but I am always struck about how much laughter punctuates our visits, and just how quickly the discussion becomes intimate.
I tried hard to find someone that we should be afraid of, but about the closest I could get was a man named Rafael, who seemed threatening, but I think that was because he was very tall and really anxious. But when we spoke, he leaned over, getting down to my size, and then he told me that he was terribly worried about his eight year old son, who seemed to have a really bad tooth infection. No terror there, just a sensitive dad hating to see his son in pain.
Our group returned to Brownsville, carting our empty wagons past bored Customs and Border Patrol officers and the yards and yards of concertina wire, the refugees and their hopes now on the other side of the Rio Grande from us. If anyone was experiencing an emergency, it would be those folks.
As for me, on that visit, I didn’t meet a single person whom I wouldn’t have minded having as a next door neighbor, someone to visit with over the fence, someone to borrow a couple of eggs from, someone with whom to share worries about the kids.