Many years ago, as a young woman, I left the Rio Grande Valley, ready to put the oppressively hot, humid nights and dusty, dry days behind me. But over the years, I kept finding myself drawn back to the people, the beauty, the music and the culture. In 2002, two decades after I had left, I came back home, as a medical student, and then a pediatrician, caring for poor children. First, I worked in Mexico, in a colonia called Derechos Humanos, a place of makeshift homes and no streetlights. The nurses and neighbors of the clinic became my friends. We shared meals in their homes along with stories and gales of laughter.
Now I serve at a clinic run by Brownsville Community Health Center (BCHC), a federally qualified health center in Brownsville. “La Clinica 22,” as it is popularly known because of its street address, is situated among housing projects and schools, next to a park in Brownsville’s Southmost area, less than a mile from the Texas-Mexico border. La Clinica 22 and Derechos Humanos are only three miles apart, but a border wall and thousands of Border Patrol agents, National Guardsmen and militiamen stand between us. These barriers cannot stop the love, nor cut the family ties, that bind our two communities together.
Many of the families who come to La Clinica 22 are originally from Mexico, or they have mixed immigration status—some are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents, and some are not. Many are “in the process,” meaning they have applied for lawful permanent resident status, naturalization or a visa. Others have no hope of coming out of the terrifying shadows cast by our broken immigration system. Some have insurance; many do not. At La Clinica 22, we treat them all.
Over the years, I have seen thousands of children, and thousands of mothers and fathers, all with stories that have amazed and, often, haunted me. I have collected mountains of stories, both beautiful and sad. They are stories of fear and worry, and sometimes, of joy. But, most important, they are stories of passion and struggle and love.
Over these past few years, the stories have taken a darker turn. The drug cartels now fight it out in almost every town bordering the river. No longer do we cross the bridge to see old friends. They have asked us not to come. It is too dangerous. If the drug cartel sees them meeting with a white person from the States, our friends would become targets for extortion or worse. Those same dusty streets of Derechos Humanos now have crazed cartel minions on four-wheelers with automatic weapons terrorizing families. No longer would you walk the streets at night, or sleep on the roof of a clinic.
I can no longer remain silent while the predominant U.S. news sources spew hateful lies about the children and families I know intimately. I can no longer remain mute in the face of twisted perceptions of why mothers and fathers would seek safety in the United States for their children. I share these stories because I must. If you hear someone telling lies about your loved ones, at some point, you have to set the story straight.
These stories are of children exposed to the horrible violence in Matamoros, stories of rape and kidnapping. These are stories of mothers willing to do anything to get their children to safety. Here are just a few:
A little boy without his mother
Recently, we received a new patient at La Clinica 22, a 7-year-old boy originally from Matamoros. His mother had sent him to live with his aunt in Brownsville. He was born in the United States, but had spent the last six years in Mexico. His mother didn’t have a proper visa to cross the border anymore. The aunt told me that the mother wept as she handed her son to her, but the mother was terrified for him. His school in Matamoros frequently closes because of threats of violence. The sound of gunshots from automatic weapons is common in their neighborhood.
Older neighboring children have disappeared and are being forced to work for the cartels. Some are forced to become assassins or to run drugs. The aunt shared that since the boy had moved in with her family, the little boy would often hit the ground shaking when any loud noise was heard. With her permission, I made a call to the school nurse to let her know of his history. She sighed. We have shared similar stories in the past but they seem to be more frequent now. The school nurse and I promised to keep each other apprised of his progress and to try to find resources for him. I had no way to contact his mother, no way to comfort her in her separation from her beautiful 7-year-old boy.
A raped child
Last month, a mother brought her 14-year-old daughter to La Clinica 22. She was seen by one of our nurse practitioners, who later came to my office. In a rush of words, she told me that the girl had been raped on the other side of the border in Matamoros. When the mother took her daughter to the police the next morning to report the assault, they were met with indifference and rudeness. Two days later, the mother and the daughter began receiving death threats. The mother did what any mom would do: She fled to what she perceived as safety, the United States, just on the other side of the border wall, within blocks of La Clinica 22.
A young girl without a father running for her life
A woman came to the clinic with a 13-year-old girl dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. The woman told me that the girl was sent to Brownsville from Ciudad Victoria, Mexico, after her father was murdered by the drug cartel. The girl was the youngest of the family. Her older brothers convinced their mother that it was no longer safe for their sister. The brothers were 18 and 21. They pleaded with their mother that they could perhaps defend themselves against the gangs, but she was too young, too vulnerable. They must send her north, allow her to stay with a family friend, give her a chance to grow up, go to school, and escape the gangs who would take her to be used as they pleased. The girl sat on the examining table seeming much older than her 13 years. She looked me directly in the eye, without tears, as she slowly told me that she missed her father, her friends, her brothers… and her mother. It wasn’t important that she share tears with me. I was a stranger, simply a doctor who might help her navigate this new world.
The new refugees
Since the end of June this year, I have also volunteered at the Catholic Charities shelter at Immaculate Conception Church. The shelter is for Central American refugee families fleeing the violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. At the shelter, I hear more troubling stories from mothers, stories that disturb my sleep and preoccupy me during the day.
On a Saturday in August, after a week of being away with my grandchildren, I dropped by the church. I wanted to check in with the volunteers, most of whom had worked there every day, including weekends, since June. They told me there were mothers with children asleep in the playroom. We didn’t awaken them. They needed their rest.
Catholic Charities volunteers had shaped a space in the corner of the playroom with two cots and curtains for privacy. There, tired mothers and children can lie down with pillows for their heads and blankets to cover them, their arms and legs entwined. Like mothers and children everywhere.
Once released from the Customs and Border Patrol holding cells with documents stating that they have temporary legal status to be in this country, pending their immigration hearing date, they can travel to their families located throughout the country. Immaculate Conception Church is conveniently located next door to the bus station. Every day, one can see faithful volunteers in green Catholic Charities vests walking to the bus station in the blistering heat to invite the Central American refugees to come have a bite to eat, take a shower and rest before their trip.
The women and children follow these smiling strangers to the cool interior of the church. The first thing they want is a bath, somewhere to wash off the grime from their journey and the Border Patrol holding cells. Their belongings are taken from them at the holding centers, even their shoelaces and hairclips. So at the church the mothers are invited to pick out some clothes for the journey north—one or two outfits, depending on the length of their trip. It is always astonishing to see them emerge from the showers, fresh, the dirt from their hair washed away. A bit of the fear gone from their eyes. As they eat their first warm meal in days, they begin to share their stories.
Mothers fleeing Mexico
A Saturday in late August was a slow day at the shelter. There were, however, two mothers with their three teenage daughters sleeping, intertwined, on two tiny cots in the playroom. Perhaps they slept that way because they were not yet used to feeling safe. “They are from Mexico,” the volunteers tell me in whispers. We all look surprised. Almost all Mexicans, when apprehended by the Border Patrol, are immediately deported back to their country, regardless of any dangers. We all shook our heads. These young women must have tragic stories to have been allowed to pass. I chose not to wake them from the safety of their embraces.
Mothers with children whose hearts hurt
Early in July, two beautiful young mothers climbed into the mobile medical van: one from Honduras, the other from Guatemala. They both had their daughters with them. The women met while in the Border Patrol holding cells, and befriended each other, as did their daughters. One of the girls, 8-year-old Paulina, told me that her heart hurt. She said that it beat very fast and made her chest ache. She was scared. Indeed, her little heart was racing. After asking the mother the usual questions a doctor asks, I gave the girl some cold Pedialyte and sat and talked to her for a while, while the mother watched my every move. After a few minutes, they both seemed to relax. I listened again to her small chest and told her how very strong and brave her heart sounded, and that her heart was going to be fine. She smiled a beautiful smile, grabbed her mother’s hand and jumped off the seat.
Her new little Guatemalan friend, Isabela, was eager to have me check her heart as well. She climbed up on the bench and told me that her heart hurt really badly sometimes. She bravely opened her shirt for me to listen. Her mother looked at me for a long time and just nodded. I listened to Isabela’s heart and told her that it sounded full of love. She shyly said she missed her papa and that she loved him very much. She had not seen him, the mother said, in two years. “We are going to find him,” the little girl said in Spanish, and “then we will be safe.”
One soon-to-be mother arrived at the shelter with one of the volunteers on the same day as the girls with heartaches. She appeared to be about seven months pregnant, dirty and slumped over, eating an apple. She traveled alone. The Catholic Charities volunteer, as usual, asked her name, her destination, what country she came from and for a phone number in case a family member called searching for her. She gave this information almost by rote, not making eye contact with anyone. She was from El Salvador and was going to Baltimore, she said. She had been on the road for a month and in the Border Patrol holding cell for a week. Then one of the volunteer women softly invited her to pick out some new clothes, so that she could go shower and change. A while later, the mother walked into the dining area, clean and fresh in a new white shirt embroidered with deep purple flowers and with her thick wet hair tied back in a ponytail. She was beautiful with dark black eyes.
One of the men volunteers offered her a plate of food. She looked at us, sat down and started to eat, and tears ran down the sides of her face, as she started talking, “What do they [the Border Patrol] think we are, dogs?” she cried. “They only gave us small amounts of water and apples to eat during the day. The meals they brought, a dog wouldn’t eat. And if you do not finish in 10 minutes, they come and take it away.” She continued between bites of food and tears, “Everyone understands bad words when someone yells them at you, whether they are said in Spanish or English. They say ugly, ugly words to everyone. Groseros. I will never forget.”
Devastated sister, aunt, mother
I went to the playroom one day with one of the volunteers. It was before we had cots and a private space to rest. A mother was lying on a pallet in the corner of the room, fitfully dozing, as two of her children climbed all over her. The little girls were 3 and 4. Ray, the volunteer, told me that the mother had come with her two daughters and a 9-year-old nephew from Honduras. The nephew was taken from her by the Border Patrol, because she wasn’t his mother, and moved to another holding cell. She had to call her sister, his mother, and tell her that she did not know where her son was. She hadn’t seen him since he was taken from her. And no, she told her sister, she did not know how to find him. Ray shook his head, and said, “We are trying to let her rest.”
Back at home: a call from a terrified mother
In early September, my husband and I received a frantic text late in the night from a friend of ours living in Valle Hermoso, Mexico, a small town just a short drive south of our home. She texted that her son, a teacher, had been kidnapped. He is 20 with a wife and a new baby. The cartel thugs stole everything: his phone, his ID, his cash, his car. He pleaded with them to let him go. For some reason that night they must have remembered some tiny forgotten part of their hearts, he said, for they released him on the outskirts of town. He ran, walked and hid, until he made it to a phone and called his wife and his mother. He is now in hiding, afraid to go to work, afraid for his family. His mother told me the next day that before, when the neighbors’ children disappeared or houses were burned, she felt very bad and was afraid. “Now,” she said, “I cannot stop the shaking in my legs.”
The politicians in Austin and in Washington, D.C., talk about the issue of the children on the border, as if children and mothers fleeing for their lives was just another political game, with the usual winners and losers. For us on the border, it is not a game. It is personal. And the idea that mothers and fathers in Mexico and Central America are somehow less than human, less than loving parents, and would willy-nilly send their children north exposing them to great risks just for financial gain offends my moral sensibilities as a physician, as a grandmother and as a mother. Of all of the stories I have heard over the years, this perhaps is the most disturbing of all: that we as a nation have chosen to abandon children in need and mothers in grief.To support journalism like this, donate to the Texas Observer.