By: Carolina Rubio Macwright
Human resilience, love and hope, is what I found while volunteering in a detention center (a Texas baby-jail) for a week this summer with 15 women volunteers.
As volunteers, we sat down listening to the most heart-wrenching stories told by crying women and children. The truly horrifying stories were not about gangs or murders, but about the horrors lived when the Unites States of America took their children away. The mental anguish, manipulation and complete disregard for physical and emotional safety, was nothing short of tragic. The stories about “el pozo” (solitary confinement), children being stepped on at night or threatened with amputation of limbs, are all true. I will forever bury those horrors deep in my mind, because even in the midst of all of this horror, I still believe that these policies don’t represent our country. This incredible nation is not made of monsters, we are in fact a nation that is made up of that very fabric that defines these brave women. The hard work, passion, determination and courage to dare to DREAM is our America.
Here are some of those untold stories of pure human resilience:
Generosity can save lives. Maria and her 6 year old daughter Ana were traveling North from Central America. Along the way their worst nightmare came true: they were kidnapped in Mexico along with another man. The kidnappers wanted $2,000 per head to secure their release. Maria knew her family could not pay this money. She had sold and borrowed everything she could to save their lives and seek asylum in the US – there was no more money for her. She knew that this would be their last day on earth. Maria called her family, her face white as a ghost as she held her baby girl and said goodbye. Maria in between fearful tears watched as the stranger named Lazaro called his family and said: “they are asking for $6,000 dollars for my release.” Later that same night, Maria, Ana, and the stranger named Lazaro were released at the border. Maria never saw the man again and the only thing she knew about him was his first name. She also knew Lazaro saved their lives and she would never be able to thank him.
Love is present even if no hugs are allowed. Detention Centers are prisons, which means you are not allowed to touch the detainees. When Jenny introduced herself, her eyes looked like she cried all night. She had been reunited with her mom that early morning and it wasn’t even noon yet. Jenny was taken from her mother in the middle of the night for 57 sleeps, 57 story times, 57 hugs, 1,368 hours without her mother’s warmth. Sweet Jenny taught us a list of words in her native dialect as we attempted to laugh. Communication was really hard, but we understood that Jenny’s mom was ready to give up and be deported. America had broken her. We couldn’t touch and comfort her in the middle of the heartbreak, we could just listen. It was Jenny whom through words, hugs and gentle looks, helped convince her mom to continue to fight for them. The courage, the love and compassion Jenny showed, by respecting her mom’s feelings but also encouraging her, were wise beyond her 9 years on earth.
Courage. When your child witnesses the murder of your brother and is able to identify the perpetrator, there is no escaping, but fleeing and seeking asylum. To this day, Teresa’s son, Andres, continues to wake up at night screaming because of the nightmares that day left him. Teresa wasn’t able to hold her 9 year old son through those nightmares while they were separated for 72 days. During that time Teresa did what she does best, she organized women inside detention. When US immigration officials tried to coerce her into signing her own deportation order if she wanted to see her child, she courageously spoke up and said, “I did not sign anything and you took my son. Why should I sign this paper to see him now? I won’t sign anything.” Teresa courageously stood her ground and made sure everyone knew not to sign anything. When I met Teresa, she reached out for this tiny crumpled piece of paper in her pocket. This piece of paper had 20+ names and numbers. Teresa demanded to use the phone so that she could check on her people. When Teresa was finally reunited with her son, she discovered that her son had made a close friend that happened to be the son of her “comadre”, the woman whose shoulder she cried on while detained.
Hope forever. Legal programs inside detention centers run 100% on volunteers from all over. In our group we had two nuns from Arizona. They were both in their 80’s and sharp as a whip. They devoted their lives to helping immigrants. During our quick breakfast one morning, one of them said to me: “I ask myself where God is in this situation.” My heart sank as tears ran down my cheeks. I looked around and realized we were surrounded by strangers that were showing up and devoting our most precious commodity: time. Time to experience the most traumatic stories of abuse and separation. Listening to these stories gave these incarcerated women the most important thing of all, the dignity this godless system did not. That, is where God is, I told the sister. That is where HOPE and LOVE lives.
We helped over 45 families that week. We will never be the same because, as one of my colleagues said: our DNA has changed forever. We walked into that Detention Center smelling anxiety, fear, devastation, trauma, uncertainty and impotence, but we left feeling inspired, surprised, fired up and ready for change. Most of all, moved beyond comprehension at the human resilience we saw from immigrant women and the volunteers.
I am an immigrant, not much different than many of those women detained. I, however, did not have to endure the horrors of border crossing. These women, these heroes and their stories would be dead but for their super-human courage and their faith in our laws. Women, left with no choice when their daily meal is rape, violence, gangs, threats and fear wrapped in a bag of impunity.
Those stories that continue to be erased in history, time and time again no longer need a space at the table to be heard. We are building our own tables and amplifying those voices that represent our hope, struggle, and joy. Immigrant stories of our ancestors are what we stand on today. They are the truth that needs to be memorialized in our history books and in our daily narrative, because these stories matter. These accents and features, sacrifices and traditions, matter. So when you see a hopeless immigrant, I hope you think of the warrior- risk taking women like the ones sitting in detention who risked everything in an effort to forge ahead. These women and women like them are our past, our present, and our future.