It has been almost six months since my last column entry. I was on the campaign trail for these last midterm elections. Working on different campaigns led me to really get to know the people and communities of other areas of El Paso county that previously I had not visited as often, areas like San Elizario, Socorro, Fabens, Clint and Tornillo.
Now, with elections behind us, I was able to come home and the first place I wanted to visit was Tornillo. Since June, when the zero tolerance policy was passed and these children were separated from their parents, I – like many – have been looking for ways to get involved.
At first I tried calling the national numbers to see if I could get answers maybe we could organize a toy drive but I was constantly redirected to dead ends, call this number, call that number etc…and every time no one had information for me. I decided to just head down to Tornillo and get answers for myself.
Driving up, I drove into the wrong area and was immediately greeted by agents. I heard them speaking in Spanish and honestly, that gave me the tiniest bit of relief. In my mind, I feel that MAYBE the kids inside MIGHT have an ally, recognizing the language, our skin color?
Of course there is no telling if these agents are compassionate, I could be completely wrong, but it did give me the smallest of hope. The agents redirected me to where most people gather and also gave me a number for anyone that would like to seek more information. It was a number I recognized, the national D.C. number, one of the dead end calls I had already made. I thanked them for their time and headed towards the volunteer site.
I parked in an almost empty parking lot and immediately realized we were actually at the port of entry.
I have grown up my entire life in El Paso and am used to crossing the busy international bridge downtown, but this bridge was different, desolate, quiet. Had you not known, it just looks like you are entering one of the Eastside gated neighborhoods.
I introduce myself to the women I see sitting in folding chairs holding signs. They are quick to tell me to be careful if I step closer to the imaginary line in the sand I can be arrested. The agents have already warned them.
Cat Yuraka is the first women I meet, amazing woman who was/is part of Grannies Respond Caravan, an activist for Indivisible TX21 and member of the Resistance Choir, she has traveled from San Marcos area to spend the holiday in solidarity with the refugee children. I remembered following the “Grannies Respond” story while I was on the campaign trail, they were driving cross country to detention centers in protest of inhumane immigration policy.
Everyone tells me the man I really need to speak to is the one who started the movement – Joshua Rubin – who was with other volunteers at the moment. While I am waiting for the main organizer to return I decide to finally turn and look at the detention center.
I had been hesitant about even looking at the building and I don’t even really know why but now the moment had come. I stare off into the distance and after a few minutes I saw them. Small children walking in a single file from one tent to the next. Immediately I feel the knot in my throat.
This is happening and it’s happening right outside my hometown.
Flooded with emotions I am immediately struck with sadness but then also with anger. WHY AREN’T WE ALL OUTRAGED!?
Let me save anyone the time who wants to talk about the refugee parents and their decisions…that is not the discussion, I am talking about children, who are not adults.
It is at that moment the Joshua Rubin arrives and we are able to chat. He shares with me that he has been working with El Paso organizers to build a 24 hour long program for the next several days. They plan to stay on until Tornillo is shut down (hopefully soon.) I ask if there is anything I can do to help, donate money, clothes etc…he replies “we just need people to show up.”
The sun begins to set and the desert grows cold, as I making calls from my car I notice two new families arrive and set up chairs as they begin to sing carols in the dark.
I head back to Tornillo and am excited to see so many people out there! I say hello to everyone from the day before and begin to interview the new faces in the crowd.
Again, I found the majority of the people attending, traveled from out of town/state to be there. My heart is filled with gratitude.
The musical portion of the program begins with beautiful Indigenous sounds from Shaka Toki, someone begins to observe that every time the kids like a song the soccer balls in the detention field can be seen being kicked up in the air, a type of Morse code.
We all cheer back and again I feel the tears well up…they CAN hear us.
I sat near the gated fence where I could see them better, the wind carrying the muffled sounds of the children outside. At that moment the beautiful voice of Latina artist Diana Gameros takes the mic and she begins to sing Spanish Christmas Carols.
Almost immediately the soccer balls start flying, I am singing along reflecting on my own Christmas’ as a child at their age and fighting back the tears while watching them in the distance, through the chain linked barriers.
The energy throughout the day is something I personally have not experienced before. It’s a layered sentiment. This is inhumane treatment of children to be caged, removed from their parents and yet we are trying to bring a light of joy but my heart is breaking with every song. I think we all feel that way.
As the day is winding down, I meet two amazing young women, Raquel and Catherine, who drove all the way from Dallas to be here in Tornillo with the children. We become fast friends and it turns out they partnered with North Texas Dream Team and brought tons of blankets, jackets and clothes to deliver.
We start to make our way over to the drop off center.
At this location (which I will keep private to respect the safety of the people and workers there) we are greeted by volunteers and refugees who are excited to see us and help unload the donations. I promised to keep their identity safe so I will just say that it was identical to my experience helping the Cuban refugees.
Everyone there was kind and making the most of the donations they had, making their own small community within the facility. I tried to speak with some of the refugees but I am a stranger and I get the feeling people aren’t sure what to make of me just yet, understandable.
One woman I did speak with told me she fled Guatemala and walked the entire way to the United States; she then turned to the group and said something much more fluently in a different language. I realized that the apprehension to my Spanish was not solely because I am a stranger but also because their first language is an Indigenous dialect.
I could see all my questions were making them uneasy, I thanked her for her time and headed back to the main area to speak with the volunteers and ask how we, El Paso citizens, can help.
(spent Nochebuena with the women of the Brown Resistance at Tornillo and held a live interview with organizer Denise Benevides)
Nochebuena in Tornillo…The women of the brown resistance have arrived. It is 2am and we are out here for #Nochebuena in solidarity with the children being held in #Tornillo tent city. I spoke with organizer, Denise Benavides from Dallas***(s/o to ALL the amazing women from Dallas – my second home – making the drive out here 🙌🏾💙)
Posted by Yolitzma Aguirre Fierro on Monday, December 24, 2018
You know, I have had so many heated conversations over this topic within our Latinx community and all I know is that this is a multilayered subject.
From Cuban Refugees in El Paso who were granted amnesty automatically yet at the same time Mexican migrants who have worked here and contributed for decades were being rounded up and deported – to the DAPA/DACA/TPS stories – to the Mexican American experience through the border regions, born in the United States where many of our families never had to immigrate since this was all Mexico just 2-3 generations ago – to what is happening today, right outside our door.
Central American families fleeing violence and despair, children taken from their parents and kept in tents…I don’t know what the right answers are, what I do know is this: children are children and if these were your children, nieces/nephews you would do everything in your power to stop this.
What happens next? There is a process and Tornillo is set to shutdown soon, BUT does that mean that children will be moved to another facility?
There is much that is unknown, however what is known is the need for help – both in Tornillo and in the city.
You can also follow the volunteer facebook page setup to share updates: Witness Tornillo
For more information on how to help/donate/volunteer etc…the best place to contact is Annunciation House, we have a link in this story, as well as a list of suggested donations.
Please make time during this week – especially the next two days, Nochebuena and tomorrow Christmas Day – to head to Tornillo and join everyone in singing Christmas Carols to the children.
I want to thank Joshua Rubin, all the volunteers from across the country out in Tornillo and all the amazing El Paso organizers who are out there every day, dedicating their time trying to help end this.