Ramona directs the van driver, Martin, through the pot-holed streets of Colonia Muniz in south Texas, guiding us to a bright pink building at the community’s center. ARISE (A Resource in Serving Equality) is painted in bold letters on a sign outside, signifying the presence of the 23 year old non-profit. In their own words:
“ARISE is a grassroots organization of women for women. It is about building on strengths and respecting the dignity of each individual. It’s about spirituality, cultural values and personal growth. It’s about connecting women with each other and strengthening the fabric of their communities. It’s about teamwork and putting personal ambition aside in favor of common goals. It’s about inspiring hope and a sense of a possibility.”
Ramona, who has been involved with ARISE since its inception, leads our group into the building to show us where the magic takes place. The humble, un-airconditioned converted house has colorful inspirational posters, a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, photos of neighborhood residents, shelves filled with children’s books and arts supplies for classes with area children, and the crowning jewel—a huge patio with tables for hosting community events, neighborhood birthday parties, dances and BBQs. As Ramona and her co-worker Andrea tell us about the organization, hard rain begins to pour down and the patio feels like it has curtains of water enclosing us in as we learn about this sacred work.
Ramona explains that when families arrive to this country they come with big dreams. After a few years of struggling to make ends meet, of scraping for work, of being treated like a nobody, those dreams begin to dissolve. For many depression sets in and they forget, or are unable to raise their children with any dreams. Ramona thinks that many of the community’s problems are born from young people who have no sense of hope. Frustrated, stuck, unable to imagine a better future, they get involved in gangs, drop out of school, and at worst, begin to see themselves as nobody. Ramona says that the biggest job of ARISE is to give the community hope—to remind them to dream and raise their children as dreamers.
Ramona Casas at ARISE Office in Colonia La Muniz
When the sky clears we begin to walk toward the house of a local family whose story we have been invited to hear. Their yard has only this week been emptied from the water left by last month’s hurricane. Today’s rain makes the yard refill with mud, further burying the cans, wrappers, and fruit strewn across the “lawn”. The heat and humidity are stifling as we make our way into the small living room area, crowding around the single air conditioning unit as the family gathers to talk.
The mother, “Maria Louisa” stands against the wall, with her muscular arms folded across her chest. She is a powerful woman with a strong square jaw line and deep, almost black, eyes. She and her husband make a living harvesting grapefruit for $7.25 a case. On a good day, if they work together, they can fill 2 cases an hour. Using this money they have put a $5,000 down payment on their house and are working to pay the remaining mortgage. They had saved up $3,000 over the last few years to pay for their daughters’ college education. But that money is gone now, after what the family went through last month…
Maria Louisa proudly introduces her two eldest daughters, Elizabeth (19) and Veronica (17), who are as striking as their mother and both studying at the local University. Elizabeth is studying to be an RN but one day hopes to be a doctor. Veronica will be starting college this fall and plans to become a teacher, a vocation inspired by the wonderful teacher who taught her English when she first arrived to this country. Both of these young women immigrated with Maria Louisa and her husband to the U.S. 10 years ago and are un-documented. The family’s younger daughters and son who are 5, 7, and 9 years old respectively, were all born here in the United States. The 7 year-old daughter wanted to become a border patrol agent, but that too changed after last month…
Last month, while driving her mother to work, Elizabeth saw the flashing lights of the border patrol in her rear-view mirror. When the agent approached the car Elizabeth asked him why she had been pulled over. The officer did not answer. Elizabeth repeated the question and the border patrol agent responded (I am paraphrasing) that he knew what to do when he saw a car full of people who looked like them. He told them to get out of the car. He did not wait for Maria Louisa to grab her younger daughter’s papers from her bag. Maria Louisa and her four daughters were taken in for “processing” by the border patrol.
Once in custody Maria Louisa and her elder daughters were asked to sign “voluntary departure” forms stating that they were being “voluntarily” deported to Mexico. Maria Louisa instead signed the part of the form that said she could request a hearing with a judge. This was taken as an act of defiance—an affront to the arresting officer who began to yell at Maria Louisa. “Do you think you are special because you have been here for 10 years, do you think the judge cares? Do you think you are special because your little girls are citizens? Do you think you are special because your older girls are in college? Do you think owning a house makes you special? None of this matters to the judge.” In the retelling of the story she said that his tone was “muy golpeada” or abrupt—literally like being hit with words. He asked Elizabeth to help him convince the mother to sign but she instead told her mother not to sign the form—to hold out for a judge. Maria Louisa continued to insist that she could not leave her young daughters, who are citizens, alone in this country—she wanted a chance to talk to the judge.
Maria Louisa held out for four more hours without signing the form, until they took her to a separate room without her daughters. There the agent told her that if she didn’t sign the form he would call child protective services to pick up her youngest daughters. He promised that she would never find them again. He told her that Elizabeth would go to a women’s prison and that Victoria would end up in a juvenile detention center. He told her that she would spend months in an immigration center awaiting processing and that in the mean time her family would be separated and it would take forever to find them all again. He told her again to sign the form and out of fear she finally complied. Even then, after the form was signed, another officer saw the paper with her original request to see a judge along with the “voluntary departure” waiver. This officer spoke to Maria Louisa’s detaining officer and told him that the form was no good if it had her request for a judge on it. He tore the paper up and told her to do a new one. She signed the form again.
The officer now asked Maria Louisa again if she had anyone for the little kids to go home with. She knew she could not call her husband and risk his arrest too, so she decided to call ARISE to pick up her daughters. Once the little girls had left tearfully, Maria Louisa and her daughters were deported to Mexico. There, through a contact from ARISE, the family found a place to stay for a few days as they formulated a plan to come back. Elizabeth recalls that she was not afraid, she knew they would get back “home”—she was pissed that it would set the family back financially, but this would not ruin her chances to become a doctor. Maria Louisa felt more fear as she imagined crossing the border with her two beautiful teenage daughters. She had heard stories of what happens to young women crossing the border in the hands of corrupt coyotes or at the hands of border bandits. With this in mind she found a reputable coyote to cross the three back to the United States. The midnight trip across the river in a little raft cost the family $2,700– almost everything she had saved for her daughters’ education.
Although this all took place six weeks ago, the after shocks are still wearing off. Maria Louisa says that her younger daughters cry each time she tries to leave the house, even to buy groceries, “They grab my legs and tell me ‘no mami, no te vayas, te agaran la migra’”(no mommy, don’t go, border patrol will get you). The youngest, who sleeps with Victoria, wakes up almost every night with nightmares that her family is being taken away. The 7 year-old no longer wants to become a border patrol agent. When we asked her why she shyly answers, “hablan muy feo” (they speak in a very ugly way). The family will have to work for years to rebuild their savings, and everyone wonders what they will do if they are caught again—but Elizabeth and Victoria must continue to take classes and Maria Louisa and her husband must take whatever work they can find. Whenever anyone is running late, they are all thinking of the worst possible scenario, that they may not see that person again.
We ask the girls about their involvement with ARISE. How has the organization affected their lives. Elizabeth and Victoria have both spent dozens, possibly hundreds, of hours volunteering. They teach classes for the little kids and help to put on events in the community. They have participated in the myriad trainings offered by ARISE and this connection has helped them to dream big. These young women have no doubt that they will succeed—no matter the obstacles set before them. Maria Louisa says that her children “van a ser alguien” (are going to be somebody). It is clear that they already are, and that they take after their mother.
There is a hope that the family clings to, that the “Dream Act” will become law. Both Elizabeth and Victoria are the “dreamers” that the act would cover. They arrived here young, they were schooled in this system (this country invested many years in their education and they excelled), they have great career potential, and they want an opportunity to work, live and serve this country. They are the embodiment of the American Dream—hard working, persistent, eyes set on a brighter future for themselves and for their family—all they need is a chance.
As we leave the house I lift my eyes to the clouded sky above Colonia Muniz. The sun is pressing against the clouds and giving the sky a hazy brightness. I begin to pray—for these women, for this country, for ARISE and the inspiring work they are doing here. I pray that God will continue to bless us each with the ability to continue dreaming—imagining something better—transforming our world with grace and hope against the greatest of odds.