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'The Beauty In The Embraces': Families Separated By U.S.-Mexico Border Have A Chance To Reunite

A man in a blue T-shirt hugs a woman in a white T-shirt. Behind them is a very shallow river and a banner that says "Abrazos No Muros."
Mallory Falk
/
KERA News
Fernando Ramirez hugs his sister, Maria, for the first time in 12 years. The siblings were able to embrace for three short minutes during the annual Hugs Not Walls event, held on the border between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

The annual Hugs Not Walls event gives families three short minutes to reconnect in the middle of the Rio Grande.

On Saturday morning, families dressed in bright blue T-shirts assembled on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande. Their relatives were just a few yards away, dressed in white, divided by ankle-deep water and the border wall.

Fernando Ramirez anxiously peered through the wall’s rust-colored slats, trying to catch a glimpse of his sister, Maria.

“I just want to hug her,” he said. “Let her know that I love her and miss her a lot.”

Ramirez, 47, said he hadn’t seen his big sister since 2009, when she was deported to Juárez. He lives in El Paso, where he works as a medical administrative assistant.

“We talk. I mean we call each other on the phone. We video chat also, but it’s not the same. It’s not the same [as] when you have her in person where you can actually touch her and hug her,” he said.

The brother and sister were among around 200 families who participated in the 8th annual Hugs Not Walls event this weekend, organized by the El Paso-based immigrant advocacy group Border Network for Human Rights. Last year’s event was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The nonprofit works with immigration officials to create a space where families separated by the border and their legal status can briefly reconnect without fear of immigration enforcement.

This is the first year Ramirez heard about the event, and he rushed to sign up. He brought his wife and two young sons.

“I’m nervous,” he said. “I can’t wait for them to call us so that I can see her.”

A man and several children stand peering through the rust-colored slats of the border wall between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Their backs are to the camera, and they wear blue T-shirts that say "Hugs Not Walls" on the back.
Mallory Falk / KERA News
Fernando Ramirez tries to catch a glimpse of his big sister, Maria, through the border wall.

The event’s organizers say Hugs Not Walls is not only a chance for families to reunite, but also an act of protest against the policies keeping families apart. It’s also a highly visual and emotionally-charged scene, with the joy of reunification and the pain of separation on full display.

This year’s event was timed to coincide with Juneteenth, the now-federal holiday commemorating the day that enslaved African Americans in Galveston Texas learned they were free, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed and about two months after the Civil War ended.

“A few days ago the president of the United States signed into law that Juneteenth would be a national holiday,” Michael Grady, pastor at Prince of Peace Christian Fellowship, said at the event. “Today we also celebrate one people, one struggle...Today we stand in solidarity. Today we stand in unity. Today we stand declaring we are not going to take it any longer.”

Hugs Not Walls also came as top Republican leaders in Texas, including Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, said the state was being “invaded” by people crossing the border. Abbot has vowed to build a border wall through state funds and a crowdsourcing campaign.

El Paso lawmakers quickly condemned their language, saying it mirrors words used by the man accused of killing 23 people in a 2019 mass shooting at a crowded Walmart.

“If people die again, blood will be on your hands,” Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar said in a tweet.

On Saturday, Escobar stood on a wooden platform raised above the riverbed between El Paso and Juárez and addressed the crowd.

“It is incredible to me that we still have to come together in the middle of a river because we have governments that choose to divide us and separate us,” she said, before urging lawmakers to attend next year’s event.

“Every politician that comes to this beautiful border of hope and opportunity and dignity, every politician that tries to strip us of that dignity...I want them to see the pain of each family member," Escobar said. "I want them to see the beauty in the embraces., and I want them to see the tragedy of that separation when each family has to move back to their own side.”

When Fernando Ramirez’s turn to meet up with his sister arrived, his family walked down the concrete bank of the Rio Grande and onto the wooden platform. Maria approached from the other side.

Tears streamed down their faces as they wrapped each other in a tight hug.

Ramirez’s 6-year-old son, Derrick, looked on for a moment before suddenly realizing what was happening.

“Wait, is that your sister?” he asked.

It was the first time Derrick ever met his tía. He threw his arms around Maria’s waist and buried his head in her chest. She pulled down her mask to give him a kiss.

“This is my sister,” Ramirez said proudly, pulling her in closer. “I haven’t seen her for almost 12 years. Very happy now, very joyful. Even though it’s for a few minutes, I’m very happy to see her.”

For Maria, the experience was overwhelming.

“I feel so sad,” she said, wiping away tears.

The separation has been difficult; her whole family is in El Paso, and she’s alone in Mexico.

Still, the siblings were grateful for their few, fleeting moments together.

“I hope they’ll continue doing this because this is the only way that I can see her,” Ramirez said. “Even though it’s maybe once a year, even though it’s three minutes, it means a lot.”

As the family continued to embrace, an announcement boomed over the loudspeaker, letting them know their time was up. The next round of reunions was about to start.

Maria gave her nephews one last squeeze.

Then she and her brother walked back across the river, to opposite sides of the border.

Mallory Falk is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Got a tip? Email Mallory at Mfalk@kera.org. You can follow Mallory on Twitter @MalloryFalk.

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