Conversations with Migrants: Petra

In her Stories From a Texas Border Ranch series, Melissa Guerra looked at the daily intricacies and deep contradictions of life in a South Texas border town. Sharing tradition, culture, and family with her Mexican neighbors, the narrative journey of her homeland veered away from politics to paint a powerful picture of daily life in the Rio Grande Valley. Now, Guerra returns with another border series, this time looking at life from the other side. A timely perspective that begs consideration, these are the stories of the migrants. 

In his well-worn brown vinyl huaraches, he shuffled into the room where I was helping organize the donated clothing and asked if he could get a new pair of shoes. His brother, a burly kid wearing a cap, bounded in behind him and started pawing through one of the bins.

“Hey what about these?” he said in English.

“Those are for women…” their mother responded softly in Spanish. “But what does it matter? Try them on.”

It was a pair of black high tops. They fit the older boy and he seemed happy, so I went back to the bin to dig out a pair for the younger brother. I handed him a pair that was too small, then another pair that was too big, and finally we found a pair that made the six-year-old grin. He turned his head to smile at his mother. His earring twinkled.

“Let’s go now…” the mother said to the boys. “?Adonde? p’al Norte?” the six year old chirped. Those working in the clothes sorting room giggled.

“You are already here, silly boy…”

Pleased that I found a pair of shoes for both of her boys, as I tuned back to sorting clothes I heard the mother murmur, “You wouldn’t have anything in my size, would you?” I looked down to see the shoes that she was wearing, a flimsy pair of silver beach slippers with bows. I dug around in the women’s footwear bin, and found a pair of shabby sneakers that could be worn for a bit longer. She slid her feet into the shoes and said they would do.

I asked her where she was from. Mexico, a town near the resort of Puerto Vallarta*, which surprised me because the majority of migrants that were passing through the Catholic Charities Respite Center in McAllen, Texas were currently from Honduras, El Salvador, or Guatemala. In fact, I had never met anyone at the Respite Center from Mexico, although I had been visiting the center for the past year. When she mentioned the town she was from, I told her that I had heard of the terrible violence in her area, and she said confirmed that I had heard correctly, showing me the pictures on her phone of her house that had been ransacked last week by the local gang. The gang had kidnapped six people; her brother was missing. Luckily, she and her family had not been at home when the gang invaded their house. As she spoke, her eyes filled with tears.

The day had been quiet at the Respite Center, with dark clouds hovering on the horizon. A Category 5 hurricane named Florence has been forming in the Gulf, and we had been seeing heavy rains in South Texas for days. The Respite Center was preparing for the arrival of 170 migrants but, as usual, no one knew what time the release would happen. Volunteers shuffled papers, attended to the requests of migrants or, like me, sorted the piles of donated clothing.

Petra and I sat in the empty dining room while she showed me the video from the aftermath of the home invasion. Her kitchen was neatly tiled and cheery, but there was food, pots, pans and rags strewn from wall to wall. Every window in the house was shattered, every closet turned out, every box and cupboard emptied onto the floor. The door was smashed and glass lay all around the entrance. The gang was looking for money, valuables or guns, but since they found nothing, the gang later raided the home of her mother and grandmother, demolishing that residence as well. She showed me a picture of a shriveled woman with wild grey hair slumped in a lawn chair amidst the debris and rubble left behind, her walker tumbled over in the corner.

“Why would they do this to old women?” Petra asked me incredulously.

After the kidnappings of her neighbors and brother, Petra and her husband gathered their children and fled, leaving everything behind. Borrowing money from neighbors, they decided to spend the night in a hotel before their long drive to the border to join family members already in South Carolina.

“We had lived in the States before, but my husband was deported, so I followed him back to Mexico. All of my children were born in the U.S., but I took them back to Mexico with me.” That explained why her son spoke English so well.

But when Petra and her family tried to check into the hotel, the hotel owner came to their room to tell them that the gang members knew where they were. The gang had tracked Petra’s family down and were coming for them. Petra and her husband turned off their cell phones and fled immediately to Mexico City.

Once they reached the U.S. border, they were clear what the process would be. They walked together across the International Bridge into the United States and surrendered themselves to Border Patrol. Petra knew her husband would be arrested and jailed, as he had been deported from the United States before. The Border Patrol agent asked Petra if she wanted to walk back to Mexico, and she told them no, that she had no place to go. They arrested her and took her and her children into custody.

When she went before the immigration judge, the court asked Petra if she had reported the home invasion and kidnapping to the municipal police in her town. She gave a sad chuckle and said that the gangs and the police were one in the same. They knew where her family lived. They knew where they worked. They had access to cell phone technology and could trace their movements. The gangs believed Petra’s family had money or at least connections to money because they had lived in the U.S. The young people of their town had been recruited to watch and report every movement of every person to the gang leaders.

“Nothing was possible,” she said as she looked over the photos on her phone again. “Even when there is a government crackdown on gangs, the gangs would simply hide up in the mountains. When the crackdown was over, the gangs return with a vengeance. They round people up from the neighborhoods, extorting, blackmailing and kidnapping until they get what they want. After a crackdown, our situation gets worse.” Petra said. “And the gangs have bigger guns than the police, so who do you think are the ones in charge?”

[q]”…the gangs have bigger guns than the police, so who do you think are the ones in charge?”[/q]

Petra and her family left everything behind; they even abandoned their car at the international bridge. Her husband was still in jail, but she had bus tickets leaving for South Carolina that night. The immigration court judge had listened to their story and seen their pictures and videos. They had a chance of staying.

As we were talking, Florence had developed into a Category 5 hurricane, headed straight for the Carolinas. We watched the dark rainclouds from the dining room window as she told me that after 3 transfers, her bus ride would take 36 hours, delivering her to her family at dawn.

Briefly we switched to another room where shopping bags of snacks and water were being assembled for the 170 migrants that were arriving shortly. Together we helped filled the bags with granola bars, pretzels, juice boxes, crackers and other snacks that the migrants could eat on their way to their destinations.

“We can’t ever go back,” Petra sighed. She worried about her pet ducks, her chickens, the goats and dogs, and hoped her mother would go back to feed them. Her older son hovered nearby, listening quietly to his mother. We hugged goodbye, and I wished her the best on her journey north. I thought of her later that night, at the hour when she was scheduled to leave.

The following day, as I watched the weather report about Hurricane Florence, packing winds of over 130mph and aiming for the Carolinas, I noted the mandatory evacuation of one million people along the U.S. Gulf coast. Automatically, my thoughts shifted to Petra. Would she and her boys be stranded in Houston? All bus routes that traverse our nation intersect in Houston, which is highly susceptible to Gulf storms, and is still recovering from Hurricane Harvey that hit in 2017, and Katrina in 2005. Would her family in South Carolina have to evacuate also? Regardless of the natural disaster, Petra will be expected to comply with her appointed court dates. Otherwise, she would be considered a fugitive. Was Petra’s decision to leave Mexico at this moment a good or bad decision?

Before we said goodbye, she told me she believed in the Divine Mercy, and the miracles this particular image of Jesus inspired. Meditating on the Divine Mercy helped her in times of trouble. The image was the screen saver on the phone where she kept the photos of her demolished house.

At this moment, I am hoping that the image is bringing her comfort as she travels towards the storm.

Serving between 200-400 men, women, children and infants a day, Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley’s Humanitarian Respite Center is always in need of basic necessities to help those like Petra. To learn more about the Humanitarian Respite Center, or to donate, click here.

* All names, locations and destinations have been changed for privacy.

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