On a sunny and breezy evening in San Juan, about 60 community members gathered along the steps of Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle, as they listened to organizers from the No Border Wall Coalition call for accountability in the death of 20-year-old Claudia Patricia Gómez González at the hands of Border Patrol.
“So, the reason why I am here today is because, honestly, Border Patrol has been getting away with the murder of too many people here on our borders,” said Melinda Melo, an organizer for the No Border Wall Coalition.
“There has been no accountability for Border Patrol. They have been put on administrative leave. They have been suspended temporarily; that’s not good enough.”
Claudia Patricia Gómez González, an indigenous woman from Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, was shot and killed by a Border Patrol agent near Laredo, on May 23 during an encounter riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions by Customs and Border Protection’s own accounts. Marta Martinez, a local resident who caught video of the aftermath, says Gómez González was hiding behind a tree when she was shot by the agent, who was placed on administrative leave.
Calling attention to the mainstream narratives about the Rio Grande Valley as a ‘war-zone’ by people who do not live in the community, Melo assured everyone that “ today is your moment y’all. Today is your time to mourn the loss of the people that have died, some of them…your brothers and sisters…people that are part indigenous…But in general, we live in one world…no one is illegal here.”
Melo was accompanied on the steps by Emilia Alvarez, a member of the American Federation of Teachers, who, addressing the community in Spanish, said that Claudia’s story moved her because she too is an immigrant.
“Me da coraje, me dan muchas emociones, porque no es justo lo que están haciendo con nosotros…”
The high school teacher reminded the audience that when immigrants decide to leave their homeland, they do so to seek a better life.
“No venimos a robar, no venimos a matar.”
She concluded by giving thanks to those in attendance for being united as a community, lifting up each other’s voices.
“Como un inmigrante estoy en la posición de levantar la voz por mis compañeros, por mi familia, por mis amigos. Porque esa línea que está ahí, es una línea imaginaria que nosotros cuando decidimos venir, lo hacemos con un propósito: para venir para buscar una mejor vida para nuestra familia,” Alvarez said.
Alvarez later spoke about the militarization of the border community, in particular how she has been harassed while running at Bentsen State Park by Border Patrol agents questioning her legal status simply because of the color of her skin.
As the struggle of indigenous people was highlighted, the organizers made sure to give a platform to local indigenous voices like Jesse Mancias, an elder of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas who are native to the South Texas Rio Grande Delta. He was accompanied by coalition member and Carrizo brother, Isidro Leal, who sang a Carrizo song. Before getting into the meat of what he wanted to say, he started by taking issue with the burden Gamboa had to bear.
“She’s not an immigrant. The people that cross the ocean, that stepped on our land are the immigrants,” Mancias said. “The Indian people, your people, are permanent residents that have always been here and will continue to be here.”
Continuing to negate the narrative of colonization, Mancias recalled that estranging indigenous people from their own land is nothing new.
“Claudia Gonzalez was murdered, and they keep calling her an immigrant. She is not an immigrant. The real issue here is that our people are being slaughtered and it’s not a new thing.”
Rehearsing the history of colonization from the Spanish to the Texas Rangers, the elder also pointed attention to just how deep colonization can affect the psyche of a people.
“I saw people standing in front of the detention center. They were browner than I was. But they had a badge on…they need to know that we are one people,” Mancias said, urging everyone to go out and vote.
The National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, known as Las Poderosas in the community, at the forefront of the struggle for dignity and justice for undocumented families, Nancy Cardenas, of the institute, began her remarks by stating that Immigration and Customs Enforcement is a new organization in the U.S.
“These organizations have not been with us since the beginning of our nation’s history. ICE was created in 2003. These organizations are taking lives. These organizations are taking the lives of people who not only want to come here for a better life, but just want to live here simply as human beings,” said the Valley native.
Describing something Claudia was denied —namely, her humanity — Cardenas talked about Claudia’s ambitions to be an accountant, how she would playfully love to make people upset. “No one who has died under the custody of ICE and Border Patrol deserves to die at the hands of these corrupt institutions.”
She also expressed how glad she was at the community being brought around to hold institutions like Border Patrol and ICE accountable.
“We all run that risk. We all run the risk of hearing that something happened with our family but it is up to us to stand up to these organizations that haven’t existed since the beginning of this country’s origin and say that enough is enough,” said the Austin resident. “And everyone that you see here around you is willing to support, to organize, to fight back and to resist corrupt institutions like ICE and Border Patrol.”
The vigil continued with speeches from representatives from the Brown Berets, Fuerza del Valle Workers’ Center and a performance by Poets Against Walls of a collective piece woven with people who have experienced suffering caused by current immigration policies and the voices who try justifying these actions:
“Say her name! Claudia Patricia Gómez González;” “My family came the right way;” “Why did they bring their children if it is so dangerous;” “Cuts rivers out of it and let it run;” “Let the current carry all pieces of her because water is life and she will live in all who wade the river;” “They want to take our jobs;” “They are jealous of our freedom;” “No venimos a matar;” “We need stronger borders to protect us from terrorists!” “Venimos a trabajar;” “I really don’t care, do you?”
“Nosotros dia y dia luchamos por la justicia laboral y hemos, desafortunadamente, vivido mucho sufrimiento que estamos sintiendo hoy de los migrantes que mueren,” said Hector Guzman Lopez, of Fuerza del Valle Workers’ Center. “ La compañera Claudia es otra compañera que no tengo que ver muerta a las manos de la patrulla fronteriza”
Guzman Lopez recalled how two Guatemalan “compañeros” were killed by Texas DPS during car chase, in which DPS officers, so they claimed, shot at their vehicle in order to bust or flatten the tires.
The Texas Observer ran a story wherein the parents of the siblings were quoted saying that their sons survived the Guatemalan war and genocide, for which President Clinton apologized, without embarrassment, Guzman Lopez explained, just to die at the Texas border at the hands of state patrol.
Calling for restitution, and bringing to justice those who are responsible (not just he who fired the gun, but they who supervise and allow such things to occur), he demanded, recalling as well two Bangladeshi comrades who drowned in the river. But Guzman Lopez also remembered those 500-plus corpses found in the desert near Falfurrias that the South Texas Human Rights Center have exhumed, most of which are unidentifiable, many of whom are likely the missing relatives of families in Central America whose relatives were desaparecidos on their journey to the U.S.
Guzman-Lopez has also had enough.
“Esto tiene que acabar. Estamos hartos que el gobierno nos trate peor que sus animales. Nos están dejando morir. Es una situación terrible y bueno, hay que luchar y sentir ese coraje; digan no, basta,” the labor organizer said, adding that Claudia will never be forgotten. “Los invitamos a que sigan la lucha y no vamos a olvidar a nuestros caídos jamás.”
In the audience was a McAllen resident, who not wanting to be named, told me that they had always considered a career in law enforcement, even Border Patrol, but decided better not in light of the many abuses recently reported by that agency. A UTRGV medical school professor who resides in Harlingen made the trip to the basilica as well. Aiming to interview people of all ages, I sat next to an older man near a tree who I thought came to attend the vigil or just decided to listen in during an evening walk.
“Que bonito dia, no? Salio bien…” I said, trying to start a conversation with him.
His gracious and welcoming smile, as he turned to look at me, did not prepare me for what he said next.
“Yo estoy buscando ayuda. Soy de El Salvador…”
Through the river he came, he explained to me, elaborating that they (coyotes for the drug cartels) held him at a desolate warehouse, although they let him out because his family, from whom they wished to extort money, would not respond, he said.
He said that they would have killed him, though he begged his captors to leave him at a church. They did, but Octavio thinks they granted him this mercy because of his age. Given the cries and screams reported of people begging border patrol for mercy (out of fear of being killed or abused if deported) it has really come to something when drug cartels are the ones known for showing mercy.
He lived in Virginia for twelve years prior to being deported to El Salvador in 2016. He says there are no jobs and that gangs run the streets, even extorting rents from residents.
“Para mi, en El Salvador, no hay vida.”
El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world and many of the asylum-seekers arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border over the last few years have been from El Salvador, including tens of thousands of children.
The man told me all he had left was his brother who by then had abandoned him, like his children and wife did when he first immigrated to the U.S. Evidently frightened and scared of what would happen to him, I assured him that in the Rio Grande Valley, somos familia, and coordinated with a visiting Pastor from Mission who took part in the vigil to get him to a nearby shelter that works closely with the church.
Meeting a refugee from El Salvador at a vigil to commemorate the injustices to refugees serves as a reminder of how much an emergency this crisis is, while also putting the lie to the rhetoric that alarms our community to the supposed dangers refugees pose to the U.S.
The program ended with a phone call to Claudia’s parents,amplified on the P.A. system with a microphone as Agripina Gomez of La Unión del Pueblo Entero, who helped the coalition by reaching out and connecting with Claudia’s family, communicated back and forth during the call, letting them know the community stood with them.
“Aquí departe de nosotros les damos nuestras condolencias…y le queremos decir que no están solos…que a nosotros nos duele también…ella no ha sido olvidada,” the community organizer said.
“Muchas gracias, lo agradezco bastante ustedes…que dios los bendiga a ustedes…le doy gracias a todos que están ahí…los agradezco a todos,” Claudia’s father, Gilberto, said, her mom adding “muchas gracias, queremos justicia para mi hija.”
The night ended with attendees visiting an altar that was made in honor of Claudia, in front of it a guest book that would be sent to her family, and with the floor being opened to members of the community who wished to speak. Gary Cooper of the No Border Wall Coalition spoke, as well as Nat Heathman, a Boston resident who spoke on behalf of F.I.R.E. (Fighting for Immigrant Rights Everywhere), an organization of the Workers World Party dedicated to fighting in solidarity with immigrant communities worldwide for immigrant rights.