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In the middle of the Rio Grande, separated families reunite for 3 minutes

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It took a 19-hour road trip  earlier this week for Maria Aldama to cover the distance between Kansas City to El Paso. And for that, she was rewarded with a three-minute embrace with a mother she hasn’t seen in 20 years.

She said Saturday she wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

“I always remembered her the same way she was when I left 20 years ago. Time hasn’t changed her. I see her the same way,” Aldama, 42, said on the concrete banks of the Rio Grande that separates Texas and Ciudad Juárez in Downtown El Paso. “It doesn’t matter that I traveled 19 hours for three minutes.”

Family members surround Maria Aldama (center, in blue) in a three-minute embrace in the middle of the Rio Grande on Saturday. Aldama has not seen some of her relatives in 20 years. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Aldama was one of about 200 families that passed through a turnstile of emotions Saturday during this year’s annual Hugs Not Walls event put on by the El Paso-based Border Network for Human Rights, which advocates for immigrant rights and immigration reform.

In partnership with the Mexican and United States governments, the event allows families from both sides of the river with no legal means to reunite to reconnect for a brief embrace in the middle of the Rio Grande.

For Esmeralda Esparza, the anxiety and joy she experienced just before descending the banks of the river was matched by the sadness that greeted her after the event coordinator’s voice boomed from a speaker: “Time is up, families. Now calling the next group.”

Esparza, 24, is a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that grants recipients a reprieve from deportation proceedings and a work permit. But it does not grant permission to travel in and out of the country.

“I’m overwhelmed, it’s sad and my parents don’t live in Juárez, they live in Torreon, (Coahuila), so they only come whenever they can,” she said.  

Esmeralda Esparza, right, hugs her parents as her mom whispers advice during their three-minute reunion at the Hugs Not Walls event on Saturday. Esparza is a DACA recipient in the US while her parents live in Mexico. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Saturday’s event on the Rio Grande came after Texas Republicans, including Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, said the United States is being invaded by people crossing the border and touted the state’s efforts to build a border wall on the southern border.  

The language drew quick condemnation from Democratic lawmakers who said it echoed words used by the accused Walmart shooter who took the lives of 23 people in 2019 during a racially motivated shooting.

Among the lawmakers was U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, who tweeted this week that Abbott and Patrick were “on notice” after adopting the rhetoric.

Though she didn’t call out certain officials Saturday, Escobar nonetheless challenged conservative lawmakers to attend the next Hugs Not Walls event so they could  grasp the reality of what current immigration laws are doing to families in the borderlands.

“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,” she said. “I want them to see the pain of each family member, I want them to see the beauty of the embraces and I want to see them the tragedy of  that separation (when) each family has to move back to their side.”

Families wait on both banks of the Rio Grande for their turn to meet in the middle of the river on Saturday during Hugs Not Walls, an event in which families separated by the border are able to reunite for three minutes. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Esparaza, whose status is in limbo as the U.S. Supreme Court could decide the future of the DACA program later this year, said she hoped that by next year she wouldn’t have to count on the annual Walls event to see her parents, who had to travel from Torreon for the three-minute visit.

“I want to not have to come to this event. I want to just go and be able to visit them,” she said.  

The event Saturday also coincided with Juneteenth, the anniversary of when former slaves received word in Galveston, Texas, that the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed two years earlier. 

Hugs Not Walls, an event in which families separated by the border are able to reunite for three minutes, took place on Saturday for the first since 2019. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Michael Grady, a pastor at Prince of Peace Christian Fellowship, told people on both sides of the border that immigrants and their families have the support from the African American community as immigrants and Blacks continue to advocate for common causes.

“We cannot be silent. If laws would change hearts, then what President Joe Biden signed the other day  would end our struggle,” he said of the law making Juneteenth a federal holiday. “On the Mexican side of the border we stand with you in solidarity. You are our brothers, you are our sisters. The blood is red that runs in your veins.”

Cover photo: Maria Aldama (center, in blue), 42, reunites with family members from Mexico that she has not seen in 20 years. Aldama drove from Kansas to El Paso for a three-minute embrace with her family. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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Julián Aguilar

Julián Aguilar is editor of El Paso Matters and a longtime border journalist.

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