Things That Matter

‘Fiesta Protesta’ Is A Massive Cross-Border Party That Gives A Whole New Outlook On The Border Crisis

Hundreds of people gathered recently along the banks of the Rio Grande for the seventh annual Voices From Both Sides festival held along the edge of Lajitas, Texas, and Paso Lajitas, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. 

On the American side, three Border Patrol vehicles watched from an overpass as festivalgoers waded back and forth through the thigh-deep water, crossing an international border.

What’s going on there may technically be illegal but police and Border Patrol are looking the other way – for now.

The 7th Annual Voices From Both Sides festival, or Fiesta Protesta, recently took place along the US-Mexico border and festival goers want more people to know about their unique community.

Credit: @ozzyfan1962 / Twitter

Since 2013, there has been an annual Voices From Both Sides festival along the US-Mexico border. The daylong event commemorates the 2002 closure of the border crossing between Lajitas and its Mexican sister city, Paso Lajitas, as well as serving as a kind of binational family reunion. More than 1,000 people cooled off in the Rio Grande, gathered for a picnic lunch and took in music and ballet folklórico performances.

For decades the American and Mexican towns enjoyed an easy interdependence. That changed after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, when the American government tightened border security. Over Mother’s Day weekend in May of 2002, Border Patrol agents detained about 20 people in Lajitas on immigration charges, signaling that unauthorized passage across the river would no longer be allowed. Families with members on both sides of the river were effectively separated; before long, businesses in Paso Lajitas catering to Americans closed.

When the crossing closed in 2002, Paso Lajitas struggled; only a couple of families still live there and the restaurants all closed.

Two decades ago, Paso Lajitas was home to about 20 families and several tourist-supported eateries, a store and a few informal guide outfitters. Visitors from the United States would cross to eat tacos at a riverside restaurant. Residents of the Mexican towns would buy laundry soap in American stores or visit American doctors. Throughout the 1990s, some Paso Lajitas children even attended school in

Now, according to two women who live on the Mexican side, they only see their cousins in the US – who only live 16 miles away – once a year because the journey now involves a long 150-mile -long route.

This year’s Fiesta Protesta was even visited by Mike Rubens, correspondent for “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee.”

One of the attendees described the relationship between the two border towns as “a neighborhood with a river in the middle of it.” Rubens also spoke with two Mexican women who said they grew up attending school in America, and that Americans shopped at their family’s store in Mexico.

Before the Lajitas border crossing was closed in 2002, the Mexicans and Americans thought of themselves as a single community. Co-organizer Jeff Haislip said, “If you’ve never seen the togetherness, you wouldn’t notice the separation. We used to play softball against each other. We were integrated as a community.”

The current administration’s focus on border security has added a new level of concern to people on both sides of the river. One American woman said, “I’m not necessarily pro ‘let everybody come over here,’ but I think that we have gone completely beyond the limits that are necessary for what’s going on. These people just want to see their families.”

Since so few people know about the annual event, many were shocked and excited to hear about it.

Credit: @ilektracm / Twitter

In 2013, after more than a decade of strict border enforcement, Jeff Haislip and Collie Ryan, residents of Terlingua, another small Texas town 10 miles farther east along the Rio Grande, wanted to host a Mother’s Day protest. But then they decided that a party would be more fitting. 

“We didn’t just want to protest the border being closed, we wanted to show all the wonderful things that were lost when it was,” Mr. Haislip said. And so they began planning Voices From Both Sides as an international “fiesta protesta.”

Most people don’t know about the event because few people are reporting on it.

Many viewers and residents alike point out that the whole ‘border crisis’ is entirely made up by the US government and the media. Instead of dealing with humanitarian needs in a humane way, the US has manufactured a crisis in order to respond with brute force and to demonize entire communities.

Some took to social media to share just how special the event really is.

This Instagram user pointed out just how traditionally Texas the celebration really is. Her family goes back generations in Texas and points out that people have been crossing the US-Mexico border for just as long.

During the inaugural event, attendees were initially shy about wading 40 feet across the river. According to one attendee, “the dogs were the ones that broke the ice.”

U.S Border Patrol observes the festivities and allows both sides to travel back and forth across the natural border as long as everyone returns to their respective sides of the river when all is said and done.

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This Pop-Up School For Migrant Kids Along The Border Went Virtual Thanks To Covid-19 But It’s Thriving More Than Ever

Things That Matter

This Pop-Up School For Migrant Kids Along The Border Went Virtual Thanks To Covid-19 But It’s Thriving More Than Ever

John Moore / Getty Images

The people traveling hundreds or thousands of miles to reach the U.S.-Mexico border aren’t living in some ‘migrant vaccuum’ where nothing else matters. They still have lives to live and experiences to have and, particularly for the young ones, an education to continue.

That was the thinking behind one sidewalk school that popped up in one of the many migrant camps along the U.S.-Mexico border. It was becoming filled with children from across Latin America who were forced to wait out their asylum process from within the border camps, thanks to Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy. But their need for an education didn’t just go away.

One woman – with no formal teacher training – decided to help and launched what was called a ‘sidewalk school’ for kids in the camp. But it’s been incredible successful and has blossomed into an online academy for kids throughout the border region.

Despite Covid-19, this pop-up school for migrant kids along the border is thriving.

Just as the Coronavirus pandemic has impacted schools around the world, it’s also having an impact on a pop-up sidewalk school for asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The school, which launched to help fill the educational needs of a growing group of kids stuck at the border, had to go to virtual learning because of the pandemic. But instead of seeing that as a challenge, the school instead has blossomed.

What started out with one teacher at one camp on a sidewalk, how now blossomed by hiring 20 teachers – all asylum seekers themselves – to give classes via Zoom to children across the border region.

To be able to switch to distance learning, the teachers and students were outfitted with more than 200 Amazon tablets by The Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers. The organization was founded by Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, who lives across the border in Brownsville, Texas, and has been crossing to help the asylum seekers by providing them food and books.

It started in just one migrant camp with one teacher but it’s blossomed ever since.

A program like the sidewalk school was severely needed as hundreds and thousands of kids starting being forced to wait at the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s well-known that the border region is one of the most dangerous and violent parts of Mexico and that only underscores the need for quality activities.

Many point out that parents aren’t sending their kids to Mexican schools because they’re afraid to be apart from them. Crime is common here, and kidnappings have been reported. Other parents say registering for school in Mexico is difficult. But program leaders want the kids to be able to continue their education, and they say that many of the asylum-seekers have skill sets they can put to use at the school.

Parents are grateful, too, with one woman telling NPR that she knows “her children will be safe at the sidewalk school, and it gives her time to meet with an immigration lawyer. Volunteer attorneys have been coming over on the weekends to give free legal advice. The asylum-seekers could wait for months to be able to make their asylum case in the U.S.”

Teachers try to give the students some sense of normalcy amid the often dire circumstances at the border.

Credit: John Moore / Getty Images

Many students start their day with an arts and crafts class. Kids are asked to draw on paper plates then outline them with flue and drop glitter. Then they get to hang their creations from trees.

One impromptu teacher, who told NPR he preferred to remain anonymous, said that he wants the kids to “see other people appreciate the artwork they did and let them know how important they are, too, even to people, like, just walking past and driving by. It’s beautiful work.

The classes have offered children not only the chance to catch up on studies that were interrupted when their families fled violence in their homelands, but also a distraction from the long days of boredom.

Trump’s ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy is what is fueling the need for programs like these.

Credit: JULIO CESAR AGUILAR/AFP via Getty Images

It’s the Trump policy of ‘Remain in Mexico’ that has forced programs like these to exist in the first place. The program forces asylum seekers to wait south of the border as their immigration cases proceed through the U.S. court system.

It leaves thousands of families living in tents or at Mexican shelters. Previously, asylum seekers were allowed to remain in the United States with relatives or other sponsors while their cases proceeded.

Many have spent more than a year with their lives in limbo, and the wait has only grown longer with the Trump administration suspending immigration court hearings for asylum-seekers during the pandemic.

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Activist Couple Was Married At The Border Wall Where They First Met Six Years Ago

Things That Matter

Activist Couple Was Married At The Border Wall Where They First Met Six Years Ago

Alexandra Mendoza / Getty Images

With all the uncertainty and traumatic news happening around us, it’s so encouraging to hear stories like this one. And that’s exactly what this couple had in mind when deciding to have their wedding ceremony at the U.S.-Mexico border wall in Tijuana – the same spot they met six years ago.

In marrying at the border wall, these two deportees wanted to bring attention to their respective causes (they both head support groups for recent deportees) while giving hope to those who are facing deportation.

Their message for those who face the traumatic experience of deportation is that life goes on and no matter which side of the border you are on, you’ll fine love, be embraced by family, and chase your dreams.

An activist couple celebrated their marriage with a ceremony at the U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Yolanda Varona and Héctor Barajas celebrated their love for another this past weekend, in front of the wall that divides San Diego and Tijuana. The same wall that separated them from their loved ones. The same wall where they met.

The couple met six years ago to the date, on the Mexican side of Friendship Park, while defending their respective causes. Varona is an advocate for recently deported mothers while Barajas works to help recently deported veterans.

“Someone told me go to the wall and that I’d find a veteran who was also deported and maybe with him I’d be able to do the activism that I long had wanted to do,” she told the San Diego Union Tribune in an interview.

She added that the veteran kind of intimidated her with his uniform and good looks so she asked him if she could take a picture with him to help break the ice. The pair have been inseparable ever since that ‘date’ in 2014.

Having legally celebrated their marriage back in August, the couple decided to host the ceremony with family and friends at the same spot they first met.

For both, this ceremony was important to send a message of hope to other migrant families.

Credit: Alexandra Mendoza / Getty Images

In an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribue, Varona, who leads the DREAMers Moms group in Tijuana, said, “It is very symbolic because this wall separated us from our children, but it reminds us that there is life out here too and we can continue fighting from here.”

All too often the story of deportation is one of an ending. However, regardless of how traumatic and difficult the experience is, it’s important to remembre that life goes on. There is a strong community in Mexico formed from those who have been deported – and many different resources to help those readjust to their new lives.

During their special ceremony, the groom couldn’t hide his happiness. “She has always been there for me, and I want to continue to be a better person, and I know good things will come for us,” he said during their ceremony.

The couple were accompanied by friends, including members of their communities: deported mothers and veterans. The ceremony was brief, given that the beaches of Tijuana are open on reduced hours due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, there was no lack of dancing between the couple in front of the sunset.

Their activism work brought them together but they both share similar stories as well.

Varona, who lived with her family in San Diego, was deported more than a decade ago, while Barajas, a former United States Army trooper, was involved in an altercation and after serving a year and a half in prison was repatriated to his native Mexico in 2004.

Determined to return to the U.S, Varona made another attempt at living in the U.S. without documentation but she was subsequently deported again in 2010. Upon being sent back to Tijuana, she founded the support group for deported mothers.

Barajas founded the support group for deported veterans after arriving back in Tijuana. However, in 2018, he was granted a pardon by then Governor of California, Jerry Brown, and he was able to return to the U.S. to complete the naturalization process to become a U.S. citizen.

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