By Gabriel Fernandes
On October 26 I got to be part of history being written. For four hours on that day in El Paso, Texas, the border between the United States and Mexico came under the control of the community as the Border Network for Human Rights (BNHR) organized its seventh “Hugs Not Walls” event.
I was a volunteer, standing halfway across the mostly dry Rio Grande, as more than 250 families separated by U.S. immigration policies came together for a three-minute embrace. Family after family met in the middle of the river — children seeing their parents, grandparents meeting their grandchildren, spouses and siblings briefly reunited.
It was my job to tell families their time was up. I heard their stories and shared their tears. I witnessed atrocities that highlighted the unnatural character of their separation. And, contrastingly, I saw examples of people coming together as a community and being driven by hope and determination to change the course of history.
Due to the large number of people waiting, all affected by the political implications of the border, BNHR had to limit people’s time with their families. Despite it being a short period, it was more than most people had had together in years, even decades. There, families experienced an intense range of emotions: people went from the most ecstatic joy to the deepest grief. Farewell moments were especially hard for everyone. Many didn’t know if a family reunion would be possible again. During those moments, it was not uncommon for faintings to happen due to the emotional shock of such realization. A Mexican Red Cross team was on hand to assist when needed.
It is our duty to share the struggles of these separated families and to denounce the humanitarian catastrophe caused by border enforcement. For those raised in the militarized zone of the borderlands, separation and loss are a daily reality. It should not be necessary to create an event to allow children spend a few minutes with their parents, or to have a crowd of volunteers carry an elderly woman in a wheelchair to the banks of a river so that she could finally meet her grandchildren.
My job that day should not have been necessary: the job of reminding people that, unfortunately, their time with those they love was limited by external constraints. However, the structural conditions at the border make even these brief meetings a victory, possible only when people are united in their claim to having their humanity acknowledged.
“Hugs Not Walls” is nothing more than a necessary response to an unnatural separation. The event began in 2016 under the Barack Obama administration and continues to draw families to the border from all over the United States and Mexico, not primarily because it is a political or symbolic statement against oppressive systems, but because it is a material need for families to be connected.
In my short time in El Paso, I found it to be home to many encounters and contradictions. Different languages and cultural traditions meet and complement each other there. This is a natural process, an intrinsic part of people’s identities. However, as seen above, conflict, violations of human rights, persecution, and white supremacy are all undeniable parts of the region’s history and its present. Even in modern-day El Paso, terrible acts of violence stand in opposition to groundbreaking acts of love and togetherness.
Family separation and demonization of cultures, unfortunately, are not new. Studying history, we see that the logic of separation used to legitimize westward expansion of the U.S. territory still informs the oppression of people in the borderlands, whether immigrants or U.S.-born.
Gloria Anzaldúa, the renowned Chicana writer and activist, is a necessary voice to understand this process. In her view, as someone who strongly identifies with that area, borders are inherently segregationist. Borders exist to define which places are considered safe, while simultaneously distinguishing those who are like “us” from “them.” Such distinction is heavily dependent on imperialist ideology and white supramecist thinking.
According to Todd Miller, author of Empire of Borders, even though official accounts of history often overlook its violent nature, the U.S southwestern border assumed its current form only in 1854 as the result of an imperial war that led to the confiscation of half of Mexico’s territory, which includes present-day Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California.
The United States redrew its national borders without consideration for those who would directly be affected by it. A region that was once one in terms of geography and culture became divided for the benefit of the empire. As a result, communities sharing the same cultural heritage were unnaturally set apart, families were separated, and people were forced to submit to values and ideas that spoke little to their identity. In fact, the only culture considered legitimate and civilized was the culture of the white settlers coming from the east.
The legacy of the 19th century Manifest Destiny expansionist doctrine lives on. It is no coincidence that the current U.S. president evokes a similar rhetoric of separation in his zero-tolerance attitude toward what he has called an “invasion.” It is ironic that the original inhabitants of the land, who maintain deep cultural and historical ties to the area, are painted as the invaders.
One of the merits of “Hugs Not Walls” is to call attention to the arbitrary character of the border separation. The reunion of families coming from both sides of the border reminds us that no artificially imposed line can stop the process of social exchange. Culture can be better understood as a continuum that unfolds naturally, in a constant process of mutual exchange and growth.
In the words of Fernando García, executive director of BNHR, “Hugs Not Walls” turns the impossible into reality. The event succeeds in creating, albeit momentarily, a borderless region where social impositions disappear and people can simply be people. Anzaldúa believes that the key to liberating ourselves from dualistic and hierarchical perceptions of “us” and “them” lies in people who can see in between, such as those brought up in borderlands. In her book Borderlands: The New Mestiza, she calls for the recognition of a mestiza consciousness, a worldview that emerges from a multiplicity of voices, cultures, and experiences. In a world where everything is naturally tied together, there can be no legitimate separation.
Ultimately, “Hugs Not Walls” dwells in this new form of consciousness to shake our preconceived notions of what is legitimate, making us seriously reconsider what type of future we want to build in this country. “Hugs Not Walls” taps into the future by celebrating the cultural and human unity that is, paradoxically, both a historical fact and potential that can be fulfilled through community building and resistance.