Run From The Border

‘My Boy Will Die of Sorrow,’ a wrenching first-hand account of immigrant trauma

In My Boy Will Die of Sorrow, Efrén C. Olivares takes us to his home at the border. He brings us there in order to give us a firsthand perspective of the immigration issues that have dominated our news and politics in recent years. Irreducible by the outrage industry through which we usually view the border from a distance, it is both a personal and professional perspective.

Olivares is a lawyer living in McAllen, Texas. McAllen is the quintessential border town of the Rio Grande Valley, the floodplain at the mouth of the river separating the United States from Mexico. The region includes the city of Brownsville and the Palo Alto Battlefield, the site of the first battle of the Mexican-American War. It was the most densely settled part of Mexican Texas prior to the Texas Revolution, and perhaps the most “Mexicanized” of all territories annexed by the United States from Mexico. As Olivares recalls of the Valley’s famous Basilica of Our Lady San Juan del Valle, “a Mariachi band sings the hymns, a constant reminder of the close ties between the shrine, its community, and Mexican culture.” That culture has remained despite many external attempts to change it.

My Boy Will Die of Sorrow

The Valley, as locals call it, remains the most distinctly Mexican part of Texas, as well as the most distinctly Texan part of Mexico, producing music of national Mexican acclaim as well as its own local varieties such as conjunto tejano – where German and Cajun traditions melt together with the Mexican. You can summarize much of the culture of the Valley by the Chicano saying: “Nosotros no cruzamos la frontera, la frontera nos cruzó a nosotros”… “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.” Even the regional Museum of the Northeast across the border in Monterrey includes modern US Texas in its exhibitions, a part of “Greater Mexico”. Meanwhile, locals who remember the struggles for equality afflicting Mexican residents during the Civil Rights movement enthusiastically embrace the red, white, and blue. It is a culture of contrasts.

The Valley also faces the contrast between former immigrants, with roots planted for centuries, and those struggling to cross the border. Immigrants from Mexico, like Olivares–who shares his immigration story with us–no longer make up the majority crossing the Rio Grande today in search of a better life. Instead the majority today are asylum-seekers from Central America. Many are part of the “migrant caravans” we’ve been hearing about since 2017. Often demonized, these caravans have become a defining element of political debates in both the US and Mexico, whose entire length these immigrants cross, often on foot. They include the victims of family separations that we often refer to via the crude but accurate phrase “kids in cages”.

In My Boy Will Die of Sorrow, Olivares takes us inside the events that continue to focus our attention on our southern border since 2017, and in particular on the consequences of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy which separated children from their families. The book is part memoir, taking us back to Olivares’ very personal immigration experiences. He is a human rights lawyer with over a decade of practice, a Yale graduate, and the Deputy Legal Director of Immigrant Justice at the Southern Poverty Law Center. But it was while working with the Texas Civil Rights Project in 2018 that many memories of his early life came back to him. They are memories of immigration, to be sure, but of a peculiar sort.

His paternal grandfather, Güelito Julián, was actually American. His parents gave birth to him in Texas as migrant workers in 1902. Olivares reminds us of those days: “There was no Border Patrol, no Immigration and Nationality Act, and certainly no Zero Tolerance policy. If there was work and you wanted to work, you just went to the United States.”

As a result, his father was able to immigrate, yet the rest of Olivares’ family had to stay behind until they met conditions for their immigration. This must have given the young Olivares a fascination with jus soli, jus sanguinis, and other legal terms connected to birth and place. But all of his earlier experiences would take on a new light when he began his work of documenting the experiences of immigrants at federal criminal court in McAllen. These immigrants assumed they were in an immigration court, and that the United States would soon return their children to them.

With each immigrant account Olivares documents and shareswe begin to see a bigger picture of what has been going on at our border in our name–often with as much regard for humanity as for the letter of the law–and how horrific it has been for those who see our country from afar and still dare to dream.

He introduces us to Mario Pérez Domingo, an Indigenous man who the government charged with felony human trafficking because he told a border official that his daughter was his “hijo”, or “son”. Mario spoke the Mayan language Mam, not Spanish. It is a language with half a million speakers in Guatemala. 29.6% of Guatemalans speak Mayan languages, with that number likely being higher among displaced peoples. And yet US authorities had made no provision for translating for Mam speakers. It would have been a logical provision to make, but what Olivares makes clear is that this would have been beside the point. “Zero-tolerance” meant a punitive response, not an understanding one.

There’s also a lot of money to be made in punishing immigrants. Olivares tells us about the private prison operators contracted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to manage their immigrant detention facilities. These include Management and Training Corporation (MTC) and the multinational GEO Group (“the second-largest for-profit prison operator in the U.S. by number of facilities”). The lucrative contracts which these private prison operators secure through a $3+ million lobby often include clauses guaranteeing a daily minimum of immigrant detainees, thus incentivizing different levels of government to escalate and prolong detentions.

Olivares is clear that this problem is not going to fix itself. Moreover, there’s no innocent party involved. While both major parties pass the buck back and forth on the issue of border detentions, it’s the American people themselves who have blood on their hands. Olivares reminds us of the first audio leaked from the detention centers in 2018, when the world first heard the screams of the “kids in cages” for themselves.

In those infamous recordings, Olivares notes a telling interaction. Amidst the loud crying of dozens of children, there is the voice of one guard who callously asks, in Spanish with a Caribbean accent, “Do we have an orchestra here?” A child’s voice responds, “What is an orchestra?” Meanwhile, another guard–an American speaking in his native Spanish–shouts, “We need a conductor!” Eventually he does here one of the guards say, “no llores”… “don’t cry.” This leads Olivares to ask:

“What could that agent have been thinking as he heard the children cry? All he did was elaborate on his sinister orchestra analogy and offer them a tepid no llores. Did he not see himself, or his family, his ancestors who came to this country before he did, in the faces and the cries of these children? Did he see himself as Cuban American or Puerto Rican and therefore “different” from these Salvadoran and Guatemalan children? The people in the Administration—especially his bosses pushing forth the Zero Tolerance policy—did not appear to care much about that distinction. Or did he simply see himself as “legal” and these children as “illegal” and that was enough to distance himself from the sobbing children, although they spoke the same language, shared some history and culture, maybe had the same skin color?”

Such platitudes as ethnic or cultural solidarity are completely meaningless when you don’t found them on universal human rights first and foremost. Any of our tired ideologies, be they the ethnicized Latino concept of la raza or the beloved “nation of immigrants” trope, are useless if we don’t first look at the concrete realities we face.

My Boy Will Die of Sorrow takes its title from the words of Leonel, another Indigenous migrant from Guatemala separated from his child. Olivares asked him what he expected to happen if the United States deports him without his son after his criminal proceedings. Leonel answers, “No, pues, mi niño se muere de tristeza.” Alone in America, “my boy will die of sorrow.” We, too, may die of sorrow in this way, if the Valley which brings us together remains a place that tears us apart.

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Jeremy Ray Jewell

Jeremy Ray Jewell is a frequent contributor to Boston’s The Arts Fuse (artsfuse.org). His critical essays have been published in multiple languages. He has an MA in History of Ideas from Birkbeck College, University of London, and a BA in Philosophy from the University of Massachusetts Boston. His website is www.jeremyrayjewell.com.

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