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Immigration | United States | Central America

This Rio Grande Valley Lifer Chose Saving Lives at the Border Over a Secure Career Path

When victims of Trump & Co’s cruel immigration policies got stranded in Mexico, Gaby Zavala stood up for their rights

29 June 2009, A clash between pro-Zelaya protesters and the Honduran military (Photo: Roberto Breve, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

A Nation — and Region — in the Balance

In the early morning of Sunday, June 28, 2009, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya appeared on the tarmac of the airport in San José, Costa Rica, wearing nothing but pajamas. Few back home were aware, however, as the military had cut power across the country, blocking all media coverage of the unfolding coup d’état.

Two decades after the end of the Cold War, the events that followed mirrored the arc familiar to anyone with knowledge of Latin America: A democratically elected president with an eye toward lifting up the impoverished masses lands on the wrong side of entrenched elites — and US regional policy — and is removed from his bed (and office) at gunpoint.

In the coup’s aftermath, free speech was stamped out as human rights violations spiked. The military shut down all TV, radio, and print news media with a pro-Zelaya, pro-democracy slant. Police cracked down on peaceful protesters, while sending many Zelaya allies to prison. The ambassadors of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua were detained and beaten before being sent packing, signaling that ground-up reform would no longer be tolerated in Honduras. The defacto regime’s post-coup campaign slogan, “Honduras is open for business,” further drove that message home.

Police and death squads merged as gangs and drug traffickers were permitted to operate with impunity. Killings, disappearances, torture, and mutilations of journalists, human rights defenders, and environmental activists became — and remain — routine. Yet millions of dollars in US military aid continued to flow.

By 2012, Honduras had earned the distinction of murder capital of the world — an accolade it has not shaken since. So, many did what all of us would do if forced to look down the barrel of a social, political, and economic crisis with no resolution: They ran for their lives.

For the past decade, hundreds of thousands of Hondurans — including an unprecedented number of unaccompanied children and youth in 2013–14 — have sought refuge in the US. Among them, “Juan” and “Maria” and their two little girls, “Rosa” and “Perla,” who first fled Honduras in 2018, but whose ordeal, as 2020 draws to a close, is still far from over.

Safety in Numbers: The Caravan Phenomenon

The journey to the US pitted them against perils that were by then legion: abuse by local police and military; kidnapping by human traffickers; extortion by opportunists and smugglers; the ravenous labor demands of drug cartels and organized crime; rape, murder, and disappearance of those who refused to comply. The 2010 San Fernando massacre of 72 migrants, and the 2011 discovery of mass graves containing hundreds of innocent others, proved that the Mexican government was either unable — or unwilling — to ensure the rights and safety of people transiting through the country.

So refugees sought safety in numbers. Thus was born the phenomenon of the migrant caravan. A “trans-border” organization of human rights defenders followed. Puebla Sin Fronteras formed to provide accompaniment, aid, advocacy, and protection for anyone braving the migratory trail — a kind of overground underground railroad.

But while caravans draw a lot of attention, they only account for a small fraction of the roughly 450,000 migrants that pass through Mexico each year.

Trump’s Manufactured Border Crisis

On October 12, 2018, some 160 people gathered at the bus terminal in the Honduran border town of San Pedro Sula. By the time they left, on foot, in the wee hours of the 13th, their numbers had swelled to 1,000.

The caravan continued to grow en route, adding Guatemalans and Mexicans all along the 2,500-mile trek to the US. Members of the international press embedded in the caravan attest: The throng was peaceful, kept alive by humanitarians who offered food, clothing, and shelter as they passed.

To hear Trump tell it, this caravan was the first. It wasn’t. He claimed it comprised criminals “coming for your wives and daughters and jobs,” when in reality a good third of the final 7,000 were children. Insisting they were coming to “storm the barricades,” he deployed 1,000 US Army troops to confront the “national threat.” He needn’t have bothered, for he well knew: The migrants were destined to crash into Trump & Co’s bureaucratic wall — a system called “metering” — which halted the caravan in Tijuana.

It was a manufactured crisis. Southern border migration was at a 12-year low when he blundered his way into the White House in 2016. And the Department of Homeland Security reported the following year that the border had never been more secure. But conveniently for Trump & Co, this caravan was on the move just in time for the 2018 US mid-term elections.

He turned it into a marketing event, and used it to gin up his base. He urged his supporters to get to the polls, with fear-mongering and racial jingoism.

The plot backfired. Historic voter turnout flipped the House of Representatives from red to blue. Trump retaliated. Imposing the longest government shut down in US history, he insisted Congress increase funding for his boondoggle wall.

The threat was not real, so the funding would not be forthcoming. What was real was the fallout for the tens of thousands of asylum seekers trapped in a purgatory between the dangers they’d fled and a border that, throughout the winter, was effectively closed.

Fortunately, Gaby Zavala was ready. In many ways, everything she’d done in her life to this point had prepared her for this moment.

An immigrant and a 1st-generation immigrant meet at a bridge

Rio Grande Valley Humanitarians, Gaby Zavala and Pastor Carlos Navarro (photos, with thanks, from Serving Without Tech and RGV Rapid Response)

When Customs & Border Protection (CBP) re-opened the proverbial gates in January 2019, the backlog of humanity forced to wait in Mexico overwhelmed immigrant advocates all along the border. In the Rio Grande Valley, already exhausted from feeding, clothing, and sheltering hundreds of people every day since the previous June, humanitarians were suddenly forced to take on more.

The numbers arriving at Sister Norma Pimentel’s Humanitarian Respite Center spiked to 1000 people per day, while Brownsville’s Good Neighbor Settlement House was stretched beyond its capacity to serve the needs of 600. Even with other area shelters pitching in, there just wasn’t enough room for everyone.

Gaby Zavala had witnessed Sister Norma in action before taking over “Tucker’s kitchen” for Team Brownsville when he left to meet the caravan in Tijuana. She crossed frequently into Matamoros that winter to deliver food and donations to the stranded. While there, she met Pastor Carlos Navarro of Iglésia Bautista West Brownsville, whose Golán Mission also brought goods to aid the migrants awaiting their audience with CBP.

Himself a former refugee, having fled Guatemala in 1982, Pastor Navarro knows first hand what it means to be considered “illegal” in the US. “I speak their ‘language,’” he says. “I know how many miles they’ve walked in broken shoes, and how many days they’ve gone without food or showers.”

Though he wished to open his Church to them, he couldn’t — at least not initially. His facility has neither showers nor dormitory space. In addition, he recalls, “The situation was so politicized.”

To welcome the stranger was seen as anti-Trump, while shutting them out signaled support for his administration’s inhumane policies. Pastor Navarro couldn’t risk splitting apart his congregation, some of whom had bought into Trump & Co’s argument that there was only one “right way” to enter the US. But neither could he turn his back on people in need.

So, he volunteered with Jack White at Good Neighbor Settlement House. And he worked his wider network, successfully raising donations of new clothing items: packages of underwear still wrapped in transparent cellophane; boots and sneakers of all sizes; and jackets with tags still dangling from the sleeves.

Attending to Spiritual and Social Needs

Gaby crossed paths with the good Pastor frequently, first seeing him weekly, then every couple of days. The two hit it off immediately, connected in their shared commitment to see to the common good. Then one day, after witnessing the crush of humanity overwhelm Good Neighbor’s infrastructure, Gaby Zavala hatched her first plan.

“She told me, I have a dream, I just need a place,” states Pastor Navarro.

With his quiet nod of approval, Gaby phoned Brownsville’s emergency management team, convincing them to open a day shelter for women and children at the Iglésia Bautista. The facility had a large nursery full of toys, she argued, where volunteers could tend to the kids while their mothers, many of whom hadn’t slept in weeks, could rest on Red Cross-donated cots scattered through class and worship rooms.

Oh, and don’t worry about the lack of showers, she told them. We’ll set up temporary privacy showers in the Church parking lot.

When the municipal authorities asked Pastor Navarro for help, he left the decision to his congregation. “We began receiving people the very next day. I took care of their food and spiritual sustenance. Gaby took care of the social side of things: filling out forms, getting them to planes and buses on time, finding them legal representation.”

“We even set up clothing and vanity stations,” says Gaby. “About 25 volunteers a day from Pastor Navarro’s mission helped the women and children to create outfits from the donations and fix up their hair.”

Raised to Give Back

Gaby Zavala welcomes released asylum seekers at the Iglésia Bautista West Brownsville Respite Center, spring 2019 (Photo: Courtesy Gaby Zavala)

A child of the borderlands, Gaby understands first-hand what it means to be a family separated.

She’s the daughter of Mexican immigrants who chanced to meet at the mercado in Matamoros. “They fell in love on the spot.” Mami was already living on the US side of the border, so Papi joined her there. But he was back in Matamoros daily, as a member of the Mexican Policía Municipal.

“Crossing was much less strict in those days,” says Gaby. “All it took was to say, Yes, when Border Patrol asked if you were a US citizen, and you were waved across.”

But something went down when Gaby was little, “I still don’t really know the whole story,” she says. A mission gone wrong; the media got involved; and her father’s entire unit was brought down, leading to an eight-year imprisonment in Mexico. She and her older brother were left to be brought up by their mother and grandmother.

“We grew up surrounded by strong women who worked hard.”

Gaby worked hard too. When not in school, she was at the hospital where her mother worked as Medical Staff Coordinator. Gaby betrayed a knack for organization at a young age, helping Mami with filing and general office organization. As a young teen, she joined the staff as a candy-striper, setting herself up for a place at Brownsville’s Hanna High School for Medical Technology.

“I was on track to have a career in medicine,” says Gaby. But school wasn’t really her thing, at least not then. After one year at University of Texas Brownsville, she decided she’d rather work.

At the age of 19, she took a job as assistant to the director of Planned Parenthood RGV. And for the next six years, Gaby worked her way around the organization, learning everything there is to know about women’s reproductive rights and health. As a promotora, she canvassed communities, meeting people, disseminating information, and strengthening her spoken Spanish — though her immigrant parents spoke their native language at home, Gaby and her brother always responded in English.

When funding for Planned Parenthood was “slaughtered,” Gaby resolved to finish college. In the department of biomedical studies at University of Texas Brownsville, she became the lab assistant to a female molecular biologist and geneticist. They spent their days recombining proteins to better understand — and cure — common public health ills: diabetes and obesity. This set Gaby up for a potentially lucrative career and, indeed, upon graduating in 2010, she landed a job in a McAllen, TX medical lab.

The money was rolling in. She rented a house and bought a car. But trading community for office life didn’t sit well. What’s worse, she’d entered a very macho industry. Gaby faced frequent sexual harassment.

“I went from a place all about educating and empowering women to being victimized by the guys signing my paychecks. I’d been brought up to be part of something bigger than myself. Yet I was trapped by structural paternalism.”

An Entrepreneur is Born

It took two years, but Gaby finally swerved off the path to a cushy career. She took a position as a case manager with the Valley AIDS Council, helping “at-risk” individuals — those struggling with drug addiction, homelessness, and HIV — to chart a course toward future self-sufficiency. By now also a single mother of a young son, she struggled to pay the bills. So she pitched herself for additional contract work, eventually becoming a “fixer” for media outlets chasing stories on specific issues.

“That’s how I met the members of Team Brownsville.” Charged with scouting up a story on the border crisis for Hilary Andersson of the BBC, she set up an interview with Sergio Cordova and Andrea Rudnick in the fall of 2018.

“Afterward, they took me to ‘Tucker’s Place,’” as the Team Brownsville kitchen run by Brendon Tucker had been dubbed. She and Tucker became inseparable. “I cooked with him, I crossed with him. When he left to set up a kitchen in Tijuana, I became him.”

Crossing more frequently into Matamoros, Gaby began to hear the stories: Asylum seekers being extorted to keep their place in line. Cubans forced to pay more than Central Americans. Those unable to pay disappearing from the line altogether.

“I was learning first hand how our immigration policies were effecting — and destroying — real lives. I realized I could no longer just hand out sandwiches.”

Gaby left Team Brownsville to start a nonprofit, Asylum Seeker Network (ASN), to advocate for the rights of asylum seekers among policy makers. She went to Austin to lobby Texas legislators to end metering.

“But I was very naive,” she told me. “I quickly learned that decisions were being made at the Federal level. There was little even sympathetic Texas politicians could do until Trump was voted out.”

That’s when the numbers of refugees coming into the Rio Grande Valley skyrocketed and Gaby realized she was needed back at home. She pivoted, switching the focus of the ASN to direct-aid grassroots advocacy instead. And as 2019 rolled into spring, she was busy running the daytime respite center at Pastor Navarro’s church.

She had found her calling. She had never felt more fulfilled in her life.

Meanwhile, Maria and baby Perla joined the migrant flow, making it into the US and to the home of their sponsor. Feeling hopeful, Juan set out from Honduras with nine-year-old Rosa.

Then came the next shockwaves to emanate from the Trump White House.

It Takes a Village

In late July 2019, the Migrant “Protection” Protocol (MPP) arrived in Matamoros. Asylum seekers would now have to wait there, for a year or more, while their claims were adjudicated. But Mexico wasn’t helping them. Neither was the US. And the United Nations was nowhere to be seen.

It was up to the locals to pick up the slack once more.

Gaby had the idea of replicating the Iglésia Bautista Respite Center on the Mexican side of the border. But representatives of the State of Tamaulipas, where Matamoros is located, gave that plan a hard “No.” Claiming shelters were not safe, they tried to convince Gaby to join their efforts to bus asylum seekers back to their countries of origin.

“I stated that I wasn’t a fan of coercion, that educating people about the asylum process so they could make informed choices was more appropriate.” That’s when the idea of a resource center, where asylum seekers might review the strength of their claims with attorneys, began to take shape.

Gaby spent the long, hot summer of 2019 under the blazing sun that baked the tarmac of the Matamoros town plaza, helping asylum seekers fill out forms, replace missing documents, and find access to health care through local providers. In her free time, she was scouring the available real estate for office space.

The needs were great and growing exponentially. Whereas in the era of metering, the tent city would add 20 but lose 10 souls everyday, now tents were sprouting like dandelions.

Gaby felt the weight of that, as well as her growing child, due in a matter of weeks. Team Brownsville was feeding people with the help of an army of volunteers. The Angry Tias y Abuelas of the RGV provided clothes and tents and port-a-potties. But through her lens of organizer and educator turned medical professional and advocate, Gaby perceived myriad un-met needs.

A Call to Action

In September 2019, a 15-year-old refugee girl got sucked into the current while bathing in the fetid Rio Grande. Gaby watched it all unfold from the waiting room of her Brownsville obstetrician’s office. Another asylum-seeker filmed the incident, sending it to Gaby with a request for urgent help. Through competing reactions of shock, horror, and anger, she witnessed two others pull the dying girl from from the murky water, almost in real time. Gaby held her breath as they tried — and failed — to resuscitate her. If paramedics hadn’t arrived when they did — or at all — the young woman would have drowned. She would not have been the first.

“They need to get out of the river!” Gaby railed. “They need wash water!”

Having faced this issue just a few months earlier at the Iglésia Bautista Respite Center, Gaby knew what to do. She called the local water plant and was told if she could supply the tanks, they would fill them. She set up a GoFundMe page, raising enough money in a matter of days to buy two. Sourced in Brownsville, she needed a truck to transport them. She asked her friend Elias Cantú, President of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) RGV Rainbow Council, if she could borrow his.

“Gaby has always been a strong, powerful woman with vision,” he told me. “I know where she started and how hard she works. Whenever she has an idea and needs help, I say ‘I’m right there.’”

Elias was joined by Hiram Salazar of then Golán Mission as well as Tucker, just returned from Brownsville. He was hesitant at first as Gaby was nine months pregnant and her doctor had ordered her to stay in bed. But when she refused to stay put, Tucker realized, “you do not say no to a pregnant woman about to pop.” So they loaded the truck and helped her to sweet-talk the tanks into Mexico and up onto the levee.

They set up several temporary privacy showers right then and there. And good thing, too, for Gaby gave birth to baby Scarlet the very next day!

“People were so happy. They were singing in the showers,” Gaby recounts.

A Woman with Vision on a Mission

Brendon Tucker, Gaby Zavala, and team inaugurate the Resource Center Matamoros, fall 2019 (Photos: Courtesy of RCM)

When a team from Lawyers for Good Government (L4GG) arrived in Matamoros to see if they could be of use, Gaby’s resource center took form. L4GG was looking for a place to install Charlene D’Cruz, an immigration attorney who’d agreed to relocate to the border to serve the victims of MPP. Gaby knew of an empty office suite just off the Plaza and across from the growing levee encampment, with offices aplenty for Charlene; storage space for Global Response Management (GRM), the crack medical team that had also just rolled into town; living space for whomever might need it; a garage for construction projects; an open courtyard for multi-denominational worship; and more. It was just steps to Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM) and perfectly located to manage the camp’s growing infrastructure needs — privacy showers and wash water being only the beginning.

The landlord said it was hers, as long as no asylum seekers live there. All Gaby needed was the deposit and first month’s rent. She appealed to Pastor Navarro.

“Besides my mom, Pastor Navarro is the first person ever to believe in me 100%. His faith in me has fueled my drive.”

He gave her the seed money she needed to rent the space. And in October 2019, the Resource Center Matamoros (RCM) opened its doors.

Right about that time, Juan struck out from Honduras — for a second time. This time, he was on his own.

The Goal is Self-sufficiency

Toilets, WASH stations, graveled walkways, trash receptacles, phone charging stations, sanitation crews, and so much more, ensure public health as well as providing job opportunities at the Matamoros refugee encampment (Photos: Courtesy of RCM and Sarah Towle)

When Jim and I arrived in Matamoros in January 2020, the refugee camp covered the plaza as well as the levee park above. A single dirt road ran the length of the levee, making easier the delivery of goods and firewood. Wash water tanks could be found dotted in and amongst sleeping tents, communal cooking areas, and trees. An AquaBloc filtration system purified Rio Grande river water for drinking. A single, multi-port charging station provided electricity for the asylum seekers to keep their phones alive so they would not miss a message from pro-bono attorneys secured for them by Jodi Goodwin or Charlene D’Cruz. The number of port-a-pots in the camp had swelled to 50. They were kept clean and odor free by a small staff of asylum seekers supported by RCM.

Gaby’s staff disinfected the toilets daily and handed out toilet paper. They kept the encampment rubbish-free. They had built a laundry station with Tucker, now employed by both RCM and GRM. And they were busy digging water run-off culverts and wooden pallets to lift tents off the ground in the event of rain.

RCM, the self-styled “Camp Manager,” had taken on resolving whatever problems impacted the refugees, beyond food, clothing, shelter, and medical care, in collaboration with the other member NGOs, who toward the end of 2019 had coalesced as The Dignity Village Collaborative.

“Whatever issues or needs arise, we find a way to meet them,” says Gaby, who seeks to build capacity by hiring staff from within the camp, or funding them to realize their own community-based projects.

Juan would become one of her star employees, though it would be some time before she learned his story.

One Family That’s Seen it All

One day in January, 2020, an RCM staff member approached Gaby: “My uncle is coming,” he told her. “He’s been through a lot and needs support. Can we help him out?”

“Juan turned out to be the nicest most humble individual I’ve ever met. He is so talented. He did everything: from handyman stuff, like fixing refrigerators, to setting us up with Zoom video conferencing.”

Gaby gladly folded him into the RCM team. But she only learned his back-story as the translator of his face-to-face interview with trauma specialist, Amy Cohen, Director of Every. Last. One.

Juan and Rosa were on their way to reunite with Maria and Perla when they got trapped in Matamoros by metering. There, they fell prey to members of organized crime. They were kidnapped and locked in a small room of a bodega, surrounded by the cries of others being tortured. It’s a common extortion technique of the Cartel to assault the captive while their loved ones listen on the other end of the phone.

When it was their turn, their terror had reached a fever pitch. Maria was extorted for $4,000, a near impossible sum to raise for a migrant still without working papers.

Once freed, Juan was too spooked to remain in Mexico for even one more day. He crossed the unpredictable Rio Grande with Rosa on his back. They made it, wet but unscathed, and wandered into Texas, avoiding detection by the Border Patrol.

A seemingly kind woman invited them into her home for a wash and a meal. She drew them into her trust. Then she sold both father and daughter into a state-side tentacle of the same organized crime racket.

Kidnapped and facing extortion and possible torture once more, Juan dug his cell phone out of its hiding place in Rosa’s teddy bear. He sent up a prayer as he powered it on, uncertain the battery had any life left. It was at 5%. He marked his location and sent the screenshot to Maria via WhatsApp. She had the two traced across states and police departments.

The McAllen police rescued Juan and Rosa, but promptly expelled them right back to Matamoros. The ordeal of a double kidnapping was too much to bear. What’s more, Juan was a marked, having side-stepped the second extortion attempt. Scared for Rosa’s safety, he returned her to Honduras, leaving her with his mother.

Then, fracturing the already fractured family once more, he made his way back to the US a second time, determined to reunite with his wife and youngest child. He would send for Rosa once they were together, and safe, again.

Dear US voters: Please Stem this Evil Tide!

Gaby Zavala asks all US citizens, no matter their political party: “What if it were your family?” (Photo: Gaby Zavala)

Gaby couldn’t hold back the sobs, telling me the story:

They were kidnapped…just treated so wrong…sold…on the black market…to human smugglers…to human traffickers. And Juan is one of the strongest men… that you’ll ever…that you’ll ever meet. And he’s so sweet and humble…it’s hard to believe that he’s gone through so much. And seeing his faith…but knowing that he and his wife and his other child have been separated for so long…because of this stupid, inhumane system. It’s just so heartbreaking!

All those seeking asylum in the US, whether awaiting their turn for a hearing from Mexico or imprisoned in detention centers dotted all across the nation — have similar, equally harrowing, and heartbreaking tales to tell. They are human beings who’ve suffered unspeakable injustices — at home and throughout their migration journey — only to arrive at the doorstep of the Land of Immigrants where they are forced to endure more.

And that was before a global pandemic caused the US border to close, immigration courts to shutter their doors, and the fragile Honduran economy to further contract, driving more desperate and destitute forward. The latest caravan to the US border didn’t even make it to Mexico before being repelled by Guatemalan forces — with the aid of US Customs & Border Protection.

Fortunately for those still trapped in Matamoros, the members of the Dignity Village Collaborative remain, flying the tattered flag of American values, praying the US voters do the right thing to stem Trump’s evil tide!

Thank you for reading Episode 20 in my travelogue of a road trip gone awry: THE FIRST SOLUTION: Tales of Humanity and Heroism from Trump’s Manufactured Border Crisis, rolling out on Medium as fast as I can write it because it’s Just. That. Urgent. For earlier episodes, click here.

“Let us be reminded that before there is a final solution, there must be a first solution, a second one, even a third. The move toward a final solution is not a jump. It takes one step, then another, then another.” — Toni Morrison, 1995



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Sarah Towle

Sarah Towle

Award-winning London-based author sharing her journey from outrage to activism one tale of humanity and podcast episode at a time @THE FIRST SOLUTION on Medium