This article originally appeared in the Pasadena Weekly.
Here is a fundamental truth about being parents: we want to keep our families safe. There are many other tenets painted in broad strokes that some may look at and say, “Hey, that does not apply to me.” But parents, of sound minds, protect their families.
So as parents, should we be asking ourselves why a young father would purposely wade into perilous waters with his toddler daughter? What would move him to tell her to trust him, hang on tight, and swallow the fear that was likely coursing through both their bodies?
The answer is: he was trying to protect his family.
By now you have seen the picture — harrowing as it is — of the bodies of Salvadoran migrant Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his nearly 2-year-old daughter, Valeria, lying on the bank of the Rio Grande surrounded by reeds and beer cans. In death, Valeria’s arm is still embracing her protector.
You have seen the pictures of the border detention centers, so crowded there doesn’t seem to be one inch of floor space.
The pictures are a punch in the gut. It is also a reminder for any immigrant, like myself, how lucky we are to have made it across our own rivers, oceans and deserts alive.
My own family’s journey to America came as a result of war. We were one of the many families, called the boat people of Vietnam, who got on a boat with a guide we did not completely trust just in the hope of making it to another land where the people would see our desperation and invite us in. Along the way, my family faced the threat of disease and attack by pirates who knew the boat people carried valuables.
Many people died, but my family landed in a refugee camp in Malaysia where I was born. When I was roughly the age of Valeria, my family received paperwork to build a new future: America welcomed us. For this, I am eternally grateful and proud to be a naturalized citizen.
But my heart is breaking.
I asked my dad why he thought it was a good idea to put his wife and two young sons in a boat across an ocean with so much uncertainty and danger?
“Well,” he said drawing in a deep breath. “What could I do? What choice did I have?”
Surely, Oscar felt the same way when he stood on one side of the Rio Grande River and asked Valeria to take his hand. They got in the water and made it across with her holding tight. On the other bank, he told her to stay there and wait while he went across again to get her mom. But you know what happens when you tell toddlers to stay put — they are wired to run away, whether in a parking lot, a park or on the banks of a river.
My heart is breaking.
If we leave politics aside and create a fictional tale, could we better understand? What if Oscar and Valeria are being chased by a fire-breathing dragon or herd of the undead? Behind them the monsters are getting closer, the flames from the lips nearly touching their clothes. They could hear the gnashing of zombie teeth. And across the river, stands the castle of Camelot or the gates of Alexandria.
In a fictionalized story or a popular show like “The Walking Dead”, surely Oscar and Valeria’s story would be valorized. Their descent into the Rio Grande River would be shot in slow motion, and perhaps end with triumphant closeup of fingertips grasping the reeds on the other side. And we, as viewers, would cheer.
But, as we know, reality here is far grimmer than post-apocalyptic society.
What if in fiction we could change the ending? Let’s say Oscar successfully swam back to get his wife and found Valeria waiting for them on the safe bank. They would embrace through soaked clothes and tears and turn around to face the gates.
In this story, like in the popular AMC show, they would be met with doubt and fear. Maybe the people behind the gate would suspiciously watch them through their doorbell camera device.
But there would always be a conversation among the people: should we let them in? Who are we as a society if we turn them away?
Maybe it is time for us, the people, to have that conversation.