She Swam Across The Rio Grande Into The U.S. When She Was 8 Years Old

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Central American migrants cross the Rio Grande river in Ciudad Juarez, state of Chihuahua, Mexico, on June 12, 2019. (Herika Martinez /AFP/Getty Images)
Central American migrants cross the Rio Grande river in Ciudad Juarez, state of Chihuahua, Mexico, on June 12, 2019. (Herika Martinez /AFP/Getty Images)

Vigils are being held in the Rio Grande Valley for a Salvadoran father and daughter who died last week as they crossed the Rio Grande.

The bodies of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter Angie Valeria were photographed, face down, after they drowned trying to make it to the U.S.

Among the many who reacted to the photo is Greisa Martinez. She and her family crossed the same river to get the U.S. 22 years ago. She was 8 years old.

"I'm feeling a lot of sorrow for what happened to Oscar and his little girl," Martinez tells Here & Now's Lisa Mullins, "and I'm feeling a lot of gratitude for my good fortune and my dad's good fortune of being able to make it more than 20 years ago across that same river."

Martinez, who is a DACA recipient, says crossing the huge swath of water is one of the few memories from her childhood that remains clear in her mind.

"The river is large, and it carries many currents around it, especially if you're an 8-year-old girl where everything seems really big to you," she says. "I remember it feeling like a big ocean."

Interview Highlights

On why her parents decided to leave Mexico

"The answer is a complicated one, but I think at the core of it is just we didn't have enough to eat, and we didn't have enough to dream. My mom and my dad wanted a better future for my sisters and I, and I think that they knew that if we were able to take the risk, that it would be worth it and you know, it was."

On her vivid memories of crossing the river

"I remember walking alongside the river bank with my dad as we were looking for the safest pathway to pass. And I, along with him, I carried this little bag where I was collecting the shiny stones around the river. And at the end, we used my bag full of like pebbles to mark the place where we would cross. And so you know, I remember how cold the water felt, how scared I was, and the moment where the water almost took my mom away. Then the way that my dad served as an anchor for both her and I.

"I remember being in my dad's arms and seeing my mom sort of slip and almost be overtaken by a water current, really hanging on really tight to my dad's hand. I remember feeling really scared, but then I also remember seeing ... like determination in my mother's eyes."

On how her family was torn apart by the immigration system

"I have two U.S. citizen sisters that because of that documentation, they were able to cross the bridge into the U.S., just going in by a car. And I think that that marks also like something significant in us that although our family was led by undocumented people — our mom and dad — that this pain that is happening right now in our communities touches all of us, including the U.S. citizen children of undocumented parents and all of the community connected to that family."

"I remember how cold the water felt, how scared I was, and the moment where the water almost took my mom away."

Greisa Martinez

On her father being deported in 2009

"My father was just driving down the street in north Dallas, and he was just too brown driving a truck in a too-white neighborhood. And it meant that in a matter of weeks, [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and [Customs and Border Protection] deported him and separated him from my life. I haven't hugged my father in 10 years, and that's a direct result of U.S. policy of separating families that has been going on for decades."

On how to address the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border

"What we are seeing at the border today is a humanitarian crisis. The reality is that members of Congress have continued to call for oversight and accountability of the agencies that are locking our children up in cages. And I think that it is our responsibility as people that have built this country and honestly ... as taxpayers, we are the bosses of the [Department of Homeland Security], ICE and CBP agents. And the reality is that this is a moral and political decision for all of us, and all of us will be responsible for what happens in the next couple of years.

"I think it'll be important to finance humanitarian operations that ensure that children are reunited with their families. I think that we can do it. We have the resources, but what it is clear here is that is not the intention of CBP and the Trump administration of handling this issue like a humanitarian crisis. If so, we would have Red Cross agents there, we would have FEMA there, but instead, we have agents with guns waiting and receiving these people that are refugees. And so I can hear the voice of some of the ICE and CBP agents saying, 'We don't want to oversee anything like this.' And I think that it's important for us to listen to that as well."

On how she is personally impacted by immigration policy as a DACA recipient

"Well, I'm a big sister, and my sister has DACA as well as I do. I think that it's an important moment in our U.S. history. I am hopeful that the Supreme Court will decide on the rule of law and the Constitution, and that would ensure that the DACA program continues in place because I think that we have seen numerous circuit court judges saying that unfortunately, Trump has killed the program by arbitrary and capricious means, which has impacted not only my life in the last couple of months, but has meant that 15-year-old undocumented young people that are growing up in Iowa and New Hampshire and Nevada are not able to apply for the DACA protection program.

"I was detained by CBP during one of my trips, and I was really close to being deported. I remember the feeling of saying, 'I am one of 11 million people whose lives are at stake right now,' and I am prepared to continue organizing whether it's within the U.S. or outside of it because we know that migration is a global issue. So yes, I have a plan to continue to fight. I have a plan to go and hug my dad if that's the case. And then to start off the structure to continue to ensure that this country that I have grown up with sort of shows up to its promises that we've made to each other."

Marcelle Hutchins produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on July 1, 2019.


Lisa Mullins Host, All Things Considered
Lisa Mullins is the voice of WBUR’s All Things Considered. She anchors the program, conducts interviews and reports from the field.



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