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Project Resilience: Family Healing After Border Separation

People who immigrate to The United States from Mexico and Central America face a long journey that is difficult and often traumatic. For families who are separated at the southern border of the U.S., this added trauma is not simply overcome with reunification. As part of UPR’s Project Resilience, we learn the story of one Cache Valley woman and the resources that helped her and her grandson to heal after separation. 

It wasn’t Maria’s dream to come to The United States. Mexico was home, where she had her family and a successful restaurant. But while she didn’t want to leave, that didn’t mean everything was okay. 


First, one of her daughters was murdered, leaving Maria, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, to raise her grandson as her child. Then one of her sons was murdered too. 


The breaking point of violence was when a woman who was jealous of the location of Maria’s restaurant sent her son to kill Maria. He tried to slit her throat but didn’t cut deep enough to kill her. She spent a month in a coma and once she left the hospital, one of her surviving sons said it was time for Maria to leave her home country and come to the United States. 


At the southern border of the United States, Maria and her grandson were separated because she didn’t have the proper documentation proving their relationship. Up until that point, Mateo, whose name has also been changed, hadn’t known Maria wasn’t his mother. So not only was being separated from his grandmother traumatizing, learning that his mother had been killed was also painful and confusing for Mateo. The overall experience was devastating for both of them.


“What they did to me here in El Paso, Texas hurt me more than when they tried to kill me. Because they separated me from my son and they took him to New York. It hurt me from my head to the bottom of my feet,” she said.


Mateo and Maria were separated for five months, but Maria said for her, it felt more like five years. 


“I used to cry a lot because I thought they would take him away and never give him back to me due to all of the things one hears and sees,” she said. “How many families have been separated from their kids, that is why I tell all mothers not to risk it by coming to the United States with their children because they don’t know if they will give their children back to them if they take them away. I’m thankful to God because my son is now back with me. It was such wonderful news when they told me they would give my son back to me. They gave him back to me on Nov. 5. I cried and shouted when they told me he was already at the airport, and they took me to see him in an office where he was retained. When I saw him, we both kneeled, hugged, and cried. He shouted, “Mommy!” Our reunion was a wonderful experience.” 


Despite the happiness Maria and Mateo felt to be back together, Maria said they didn’t know how to talk to one another. Not only did they have to work through the pain of being apart, but they also had to talk about Mateo’s mother and what happened to her. It was something that was bigger than they could work through all on their own, which is where The Family Place came in. 


Through The Family Place, both Maria and Mateo received counseling services. It helped them have the big conversations they needed to have about the hard things they had both experienced. And it helped them process the painful experiences, which was essential for them to both function and enjoy a high quality of life. 


For Mateo, this included art therapy where he could draw his feelings and how he saw his family. For Maria, it included regular visits from a Family Place employee who helped her get to know her new home as she worked through her trauma. Breathing therapy and aromatherapy have also given her tools to address daily stress. 


Now Maria said the two can talk openly with one another and that Mateo asks about his mother. They talk about things like the food Mateo’s mother fed him when he was a baby and what her favorite colors were.


“Two days ago, he said ‘Mommy tell me, is my mommy watching us from heaven?’ I tell him, ‘Yes, she's taking care of us. She is taking care of us,’” Maria said.


Maria and Mateo are still working to heal. And while the circumstances that brought them to Cache Valley were horrific, Maria said the place is becoming home, because of the support she has received. And now that she has received that support, she has advice for families who experience similar trauma. 


“Everything is painful. But every time we fall, we have to stand up and we have to fight,” she said. “We cannot take any step backward. We have to look forward. Because we have to succeed for our children."

Listen to the story in Spanish here: