Monday, June 24, was the first day of the 2019 season for Chautauqua Institution’s Children’s School and Boys’ and Girls’ Club. On feet, scooters, tricycles, bicycles and buses, a steady stream of kids passed to and fro. Twelve miles south of Lake Erie and 73 miles from the U.S.-Canada border at the Peace Bridge, Chautauqua reunions and activities were accompanied by laughter and glee.
That very same day, roughly 1,520 miles to the southwest along the U.S.-Mexico border, the hopes and dreams of a young family of three from El Salvador ended tragically. The family obtained a humanitarian visa from the Mexican government and had been trying to receive political asylum.
After waiting at the border for two months in one of the world’s most dangerous cities — Matamoros, Mexico — without a tent and amidst scorching temperatures of up to 113 degrees Fahrenheit, this migrant family of three gave up in frustration and endeavored to enter the United States by crossing the Rio Grande.
Journalist Julia Le Duc’s photo of 23-month-old Valeria lying face down in the water of the Matamoros riverbank with her right arm draped across the neck of her 25-year-old father, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, has been imprinted into many minds and hearts the world over. They drowned a short distance from Brownsville, Texas, while clinging to each other in the Rio Grande’s swift current. Their wife and mother, Tania Vanessa Avalos, could do nothing but watch in horror.
At 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, August 14 at the Chautauqua Women’s Club, Texan Cathy Bonner will give “an old-fashioned teach-in” that she’s calling “What is Really Happening on the U.S.-Mexico Border?” as part of the CWC’s Contemporary Issues Dialogues program.
She will show photos that she took at the Matamoros-Brownsville border in June, and lead a discussion in memory of her partner, Kenneth S. Wendler Jr.
Among many other notable accomplishments, Bonner is the outgoing chair of the Chautauqua Foundation.
In the off-season, she lives in Austin, Texas. Shortly before she arrived at the Institution this season, she and eight other women drove seven hours southwest to Brownsville, to provide some relief to volunteers who had been taking breakfast, dinner and bottles of clean water to migrants in Mexico who are trying to cross the border.
Because it is illegal to help anyone who comes into the United States illegally, Bonner’s group had to cross over into Mexico.
Bonner said that in preparation, they had spent weeks putting together “dignity bags” filled with tissues, toilet paper, baby wipes, diapers and snacks.
“We got an education on the U.S. and Mexican side,” she said. “There were 900 people (in Matamoros) when we were there. Now there are 2,900 (from Central America and Cuba). … The children are terrified. There’s no money. … The homeless shelters are full. … People are living under the bridge for two to three months. The Mexican government doesn’t help them because they’re not Mexican.”
According to Bonner, Mexico lacks the philanthropic resources that the United States has. The greatest needs of asylum seekers are clean water, food and medicine. In part because the Mexican border guards themselves do not have enough of these necessities, the situation is so volatile that it can change overnight.
“If the Mexican government did not allow Americans to cross the bridge and give out water, they’d all die,” Bonner said.
And the problem is hemispheric.
“Hondurans and Salvadorans are fleeing from violence and gangs,” Bonner said. And Guatemalans are environmental refugees fleeing from the devastating effects of having had “no rain in years, and no crops” because of climate change.
“It’s a human tragedy and a moral tragedy, and (nearly) everyone is looking away,” she said. “It’s a humanitarian crisis as bad as if there were a hurricane. … We have a moral obligation to see what’s really going on.”
She said that obligation to learn the facts also encompasses what’s been happening on the U.S. side of the border, including at checkpoints, within and among privately operated detention centers, during and after Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids — especially those leading to the separation of parents and their children — and within the judicial system (legal procedures, fees and representation for asylum seekers, for example).
“Chautauquans want to know the truth,” Bonner said. “This is the most important issue of the day and we need to talk about it. … If I hadn’t been there, I couldn’t really tell people. … This situation calls out for grace more than anything.”
Until his passing on Aug. 13, 2018, Wendler and Bonner shared a partnership for 42 years. Wendler, who grew up in San Antonio and Austin, was a general contractor who built many of Austin’s iconic buildings. He was active in Travis County politics, and a lifelong advocate for equal justice and migrant rights.
Joe Pinnelli, one of a group of young leaders who Wendler mentored and who visited him the day before he died said, “Ken gave us a speech about how your friends are the sum of your life and how the only thing that matters is how much you helped people.”
Because Wendler did not want, and thus was not given, a funeral, Bonner has chosen to honor him with a “non-memorial memorial” about a matter of great concern to them both.