by Liz Martinez

I first spotted the bubblegum-pink shoes perched on the chain link fence. By my calculations, they could only fit a young child, maybe even a toddler. The sandals, which glistened in the pouring rain, stood out against the hazy outline of the Rio Grande in the background. Next to the shoes, a row of umbrellas formed a makeshift roof over children, women and men.

It was Christmas Day.

I was sitting in the passenger seat of my mom’s car, waiting to cross into Brownsville, the Texan town bordering the Mexican city of Matamoros, where we had just visited my dad in the hospital and where I grew up most of my life.

I tried peering through the windshield to look at the faces on the other side of the barrier, but the pools of water sliding down the glass amid the winter darkness blurred the images before me, making the scene look more like a painting and less like real life.

But it was real.

Photo by Liz Martinez

Just that morning, I had woken up to the news of an 8-year-old Guatemalan boy dying at the hands of Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

That was real.

A few weeks before, a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl had suffered the same fate.

That was real.

While millions of children eagerly awaited the arrival of Santa Claus, other children had spent their days hoping for a different kind of miracle. Instead, they were forced to endure miserable conditions, out in the cold or in hieleras.

The car in front of us moved and we followed. We were now straddling the invisible line, dictated by man-made policies, that separated us from them.

In the middle of the bridge on the pedestrian walkway stood a booth. Inside, a CBP officer mindlessly played with his phone while hunched over on a stool. Next to the booth was a tent housing another CBP officer. He was accompanied by a large patio heater emanating a blue fire.

But there was no warmth.

I could not fathom the contrast of the images of those individuals on the American side and those on the Mexican side. Only a few feet away from each other but worlds apart.

“These are the huddled masses,” my fiance said from the back seat. Under the relentless rain, on concrete floor, yearning to survive.

On the opposite side, a mighty man with a torch, a beacon not of light, but of darkness, hiding the keys to the golden door.