LIVING IN THE SPIRIT OF JULIA WARD HOWE
In 1870, abolitionist, songwriter, suffragist, author & Mother Julia Ward Howe called for a day of world peace. The leaders of her time responded with a holiday. We have been celebrating mother’s Day ever since. In this spirit, we honor three women of our community whose stories exemplify her words.
South Texas in October feels freezing to this mother from Guatemala, a perennially warm place. She climbs off of a bus at the Dilley Family Residential Center (DFRC) and the Autumn chill reaches down to her bones because her clothing is damp – the t-shirt and skirt she was wearing when she crossed the Rio Grande River at Laredo remain wet after three days in an ICE holding facility at the border. It’s the only clothing she brought.
She traveled on foot for six weeks carrying her two-year-old son. Then she presented herself to U.S. Customs and Borders Protection, temporarily relinquished custody of her child, and spent three days in a facility off-handedly called an “ICE Box” by the agents who run it. Imagine a large, metal-clad warehouse with rows of chain-link cages on concrete floors. The cold, stale spaces, along with wet clothing and crowding might be why she has a sore throat, and why her son has a runny nose and a fever when she is reunited with him in Dilley, Texas.
Mothers and children live at the Dilley FRC until their status is determined, meaning that they will either be granted legal entrance into the United States, or they will be returned to their home country.
Upon arriving, they first meet with a lawyer. A guard ushers them into a small room with a table, two folding chairs, and Jackie Deam, a family mediation attorney from Basalt. Jackie smiles, says something in English, warmly gesturing to sit down. The Dilley facility does not provide translators. So Deam recruited several from the Roaring Fork Valley to volunteer remotely. She dials and a voice answers and explains in Spanish who Jackie is and how she will help.
The woman and her child have been given fresh, dry jeans and sweatshirts, but they are still shivering. Her baby won’t stop crying. Jackie’s first impulse – to take off her cardigan and wrap it around the little boy, to offer the mother a scarf, anything warm – must remain an impulse, held back. The rules at the center are clear. Guards stationed outside the meeting room peer through a small glass window in the door, watching to make sure nothing is exchanged – no clothing, no paper, no tissue.
Jackie Deam, along with Shannon Wildrick, an attorney from Aspen, volunteered last fall with the Dilley Project, an organization that provides pro bono legal representation for asylum seekers who apply for legal status at the U.S. Mexico border. Lawyers donate their time, pay all travel expenses and work in one-week stints filing asylum claims. They prepare their clients for Credible Fear Interviews (CFIs), documenting each woman’s history. The two attorneys spent 14-16 hours a day with mothers like this one. Their clients lived through things Deam never fathomed during her upbringing in Florida, her years in college and teaching elementary school before becoming an attorney, and then a mother.
“Imagine what horror it would take for you to gather your children, leave your home on foot and walk for days and weeks to a hostile country in hope of safety. What would it take for you to leave everything behind, and even risk having your children taken away from you?” Jackie asks. She documented stories of unborn children killed during spousal beatings, gang violence, molestation and – for those who report abuse to local authorities or who try to escape and are forced to return – public atrocities inflicted to make an example.
Meanwhile, there is a small child coughing, crying, expected to sit still for hours in a windowless room. Crayons? Coloring paper? The guards dole these out two at a time in such a manner that even Deam feels intimidated.
She understands that if she feels intimidated, a white, well-educated, English speaking U.S. born attorney, then this mother certainly feels frightened. She cannot reach across the table. Touching her clients is forbidden. So Jackie starts with what they have in common – motherhood. She talks about weaning her 18-month-old son before leaving for Dilley, missing her two boys, loving them so much she’d do anything for them. Perhaps now the mother feels safe to open her blouse and nurse her child. Trust builds. She starts her story at the beginning. Jackie takes notes from translation, her pen shaking. She’s hungry because she hasn’t eaten in hours, but neither has this mother nor her child, so they stay in the tiny room until the whole story is told.
Just prior to Deam’s arrival in South Texas, the Justice Department announced a new criterion for asylum seekers, the “Third Country Bar,” which automatically denies entry to refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras unless they first seek asylum in the country immediately adjacent to their own. This new hurdle requires a higher burden of proof and lowered the success rate of Deam and Wildrick’s work. More women were immediately deported and instead of winning asylum for their clients, the best outcome they could achieve was a “Withholding of Removal.”
Deam understands the legal hurdles, the timing, the slim likelihood that the woman across the table from her will start a new life in the States. Yet all she can do is what she can do. She creates the necessary documentation. She looks the woman in the eyes and wishes her well. Between consultations, she takes a short break to make a cup of coffee, eat a protein bar, and breathe for a moment before making herself strong to greet another mother, another child. This is what Jackie Deam carries with her now, the futility of feeling she couldn’t do enough woven into a deeply felt trauma that brings a shake to her otherwise confident voice. And yet she plans to return next fall.
“Did we make a difference?” she wrote in a Facebook post after returning home. “I’m not sure. We showed compassion in any way we could… The real heroes are these mamas who have fled to protect their babies and the permanent staff attorneys and paralegals at the Dilley Project. In every mom and every baby I see now, I see them.”
Beatriz Soto – a green architect, environmental nonprofit program director, energy consultant, community organizer, political activist and mother – arrived in the United States at age two. Her experience was illustratively different than the children living right now at the DFRC and in other such facilities along the border. Soto’s parents moved from Mexico to Florida through an Amnesty program in the early 1980s. They lived in an affluent, mostly Anglo neighborhood. She remembers watching Punky Brewster and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and understanding at an early age, perhaps too young to put it into words, that she belonged to more than one culture.
For example, Soto’s parents spoke Spanish at home and so did she, yet the first language she learned how to read and write was English. She rode a bus from her part of town to a public school with mostly African American students, where she found that the kids played a lot like she and her sisters and cousins played – enjoying skipping and clapping games, as opposed to having lots of toys. She developed ease in moving between cultures. Then, when her family returned to Mexico when she was in fifth grade, she briefly lost her sense of confidence. She didn’t know how to read or write in Spanish. She soon realized that if she did not learn how to navigate in that world, then she would be left out on the playground, maybe bullied, unable to speak up in the classroom and make her opinions heard.
“If I didn’t adapt, my experiences would not be valued,” she says.
Beatriz navigated these richly different worlds the way many children do – without naming the feeling she had, of belonging and yet not belonging. She learned how to move with grace and joy while straddling different cultures, allowing herself to be herself, and along the way, mastering a social art we now call “code-switching.”
A few years later, her mother brought Beatriz and her sisters back to the States, to Basalt, where Soto graduated from BHS before choosing to earn an equivalent of a Master’s in Arquitecta from the Instituto Tecnologico de Chihuahua in Mexico. She says that she was fortunate to grow up in a time “with fewer barriers separating communities, when it was easier to go back and forth between countries. I see myself as part of both worlds, with strong family ties to the shared geography of these places – one territory with many different people.”
This ability to find grace in both worlds aids Soto in her architectural practice. Step into a client meeting with a couple whose dream home she is designing. Soto is an expert on energy efficiency, consulting with the Community Office of Resource Efficiency (CORE), so her creative eye is honed on ways to minimize a home’s footprint. She helps her clients imagine what their strawbale, net-zero home might look like. In sixteen years practicing architecture in the Valley, she’s designed homes with mechanical rooms bigger than her family’s apartment. And she has also designed modest homes for families like her own, homes built with all of the money these families have saved for years, paid for in cash because they don’t have access to loans, then built with their own hands.
It is this ability to stand with feet grounded in both communities that makes Beatriz so effective in her position with Wilderness Workshop, where she runs the Defiende Nuestra Tierra program, an initiative that seeks to bring Latino voices into public lands issues in the White River National Forest and surrounding BLM lands. Her vision is to empower Latinos on environmental justice issues, meeting climate challenges through an equity lens.
With this need for inclusion in mind, Soto helped launch Vision Latina and the Roaring Fork Latino Network to empower the local Latino community to make their voices heard on a number of environmental and social justice issues. One dream? To see a summer program in the Valley where Latino and Anglo kids can play together and form friendships while learning to read and write in Spanish. No testing, no homework, just fun.
Beatriz Soto’s ability to understand all sides, to code-switch both socially and emotionally, is a gift she is trying to instill in her nine-year-old son. “We live in a place where there is a huge richness of culture. I am raising my son to know that we belong to many places. We come from diverse people, not just one.”
The challenges of living in both cultures came up for her in a poignant way on January 22, 2020 when she was naturalized as a United States citizen. “It was a bittersweet feeling. In my mind, I am American. This is my identity, and always has been, whether I have had a social security number or not. So earning it after so long felt painful, a reminder that while I am American, I am not. How do I celebrate this big achievement when I have people in my life who are waiting in line, and others who may never be allowed even to stand in the line?”
Mama Bear shows up sometimes in unexpected places. For Jasmin Ramirez, this universally shared maternal impulse rose up in the Sopris Elementary School cafeteria where she was delivering lunch for the faculty as part of the PTA’s Teacher Appreciation Day.
Her then eight-year-old son, who is on the autism spectrum and who has severe food allergies that exacerbate his autistic behavior, was eating the school lunch. To some, this may not seem noteworthy, but for Ramirez, alarm bells went off. She packs her son’s lunch to avoid gluten, dairy, and other foods found in the cafeteria lunch program. For several weeks, however, Jasmin and her husband had noticed changes in their son’s mood, his ability to focus attention, his bowels, and his energy level – but they trusted the school’s well-managed special education program that clearly understood their son’s dietary restrictions. So the parents did not know what had caused the extreme downturn in their child’s health until Jasmin saw the plate of food. The cafeteria staff had served him, assuming that the child was responsible for knowing what ingredients were in the lunches. For most children, this is an unrealistic expectation. For children on the autism spectrum, especially so.
“My emotions overcame me and I was unable to speak at that moment,” Ramirez explains. Because of her involvement in the school’s PTA, she was aware of a RE-1 School Board meeting that evening. She brought her concerns to the Board, but left the meeting feeling as if she had not been truly seen or heard. She later scheduled a meeting with SES principal Dave Lindenberg and the school’s lunch program supervisor Michelle Hammond, who both responded compassionately and effectively to strengthen the school’s protocol around how Individual Education Plans (IEPs) are implemented and communicated throughout the school.
Although she felt validated by SES administration, Ramirez’s experience at the School Board level left her asking how to bring more inclusivity and responsiveness to the elected body overseeing the District.
“What if I didn’t speak English? What if I wasn’t a citizen? What if I didn’t have the privilege of being able to be involved at my child’s school? What if I didn’t know that I have rights? And my child has rights?” she asked, recognizing challenges some parents in the community face when wishing to advocate for their child.
Ramirez decided to change this. She ran for the RE-1 School Board, noting that the district serves a population of roughly 58% Latino students and there had never been a Hispanic voice at the Board level.
“I never dreamed or imagined I would win,” Ramirez says, but she unseated an incumbent Board member last November, winning by a margin of fewer than 100 votes, and becoming the first Latina to win election to a public office in Garfield County.
“I want to move the needle for Latino children in our community,” she says. “They need to grow up seeing nonprofit directors, teachers, doctors, nurses, and other leaders who look like them.”
Ramirez shares that her grandmother “dreamed of freedom, safety and opportunity for her kids. How lucky am I to be the American dream for my grandmother? I get to carry her dreams & her strengths in my veins.”
A through-line connects these women’s stories, a line on a map, and an invisible line that dared them to step beyond their personal comfort zone. It is a connective thread going back to Julia Ward Howe’s call for peace “in the name of womanhood.” It is also a continual line, reaching back through the ages of motherhood and reaching forward to what can be created by our children and their children. It is as Beatriz Soto said when asked for advice for other mothers: “We stand on the shoulders of giants and we must continue to open a path for future generations.” This is what Mother’s Day is all about, dear sisters, honoring our own mothers, of course, and also honoring a mothering impulse calling us to speak up and take action on behalf of the world’s children.
By Kathryn Camp, Mountain Parent editor
Photography by Sarah Kuhn at The Hotel Colorado
When we imagined bringing a special Mother’s Day focus to several women in our community, we knew that Sarah would help us capture not only the spark that inspires these mothers, but also their down-to-earth beauty and their love for their children. Sarah is a fine art and family portrait photographer based in Carbondale. Her two kids are her favorite (and somewhat reluctant) muses.
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