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Gabriela Castenada is an immigrant activist and warrior for Border Network for Human Rights. In October of 2017, we traveled to the southwestern precipice of the United States and met Gabby at a Hugs Not Walls event in the border town of El Paso, Texas. El Paso is naturally bound by mountains and the Rio Grande and socio-politically bound to the violent and vibrant Ciudad Juarez. A towering fence strains to scrape the sky, demarcating where one of Mexico’s most dangerous cities becomes one of America’s poorest. Hugs Not Walls allows for families fragmented by migration to meet in the dried riverbed of the Rio Grande and embrace for 3 minutes without fear of deportation.

I grew up in Ciudad Juarez, in the valley.  My life in Juarez was beautiful. It was. I wouldn’t change it for anything. I came here to the United States when I was 15 years old.  I had to move because of the job opportunities and because of the violence. Mostly because of the violence. The treatment from Border Patrol was inhumane. They treat you like trash. They treat you worse than a bad person treats an animal. I had to cross through the river. As I was crossing, I felt that I had no rights, that I was a criminal, that I was violating the law, that I was worthless.

It was hard here since the beginning. I went to high school, I didn’t know the language, I missed my friends, I missed my home. Neighbors that knew somehow about my legal status in the country would tell me, ‘I’m gonna call Border Patrol on you.’ I was being abused on a daily basis from teachers that would call me “wetback.” Employers would not want to pay me after I had worked so hard for them. Abuse was constant. But I thought it was normal. I thought it was... I mean... I thought.. I thought I couldn’t do anything because I was undocumented.

But I assimilated. I learned the language, and then I moved back for one year and that’s when my husband and I started going out, and then we got married, and then we came back together to the United States. The first time that I saw my husband I was like, Oh my god, I can’t believe it. This is the most beautiful man on Earth. But he wouldn’t look at me. So on my part, it was love at first sight. On his end, I’m not sure!

One day when my husband was driving 5 miles over the speed limit on his way to work, he was caught by a sheriff and he asked him for his identification. When my husband presented his Matrícula Consular, this sheriff called Border Patrol and so Border Patrol arrived and-- without saying anything-- he just took my husband to jail. Because my husband had four previous deportations, the judge was very cruel, very inhumane, and he gave my husband six years in jail.

By then we had three children and they were very little. They would ask me every single day, ‘Mommy, where is my dad?’ And I did not want to tell them their dad was in jail because I didn’t want my children to grow up with the idea that - “My dad is a criminal.” Otherwise, he wouldn’t be in jail. So I would tell them their dad went to California to work. And they were happy.

Sometimes I would lie to my children, telling them, “Oh your dad was here-- just this night! But you were asleep. He kissed you and he hugged you and he had to leave again.” But at some point I had to tell them the truth. They are U.S. citizens and they understand that this country, their country, is criminalizing people like us.

I started learning about my rights and my life changed. I was no longer afraid of law enforcement agencies, agents. I was no longer afraid of Border Patrol. I was now able to fight against abusive employers and against abusive people that wanted to demean me because I was undocumented in the country. That’s why I’m here working for this organization because I know we can change the lives of so many people that need this information at this very moment and that are suffering abuses right now.

It is very important to organize, to educate, and to participate. It’s been a long process. A lot of people doesn’t understand that it is not the Border Patrol agent, but the system itself that we need to fight.

We have been working, through dialogue and pressure with Border Patrol for ten years now. So after ten years of dialogue and pressure, they were okay with us doing this event and agreed not to ask anyone for their documents. When people come to register with us, we don’t even know if they’re undocumented, or if they’re citizens, or if they are here with a visa.

The experience [of Hugs Not Walls] is bittersweet. It’s only way that I can see my husband. He was once again deported in Mexico after a long sentence in a jail. The last time I participated, we were very excited because I could see him and I would wave and we were like, Oh my god, he is right there. Once we were in the middle of the river, we hugged, we embraced, and we cried. But then it’s over. They tell you need to leave so next families can embrace the same as you. It’s horrible to have your family member so close and at the same time unreachable and untouchable because of the border immigration policies that divide and separate families.

We are not bad people. We came here because we saw in this country opportunities-- the same opportunity that people saw 500 years ago. That is the same opportunity we’re fighting for. And we have the right to be here because we’re contributing. We’re paying taxes, we’re working, we’re starting, we’re making this country better, bigger, greater.

We are not the enemy. And most of the times the government sees us as the enemy, someone that they need to fight. And we are part of the solution. We just want to tell them, we love this country, this is the only country that we know.

When I heard about the Poor People’s Campaign, I felt hope. I felt… this is really it. We need to shake the country and we need to say, what you are doing is unfair, it’s not right, and you need to understand that we need an immigration reform so that the 11 million undocumented people, immigrants, living right here in the country, are no longer afraid of the law enforcement agencies or agents.

Read more about Gabriela and the Border Network for Human Rights