BY LORENZO ZAZUETA-CASTRO AND DANIEL A. FLORES
McALLEN — This is the first Christmas since her youngest daughter was born that she wasn’t going to see her.
Bertha Gricelda Bustillo-Velasquez decided about a month ago that her 7-year-old girl, Candida Jireh Garcia-Bustillo, was too young to make the often-perilous journey from their hometown of San Pedro, Honduras to the United States.
The 26-year-old woman, three days removed from her stay at a local immigration detention center, sat next to her other daughter, 11-year-old Estefany Daniela Garcia-Bustillo, as kids of all ages played with toys given to them the day before.
She wore a rosary that rested on a neon-orange University of Texas Longhorn tee provided to her. She was one of the many visitors on Christmas Day staying at a respite center in McAllen.
She held back tears as she smiled and spoke of her brief communication with Candida Jireh the day before, on Christmas Eve.
Bustillo-Velasquez said she doesn’t have a cellphone, so she borrowed one from a fellow visitor, and though she couldn’t speak to her daughter directly, they were able to exchange voice messages in the morning. At least, she said, she was able to tell her how much she loved her.
“I was crying last night because I miss her so much,” Bustillo-Velasquez said. “I love you from here to infinity, I told her, and she told me she loved me, too.”
Estefany received a doll on Christmas Eve, but has yet to open it. Her mother says it’s because she’s spent most of her time playing with the other kids.
Now, the two sit and wait on the eve of their departure to Atlanta, where an old college friend has agreed to take her and her daughter.
The facility is run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, and is located on Hackberry Avenue near the corner of Col. Rowe Boulevard. It opened earlier this month to address the higher number of migrants arriving in the Valley every day.
Grateful for how the staff and volunteers have treated her and her daughter during their stay at the respite center, the woman, who left an abusive husband more than four years ago, said she’s excited that at least part of her now more-than-three-week journey, is coming to an end.
Tubs of toys sit under a decorated Christmas tree as names are called over the loudspeaker. Staff helps coordinate destinations and bus tickets, giving envelopes with the words: “PLEASE HELP ME. I DO NOT SPEAK ENGLISH,” and other simple statements as a way to help facilitate the last leg of their respective travels.
Sounds synonymous with Christmas morning could still be heard here, as the kids’ laughter filled the space, while parents watched from a distance, ever conscious of the messages, hoping they wouldn’t miss any important instructions.
Down the hall and inside the center’s kitchen are employees, volunteers, and Elvira Herrera, 40, of Honduras, who is helping prepare food for about 100 or so people currently staying at the center.
She and her daughter Candy Cecilia Herrera, 8, arrived just two days earlier, the woman said, as she diced fruit and placed it in a large silver bowl.
“We are helping prepare food because there are more people just like us, who are hungry, that’s why we’re all helping,” Herrera said.
The woman smiled as she and other migrants helped with various tasks within the kitchen — preparing the food for those getting ready to board the noon van that would take them to the nearby bus station.
“I’ve felt like a queen since arriving here,” Herrera said.
Herrera, in describing the conditions at the immigration detention center, let a tear stream down her face as her voice broke.
“Where we were before… they treated us like dogs, our kids would cry because they were hungry,” she said.
Herrera was slated to leave later Christmas Day to Mississippi, where her husband lives.
She smiled wide, describing how excited her daughter has been to be around other kids, and to receive a gift, one of the innumerable donations given to the respite center.
“We’re at the same time happy, but sad to not be home spending it with our families,” Herrera said. “We only come to work and to help. But to do harm? No. We’re not those kinds of people.”
With far fewer people around on this day than in recent weeks, when the numbers were closer to 300 visitors a day, volunteers and employees briskly walk around, tending to their various tasks.
Denise Love, her daughters and grandchildren walk the main hallway gifting peppermints and small toys.
She hands her 6-year-old granddaughter Arianna candies to distribute.
“It’s hard for children her age to understand people that are suffering and in such a difficult plight as this,” Love said. “It’s easy for kids this time of the year to become very self-focused.”
In 2014, Love volunteered 60 to 80 hours a week for five weeks to assist with the influx of migrants.
Love said parents should be proactive about teaching their kids to understand the need around them. She said she was compelled to be here, on this Christmas morning because the immigration issue isn’t some abstract, distant thing happening in politicized conversation, but in her neighborhood.
“We can’t fix Washington. That’s a big mess,” she said. “But we can show love and compassion. I think it’s easy to just be angry, critical and negative. But I think it’s time that we do something about it. Each one of us can do something.”
Nancy Simmet, who was in the middle of separating donations in one of the more than 20 rooms inside the facility, sweat coming down her forehead, said she was compelled to help after seeing the images of the migrants on television.
A visiting volunteer from Eagen, Minnesota, Simmet met two friends here who have been volunteering in McAllen for about a month.
“When we were up in Minnesota, all you hear is about the tear gas … the caravan and all the horror stories,” she said, adding that people don’t hear about what happens went migrants leave the detention centers. She described seeing the reality on the ground as overwhelming.
The last two years has been filled with hypocrisy, she said.
“It’s Christmas, and Jesus was also a refugee,” Simmet said.
She said caring for immigrants wasn’t just the responsibility of border communities but of the entire United States.
“The whole country needs to be aware of this, including Minnesota,” she said.
When Simmet returns, she plans to share her experience with friends, churches and elected officials in hopes of garnering more support.
“I just lay away at night thinking, ‘These guys are getting on buses and don’t know where they’re going,’” Simmet said.
As the noon hour approached, and despite the smaller crowd, there was an excited energy, however subdued, as those scheduled to depart the respite center began lining up at the entrance, preparing to board a van that would drop them off at the bus terminal, just blocks away.
For Bustillo-Velasquez, and her daughter Estefany, the trip to Atlanta means an opportunity to find work to help provide for the daughter she left behind, who she dearly missed on Christmas Day.