Debora Barrios, was pulled over in Westchester on her way to work.
“What’s wrong with my car officer?” she asked.
“I’ll do the questioning here!” the officer snipped.
There was nothing wrong with her car. The problem was, she looks Mayan. The problem was he asked for her papers.
Growing up in Guatemala, in an atmosphere of violence, she and her brother would hide behind their house in a fragrant field filled with white roses. They felt safe there. But 14 years ago, when her brother was kidnapped and nearly murdered, Debora fled Guatemala. She’d landed in Westchester, New York, where she married and later bore a son, then a daughter.
When she was pulled over last year, Debora was on her way to work to help support the family. Instead, she returned home to inform her husband and children that they would have to prepare to leave for Guatemala.
“Mom, this is my country,” her then 10-year-old son protested, “I don’t want to leave. I don’t want you to leave. Who will take me to soccer practice next week?”
Debora decided to take refuge in a sanctuary church in Manhattan, where since May of 2018 she has been living with her four-year-old daughter in a small bedroom on the church’s second floor. Her husband and friends have been making sure their now 11-year-old son gets to soccer practice.
Debora is worried about the damage the physical distance apart from her son will have on him. Worried about the raids Trump has initiated that are occurring down the street and across the nation. Worried about being distanced even farther from her family if ICE takes her away.
“People aren’t only being separated at the border,” she says, “they are being split up across this country.”
When she posed for my portrait, she crossed her arms on her chest and said, “Aqui estoy.” “I am here.”
In my last visit she looked deceptively petite sitting alongside a massive GRE text book. I’d interrupted her. She’d been diligently studying with the intention of one day earning a degree in social work. Last fall, to distract herself from the pain and loneliness of being separated from her family, she wrote and performed in a play in the church’s theater. There is great fortitude within this woman.
I ask from where she gets her strength.
“From God,” she says.” “And from this…”
She opened her palm to reveal a dime-sized silver charm etched in the dark outlines of a turtle. “A young girl, I don’t even know her name, came to the church to visit me and placed this in my hand.”
Debora flipped the charm over so I could see the inscribed message on its back.
“Patience” it read.
“I don’t always have patience,” she said and sighed. “I’ve spoken to over sixteen journalists and my situation hasn’t changed. “Aqui estoy.” “I am (still) here.”
She was silent for a moment, then continued, “I’d like to speak to someone in congress, someone in government. Someone who can change these laws. Don’t they have families, sons and daughters too?”