A Mother’s Love

A story from volunteering at the McAllen Catholic Charities Respite Center

A migrant family watches the sunset June 21, 2021, in La Joya, Texas.
A migrant family watches the sunset June 21, 2021, in La Joya, Texas. (photo: Brandon Bell / Getty Images)

It is 10 a.m. on Christmas Eve 2021 in the Downtown District of McAllen, Texas. Like many areas around the city, garage and street parking is at capacity with last-minute Christmas shoppers from within the city, neighboring towns and Mexico, a distinction that is noticeable by the large number of license plates with the Mexican flag. 

Meanwhile, those who have managed to find a parking space are greeted by businesses selling toys, piñatas, clothing, quinceñera dresses and jewelry — all at discounted prices, according to several signs displayed in English and Spanish at the entrance of several establishments.

The Downtown District also has a four-story parking garage that is attached to a large indoor and outdoor food court with multiple eateries offering American and Mexican food to shoppers taking a break from all the last-minute shopping. Most of the shoppers’ appearances seem to be well-maintained even by those who look exhausted by the multiple items that they are carrying as they take a break at the food court, which is overflowing with customers.

In between the Christmas shoppers and businesses sits a block of McAllen Downtown operated by the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) for newly-arrived migrants. While the outside of the building does not shy away from announcing itself in a large blue-and-white sign posted on the front door as the Catholic Charities RGV Humanitarian Respite Center, inside volunteers, migrants and workers try to navigate each other’s culture and language. Inside the building there are no domestic political wars as to what proper terminology to use for welcoming the new arrivals.

“Bienvenidos a McAllen, Texas” reads a sign that is displayed in the lobby, where volunteers, migrants and workers check in to perform their roles. The sign also serves to alert the new migrants that they are welcome to ask for hygiene products, over-the-counter medications, baby formula and small toys for their children.

The interior of the building is divided into three sections: the lobby, showers and beds, and the kitchen. The decorations are limited to drawings left behind by children, several public service announcements, and a cardboard cutout of Santa Claus. The building is meant to function as a transitional center, which migrants understand upon their arrival. Many arrive already holding a large yellow envelope with their bus tickets or airline boarding passes with a detailed schedule marked on the outside in large black ink. For the few that do not have a departure scheduled, the charity matches them with organizations that are willing to donate the funds.

Among, the new arrivals is Maite, a teenage mother from Honduras. She arrived a day earlier at the shelter and is a few hours away from boarding a flight that will take her to Dallas and then to her destination in South Dakota, where her father and stepmother will be waiting for her. According to Maite, her father moved to South Dakota a decade ago and currently works at a factory, where she herself hopes to land a job. Joining Maite on her flight will be her 4-year-old son, who is entertaining himself with a new set of Hot Wheels and coloring books.

Both mother and child display an innocence and joy that is akin to the Christmas shoppers outside the building. Maite speaks about her excitement of boarding an airplane for the first time in her life while her son uses his toys to display his intelligence to the group of volunteers.

“What color is this car?” asks a volunteer.

“Red, white and blue,” states the young child in Spanish.

The young child also displays his math skills using his new toys. “How many cars do you have?” asks the volunteer. He smiles and proceeds to count to three.

Yet, in between these moments of innocence and youth, Maite shares about the long journey both have made, especially when they crossed the Rio Grande River before entering the United States. Maite, who is about 5 feet tall, states, “I was holding into him very tight so we would not drown. Then my son said, ‘Mommy, don’t worry, I will protect you.’ I believe God protected both of us.”

After a brief pause, Maite points out to her son that I am a wearing the same color watch as the one he has. “Look, son, he has a blue watch just like you.” She proceeds to take out a small Ziploc bag from her backpack, which has a blue watch. As I proceed to recommend to her to save the watch for when her son grows up and becomes successful, a volunteer arrives with a box full of shoelaces of all colors.

Within minutes, Maite and a small group of mothers surround the volunteer holding the large box. The mothers, including Maite, proceed to ask the volunteer if there are kid-size shoelaces inside the box. However, many retreat in disappointment to the lobby, but Maite continues to look through the large box searching for a color that matches her son’s heavily worn and torn gray sneakers that have thin string for laces. After a few minutes of searching through the box, Maite proceeds to ask for a pair of scissors to cut the laces in half.

By noon, Maite’s son’s shoes have been revived with new laces in place of the thin string. While the center offered the mother a new pair of shoes for her son, Maite chooses to keep her son’s shoes as a memento, just like his blue watch. Soon after, a staff member from the kitchen comes to the lobby to inform all the guests that lunch is being served. Yet, Maite’s son continues to entertain himself with the toys while she now focuses her attention on their 2:30 p.m. departure to Dallas and eventually South Dakota.

While McAllen’s Christmas Eve forecast mirrors that of Honduras with temperatures in the mid 80s, in just a few hours the family will not only be flying for the first time, but they will also experience extreme cold for the first time. At 10 p.m., the time the family is scheduled to arrive in South Dakota, where the temperature will be 31 degrees Fahrenheit. The weather forecast for the next seven days calls for highs in the upper 20s and lows below zero. Despite this, for Maite and her son, the new environment represents a new beginning for them to escape the violence and extreme poverty of Honduras. It is an opportunity for her son to have a future, even though both are years from adulthood.

A few minutes later, a crew of Catholic Charities workers take advantage that most of the guests are eating, to clean the floor and chairs in the lobby, restrooms and bedrooms. Meanwhile, Maite and her son continue to wait in the lobby, until I encourage them to eat before their long afternoon and evening ahead. After 15 minutes Maite agrees to eat with her son. By 1 p.m. they depart to the airport, and another two dozen migrants arrive at the center — all of them women with children.

The large number of women arriving at the shelter this Christmas Eve is noticeable compared to my previous years volunteering at the center. For example, in 2018, buses of migrants were arriving at the center every 30 minutes with men, women and children, mostly from Honduras and El Salvador. In 2019, the frequency had been reduced to once a day and most of them were from Cuba and Haiti. In 2019, most asylum seekers were being held back in Mexico, as I witnessed firsthand when I joined the organization on a mission trip to Matamoros, Tamaulipas, a 45-minute drive from McAllen, Texas.

However, the one theme that I have noticed since I started volunteering in 2018 is that the Respite Center represents hope for all the guests. For many, it is an opportunity to start over and create a new life for their families, which starts at the center. This is the first time that many of them will feel safe, which is the scene that displayed by the local businesses and Christmas shoppers outside the center. For many of them, this will be the first time in their lifetime that they will be treated with dignity and respect. Just like many of the last-minute Christmas shoppers, many of the migrants, like Maite, hope that they will be celebrating Christmas with their families.

It is a story that I continue to see over the years since I started volunteering at the center in 2018.