Once a week for three hours in the middle of the day, a group calling ourselves Mujeres Unidas en Fe (Women United in Faith) gathers in a church on the other side of the mountain from my home. About a dozen are Spanish-speaking women who are learning English, and an almost equal number of us are English speakers who want to improve our Spanish.
Two weeks ago, we crowded into the kitchen while Carmela gave us a lesson in making mole verde. Beatriz moved among us with a photo album from her daughter Gabriela’s quinceañera, the 15th birthday celebration that is both religious ceremony and party—and a very big event in Mexican culture. Beatriz pointed out every member of her extended family in the many pictures, and we oohed and aahed at the beaming and beautiful young woman in the middle of them, dressed in a shimmering royal-blue gown with cascades of ruffles and lace to the floor. Laughter and animated conversation filled the parish hall when we shared a feast of the mole and heaps of tamales, refried beans, and rice, followed by slices of sweet dulce de leche caramel cake.
Last week the mood was starkly different. Increased raids against undocumented persons had begun, as the new president had threatened they would, and North Carolina was among the first states targeted in the crackdown. Though we had received no reports of escalated activity around Asheville, several people had been picked up in Charlotte and other cities east of us, and fear was running high here.
School in our county was canceled that day, due to a flurry of snow and patches of ice on rural roads. When I picked up Silvia in her trailer at the top of a mountain, her 10-year-old daughter Antonia came with us. When we arrived at the church, several more children were there, playing and reading. The day felt like a reprieve, as some of them had tearfully told their mothers last week that they didn’t want to go to school, fearful that they would return home to find their parents gone. What a terrible burden to put on children, I thought as I watched a grinning boy push his giggling younger brother around the room in a toy car.
We passed out copies of a document labeled PLAN FAMILIAR DE EMERGENCIA (Family Emergency Plan). The form has spaces for contact information and details about places of employment, preferred pharmacy and clinic, and even veterinarian for pets. It has many blanks to fill in about children—names, birthdays, social security numbers, schools, and medical information—and, most important, the names and details about who will care for them if their parents are deported. The documents, when completed and notarized, will be the thin layer of protection keeping Gabriela, Antonia, those smiling young boys, their siblings and friends, out of the foster care system if their parents disappear.
After we shared a subdued meal and a conversation guided mostly by anxious questions, half the women left with documents in hand. The rest of us didn’t have to.