Despite the partisan administrative shift of 2020, the message from the United States executive branch to immigrants crossing the southern border with Mexico remained largely the same. In the words of Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris in 2021, “Do not come.” This long-standing policy of prevention through deterrence essentially seeks to make border crossing as difficult and dangerous as possible, routing migrants through the harsh landscape of the Sonoran Desert. As a result, hundreds of individuals go missing while crossing the border each year. The Colibrí Center for Human Rights supports the families of people who go missing through a mixed approach, using forensic science and DNA to identify missing people on the one hand, and inviting them into regional comités through the Family Network on the other. This dual approach addresses multiple needs, confronting the ambiguous loss (or unresolved grief) of not knowing what has happened to one’s family while creating a collective space for healing, expression, and advocacy. In the face of policies that are designed in a way that is antithetical to care (for example, the criminalization of people who provide water for migrants or the separation of children and parents at the border), Perla Torres, director of the Family Network, identified important ways that Colibrí creates a culture of care through the bridging power of stories. We look to three provocations that emerge from our interview and their work.
Everybody’s grief is different
Disappearance places many families in a place of unknowing, a sort of limbo that toggles between hope, despair, sadness, fear and more. This ambiguous loss creates challenges for grieving. When does one give up hope for finding their loved one and really begin a healing process? As a result, the Family Network has followed the lead of members to meet them where they are and create multiple containers that can respond to a non-linear healing process. This has included zines, regional meet-ups, advocacy and an audio testimonies project, Historias y Recuerdos. Within these, Perla also reflected on how differently people approached grieving. Some families don’t want to discuss their situations at all, others approach it with joy and celebration, while others look to share “all the faces” of a person so as to remember them in their most complex, human way.
Integrate humanistic and scientific approaches
The multiple opportunities housed within the Family Network run parallel to Colibrí’s main body of work which involves the identification of people who died while crossing the border. Done primarily via DNA samples, the Family Network provides a relational support structure to the scientific identification process. Working together, the two programs (or methods of attending to grief) attend to the many challenges of disappearance. As Perla shared, Colibrí can never take away the pain of an individual’s loss, but by pairing the identification work with the Network, they can support family members at different stages in their grieving process. This multi-method approach—a balance of the scientific and relational—holds potential for multiple crises of grief and healing that we confront today. From the loss of loved ones to Covid to the loss of home due to climate displacement, what would it mean to resource networked opportunities for connection, grieving, storytelling and action parallel to more administrative and timebound responses? Through a public health lens, this dual approach may have significant potential to address negative material stressors (for example, direct cash for emergency rental assistance) as well as increase protective health factors through building social connection.
We need each other’s stories, so we need to tell our own
One of the key relational elements of the Family Network is storytelling. While Perla emphasized the ways that everyone’s grief is different, she also shared how stories expanded the members’ sense of the possible and collective connection to each other. The idea that stories expand our sense of possibility and can bridge across experience is, of course, not new. Stories are a key technology for making sense of the world and developing one's understanding of self. But the work of the Family Network reminds us that storytelling is part of a process not just an outcome—in this case often of healing and grieving. This brings a more focused lens on why a story is being told. By emphasizing the process as well as the outcome, the Network offers that what is needed might not be stories about “us,” but stories by “us.” Further, it raises the question of who the stories are for. Many of the outcomes of the Networks activities circulate primarily within the Network or within advocacy efforts. As Perla reminded us, each story has a purpose, and the purpose of those stories are defined by the storyteller. This type of storytelling creates more complex, and ultimately human, understandings of experience. In the end, this complexity creates more space for us to truly belong.