Brownsville is a run-down border city at the southeastern tip of Texas, where the Rio Grande ends its journey to the Gulf of Mexico—more as a polluted creek than the grand waterway of our imaginations. Downtown is a lifeless grid of one-way streets. All the action is on a neon stretch along the interstate and on the nearby resort of South Padre island, a 30-minute drive from the airport. My wife and I hadn’t traveled there from London to play in the sand, though.
One of the perks of life abroad is distance—the kind that lets you tune out whatever is too annoying, too disturbing, too infuriating. But more than a few of the headlines emanating from the United States of late have struck a nerve that made tuning out impossible, especially President Donald Trump’s insistence that American tax dollars separate migrant families and jail asylum seekers. I’m the grandson of an undocumented immigrant from what is now Poland, and my wife, Sarah, spent much of her 20s teaching in Central America. But what could we do? We tried to connect with folks on the ground without much luck. So we decided the least we could do was show up. That became the plan: just show up. We needed to see for ourselves what was going on, especially since the story had faded from the headlines after the initial outcry in 2018.
That calling was what inspired us to bring a clear purpose to part of our vacation. For our first segment, we’d bear witness to recent developments along the almost 1,000-mile border—the towns, the roads, the encampments, the wall—before moving on to the wonders of Big Bend National Park and the artistic desert outpost of Marfa. But it didn’t really work out that way. The day we set off from London, we finally heard from the local group that calls itself “Angry Tias and Abuelas,” or Aunts and Grandmothers. Cindy told us to show up at the bus station at 4 p.m. And that’s what we did.