A journey to sanctuary in Oregon

A photo of SeƱora Jovita, an elderly woman with weathered brown skin and brown hair streaked with white, standing in the crook of a tree and wearing a large hooded jacket

Berenice Chavez

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Like all other living things, humans move beyond borders to find refuge. Migration has always played, and will continue to play, a role of utmost importance on this earthly plane. We migrate for survival and to overcome poverty, hunger, fear, and violence. These reasons for migration cannot be denied or hidden. We move beyond borders as seekers and time travelers, imagining a better future. In our seeking, we are accompanied by dreams, faith, and hope. Each of our decisions entails risk—sometimes many risks, some of them extreme—but the risk is worth taking to have better living conditions, safety, and shelter. 

Oregon is home to many stories of migration and refuge. One of them lives in the hearts of Judith and her mother, Jovita. 

Señora Jovita is from Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico. Cuernavaca is where she lived for seventy-five years and where she raised her thirteen children. But Señora Jovita had to abandon her life in Mexico and flee to the US border in 2018, after members of her extended family were brutally murdered. She left her old refuge to seek a new refuge in the United States. Señora Jovita hoped to join her daughter Judith, who has lived in the US for twenty years.

Judith waited for her mother to cross safely and join her in Oregon. But while other family members were admitted, Señora Jovita was stopped at the border. She was told she was ineligible for entry because she was over seventy years of age and would not be working. The family hoped she would gain entrance to the US and be reunited with them. Instead, she was detained alone for four months in a facility in San Ysidro, California. During this time, her health deteriorated. Without her family, she became depressed and began to show signs of dementia. When Judith spoke to her on the phone, Señora Jovita didn’t know if she was still in Mexico or had made it to the United States. 

The separation of families at the border is not new; it continues to be a shameful and unscrupulous practice, and it is common. Every day we hear about cases where young children have been separated from their parents, but this also happens to the elderly. 

In Latino families, every person has their role, and the grandparents, the elders, form an important foundation for the family. Elders share their wisdom and experience, provide love for their grandchildren, and support their adult children. Households are often multigenerational, and elders are not seen as less valuable when they are no longer of working age. 

Inside the detention center, Señora Jovita was on her own, without the protection of her family and without a path out. On the outside, Judith searched for a way to free her mom. She found a lawyer who helped guide and support them. The solution the lawyer proposed was that a citizen should sponsor Señora Jovita. A friend of the family became a sponsor. After four months of navigating the system, paying for new documents, and pleading with judges, Señora Jovita was released. 

When Judith saw her mother again, Señora Jovita was thin, her hair was coarse, and she hadn’t had access to necessary medicine. Judith’s first task was repairing the damage her mom had endured—the loss of a lifelong home, her friends, family, pets, language, and culture; and the harms US border detention had inflicted.  

Family separation at the border is supposed to be a punitive measure that deters further migration. Such practices leave a bitter taste and mark the lives of everyone they touch. This policy doesn’t recognize that elders support us in different aspects of our daily lives. Judith says, “We must value what we have. I have my family, my husband, my children, and my mother.” 

The family separation policy doesn’t recognize the strength of the culture migrants bring to the US—one of care that supports the family across generations. 

Five years after Señora Jovita crossed the border, we sit with Judith and her mother, now eighty, at a community barbecue in a barn in Northeast Oregon. There are murmurs of English, Spanish, and Spanglish. To many questions, Señora Jovita answers, “I don’t know,” or “I can’t remember.” Her dementia has progressed, but as she speaks, she smiles. Señora Jovita seems unperturbed by her lapses in memory, and her daughter Judith plays with her long white hair. Judith also smiles, helping when Jovita forgets things, clearly delighted. This scene is the beautiful flip side to family separation: mother and daughter are reunited in their new refuge. 

A lack of opportunities drove Judith north more than twenty years ago. Brutality and violence against her family drove Señora Jovita from Mexico five years ago. Judith has done tough farmwork and raised her children here. Together Judith and her mother have endured the inhumane and broken US immigration system. Even today, Judith can’t leave the US and be assured she will be able to return. There is much to miss, much to be angry about, much that is unfair. But the dream of a migrant is to see their family make progress. 

Judith calls the US her home, even though she wasn’t born here. Her situation is complicated: this is where she has lived with her family for many years, where she has had the opportunity to see her children succeed, and where she has worked to keep her home. She came with dreams of lliving differently, of finding a kind of security she didn’t have in Mexico. Her home is here, and her refuge is here. 

Judith wants people to know that there are many migrants who are separated from family members in detention, waiting for an answer. They have crossed through many countries and taken many months to arrive. They came with a dream, she says. Let them fight for their dream, and let their dream of refuge not be stolen.  

For those of us who arrive in the US as migrants, our day-to-day commitment is to work and take responsibility. We work in the fields in the sun; we work in construction, in the heat, putting roofs on the houses of our community. We work nights. For those who do not see what we migrants contribute, come closer so you can understand and see how we build our refuge.


This article is presented as part of Oregon Humanities’ Community Storytelling Fellowship. You can find more stories and interviews here.

Want to explore this story further? 
View our discussion guide to find questions and prompts as well as links to related articles, books, websites, and more.


Belonging, Family, Immigration, Safety


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