We Can Never Say We Didn’t Know
A photo of a drowned father and daughter makes us all accessories to tragedy. Will we do anything to stop it?
The story began like this: Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez fled El Salvador with his wife, Tania Vanessa Avalos, and their 23-month old daughter, Valeria — not from violence, but from extreme poverty, hoping to find refuge and a better life in the United States. They spent months waiting for an appointment to formally apply for asylum. But by Sunday, they were standing on the banks of the Rio Grande, growing desperate after officials told them the international bridge was closed.
So they decided to cross the river.
Officials recovered Martinez and Valeria’s bodies a day later. They were face-down against the bank of the river. Martinez first entered the water with his daughter on his back; Ávalos was close behind. But after growing tired, she returned to the Mexico side of the river. She later told authorities that she watched as her husband and daughter slipped beneath the current. When officials found their bodies, Valeria was still tucked under her father’s t-shirt, her small right arm draped around his neck for safety.
The photo of the two lifeless figures in the shallow waters of the Rio Grande has captured global attention, carrying an eerily familiar emotional heft, similar to the image of Alan Kurdi, the drown 3-year-old Syrian refugee who was pulled from the Mediterranean in 2015. That shocking image galvanized opinion about the Syrian migrant crisis, and the civil war Kurdi and his family fled from, alongside millions of others. The key difference for Americans, of course, is the shoreline versus the riverbank. In 2015, Kurdi was the victim of a monstrous tragedy far away. The Martinez family are victims of one unfolding much closer to home.
In the days preceding the deaths of Martinez and Valeria, fresh reports detailing conditions at migrant camps along the southern U.S. border once again highlighted the stakes for those who try to cross it — especially those with children.