For nine years, the most the mother and daughter could do was touch pinky fingers through a small hole in the U.S.-Mexico border. Neither could cross, so they stayed separated.
But that divide ended Saturday — even if for only three minutes — as Gabriela Esparaza stepped just inside Mexico to embrace her mother, Maria, and sister, Susanna. They hugged as tears fell.
Jannet Castanon, who also had been apart from her mother for nine years, was the first person to walk past the heavy gate.
“It was amazing to feel my mom and touch her again, smell her, everything,” Castanon said. “She’s still the same lady, strong.”
The reunion was thanks to the group Border Angels and U.S. Border Patrol, who opened the gate at Friendship Park (at Border Field State Park) that separates two countries and parents from their children.
Mexico’s Children’s Day was the occasion, but it was the third time the Border Angels brought family members together for a brief connection through the “Opening the Door of Hope” event.
Toys were distributed to children on both sides of the border.
“It was amazing, a great gift,” said Esparaza, who hadn’t touched her mother in nine years, but comes to the border park often to speak to her through the fence.
Esparaza received a work permit through the Dream Act and hopes someday her family can join her in the United States.
Time seemed to slow during the three minutes, the Poway resident said, and so she had time to exchange, I-love-you’s and encouragement to stay strong.
“Every daughter needs their mom,” said Castanon, a mother from Chula Vista. “I need my mom. I couldn’t sleep (last night) and was excited and nervous. It was like I was dreaming.”
Family was key for the 75 or so attendees, but immigration is a continuing issue in the presidential election.
U.S. Rep. Juan Vargas, a Democrat, brought up politics and spoke of a Republican hero.
“I want to thank Ronald Reagan,” said Vargas, who attended the event for the second time.
“He signed amnesty into law and didn’t think it went far enough. He would know the right things to do — comprehensive immigration reform.”
The congressman went on to discuss why Saturday’s event was important.
“The purpose is much more than letting a family reunite for three minutes,” Vargas said. “The purpose is really to show that this is what we should be doing, bringing families together, not separating them.
“I don’t know where people get the cold hearts to say it’s OK to break families apart. These families are trying to live the American Dream, coming, working hard, building a life, building a country.”
He reserved his toughest words for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
“He’s a demagogue in the worst way,” Vargas said at an event covered by CNN, The Washington Post and Univision. “We’ve seen people before foment all sorts of hatred. And it’s terrible and tragic that people follow that.”
“At the end of the day, I think that [Trump’s stand] loses because the American people are good people who see through that and they’ll see through him and at the end of the day, we’ll have a president — I’m hoping it’s Hillary (Clinton) — who won’t demagogue these issues and instead tries to bring people together and try to build up our country.
Vargas added that Trump “says he wants to make American great again. I think he wants America to hate, and it’s tragic.”
At the border’s double fence, one fence leading to Friendship Park is opened only several hours on weekends.
The Border Angels with the cooperation of the U.S. Border Patrol has monthly events at Friendship. At noon May 1, free immigration consulting is available, and on Mother’s Day binational mariachi music is offered.
Yvette Castanon, 10, went with her mother to see her grandmother. “My mom and me got to hug our family. It was a big memory. It was really sad, too.”
Her mother, Jannet, said, “I feel so happy, like I feel incredible. I have a lot of emotions.”
While she was with her mother, Castanon said she had too many thoughts to think straight.
“I just hugged and kissed and hugged and kissed. I don’t want to let her go.”
Enrique Morones, executive director and founder of Border Angels (center), speaks before the gate is opened. Families wait behid the wire. Photo by Chris Stone
Enrique Morones, executive director and founder of Border Angels (center), wearing his Love Has No Borders shirt, speaks to volunteers and media. Photo by Chris Stone
Families on the United States sides looked for relatives on the Mexican side of the fence. Photo by Chris Stone
Border Patrol agents close the fence after five three-minute visits. Photo by Chris Stone
Salvador Martinez and his son, Diego leave after a visit with family. Photo by Chris Stone
Families may visit through the fence on Saturdays and Sundays, but must walk a mile and a half from a parking lot to the park. Photo by Chris Stone
Youngsters receive gifts for Mexico’s Children’s Day. Photo by Chris Stone
Enrique Morones, executive director and founder of Border Angels, holds a cross reading “not forgotten.” Photo by Chris Stone
Family members peer at relatives across the border. Photo by Chris Stone.
Maria del Carmen Flores greets her grandson Leonel. Photo by Chris Stone
Eyes peer through the border fence from the Mexican side. Photo by Chris Stone
A relative on the Mexican side of the border speaks with a relative in the U.S. Photo by Chris Stone
Rosario Vargas hugs her daughter, Jannet, and granddaughter Yvette. Photo by Chris Stone
A Border Patrol agent strains to pull a beam securing a heavy gate. Photo by Chris Stone
A woman on the U.S. side takes a photo of a relative on the Mexican side of the border fence. Photo by Chris Stone
A family member on the Mexican side of the fence offers a drink of coconut water to a relative on the U.S. side. Photo by Chris Stone
U.S. Rep. Juan Vargas speaks with the media in Mexico. Photo by Chris Stone
The face of Jannet Castanon is reflected in her mother’s sunglasses. Photo by Chris Stone
Jannet Castanon walks back to the U.S. side of the border. Photo by Chris Stone
Enrique Morones, executive director and founder of Border Angels, speaks to families on the Mexican side of the border fence. Photo by Chris Stone
Isela Michel Zavala comforts Yudridia Guadalupe Zavala. Photo by Chris Stone
Susanna Del Carmen Esparaza Flores cries and hugs her sister, Gabriela, who lives in Poway. Photo by Chris Stone
Salvador Martinez Hernandez hugs his grandson, Diego. Photo by Chris Stone
Rosario Vargas Flores waits at the border fence to greet her daughter Jannet Castanon and granddaughter Yvette. Photo by Chris Stone
Gabriela Esparaza of Poway arrives at Border Field State Park with her son Leonel to see her mother and sister. Photo by Chris Stone
Families gather on the Mexico side of the fence. Photo by Chris Stone
Border Patrol agents stay near the border gate as families hug just inside the Mexican side of the fence. Photo by Chris Stone
Samantha Martinez gets a kiss from her grandmother, Maria Granadoz. Photo by Chris Stone
Isela Michel Zavala smiles as she leaves her mother’s embrace. Photo by Chris Stone
Gabriela Esparaza holds her nephew for the first time. Photo by Chris Stone
Gabriela Esperaza (in red) visits with her sister Susanna (with baby) and mother Maria for a Children’s Day celebration. Photo by Chris Stone
Border Patrol agents pry the heavy border door open for family visits. Photo by Chris Stone
Yudridia Guadalupe Zavala on the Mexico side greets Isela Michel Zavala. Photo by Chris Stone
Salvador Martinez Hernandez hugs his son, Salvador, during a three-minute visit. Photo by Chris Stone
While a border agent stands at the gate, Gabriela Esparaza hugs her mother and sister just across the Mexico side at the border fence. Photo by Chris Stone
Perla Martinez with her daughter Samantha walks away from her family after three-minute visit. Photo by Chris Stone