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The Story Behind That Photo Of A Father And Daughter On The Banks Of The Rio Grande


The photograph of a father and daughter lying face down in the Rio Grande River is reframing the debate over the U.S.-Mexico border. We're going to focus now on the people whose lives ended just before that photo was taken. Chris Sherman is an Associated Press reporter based in Mexico, and he joins us from the border city of Matamoros. Welcome.


SHAPIRO: Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez was 25 years old. His daughter Valeria was 23 months old. Who have you learned they were?

SHERMAN: They were a young family from the outskirts of San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. Oscar and his wife Tania both had jobs. They lived with Oscar's mother in a two-bedroom home there in - outside of San Salvador. And they wanted to have their own home someday. So they were looking for a way to get ahead and saw migrating to the U.S. as that opportunity.

SHAPIRO: Oscar's young wife is still alive, is understandably devastated and is not speaking to reporters. But you did speak to his mother, Rosa. What did she tell you?

SHERMAN: My colleague Marc (ph) Aleman in San Salvador spoke with his mother and said it was understandably very difficult to see that photo. But when she looked at it, she saw a great deal of tenderness, the way that her granddaughter's arm was draped over her son's neck there at the edge of the river. And she said that she knew that her son had done everything and took some comfort in that they were together.

SHAPIRO: Rosa urged her son not to go or at least to leave the daughter behind, the granddaughter, Valeria.

SHERMAN: Yes, she had said, please don't go. We can always battle to carve out a life for ourselves here. At least leave the girl with me. You know, her son was adamant - how can you imagine that I would leave my daughter behind?

SHAPIRO: Like so many Central Americans, they came to Matamoros hoping to enter the United States. Last summer, on a reporting trip, I was on that bridge that these migrants cross into. And there is a long, long wait to apply for asylum. Why didn't they decide to wait in that line? Why not just add their names to the waiting list?

SHERMAN: It's not entirely clear. Authorities have said that they arrived over the weekend, went to the bridge, and they were told they would have to come back Monday to get on the list. I interviewed a woman from Honduras yesterday at the bridge who's been here since early May with her family, waiting, and she says that she met this family when they arrived over the weekend, that she explained to them how the process worked, that there was a list they had to get on, they would be given a number, and that they were only calling maybe one family a day, and that sometimes several days passed where they called none.

There's a belief that there was just a level of desperation, that they felt like they couldn't wait.

SHAPIRO: How has this photograph resonated with Central Americans who are considering making this journey?

SHERMAN: It's interesting. It's circled the globe, and it's definitely made it back to those sending countries like El Salvador and Honduras. We monitor some online chats where migrants talk about leaving, and what we saw in recent days was that there was a very open debate among people who participated in the chat. Some saying, we all know the risks, and others speaking out, saying, we shouldn't be taking children. We shouldn't be putting them at greater risk. We should leave them at home. And others answering, well, but the children make it easier for us to get in.

But people are making these decisions in a very contemporaneous, spontaneous way at times. Some of them have to decide to leave in the middle of the night if a threat comes; others might be pondering it over a longer period of time.

SHAPIRO: That's Chris Sherman, a correspondent for the Associated Press, speaking with us from Matamoros, Mexico. Thank you very much.

SHERMAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SQUAREPUSHER'S "TOMMIB") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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