A Virtual Wake for the Father and Daughter in the Rio Grande


There’s a very disturbing image circulating on social media that shows a drowned father with his 2-year-old daughter on the bank of a river.

You don’t have to look at it if you’re not up for it, but don’t avoid it just because it’s uncomfortable. The human heart was not designed to grow a callus. The hands and feet, yes — those are parts where a good callus helps them do their work better. But that’s not how it works with the heart. The human heart gets worse with calluses, not better — it needs to be softened from time to time. We should not be afraid to expose it to bruising. This is an image that can help with that.

The photo is included at the bottom of this page, so the choice is yours. I can guarantee that it will shake you up, but sometimes it’s good to be shaken up.


Before I tell you that the river that this father and daughter drowned in is the Rio Grande; before I tell you that the father’s name is Oscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and the toddler’s name is Valeria and they were fleeing El Salvador; before I tell you that Oscar and Valeria were trying to cross the border to seek asylum in the U.S. …

Did I lose you there? Have the details sparked a barrel of gunpowder in your head? Are you outraged? Have you already forgotten that a father and a daughter are lying face down in the shallow, muddy water where the reeds grow green and tall along a river bank?


Take a breath. Go back to the start. Become a human being once again. Look at the photo and turn off the voices in your head — put your finger on the volume button attached to the speaker between your ears, the one blaring all the hot takes, and dial it down until it clicks off. Let it get real quiet and sit on that riverbank for a full minute.

Republican or Democrat, right or left, we can all do that, right? It’s a photo — it captures a moment. It’s a fact, not a threat. Enter that moment and take a seat and let your heart beat for a while. Let go of the implications and the consequences and the ideologies — let go of what it means, you can work that out later. For now, just sit there on that riverbank.

If you want to weep, like I did, that’s okay.


If you look closely, you’ll see some details that tell part of their story:

  • Oscar wore shorts and removed his shoes, presumably so he could move through the water unencumbered;
  • He bound Valeria to his back with a shirt or band to free his hands to swim;
  • She clamped her small arms around his neck until the end;
  • She’s still wearing a diaper — it’s saturated with water;
  • They washed up with trash that had been thrown out — pieces of plastic and a few empty beer cans.

For me, it’s his bare feet. Even now, after it’s over, they still haven’t found solid ground.


Julia Le Duc, a reporter for the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, took the photo. She uncovered other parts of their story: Oscar and his wife, Tania Vanessa Ávalos, fled El Salvador looking for asylum in the U.S. They were unable to present themselves for consideration, however, because they were detained in a migrant camp on the Mexican side of the border. It’s hot where the camp is and temperatures reached 110 degrees. The camp did not have enough food.

So Oscar and Tania made a decision. They would cross the Rio Grande river and enter the U.S. on their own, then work out their asylum claim on the other side. (People can seek asylum either at a port of entry or by crossing the border illegally and presenting themselves to Border Patrol.)

Oscar crossed with Valeria first, and Tania saw them both emerge on the far bank. Then Oscar got into the water to swim back to help Tania, but Valeria got confused and jumped in the water after her dad. He turned around for her, but when he reached her, the current swept both of them away. Tania watched it happen.


That’s what happened to this father and daughter, but are you still with me? As you were hearing their story, was your brain shaking the spray paint bottle to scrawl “rule of law” or “Matthew 25” over it? The whole point here is to scrub off the graffiti; to get down to flat, even ground between us; to be a human being. Be willing to let your heart be bruised and broken.

Just sitting there with them in silence is prayer, you know. Perhaps one of the deepest, most real prayers we can offer — the kind that’s beyond words.

Isn’t that the least we can offer Oscar and Valeria? To give them a virtual wake, a moment of silent attention? To give them the dignity of not passing them by? To be touched by their story?

Take it in. Take them in.



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