<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
 English | Español August 15, 2018 | Issue #67

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Al Giordano

Opening Statement, April 18, 2000
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The Hunger for Freedom: A Story of Central American Solidarity at a Family Immigration-Detention Center in the US

An incarcerated Mayan woman overcomes a language barrier and encourages her fellow refugee mothers in their struggle to free themselves and their children from unjust detention

By Alex Mensing

November 3, 2016

A group of women gather in a circle on a grassy field on the grounds of a detention center in Berks County, Pennsylvania. Guards eye them mistrustfully from a distance as they speak softly and seriously in Spanish, then are quiet.

María Tomás

A short woman with jet-black hair and brown skin smiles and begins to pray. Her words are soft and song-like, punctuated by “-tz” and “-tx” and “-sh.” None of the other women know exactly what her words mean, but they understand what she is expressing. Finally she is able to communicate with her fellow inmates, encourage them, share their struggle for freedom as they engage in a hunger strike that has since grabbed the attention of the nation.

Maria Tomas is no stranger to overcoming barriers. She escaped targeted violence and death threats in her native Guatemala, and she crossed two international borders with her 6-year-old son and no government permission only to be locked up with her son in an unlicensed family immigration-detention center in Pennsylvania. She recently won her freedom, however, after nearly four months in the Berks County Residential Center — one of only three detention facilities for immigrant families in the nation. Maria achieved all of this while overcoming an even more challenging reality: she is an indigenous Mayan woman who speaks Q’anjob’al, not Spanish.

“I suffer because I can’t speak Spanish well,” said Maria while she was still detained. Her brother, who speaks Spanish and Q’anjob’al, interpreted for her during an interview that Narco News has translated into English. “I can’t talk with [immigration officials or prison guards] and people speak badly of me. … I can’t defend myself.”

Long Journey

In fact, Maria has defended herself quite well. Articles in the Huffington Post and La Opinión have already detailed her harrowing legal case, aided by pro bono immigration lawyers who helped to expose the awful conditions she and her son have suffered at the hands of US immigration officials. She was ordered deported and was detained at Berks after the government accused her of not showing up to court, even though she was never properly informed of her asylum hearings, much less given information in a language she understood.

While detained, Maria had to watch her now 7-year-old son grow increasingly desperate. He stopped eating regular meals and began throwing violent tantrums much worse than anything Maria had ever seen before. It got so bad that she was worried he might even take his own life.

“I need to quick,” Maria said. “[My son] is always crying. […] We are locked up and a couple of times my son has wanted to throw himself out the get out window because he doesn’t want to be here anymore. If he does that I won’t see him again because we’re two stories up, and after a fall like that I won’t see him again. That is why I am so worried about him.”

During the months that Maria and her son were incarcerated, other Central American refugee mothers with children had been detained at the same Pennsylvania facility for more than 12 months.

In a video taken at the detention center’s fence, Alizeth, a Honduran mother incarcerated for more than 160 days with her daughter, said: “The injustice we see in this center is seeing so many mothers who have been detained for a year and a half with their children.” Mothers at the Berks County Residential Center, who have committed no criminal offenses, are detained indefinitely while the US Government reviews their cases, despite a court decision requiring that children not be detained for more than 20 days.

When the detained mothers heard US Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson declare that the government was complying with the 20-day average detention limit, they were infuriated. They began a hunger strike and published a letter to announce their struggle:

“We left our homes in Central America to escape corruption, threats, and violence. We thought this country would help us, but now we are locked up with our children. … On Monday, we decided to begin this hunger strike, hoping that our voices will be heard and that we will obtain the liberty from detention that we need so much.”


Maria Tomas was not alone in her desperation at the Brooks facility in rural Pennsylvania, but she suffered extra discrimination at the detention center because of her language and indigenous identity. Even the other mothers treated her differently.

“They would say I am from the jungle and say things in front of me,” Maria recalls. Other children accused her son of threatening them when they didn’t understand what he was saying. The guards —who take upon themselves the dubious role of monitoring childcare, despite the fact that the facility’s childcare license was revoked earlier this year — always sided with Spanish speakers.

Even though Maria felt isolated, she noticed when the mothers began their hunger strike. After a few days without food, she could tell they were beginning to weaken and she wanted to do something to help. Maria herself already knew what fasting was like from her own religious traditions, and in fact had been fasting for nearly fifteen days already, praying for everyone’s freedom.

“We are all the same,” Maria said. “We are locked up here. It occurred to me that maybe it would be good for us to come together, to pray together, even though they don’t communicate much with me.”

On day five of their hunger strike, Alizeth felt a tap on her shoulder. It was Maria, beckoning her to the detention center’s telephone booth. Alizeth picked up the phone and heard Maria’s brother on the other end, speaking to her in Spanish.

“He told me that Maria wanted to pray for us,” Alizeth recalls. “She had dreamed that we were all going to be freed. She wanted to know if she could pray for all of us, together, and wanted me to ask everyone to go outside. I said I would ask. One by one everyone told me they would go outside for a prayer with Maria. We all accepted and we went outside.”

Alizeth and the other mothers were surprised by the invitation. “Maria? Really?” They could hardly believe it, but the Guatemalan woman with the suicidal son was asking to pray for them. Exhausted as they were by their fasting, they gathered outside and listened as Maria prayed for them in Q’anjob’al.

“She prayed in her language and we prayed in ours,” says Alizeth. “It was beautiful. At the end she thanked us for going out with her. She told us to have faith. […] We felt a great happiness and encouragement.”

Maria’s prayer not only helped the mothers persevere with their hunger strike, it improved their relationship with her in the detention center.

“I hardly had any problems with the others after the prayer,” Maria said. “I was happier there with the people. I felt more part of the group. It is not good being there; you feel sadness. It was better after the prayer. Everyone participated.”

On Sept. 9, 2016, Maria was finally released from the Berks County Residential Center. This was only after she resorted to speaking out in the media and as a result of an admirable effort by pro bono attorneys to defend her case and through the efforts of advocates to raise the Berks mothers’ situation in the US Congress. A week after being freed, Maria is happy that her son is once again stable, but she still faces many challenges.

Maria wears a GPS-monitoring unit on her ankle and has to report to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP) on a weekly basis. She pays a taxi $175 to get to her appointments. Maria still has to work with her lawyers to prepare her asylum case (and given the current national situation, she is fortunate to have representation). She also still has two children in Guatemala who are in danger due to the same threats that Maria fled, but she couldn’t afford to bring them with her.

Despite her uphill battle, Maria hasn’t forgotten her friends at Berks — the friends she made the day she prayed for them to continue fighting.

“I think about them still being there. They are all there because of necessity, and sometimes I am sad because it is not good there. Now I am here. Sometimes I still pray for the people there.”

Click here to listen to Maria Tomas’ Mayan prayer

Yujwal dios. Tainé jabá.

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America