Meeting Willy – A Border Trip Reflection
By Dynahlee Padilla-Vasquez
This October, I joined 21 women on a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border hosted by We Welcome — a grassroots community of women of faith, dedicated to creating a culture of welcome at home and in the halls of Congress. Compelled by our love for immigrants, faith and Scripture, we agreed to take this quest of getting closer to immigrants and migrants together. Here, we encouraged one another to actively listen, foster empathy, and better understand the border, its inextricable communities, and complex nuances, learning about the people and stories — told and untold — that are a big part of U.S. history.
At a temporary migrant shelter in El Paso, Texas, we got closer to the people who encounter and understand the border as part of their daily lives.
One of the people we met was Willy. With a smile, sweet eyes, and curiosity, he asked me in Spanish what our group was doing there.
I smiled back — grateful he wanted to speak to me, approaching me like a friend, though I felt I was a stranger who invited myself to his sanctuary, his temporary home and refuge.
I told him, “Hola, me llamo Dynahlee. Soy de Nueva York pero vivo en Virginia. Estamos aquí en un viaje de trabajo. Trabajamos en inmigración.”
“My name is Dynahlee. I am from New York but live in Virginia. We are here on a work trip. We work in immigration.”
His eyes lit up, maybe happy to know that people beyond the migrant shelter cared about him and had an interest in getting to know him more. I’d like to think so.
A few other women continued to speak with Willy — he made it so easy. He was kind, happy, and appreciative to be in conversation and proximity with us — women from all over the country, energized by their faith to seek proximity with migrants like him, to learn. We were blessed to be in conversation with him too.
He and his family are originally from Perú and were heading to a new home to meet their sponsor in Sun Valley, Idaho, the following day.
One of the women in the group, Danielle Desnoyers, is a photojournalist and founder of Retake in North Carolina, a nonprofit that offers free family portraits to refugees, immigrants and others starting over. The photos are a physical keepsake for them to take to their new homes as they rebuild their lives.
Sometime in the lovely conversations after Willy got his Polaroid photo taken by Danielle, Willy asked permission to take a photo with some of the women he spoke to, including Laura from South Carolina and Brooklyn from North Carolina. They exchanged phone numbers via WhatsApp, and thereby started what I call an example of welcome, beauty and the beginning of an “enduring relationship” — a term I learned from one of my favorite journalism professors.
Through Danielle’s wish to take these compelling photos of migrant families, my love and ability to speak Spanish, Laura and Brooklyn’s warm spirit, prayer, and conversations with Willy, we all had a chance to connect with him.
As we parted ways, thankful for the visit, Brooklyn and Laura sat with me in the back seat of the car, where we each told versions of the same story: How I Met Willy. During that conversation, I learned I’d be departing from the El Paso airport around the same time he and his family would the following morning. Brooklyn and Laura then got Willy’s permission to share his number with me, and I messaged him that I’d be there too.
The next morning, when I found my gate, I texted him.
“Que tal todo?” or “How’s everything going?” And I asked which gate he and his family were located.
I picked up breakfast sandwiches at Starbucks and cake pops for the kids, walked over to their gate, gave Willy a hug, and captured a photo of them as a family, in addition to a selfie with me.
He wished me well and blessed me. But he and his family were my blessing before heading back home to Virginia.
We promised to stay in contact and have been texting ever since — keeping tabs on each other, offering gratitude and prayer to one another.
Bon voyage, neighbor. Or, should I say, hasta luego, vecino.
Dynahlee Padilla-Vasquez is a writer based in the D.C. area, a journalist at heart, and an advocate for press freedoms, immigration and prison reforms. Originally from the Bronx, with roots from Puerto Rico, she is a storyteller. Dynahlee is the Senior Communications Associate for The National Immigration Forum.