I’m going off topic today, but I hope you’ll understand why.
It’s A Day Without Immigrants, a national day of action where people who are immigrants or who want to stand with them are not participating in the economy. Some families aren’t sending their kids to school. Some aren’t going to work. The flier that we’ve seen distributed in Austin encourages participants not to spend any money or open their businesses.
It’s early in the day, but we know of more than a dozen restaurants that aren’t opening, and I’m already seeing reports on social media of far more restaurants unable to open because they are understaffed.
I wanted to share a story about immigrants that has nothing to do with food. As you know, I’m the great-great-granddaughter of Swedish immigrants. Last August, I went back to Sweden to see where my family left in the late 1800s. They moved to Southwest Missouri, where, despite not knowing English or having any family members to help them, they embarked on a new life.
Why did they leave? Conditions in Sweden were bleak. Land was expensive, crops were failing and people were hungry. My ancestors weren’t refugees and they were white, but they were immigrants nonetheless.
Thousands of Swedes moved to Texas around the same time that my family moved to Missouri. Many of them settled in Williamson County, particularly Palm Valley, which is now the center of Round Rock. A group of those Swedish immigrants built Palm Valley Lutheran Church, whose roots date to the 1850s. The building that still stands on Palm Valley Road was built in 1896.
The cemetery outside that church, which looks uncannily like some of the churches we saw in Stockholm, is full of the same surnames that I found strolling through the cemetery outside my ancestor’s rural Lutheran church on Gotland island: Bergstrom, Carlson, Gustafson, Sellstrom. My family’s Swedish surname was Anderson. There are more than 100 Andersons buried at Palm Valley Lutheran.
And as of this month, there’s a Aviles-Saldana and Rodriguez-Aviles buried there, too.
Adriana Aviles-Saldana and her daughter Emely Rodriguez-Aviles died about four months apart.
Adriana died in August after a two-year battle with cervical cancer. I met her widowed husband, Jacob, in October, when I was reporting for our Season for Caring campaign. Jacob, though still very much grieving his wife, was learning how to be a 26-year-old single dad of Emely, their daughter, who had Down syndrome and other health issues that prevented her from eating normally.
In early December, Emely was diagnosed with leukemia. She quickly developed a respiratory infection and spent four weeks at Dell Children’s Medical Center.
She died on Jan. 5.
Hundreds of Central Texans were moved by their story. An anonymous family donated a van and enough money so that Jacob, who is a painter who was born in Mexico but immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager, wasn’t going to have to worry about paying rent this year while he cared for Emely during her two-year chemotherapy treatment.
Palm Valley Lutheran Church donated $4,000 worth of services for Emely and Adriana’s memorial service, including a burial plot right next to all those Andersons and Gustafsons. Hospice Austin donated the flower arrangements, and Austin Threshold Choir sang the most moving hymns during the service and as Jacob placed his wife and daughter’s urns in the small square graves.
Writing Emely’s obituary was one of the hardest stories I’ve ever had to write. She was four year old. I have young children. Jacob and I are about the same age. The love of my life died when we were in our early 20s, but we weren’t exactly married or even dating at the time. (It’s a long, sad story.)
But walking into the church earlier this month for Emely and Adriana’s funeral, I realized something else: Emely and I were both born in America, but we wouldn’t have been born here if not for immigrants crossing a border into a country that wasn’t technically theirs.
I walked through that cemetery that day holding the hands of my children, who — God willing — will never know a fear so great that they have to move to a different country because theirs is in such strife.
As a reporter, I can’t take a stand on A Day Without Immigrants, but I can tell you this story of two very different immigrants communities helping each other in times of need because immigration is part of my story, too.
Maybe it’s part of your story, too.