Published on July 5th, 2018 | by Aya de Leon


Border Separations, Reverberating Trauma, and Screaming in the Car

Recently, I called a suicide prevention hotline. I wasn’t suicidal, but I felt overwhelmed with despair, hearing about large numbers of children being forcibly taken from their parents, when their families were seeking entry or asylum at the border.

It was Father’s Day. We had gone to a tapas bar for dinner that wasn’t family friendly. Too many of the flavors were calibrated for adult palates, and they didn’t have good soft drinks. Also, they were showing a Spanish Almodovar film on one screen, and the World Cup on the other. 

After dinner, my partner wanted to go out to a superhero movie, and I suddenly realized I was too freaked out to be alone with my kid. I felt like I might collapse and start weeping or wailing. I asked him to be on with our kid for half an hour, so I had time to pull myself together. I sat in the car and pulled up the contact info for my support network. I texted over 25 people that I needed to talk, but everyone was busy. Of course. It was Father’s Day. I looked at the time on my phone. I needed to go into the house within 20 minutes, and I felt desperate to get that feeling off my chest. I was breathing shallow and my torso was clenched. I called the hotline. 

The phone rang and a recorded voice asked me to hold. When a woman finally answered, I told her that I wasn’t actively suicidal, and didn’t want to tie up the only line. She told me her name was Iris, and she assured me that we could talk for up to fifteen minutes without any problem.

I thanked her and began sobbing. I sat there in my car on the street in front of my house. Neighbors strolled by, walking their dogs. Maybe they heard me. I didn’t care. My mind was filled with images I’d seen on social media of children removed from their families. Groups of children in detention centers. Eyewitness testimonies of infants forcibly taken from their parents. Specialty vans with rows and rows of car seats for small children, but no seats for parents. The 18-month-old ripped from a mother while breastfeeding. The images and stories were unbearable.

I’m an attachment type parent. I gave birth at home. I wore my baby in a carrier. We have a family bed. I cried the first time I left my baby with a relative to go to work, and again on her first day of daycare. I recall the wails of my own daughter and other children when they had to say goodbye to their parents on the first day of preschool of kindergarten, utterly desolate despite their parents’ reassuring voices. Completely inconsolable despite caring teachers inviting them to enjoy toys and games in brightly colored classrooms. Our privileged Bay Area children shrieking in outrage at being separated from families for several hours.

Photo by Arwan Sutanto on Unsplash

How to even imagine the state of trauma for a baby or young child being ripped away from parents who are equally terrified? Children taken not by teachers but uniformed officers, not into home daycares or bright classrooms but into barren detention cells? But perhaps I don’t need to imagine it. Perhaps I was distraught precisely because I have ancestral memories of these kinds of forced removals. Perhaps so many of us are shaken because this is how families were separated in slavery, in Native American boarding schools, and Japanese internment. In one story from the border, parents were told the children were being taken to have a shower, and a half hour later were told their children had been permanently taken away. I sobbed into the phone. Showers were used in Nazi concentration camps: people were told they were going to take showers and were killed. 

No, Trump isn’t participating in mass extermination. But since his election, Nazis have marched in the city where I live. As a Latinx mom, I sobbed in grief for the families ripped apart and I also sobbed in terrified anticipation of whatever horrific human rights violation could be next. I sobbed with all the vulnerabilities in my own family. The girls and young women. My Caribbean immigrant partner. His British citizenship could only offer so much protection. Most of us African heritage. Many of us Puerto Rican. Our US citizenship hadn’t protected my Puerto Rican kinfolk from the recent climate catastrophe. The border separations seemed to confirm my worst fears about the current White House regime. White supremacy was coming for us, and they would be taking the children first. I wailed with terror, rage, and a howling grief.

Yet I had felt presumptuous calling the hotline. When the heaviest of the emotion ebbed, I explained to Iris that I had only called because I was distraught beyond what I could easily shake off. I didn’t want my upset to leak out on my daughter, especially since I would be alone with her for the next couple hours. Iris affirmed my decision to call the hotline, and encouraged me in self-care. Her generosity and compassion made me cry some more, but this time with less terror and more gratitude. I dried my eyes, and thanked her for listening.

I felt fortunate to have access to that kind of support. I felt fortunate that in a few moments, I would go into my house and see my kid. I felt unspeakably privileged that I wasn’t forced to make an impossible choice for my family’s survival like so many at the border: to face the violence, danger and unlivable conditions in the home country or face violence and danger as immigrants to the US? The choice is particularly bitter, because the US is so often complicit, if not directly responsible for the brutality in many immigrants’ homelands. Either through our foreign policy, our economic policies, our environmental policies, or our multinational corporations. 

But screaming out the grief made room for a new resolve. I vowed to join organizing efforts for immigrant justice. I had been toying with the idea of organizing a hug-in for families with young children to protest not only the current border separations, but demanding justice in US immigration policies. In the following days, the white house has apparently decided to stop mass separation at the border, but there isn’t any commitment to reunite families already separated. In addition, we need to abolish ICE. Family separation and detention has increased exponentially since ICE’s formation.

As I walked from the car to the house, I felt better. I was able to be a relaxed and fun mom that night. I even slept reasonably well. But the next day, the feelings of dread and despair were back. After I’d gotten my daughter off to camp, I could barely work. And then I did something I hadn’t done for over a decade: I zoned out on video games. 

I’ve had low-grade video game addictions in the past: bookworm, jewel quest, rocket mania. I have always said that motherhood is like Tetris. If you can line everything uppack kid’s martial arts gear, bring laptop, run to store, don’t forget to buy snack, drop off library books, make phone call while driving, pick up kid, go to martial arts class. Snack in car. Write while kid is in class! Everything lines up and the blocks fall effortlessly off your plate, making room for more. But if things go wrong…. You leave too late. Can’t get by the store before pickup time. Then you’ve got a hungry kid screaming in the back seat, and now you definitely can’t make that call. And by the time you finally bum a snack from another parent and get the kid into the class, you realize you’ve forgotten the laptop and can’t work, but it’s too late to make your call because by now, the office is closed. 

Living my life like Tetrislining everything upgives me more time. But playing video game Tetris is a time suck, stealing precious hours I can’t get back. That day after Father’s Day I installed and uninstalled Tetris on my phone several times, promising friends I was going to stop playing and get to work. I broke that promise more than once, and I didn’t get much done.

Only that afternoon, as I went to pick up my kid, did I finally address the twist of anxiety that had reinstalled itself in my solar plexus. I made a few calls to people in my support network but didn’t catch anyone. So I played Mos Def’s “Umi Says” and scream cried all the way across town.

As he sang:

I want my people to be free…

My shrieking reverberated off the car walls.

That’s all that matters to me.

Maybe other drivers thought I looked unhinged. But I didn’t look at them. I didn’t care. I just knew I couldn’t function with that load of emotion on my chest. It was equal parts fear, rage, and grief. By the time I was halfway to my kid’s camp, I could breathe again.

I forgive myself for the time I wasted on video games, but I don’t want numbness and isolation to be my main coping strategy in these tough political times. Clearly, if I’m not numb, I’ll be coping by letting out big, messy emotions. I also plan to use activism, staying close to loved ones, and voting. If I want justice in this world, I need to build capacity to be emotionally present in the face of injustice. I need an open mind and heart to develop communities of resistance. Our communities can build political power to shift our world toward justice. And I want the joy of being present with my family along the way.

Looking for family-friendly opportunities for activism?

Check out the Mamas Week of Actions against border separations and unjust immigration policies and practices July 1-7..

…and beyond at Families Belong Together.


PS: since publishing this, various friends have reached out to check on me. Yes, loves, I am fine. And I am fine because when I do feel deep distress or despair, I always reach out for help. Since the 2016 election, I have had more instances of intense and overwhelming emotion, but my self-care game is very tight. In this piece, I chose to talk very openly and matter-of-factly about the big emotions I was having in response to current events because I KNOW I’m not the only one. All of us are much more triggered and feeling closer to the edge. I am encouraging all of us (myself included) to find safe spaces to embrace and delve into the emotions. The dangerous place is if I don’t let them out, and am walking around pretending that I don’t need to have a big screaming fit and everything’s okay. As long as I am releasing instead of running from the despair, I can make room for the authentic hopefulness. The resistance is imperfect but strong. We are fighting back with every means at our disposal: legal activism, civil disobedience, running for office, voting. It’s going to take a while to turn things around, and I am betting on victory.

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About the Author

Aya de León teaches creative writing at U.C. Berkeley. Kensington Books publishes her adult novels, her award-winning “Justice Hustlers” feminist heist series (which includes SIDE CHICK NATION, the first novel published about Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico), A SPY IN THE STRUGGLE, about a young Black woman FBI agent who infiltrates an African American political organization fighting for climate justice and Black Lives (out now), and QUEEN OF URBAN PROPHECY about women in hip hop, police violence and the climate crisis (out now). In October 2021, Aya published a young adult thriller about a pair of undocumented Dominican teen girls who uncover a kidnapping plot to stop the Green New Deal called THE MYSTERY WOMAN IN ROOM THREE. Given the climate emergency, this novel was too politically urgent for traditional publishing, so it was serialized in in six installments on Orion Magazine, and is available free of charge. In October 2022, her next young adult novel comes out from Candlewick Books, UNDERCOVER LATINA—about a 14-year-old spy who passes for white to stop a white nationalist terrorist—the first in a Black/Latina spy girl series. In spring 2022, Aya is producing a free online conference called Black Literature vs. The Climate Emergency at UC Berkeley African American Studies. Aya is also working on a memoir of her body that explores the intersection of food, body image, race, and the environment. Finally, her Justice Hustlers series has been optioned for television, and she is currently working on the pilot. Find her at

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