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On the Border

“hair trimmed in reeds instead of ribbons”

Published onFeb 06, 2022
On the Border

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. "Suspension Bridge over Rio Grande, El Paso, Texas" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1908 - 1909. 

The photo speaks a thousand words, one 

for each mile they travelled 

Baby on her father’s back

tucked inside his T-shirt,

face down in the waters of the Rio Grande,

hair trimmed in reeds instead of ribbons 

Abrogation of the Dream

that persuaded her family to flee

a thousand miles’ journey to the border

and the torch-bearing promise of freedom

to be denied.

The photo of the baby and her father

who set his daughter on the banks of a new world 

and swam back for her mother,

never intending to end up in the river

or hear his wife scream as their future

jumped back into swift currents

and was swept away.

If you are brown and poor and desperate,

do not come to America 

Color is skin-deep

like sky and earth, fire and blood

All shades mingle transparent in water

that gives life or takes life 

in the chance current,

water that births us in chance skin

Valeria’s arm, still slung around her father

Oscar’s neck, in death’s tableau

Remember them, and let your heart

break, just a little


Gayle J. Greenlea is an American-Australian poet and counselor for survivors of sexual and gender-related violence. Her poem, “Wonderland,” received the Australian Poetry Prod Award in 2011. She shortlisted and longlisted for the Fish Poetry Prize in 2013, and debuted her first novel, Zero Gravity, at the KGB Literary Bar in Manhattan in 2016.


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