Carmen Abril Chávez was bracing herself to attend University of Texas at El Paso commencement without her parents by her side.
They live in Juárez and haven’t been able to cross into El Paso for more than a year, due to pandemic travel restrictions.
In late March 2020, the U.S. government closed its borders to “non-essential” traffic. U.S. citizens and permanent residents can still cross back and forth, but most Mexican nationals face restrictions.
Chávez’s parents have border crossing cards, and used to freely crisscross the Rio Grande. That all stopped last spring.
“I almost didn’t want to go to the commencement because for me it was pointless,” the 25-year-old said. “Why should I walk when nobody would be there?”
Chávez had already tempered her expectations for commencement. She graduated from UTEP in 2020, as COVID-19 cases soared and in-person ceremonies were indefinitely postponed. When the school announced it would hold celebrations for both this and last year’s classes, it was hard to work up much excitement.
Then, a week before the ceremony, Chavez learned that UTEP had worked out an agreement with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), allowing parents with current travel documents to cross the border for commencement.
“To be honest, I thought it was really unrealistic. I thought that it was not going to happen,” she said.
It only felt real when she learned about a letter from a high-level CBP official, confirming that the agency would “facilitate” parents’ attendance at graduation.
“I almost cried. It’s so important for our parents to be there because they’re the ones supporting us. Maybe we’re carrying the pencil and we’re writing the homework, but without their investment…” she paused. “Family and parents in the Latin community, they’re like our right hand.”
Chávez had to uninvite a couple guests she’d asked to attend when she thought her parents couldn’t make it; commencement tickets were limited.
“They completely understood,” she laughed.
Some Families Divided Celebrations Across The Rio Grande
The special CBP waiver made a huge difference for families like Chávez’s — but it didn’t apply to parents whose documents expired during the pandemic, or extend to other family members like grandparents and siblings.
That was challenging for 23-year-old Manuel Almaraz, who received a B.S. in Clinical Laboratory Science on Saturday.
It was hard to accept that his 80-year-old grandfather, Juan Acosta, wouldn’t be in the stands.
“I remember when I was barely starting my career at UTEP, my grandpa told me, ‘I want to ask God to give me the permission to live’ until he sees me graduate,” Almaraz said. “So now I feel so happy that he’s living right now. So blessed. But at the same time, I feel sad that he cannot see me in person.”
Almaraz and most of his family live in Juárez. He commuted across the U.S.-Mexico border every day for class. The trip involved waking up at 5:30 a.m., catching a bus to an international bridge, waiting in a long line to go through customs and then taking yet another bus to UTEP so he could be in class by 8:00 a.m.
“It’s been hard but at this moment I feel like all the effort I put in, it’s paying off,” he said.
On Saturday afternoon, his house was full of beaming relatives. Almaraz laid out his graduation regalia on the bed: a gold cord for graduating with highest honors, a braided green and blue cord celebrating his achievement as a first-generation college student.
His mom, Juana Acosta, smoothed out his gown so he could look sharp for the ceremony.
“I’m very, very proud of him being the first one in our family to graduate,” she said. “I saw all his sacrifices, crossing daily, all the long hours in line.”
This year, Almaraz was on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic, working as contact tracer and volunteering for El Paso’s Department of Public Health.
He temporarily rented an apartment in El Paso, with support from UTEP, to reduce the risk of exposing his family to COVID-19. He only moved back home once he was vaccinated.
Now, Almaraz helps prepare doses at the college vaccination clinic and has convinced several reluctant classmates to get the shot.
“Since I was a healthcare intern at the hospitals, I got vaccinated first,” he said. “So I was like, ‘It doesn’t hurt you. It’s safe. I just felt, like, some fever but that’s it.’”
Almaraz also kept a watchful eye on the COVID travel restrictions at the border, hoping they would be lifted in time for graduation. As a student, born in the U.S., he has been able to cross freely; he hoped soon, his relatives with travel visas would have the same opportunity.
Then, in mid-April, the announcement came: the U.S. and Mexico were extending the border shutdown for another month.
“So I was like okay, my grandpa cannot see me. My cousin cannot see me,” Almaraz said.
The pandemic also interfered with his mom’s hopes of attending commencement. She was waiting for an interview with the consulate — one of the last steps in her green card application process — when the pandemic hit. With that on hold, she didn’t have the documents she would need to attend the ceremony.
“I would have liked to be there with him, but he knows that all my heart and love will be there,” she said.
Almaraz’s binational college career culminated in binational celebrations. The Juárez contingent of his family watched a livestream of the ceremony, cheering him on from the kitchen table. His relatives living in the U.S. and his dad attended commencement in person.
“My son is graduating,” Juan Almaraz said, in the moments leading up to the ceremony. “I’m feeling those goosebumps all over my body. It’s amazing.”
‘It Was Something That We All Needed’
For Carmen Abril Chávez, commencement weekend was doubly special. Her sister Marisol graduated on Friday, as a member of the class of 2021. Chávez walked the next day, finally taking the stage after a year-long wait.
“Because of COVID, many of us lost a lot of things and people this year,” she said. “We lost maybe our jobs, maybe opportunities, maybe a loved one. It was a really tough year.”
The commencement ceremony was a bright spot, a moment to celebrate “the conclusion of so many efforts, so many sacrifices,” Chávez said.
A graduate of UTEP’s Medical Physics program, she decorated her cap with science-y images — a brain, a microscope, a beaker — and wrote a message in blue and gold glitter glue: It Was Rocket Science.
Seeing her parents in the audience, holding up their phones to capture “those three seconds that acknowledge a lot of years of studying,” made the experience for her.
“This was something that was a need for my parents, to see me walk through the stadium and my name being said. It was something that we all needed,” Chávez said. “And for my parents to have two of their daughters walk out and have the cap and the gown, that was something they were waiting for their whole lives.”
The ceremony ended with a bright explosion of fireworks. But Manuel Almaraz didn’t linger for too long.
Like he had done hundreds of times, Almaraz crossed the border back into Mexico. Instead of his usual routine — going straight home to study — he headed to the garden venue his family rented out for a party.
The room erupted when he walked in, still dressed in his cap and gown. Relatives cheered, chanted his name and tossed confetti.
Almaraz hugged his mom and grandpa first, then enjoyed a special meal: menudo, brisket, and enough vanilla cake for everyone from both sides of the border.