Meet the Angry Tías and Abuelas Taking Action for Immigrants in the Rio Grande Valley

Elisa Filippone has been professionally outraged for a year now.

Like the seven other board members of The Angry Tías and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley, a nonprofit that helps asylum seekers at the southern border between Mexico and the U.S., she couldn’t sit still when she heard about the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy that forced border patrol agents to separate immigrant families—so she headed to the bridges and bus stops in Brownsville, Texas.

When Filippone started bringing water, diapers, menstrual sanitary products—anything she thought could help the immigrants staked out at these oases—she was working alone. But in June of last year, her friend Madeleine Sandefur urged her to band together with other local activists, and The Angry Tías and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley were born.

“Lovely Christian women ask us why we aren’t the ‘Tías of Love’,” Filippone told Ms., “but this isn’t about love. It’s about being angry and using that passion to make this right.”

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Much has changed since their first official meeting that month: The group has grown tenfold in size, on-boarding nearly 100 volunteers; when ardent supporters started reaching out about donating money and supplies, they filed to become an official non-profit. But the rage hasn’t subsided—and the Tías and Abuelas know their work is far from over.

“We would like to see an immigration system that actually makes sense and is dignifying and respects human beings,” Filippone told Ms. “How we will get there, we don’t know. But I’m here today. If I’m exhausted or unsafe, I’ll stop, but that hasn’t happened yet.”

Raised in a family of farm worker activists, Cindy Candia felt an obligation to join the Tías and Abuelas when she heard her friends were bringing supplies to asylum seekers staked out on the Reynosa bridge in her town of Harlingen, Texas. She has been with the group since its genesis—shuttling supplies to shelters, delivering packets of information on immigrant rights to the bridges and bus stops and connecting volunteer acupuncturists with immigrants who need medical attention.

Most recently, Candia organized a vigil for six asylum seekers who died while trying to cross the Rio Grande into Brownsville and McAllen, Texas. “We need to realize what’s happening,” she explained to Ms. “People are desperate and dying, and it’s our governments fault.” Candia originally wanted to host a protest in front of the Customs and Border Protection office, but the group decided to hold a somber memorial instead.

Whether the Tías are lighting candles or raising their fists, their work takes an emotional toll on their members. But while some Tías have taken short breaks from the nonprofit, none have ever quit. The work is heavy and overwhelming—but the power members draw from their anger is far stronger. “I’ve never thought about quitting or even taking a break,” Filippone said. “The task is too important… I think that’s what keeps me going.”

This June—one year since their inception—the core members of the Tías and Abuelas celebrated their growing influence in Washington, D.C., where they accepted the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights award.

Receiving the award brought them a rush of powerful visibility and donations—some from benefactors as far away as Australia. But the Tías and Abuelas’ plan for moving forward after the awards ceremony isn’t to rest on their laurels. The plan is to go even further—and bring even more allies and accomplices into the mix.

“We’re getting visibility from people who had not looked at us before,” Filippone said. “We’re hoping this is going to show the world what is happening.”

As they gain more influence, the Tías are forging partnerships with other local organizations and nonprofits, like migrant rights program Team Brownsville and the American Civil Liberties Union, to coordinate efforts and distribute funds where they are most desperately needed. They’re also considering working with The Young Center, an immigrant children’s rights organization that has access to detention centers.

“We’re still blown away that we won the [Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award Laureate] title,” Candia told Ms. “This is something people should just do on a normal, daily basis.”