Elaine J. Cohen :
METRO | Casting Judith’s ashes into the big river

Josefina gently poured Judith Rosenberg’s ashes from the bag in the carved wooden box from Mexico.

rosenberg ashes

Julia Quiñones, left, and Josefina Castillo pour Judith Rosenberg’s ashes into the river. Photos by Sister Pam Buganski of the South Texas Human Rights Center (STHRC), Falfurrias, Texas. Special to The Rag Blog.

By Elaine J. Cohen | The Rag Blog | June 24, 2015

AUSTIN — The muses are, once again, tugging at my sleeve. Kleio, Kalliope, and Polyhymnia are jockeying for lead position. Recently I joined a small pilgrimage to Mexico with the ashes of our friend, Judith Rosenberg. We met activists from both sides of this border, on the banks of the Rio Bravo, to cast the last materia of Judith into the fast flowing river that separates Mexico from the USA.

Before we left Austin, I asked Josefina if it had been Judith’s explicit wish to have her ashes put into the Rio Bravo/Rio Grande. Josefina answered that Judith had simply asked that they be put into a river. Then she looked at me and we both shared an almost Gallic shrug as she said, “What other river could it be? There is only one river in our story. It is the river that is the border that shapes our work.”

Josefina Castillo and Judith Rosenberg were founding members of Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera (Austin So Close to the Border). ATCF brings delegations from Austin to the border three or four times a year. There they meet and learn from members of the Comité Fronteriza de los Obreros (CFO). The CFO is the fiercely independent and progressive union of those that work in the maquiladoras on the Mexican side of the border.

The delegation included individuals from the three countries bound together by the disaster that is known as NAFTA.

This delegation was a little different from the usual assortment of UT students, Austin progressives, and clergy. Now, on the cusp of the dreaded TPP, the delegation included individuals from the three countries bound together by the disaster that is known as NAFTA.

From Canada, UNIFOR sent Deb Tveit, assistant to its president and Mo Naser Alsadi, director of the Human Rights and International Department. Unifor is the largest private sector union in Canada which was created in 2013 with the merger of the Auto Workers, Communications, Energy and Paper Workers unions. Unifor has a membership of over 300,000.

Rigo Valdez, the director of organizing with the UFCW770 (United Food and Commercial Workers), came out from L.A., and Leo Baunach, in charge of the Department of International Affairs for the UAW (United Auto Workers), came in from D.C.

Julia Quiñones, of the CFO, is the coordinator of activities in seven cities in the Mexican states of Coahuila, Tamaulipas, and Sonora. Julia and Josefina planned the ceremony to coincide with the May Delegation. Julia lives in Piedras Negras and brought us to what should have been a quiet place on the river.

rosenberg alter

An altar to Judith Rosenberg.

There were over 30 of us who walked to the rocks on the banks of the river where a small table had been carried. Women and men from the CFO were in bright pink t-shirts and shared the grief of many of us from Austin who had treasured Judith for her honesty, her humor, and her tireless work to bring some justice to the border. Assembled on the table were a large vase of flowers, candles, a photo of Judith in one of her many huipils, and the small box that held Judith’s ashes.

As we began our ceremony we heard the distinctive sound of a small motorboat and turned to see heavily armed men speeding by.

As we began our ceremony we heard the distinctive sound of a small motorboat and turned to see heavily armed men speeding by. Julia explained that this is a place where the river is shallow enough for people to cross. Yet the currents can be very strong and it is also a place where bodies are pulled from the river before they are able to get to the U.S. side at Eagle Pass. We stared at the men with guns. They stared at us and a few minutes later came around a second time.

I wondered if they would be a constant disturbance but they didn’t return after their second appearance. That was just as well as the wind was strong and until someone brought a portable speaker and mic, it was hard to hear all the words being said.

Josefina read a poem Judith wrote in August of 2001 about the strike at Alcoa in Ciudad Acuña. Here is one stanza:

The best room in this town is the space under the tree.
Due to no walls – that’s a good thing
And a bad thing – there’s the breeze.
We’ll be talking. Standing,
the people are learning to talk to each other,
thirty, forty, fifty at a time.
This is ancient, this is desperate,
this is the leading edge.

Josefina gently poured the ashes from the bag in the carved wooden box from Mexico. They went into a swiftly moving river and joined with the memories of those who had crossed the river and those who had never left it. People began to take flowers from the vase and throw them into the river. I chose a flower, pink like the shirts worn by our friends who struggle daily to survive the assault on their rights, their dignity, their very lives.

Rosenberg flowers

People began to throw flowers into the river.

Earlier I spoke to Rigo, out from L.A., about the thousands of immigrants locked in detention. He told me that he had worked with many illegals in L.A. I put my hand on his arm and said, softly, but firmly, that we had discarded the use of the word “illegal.” I said that “undocumented” didn’t even satisfy, as how could we tell a woman who held her birth certificate from Honduras or her marriage certificate from El Salvador that she was undocumented?

He quickly agreed, shaking his head, acknowledging that of course, no person is illegal. I told him that I had only meant to remind him of what he surely knew. Just as Judith knew the importance of language and how the words we use form us and shape our lives.

The afternoon sun was intense, even for those who came prepared with umbrellas, and our group broke up. The delegates continued on with members of the CFO and Julia guided the three cars from Austin to a restaurant so that we could refresh ourselves before the long drive back. After seeing that we were well settled, she left us to rejoin the delegation. Everyone at the table was an experienced traveler and in no time enchiladas, flautas, guacamole, chelas y refrescos were helping us recover from the heat.

We headed north, content to know that we had joined Judith on her last trip to the Border. Now she is part of the river that both separates and connects us.

Read more articles by Elaine J. Cohen on The Rag Blog.

[Elaine Cohen moved to Austin in 1997 after she found Accion Zapatista’s website. She became involved with immigrants when she started work as a bilingual substitute for the Austin Independent School District (AISD). After another stay teaching in Mexico (2005-2010) she returned to Austin and discovered the Hutto Visitation Program and became involved in visiting women and children in Texas’ family immigration detention centers.]

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5 Responses to Elaine J. Cohen :
METRO | Casting Judith’s ashes into the big river

  1. Janet Cook says:

    Elaine, thank you for writing this lovely piece about the event.

  2. Linda Stern says:


    We met on my visit to Austin to see Judith in Dec. 2014.

    What a beautifully expressed piece you wrote about her. I’m so glad I went on one of the delegations she led. I will treasure this piece.

    “Cousin” Linda

  3. Gena Fleming says:

    Thank you, Elaine, for documenting this beautiful, healing event to honor the beauty and healing that Judith brought to life. And thanks for including one of Judith’s poems! This is so well done.

  4. Leslie Cunningham says:

    Thanks so much, Elaine, for evoking an event I had so much wanted to be a part of. Even unionists from Canada came! What a wonderful spirit of unity. And, of course, the Rio Bravo. Where else? So many memories and thanks to Judith for not letting up on me until I first went on a delegation.

  5. Josefina Castillo says:

    Thanks for an inspiring “relato” of the ceremony. I’m sure Judith was contemplating with joy and laughter everything that was going on while her ashes went into the flowing and growing river.

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