LatinaLista — An international observance like Human Rights Day is usually celebrated either by remembering why such an observance was created in the first place or how much more needs to be done by citing all the examples of how people’s rights are still being violated.
Yet, hardly do we remember the men and women who over the years have selflessly sacrificed themselves in the fight for others’ rights. Not the political leaders or celebrities who have adopted humanitarian agendas but the average people for whom fighting for humanitarian justice isn’t just an extra-curricular activity but a life mission.
Jay Johnson-Castro was one such person who should be remembered.
It was 2006 and news was filtering out of Austin, Texas that an immigrant detention facility housing families was subjecting the children to shameful practices — making them wear prison jumpsuits, only allowing limited time for studies and play and threatening to remove them from their parents if they disobeyed. The place was the T. Don Hutto facility.
I wrote about Hutto and what was happening to the families there and it wasn’t long before I heard from human rights activists across the state of Texas and the country. One of those activists was Jay Johnson-Castro.
Jay was living in Del Rio, Texas and he owned a bed-and-breakfast. He was a big believer in binational relations with Mexico and worked endlessly promoting the cultural benefits of living in a border town. Yet, when Jay heard about Hutto, it outraged him to the point that he left the care of his bed-and-breakfast to a good friend while he journeyed to the Austin, Texas area for what would become a series of protests staged outside Hutto.
In fact, it was six years ago this month that Jay organized a Christmas Eve vigil dedicated to the children of the Hutto facility.
But Jay didn’t stop there. Wherever someone had a family member who was being detained at an immigrant detention center, Jay would come and lend his support. His dedication brought him to Dallas where he joined with members of the local Muslim community to protest the detention of several members of the Hazahza family.
Due to the public outrage, and Jay’s persistence, along with that of his fellow human rights activists, T. Don Hutto was eventually closed, but it was only the beginning of Jay challenging the Department of Homeland Security under the Bush administration.
It wasn’t long before Jay was making national newspapers and blogs for his protest marches. Whether it was walking from San Diego to Brownsville to protest the border wall or from Harlingen to Raymondville, Texas to protest the largest detention center in the country, Jay was known for his humanitarian heart as much as for his quest to bring attention to a Department of Homeland Security that had overstepped its ethical and moral boundaries.
From time to time, Jay would call me or drop an email either letting me know the logistics of his latest protest or alerting me to yet another deplorable action by the Department of Homeland Security.
After Obama was elected, and the expectation that the Department of Homeland Security would no longer be the rogue entity it was under Bush, most human rights activists felt they could take a breather. Not Jay. Regardless of an Obama win, plans were still underway to build a border wall but Jay knew he had to fight in a new way.
He accepted the position as executive director of the Rio Grande International Study Center in Laredo, Texas where he focused on environmental issues and the impact a border wall would have on border vegetation, animal life and natural resources. By presenting official impact studies, Jay probably felt he could garner not just attention but official credibility as someone who was more than a protest marcher.
Yet, if it weren’t for Jay’s marches and the people he was able to draw to join him, the atrocities of T. Don Hutto may never have garnered the national attention it did.
Once he started working for the Center, I lost track of Jay and often wondered what had become of the bed-and-breakfast owner turned human rights activist with his trademark straw hat and turquoise scarf knotted at his throat.
I didn’t hear about Jay until I read in the Rio Grande Guardian that he had died on December 3, not in Texas but in Guatemala. It seems Jay had gotten married in 2010 and he and his bride moved to Panajachel, Guatemala last year. He died suddenly of hemorrhagic pancreatitis.
His wife, Jillian Johnson, had him interred in Guatemala. Given the human rights violations happening in that country, I can’t imagine a more perfect spot for someone who wanted others in pain to know that he was with them.
People like Jay Johnson-Castro don’t deserve to slip away in anonymity. If anything, there should be a Human Rights Wall where we remember the courage, the defiance, the leadership and the generous spirit of human rights activists like Jay for whom this chapter in our history has not only needed people like Jay to give voice to the voiceless but has required it in the deliverance of justice.