Dad & Toddler Who Drowned Trying to Enter U.S. Left a Country Where He Made Only $350/Month: 'They Wanted a Better Future'

"I begged them not to go, but he wanted to scrape together money to build a home," his mother said

Oscar Martinez and Valeria
From left: Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter, Valeria. Photo: North Texas Dream Team

“Don’t go,” she told her son. Do not go to America.

But whatever was ahead for him and his young family, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez already knew what was behind: Working at a pizzeria in El Salvador he made approximately $350 a month. His wife, Tania Vanessa Ávalos, had worked at a Chinese restaurant but returned home to care for their daughter, Valeria, then on the verge of her second birthday.

The three lived with his mother, Rosa Ramírez, in a two-bedroom home outside of San Salvador, the capital. She gave them the larger room, but they wanted more than a life on $10 a day.

“I begged them not to go, but he wanted to scrape together money to build a home,” Rosa told the Associated Press. “They hoped to be there a few years and save up for the house.”

“I told him, ‘Son, don’t go. But if you do go, leave me the girl,’ ” Rosa recalled, according to the AP.

He told her, “No, mamá. How can you think that I would leave her?”

“He didn’t have the courage to leave her,” Rosa said of her son.

On Monday — nearly three months after Óscar, his wife and their daughter set off from El Salvador — his body was found washed ashore outside of Matamoros, Mexico, across from Brownsville, Texas, and less than a mile from the bridge where the family had tried to seek asylum in the U.S.

Valeria’s body was pressed next to Óscar’s where she had been slipped under his shirt, her arm still slung across his neck.

Father and daughter had drowned on Sunday in the coursing currents of the swollen Rio Grande as Ávalos, now Óscar’s widow, watched from the nearby riverbank.

He was 25. Their daughter was 23 months old.

An image of their bodies, taken by journalist Julia Le Duc, was first published on Monday in a Mexican newspaper. Within hours it had spread around the world — referred to, by many, as a symbol for the very real lives too often elided in debates about immigration policy in America.

This account of the life and death of Óscar and Valeria (also identified as Angie Valeria) is based on articles by the AP, CNN, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The New York Times and The Washington Post, among others.

“It’s astonishing to see this photo,” Rosa, Óscar’s mother, told the AP. “He never let her go. You can see how he protected her.”

Advocates say Óscar and Valeria’s case underlines the inhumanity of President Donald Trump’s position on asylum-seekers: The family took to the water only after trying to request asylum at a port of entry, though under the Trump administration such requests are heavily “metered,” or restricted. (The official purpose of metering is to prevent overwhelming border resources, though that has been disputed.)

Reports differ about whether Óscar, Ávalos and Valeria, who along with Óscar’s brother arrived in Matamoros on Sunday after two months in Mexico, were able to actually meet with anyone about asylum.

According to the AP, citing a Mexican government official, the family went to the U.S. Consulate on Sunday.

But the Times and Post reported that the family was told the bridge they needed to cross was closed until Monday. (The State Department and Customs and Border Protection declined to comment to PEOPLE.)

Rosa Ramirez
Rosa Ramirez at her home outside San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. Salvador Melendez/AP/Shutterstock
Migrant Deaths
Tania Ávalos waiting on the shoreline for her husband and daughter’s bodies. Julia Le Duc/AP/Shutterstock

Staying in Matamoros carried risks as well.

“It’s a dangerous place to be a person, and it’s certainly a dangerous place to be a migrant,” Woodson Martin, with a Brownsville nonprofit that provides aid to those seeking asylum, told the Post.

On Sunday, out of apparent desperation and within sight of American soil, Oscar, his wife and their daughter tried to ford the Rio Grande into the southern tip of Texas.

According to TV station DFW, they had hoped to start anew in Irving, Texas, another 550 miles north.

Both the AP and Le Duc, the journalist who photographed their bodies, reported that Óscar was originally able to reach the opposite shore and set Valeria down. But the girl went back into the water after her father left her to turn around and help his wife. Though Óscar doubled-back for Valeria, both were overcome by the river.

“When the girl jumped in is when he tried to reach her, but when he tried to grab the girl, he went in further … and he couldn’t get out,” Óscar’s mother told the AP. “He put her in his shirt, and I imagine he told himself, ‘I’ve come this far’ and decided to go with her.”

Later, at the scene, Ávalos wailed, “Where is my husband?”

Though officials searched into the night for father and daughter, darkness prevented their discovery until the next morning.

In a tearful interview with Telemundo, Rosa said Óscar “loved his daughter so much. He loved her and that’s why he took her.”

“Neither one of them let each other go,” she said. “That’s how they died, both of them hugging.”

Last any of their loved ones spoke to Óscar or his wife, they seemed well enough and ready to be done with their journey.

“I told them to pray as much as possible,” Ávalos’ mother recalled to the Post, saying she spoke with her daughter before they headed for the U.S. “I asked God for nothing to happen to them, and for everything to go well. She assured me that they didn’t have far to go.”

Rosa foresaw this tragedy, in a way, she told Reuters: “Ever since he [Óscar] first told me that they wanted to go, I told him not to. I had a feeling, it was such an ugly premonition. As a mother, I sensed that something could happen.”

Traveling with children is its own debate among migrants considering whether to head for America: The AP, citing an online group in El Salvador, quoted users who said kids should not make the journey because of the risks — though others acknowledged, “It’s more likely that they give you help with children.”

Óscar, his wife and daughter “went for the American dream,” his sister told the Times.

“They wanted a better future for their girl,” Ávalos’ mother told the Post.

Migrant Deaths
Julia Le Duc/AP/Shutterstock
Rosa Ramirez
Rosa Ramirez sobs as she shows journalists toys that belonged to her nearly 2-year-old granddaughter, Valeria, in her home in El Salvador. Antonio Valladares/AP/Shutterstock

The photo of Óscar and Valeria has been met with anguish, distress and despair. President Trump said he “hate[d] it” while Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro, a former housing secretary, said Wednesday, “Watching that image of Oscar and his daughter Valeria was heartbreaking. It should also piss us all off.”

Many Democratic politicians have blamed Trump’s immigration policies, arguing that indifference, at the least, is inherent to his decisions and fosters the desolation that drives migrants like Oscar and his daughter to try and cross deserts and rivers. Last year more than 280 people died at the border.

Trump, who campaigned on restricting immigration, has blasted Democrats for refusing to cede to his demands. This week he continued to trumpet his fears about drugs and crime moving north from Mexico — an argument he describes in broad, hyperbolic terms.

“Someday we will finish building a country where these things do not happen,” Nayib Bukele, president of El Salvador, said in a statement Tuesday, reacting to Oscar and Valeria’s drowning.

“Someday we will finish building a country where migration is an option and not an obligation,” Bukele said. “In the meantime, we will do as much as we can. God help us.”

Within days of their deaths, El Salvador announced it would cover the costs of returning Óscar and Valeria to their home. Their bodies were expected to arrive on Thursday.

Ávalos “is afflicted. She is suffering,” a Mexican immigration official told the AP. “It is a dream they had to get ahead as a family, the three of them, and she returns in mourning with only the bodies of her family.”

From her house in El Salvador, Rosa spoke of her son and granddaughter while holding some of Valeria’s favorite toys, including a stuffed purple monkey.

“I would say to those who are thinking of migrating, ‘They should think it over,’ ” she told the AP. “Because not everyone can live that American dream you hear about.”

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