The woman defending Black lives on the border New York Times. So much of her is hyphenated, not just her name: Felicia Rangel-Samponaro. With caramel skin and curly brown hair that’s often tied back, she can pass as Latina. But she identifies as Black.

On the Texas-Mexico border, she’s emerged as a vigorous defender of immigrants, and that work often forces her to reckon with how race and ethnicity — real and perceived — shape lives on the border, including her own.

“There’s a lot of oppression, discrimination and racism that goes on, on both sides of the border,” she said.
Asylum seekers sleep on air mattresses under tarps

Asylum seeker Maria Jacinto Gomez of Guatemala, right, sleeps on an air mattress with her 11-year-old son nearby in a crowded gazebo filled with migrants at the Plaza Las Americas migrant tent camp. Gomez and her son have waiting in the camp for five months.

Rangel-Samponaro’s background has allowed the 45-year-old American to win over skeptics who find they can relate to her, sometimes as Black, sometimes as Latino.

But being a Black border activist is still challenging.

Sometimes, it means getting detained by U.S. Customs, then subjected to a cavity search. Other times, it means confronting Central American migrants cracking racist jokes or correcting people on both sides of the border who assume her white male employee is her boss.

Immigration was not at the forefront of her mind when groups of asylum seekers appeared here three years ago. She was a suburban stay-home mom living in the border city of Brownsville with a son in private school. She wore pricy Lululemon activewear, drove a Mercedes and in her spare time, played Pokemon.

A fellow Pokemon player’s Facebook post about delivering donations to migrants camped on a border bridge spurred her to volunteer. She had crossed to Mexico a handful of times, like many Texans, as a tourist. That first winter day volunteering, she was struck by a new sight: Shivering migrants in crisis.
Haitian migrants Robeson Estimable, his wife Anaita Thevenin, and their son Diego Robeson Estimable.

Haitian migrants Robeson Estimable, wife Anaita Thevenin, and their 3 year-old son, Diego Robeson Estimable, have been at the Plaza Las Americas migrant tent camp for three months.

“It was a hard thing, and it’s still the hard thing for me to just turn my back to and then continue my life,” she said. “…It just put a lot of things in perspective.”

Ethnicity and race can overlap, and in the months that followed, she noticed how many of the migrants looked like her, some from Africa. Volunteering with the migrants soon consumed her. Her husband didn’t share her fervor. Within a year, they had divorced. Rangel-Samponaro transferred her son to public school, traded her Mercedes for a Honda, Lululemon for jeans and T-shirts that said, “Protect Black Migrants.”

She started a nonprofit, the Sidewalk School, working with fellow volunteer Victor Cavazos, paying asylum seekers to teach migrant children at border camps.

“I used my life savings the first year to keep my organization afloat,” she said, later winning grants, creating an Etsy shop for migrants to sell their art, and connecting them with immigration lawyers.
A young Haitian migrant leans on Black Mexican-American border activist Felicia Rangel-Samponaro

Now she’s one of the few American volunteers willing to cross to Reynosa, a dangerous border town where thousands of migrants have camped. While volunteers from Black churches and Haitian activists appeared this fall to help a caravan of Haitian migrants, they soon vanished. Rangel-Samponaro remained, championing immigrants, particularly Black migrants plagued by discrimination she knew all too well.

“We are few and far between that rise up out of what is holding us down — which is America,” she said.

Her mother is Black, raised in the Rio Grande Valley farming town of Kingsville, where she and her siblings picked cotton. Her mother is so fair, people often assume she is white. Once at a nightclub in the 1980s, Black women surrounded her because they thought she was white and dating a Black man. Another time, a group of white men threatened to kill her Black boyfriend.

But her mother never tried to “pass” as white. At the movies, she still sat in the segregated balcony.

“We grew up knowing we are Black, and that’s how people will always see us,” Rangel-Samponaro said of her two older sisters. “Who my father was never mattered.”

Her father was the son of Mexican migrants who crossed illegally into Texas and settled in Austin. That’s where her parents met while he worked for the city fixing stoplights.

Perceptions of race, and who should mix with who, led to his death in 1977, when she was a year old.

Her father was hanging out in Austin with his brother, whose girlfriend was Black. A Black man warned her uncle that his Black girlfriend “should stick to her own kind.” They fought. Rangel-Samponaro’s father got involved and the man fatally shot him.

Her mother put herself through nursing school and settled the family in a middle-class Houston neighborhood, where some still assumed she was white.

Unlike their mother, Rangel-Samponaro and her sisters stood out as biracial.

“We were bullied by white girls and by Mexican girls because we didn’t fit in,” she said.

She never learned Spanish because her father had made her mother promise to raise their daughters, as many Tejanos did at the time, speaking only English.

“He wanted us to be true Americans,” she said.

For her work in Mexico, Rangel-Samponaro relies on friends and staff to translate. She grew up surrounded by Black relatives who were darker skinned and didn’t meet her father’s family until she was an adult, she said, “Which is why I identify as a Black woman.”

Her mother didn’t talk about their background, but encouraged the girls to read widely. When she was in sixth grade, Rangel-Samponaro read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” at home because it wasn’t taught in school, and was struck by the racism he faced as a light-skinned Black man. She read “Tar Baby,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” and books by Sista Souljah and Iceberg Slim but also Ayn Rand and even “Mein Kampf.”

“I just like to know what makes people tick,” she said.

Her older sisters both earned advanced degrees. She followed in their footsteps, graduating from the University of Houston and starting graduate school in marriage and family counseling as she taught elementary school.

Edward O. Wilson, the pioneering Harvard biologist who advanced the provocative theory that human behavior, such as war and altruism, has a genetic basis and warned against the decline of ecosystems, has died. He was 92.

Wilson was “called ‘Darwin’s natural heir,’ and was known affectionately as ‘the ant man’ for his pioneering work as an entomologist,” according to an announcement posted Monday on the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation’s website. He died Sunday in Burlington, Mass.

“It would be hard to understate Ed’s scientific achievements, but his impact extends to every facet of society. He was a true visionary with a unique ability to inspire and galvanize. He articulated, perhaps better than anyone, what it means to be human,” David J. Prend, chairman of the foundation’s board, said in a statement.

The professor and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author first gained widespread attention for his 1975 book, “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis,” in which he spelled out the evidence suggesting a link between human behavior and genetics. The work created a storm of controversy among activists and fellow academics who equated sociobiology’s groundbreaking theories with sexism, racism and Nazism.

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