McALLEN — Community activists, educators and social workers held a modest but intimate memorial at Cine El Rey on Monday night to pay tribute to the late politician and social justice advocate, Elijah Cummings.
Although Cummings — a Maryland Democrat who died Thursday at age 68 — had seemingly very little ties to South Texas, he was remembered in McAllen for his stance on immigration.
The chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee blasted the Trump administration for its policies on immigration, including zero tolerance, which separated many immigrant children from their parents after illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We want the Cummings family and the nation to know that on the border tip, we feel that loss, and especially when he stood up so strongly for the treatment of the migrants and the immigrants that were coming here,” said Cine El Rey Owner Bert Garcia. “(During) the family separation, he was one of the few that (was) really outspoken… We needed somebody, a loud voice, and he was very passionate when he made his case.”
Cummings’ powerful and, at times, forceful words made headlines throughout the country.
“Even if you believe immigration should be halted entirely, we all should be able to agree that in the United States of America, we will not intentionally separate children from their parents,” he reportedly yelled last year during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing. “We will not do that. We are better than that. We are so much better.”
He also had a calming effect during the anti-police riots of Baltimore in 2015, when members of that community began protesting following the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old man who died while in police custody there, sparking an investigation that led to the arrest of six police officers. None were ever convicted.
“When he opened up his mouth, you could not ignore the strength of his message,” said event organizer and community activist Raymond A. Howard. “And it forced you to take an inside look, first of all, of who you are … and how you treat other people, and how we think about how we take care of our families and our respective neighborhoods.”
Baltimore and McAllen may be 1,800 miles apart, but the core issues are the same, Howard said.
“One of the things we learn is that no matter whether you’re in extreme South Texas or the extreme northeast, problems are still the same,” he said. “How we, as a community, address them may be different because our resources may be different — our cultural mix may be different — but the fact of the matter is, terms like ‘fairness’ and ‘equity’ and ‘equality’ and ‘justice,’ they apply everywhere.”
Cummings fiercely defended Baltimore when President Trump called it a rat-infested city, and he most recently had become a leading figure in the impeachment proceedings against him.
“I’m just impressed with the fact that even in the midst of a lot of criticism and some of the really ugly things that were being said about him and his home community, he was able to stand tall and say, ‘Look, I live in this community. These are my family. These are my friends. These are my constituents. And together we will work to improve our neighborhood,’” Howard said. “And that was a message to elected officials all around the country.”
Locally, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, lamented Cummings’ death via Twitter.
“(He) was an institution and giant in the House,” Gonzalez tweeted Thursday. “America lost a patriot and dedicated public servant today. He will be sorely missed. My sincerest condolences and prayers are with his family and district.”
For those in attendance Monday, it wasn’t about filling the theater with people to remember an African American politician, but rather a man who stood for so much more.
“Hopefully they’ll reflect more on the message he wanted people to reflect on,” Howard said, “his message of hope and his message of oneness; his message of fairness, his message of opportunity, his message of justice — all of it.”