RGV CITIZEN OF THE YEAR NOMINEE | Elisa Filippone

Her compassion drives acts of kindness for migrants, asylum seekers

Editor’s Note: The Monitor, Valley Morning Star and The Brownsville Herald have extended the deadline to submit nominations for the 2018 Citizen of the Year to Wednesday, Jan. 2, with the winner announced in the Sunday, Jan. 6 editions. We appreciate those who have given Valley residents the attention they deserve through past nominations, and invite those who know of someone who exemplifies good citizenship to tell us their story. Nominations can be made to email address citizen@themonitor.com.

I nominate Elisa Filippone as RGV Citizen of the Year.

For the last six months, Elisa has been exhaustively involved in helping the asylum seekers arriving at our border. On June 3, two Harlingen women heard about migrants waiting in the blazing sun on the Reynosa bridge and brought them water, ice and toiletries. As the numbers grew, a group formed to address the problem. They came up with a name (Angry Tías and Abuelas, or simply Tías), created a Facebook page, started a fundraising campaign, and planned a protest. Awareness of the problem was small at first; only 15 people showed up to protest the zero tolerance and family separation policies. One concerned citizen was Elisa.

Seeing her interest, the Tías asked Elisa to observe at the Brownsville bridges. On her first trip, she saw asylum seekers waiting on the Gateway Bridge and bought them water. The next day she bought water for people on the B&M Bridge. She informed the Tías and asked them to help provide supplies.

Meanwhile, the Tías had a “party” to fill 300 backpacks with supplies the released migrants needed as they traveled by bus to sponsors elsewhere in the country. Elisa helped at this party, then delivered 100 backpacks to the McAllen bus station, where she worked for hours.

In early July, the Tías asked Elisa to monitor the Brownsville bus station, where she initially saw no asylum seekers. She left her number with Greyhound staff, asking them to call if anyone needed help. A couple of days later, a late phone call woke her up. The bus station was about to close for the night, forcing a young woman out onto city streets by herself. This woman was the first of many Elisa helped.

Almost nightly for months, Elisa arranged to find beds for these people at a house, hotel or shelter. She also trained volunteers, now called Team Brownsville, which took over this duty, along with the First United Methodist Church’s Good Neighbor Settlement House, which started taking in migrants overnight. This allowed Elisa to focus on the bridges.

Providing essential supplies (e.g., hygiene products, diapers, clothing) to migrants waiting at the two Brownsville bridges has become Elisa’s primary responsibility. Several times a week, often daily and sometimes twice a day, she crosses the “new” Gateway Bridge, walks the length of Avenida Obregón to the “old” B&M Bridge, where she checks for migrants on the bridge or in the cinderblock “campo” in which they await their turn to cross. She visits, hands out supplies, checks if they’ve eaten that day, and asks what else they need. Elisa reports this information to Matamoros volunteers, though if anyone is particularly vulnerable (e.g., a sick child, a pregnant woman, an unaccompanied minor), she contacts the Brownsville ACLU. She then walks back up Obregón, where she repeats the process with migrants waiting at the Gateway Bridge.

And Elisa does so with heart. One recent, frigid morning I saw her remove brand new leather gloves and hand them to a shivering woman.

Elisa has become our local expert in this effort; reporters from NPR, ABC, CBS and France’s public TV have interviewed her.

All of the above is being done as Elisa works on something else that makes her a good citizen; she’s restoring El Globo Nuevo Store (built in 1894) and the Garza house (1897) compound on East 15th and East Madison streets, following rigorous federal standards for the restoration of historical properties. Just this year the compound — previously an eyesore — earned its Recorded Texas Historic Landmark plaque.

Elisa does much of the work herself; the first time I visited her there, she and Alicia (previously her cleaning lady) were repainting brick.

As if the above weren’t enough to earn Elisa recognition, you should know she feeds Rito, a feral cat, and gives away arugula and pecans if you ask nicely.

Nominated by M. Therese Gallegos of Brownsville.