Flexing the Faith Muscle
Story and photos by Jeff Berg
I first queried Desert Exposure about doing this article several months ago. At that time, it was meant to cover a little-known clinic, Project Santo Nino, just over the border in a colonia of Juárez, Mexico, called Anapra. The treatment center, which is run by the Cincinnati-based Sisters of Charity, is a small four-room affair, run mostly by donations, volunteers, the good sisters and "Father Bill," who began the clinic in 1999.
I became acquainted with it through my wife, Sarah, who has been serving as a volunteer "extra pair of hands" at the clinic for about a year now. She first learned of it through her massage therapist, Laurete Francescato, who uses her training and knowledge to help rehabilitate the young Mexican children who come for the center's services.
Currently, the center treats only handicapped youngsters and prenatal moms-to-be. During my visit, there was a steady stream of clientele, who arrived at regular intervals throughout the day.
As first presented, this was to be a "feel-good" article that would run in the December issue, perfect for the holidays, and offer a chance for generous readers to contribute to this unique little health center. Part of it still does this, and information about helping can be found at the end of this article.
But the scenario changed dramatically at some point that is lost to memory now.
Sarah began coming home from her twice-monthly volunteer stints, and telling me a horror story that steadily increased the "are you kidding?" factor as the weeks went on.
I have written other stories about the border and border issues for this publication and several others. Most, sadly, have been met with a shrug and the idea that "well, that's Mexico, what do you expect?—with an undertone of "Why should I care?" Admittedly, I have had that attitude myself at times in the past.
So this story is about two different parts of Mexico. And yes, it is "only Mexico"—but keep in mind that all of this is bubbling away just 40 miles from Las Cruces. It involves New Mexico's latest border-crossing sites and has even drawn the eye of Gov. Bill Richardson.
My first visit to Juárez was in November 1969. I was foolish, the kind of foolishness that comes with youth, and away from my home in Illinois for the first time.
I had been dragged kicking and screaming to the school formerly known as the College of Artesia, a unique bastion of higher learning located, obviously, in Artesia, NM. Once I got there, however, I slipped into a great routine of eating, drinking (illegally, of course), sleeping, reading and going to movies.
Going to Mexico never crossed my mind, at least not that I remember, until a group of the other chowderheads I hung around with decided it would be a great adventure for the long Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
This was in 1969, with the Vietnam War in high gear and draftees being used more and more as cannon fodder. I needed to register for the draft, as did some of my mates, so we decided to include a stop in Carlsbad to do our "lawful awful" duty. And then it would be on to Juárez.
Our weekend in Juárez was highlighted by a ride with a fearless cabdriver who took us to the "diviest" of the dives there, including one place I remember distinctly, The Candy Bar. It was the worst, replete with ladies selling sexual favors, men proffering shows that PETA would not approve of, and a mysterious trough that ran the length of the bar. After noting the aroma of The Candy Bar, it soon became obvious what this trough and its drain were for.
Several of the lads I accompanied on this "coming of age" adventure partook in the physical services of the local chippies, while the rest of us drank beer and held our noses. Our adventure ended soon after a shopping trip, and back to Artesia we went.
But that visit to Juárez always stuck with me. It was like a never-never land of sorts. I didn't like it, and vowed that Mexico would not be on my list of places to vacation.
That was a vow I have kept until my visit to Anapra.
You can never be fully prepared for the type of poverty that exists in places like Anapra. I know there are worse scenarios around the world, but this one exists right under my nose.
My life has led me to a brief, albeit intense, residency on the Flathead Indian Nation of Montana, and to a three-year stint as the postmaster in Pryor, Mont., a tiny community on the Crow Indian Nation. You learn much about yourself in situations where you're not accustomed to being, and I learned a lot in Pryor. There are times that I wish I had never left there, but when I look deep into the reality of the time I spent there, I know that I could not have stayed. I know that the despair, sadness and financial poverty that seeped in under the doors or through the open window would have driven me away sooner or later.
The poverty in Anapra is quite similar to that on the American Indian Nations that I have known. It is mind-numbing and bone-jarring. It makes life not something of joy, but merely of survival. For many, life has no meaning at all. Kids you observe carrying backpacks here are not heading home with a lot of homework, but more likely, are drug mules en route to the border.
The day starts well, as we drive to meet the sisters at their new home, just north of the Santa Teresa crossing. They have just started moving into this beautiful new house, which is kind of like a large bed-and-breakfast for nuns. Each sister has her own room, and there is a large kitchen, which adjoins a tiny chapel-type room that can be used for prayer and meditation. There is also a common area, which is well stocked with house cats. Several loopy, tail-wagging dogs are temporarily on long chains outside, until their new home is complete.
The house was built on four acres of land, which was donated by a couple who are now the nuns' neighbors, Siba and Luis Escobedo. Contractor Tad Davis, who is Laurete Francesato's husband, did most of the building work. The home is light, large and airy, and all of the current residents are filled with joy to be here. Funding for the home came mostly from donations, and the location is on purpose, due to its proximity to the Anapra clinic. The sisters' previous residence was a doublewide trailer that they owned, and a rental that was next door to the trailer. That place was located in Horizon City, which is a rundown and slightly eerie area east of El Paso.
There are a number of people going on this expedition. Besides Laurete and Sarah, the main characters on this trip will be Sister Janet, who has been a nun for 23 years, and is more or less the spokesperson for the group; Sister Peggy, who has 40 years of experience; Sister Ann, with the most seniority at 51 years of sisterhood; and the youngster, Sister Carol, who has "only" 19 years under her belt. Carol looks very familiar to me, but even though she is from Montana herself, I cannot fit the connection. Siba Escobedo will also help out, as will Yessenia Vasquez, a young woman who shares the sisters' living space. Her story is an article in itself. She left her native Guatemala, disguised herself as a man, and escaped to the United States, where she is now studying to be a medical assistant.
We pass quickly and easily through the Santa T crossing, and turn off onto a sandy rut that can hardly be called a road. In another life Sister Janet was probably a NASCAR driver, as she weaves the SUV down the road, avoiding only the largest of the potholes and mini-arroyos that have been cut through the path.
Carol is right on our tail in a battered Subaru station wagon. She may have once been Janet's chief competitor on the race circuit, since she has caught up to us, despite the fact that we left 15 minutes earlier. Who says that nuns can't have fun?
It is not long after we pass a feedlot—"the Anapra Stock Exchange," Janet quips—that we come to an elaborate gate overlooked by a guard tower. Extended from the gate is a fence made of concrete pillars that look like crooked fingers, bent in an odd "come hither" pose, which is strung with several strands of barbed wire. The fence extends for quite a length to the west of the gate.
The goons who work for one of Juárez's wealthiest men, Pedro Zaragoza Fuenres, have constructed this and other gates, guard towers and fences. The purpose of this completely unlawful maneuver was to keep the residents of this part of Anapra away from their homes, and to intimidate anyone in the area. Zaragoza, as he's called, is having a new custom-made house built in El Paso, complete with handmade tiles to decorate the driveway. He made his fortune through dairies and natural gas. It's not clear why this sort of business requires a private "security force" reportedly numbering 60 men, who allegedly are armed with AK-47s and other high-powered weaponry.
What Zaragoza has done here might be called, in more genteel circles, land speculation. Seeing the immense commercial possibilities of the development of the border crossing at Santa Teresa, and also possibly knowing about, or suspecting that Sunland Park would try to build a crossing, as recently announced, Zaragoza has laid claim to approximately 1,300 acres of desert that thrust up against the New Mexico border and extend to the outskirts of Juárez.
Until late September, Sister Janet tells me, Zaragoza had this and other checkpoints manned by his "security force." They had no authority, since Zaragoza does not own the land, so the point was bullying and intimidation. Residents, who also technically may not be entitled to the land, were not allowed to bring any building materials to their home sites. The new electrical connections provided by the city were routinely disabled or cutoff by order of Zaragoza, Janet charges.
Now, however, the checkpoints are covered by officers of CIPOL (Corporate Intelligence Police), which is a sort of state police in Mexico, a unit of the Chihuahua State Department of Public Security. Janet reminds me of something everyone knows, and that is that many Juárez city police are corrupt and inefficient. But the CIPOL officers are the real thing. In part because of the intervention of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, CIPOL recently arrested the heavies, took their weapons, and hauled them away in handcuffs.
The two officers on duty, well armed but looking quite bored, wave at us as we pass through. We drive down the sandy ruts that are called streets as we near the clinic. All of the houses are made of scrap. Anything that will not blow away in the wind, or melt in the rain, is used to create shelter. Some of the more popular items are wooden shipping pallets—I now know where the old trucks that are loaded with pallets that I see on I-10 are going—tires, cardboard and corrugated tin. White picket fences have been replaced with rusty bedsprings.
After narrowly skirting a miniature Grand Canyon that has been caused by erosion, we arrive at Project Santo Nino (its new name—formerly known as Clinica Guadalupana). A few patients wait quietly outside, as the sisters and the rest of us unload supplies and go in to set up shop.
There is a small waiting room, with an examination room attached to it. This is where Sister Janet, who in the private sector would be a family physician, looks after the pregnant women who come to the clinic. Beyond that is a large open room used mostly for physical therapy. There is a brand-new Jacuzzi-type tub, used for hydrotherapy, and several massage tables. Portable screens are placed throughout the room to allow for moments of privacy. The other sisters are trained in other medical fields, both traditional and alternative. Ironically, only Ann speaks Spanish fluently.
A small side room is used for storage, but also for therapy and as a mini-daycare center for the other children who are waiting for their moms and/or siblings. Another room, which at the time was where Father Bill Morton stayed when he overnighted in Juárez, has recently been remodeled as part of the clinic.
It is here where I first see Miriam. I don't really get to meet her, since she does not speak, and she is focused on her breakfast of cold cereal and bananas.
Miriam is 18. Miriam is autistic. She is an attractive young woman with short jet-black hair, and a pair of the most intense eyes that I have ever seen. She does not pay any attention to me, but concentrates on her meal.
Laurete has been working with her for quite a while. Miriam's life away from the clinic probably could not have been worse. I am told that she lived in a shack away from her family, a structure that was shared with the family dogs and locked from the outside, with a hole in the door that was used to pass her food. At age three, Miriam "ran away," the family said, and they had no idea on how to handle her. Sarah would tell me that when Miriam first came to the clinic she would scream and moan the entire time she was there.
No longer. Through the gentle touch and loving spirit shared by Laurete, Sarah and the rest of the staff, Miriam now is quiet and her lifestyle has improved dramatically. She no longer wails and screams, and this day's progress is marked by her tapping, just once, on a hand drum that Laurete has been using as a part of her therapy. Cheers of joy arise from Laurete and Sarah when Miriam taps on the drum. Miriam, unsmiling, stares so intently at Laurete at times that you would think that she is entering her soul. Perhaps she is.
I met Father Bill Morton upon my arrival at the clinic, and he invites me and Janet's father, who is here from Indiana, to ride along with him on a tour of Anapra. He has promised a complete package, including all of the high points and low points.
I watch as the sisters and various other volunteers work with the tots and teenagers at the clinic. I get a lesson in straw-bale building from Father Bill. Then we are soon clambering into another road weary Subaru to see the "sights."
The clinic rests at the base of a hill in the middle of a residential neighborhood. There are any number of tiny grocery stores and taquerias nearby. Junked cars are scattered about, Mexican-style yard sales abound, and scrawny dogs are everywhere. It is easy to fall into my memories of the reservation while driving through Anapra.
Across the street from the clinic is a utility pool with a large number of unauthorized electrical connections attached to it. The actual electrical service provided to the area stops on the street where the clinic stands, so the large number of houses on the hillside above it have jury-rigged their own connection. I feel embarrassed by my thoughts that I was thinking that I "need" high-speed Internet access.
Our scheduled stops on this, the first leg of our tour, will be at the homes of some of the construction workers who have been working with Father Bill to make straw-bale homes for the residents in this area. Father Bill's crew all have unique talents in the building arts. He points out a couple of the small new homes that have been built for some of the residents.
There is also outside help from a group called the World Hands Project (www.worldhandsproject.org). "The people that come here to work are from all over the world, and they pay to 'volunteer' to come here to work on houses," Father Bill tells me.
We also have several passengers with us to drop off, since, of course, few if any of the people of Anapra own cars. The last woman we drop off, Sylvia, has one of the new straw-bale homes provided by Father Bill and his small army of occasional volunteers and paid workers. We are invited in, no questions asked and with a huge amount of grace, to see Sylvia's new home. We meet her two children as Sylvia beams with pride at her new four-room home. It is well-constructed and has a "truth window," for doubting Thomases who may not believe that this is actually a straw-bale production.
Outside of Sylvia's home are 14 dogs, most chained to various pieces of debris around the yard, three pigs and a few rabbits. There were many more rabbits, but some dogs found their way into the little rabbit compound recently and made themselves at home.
"They do make good eating," Sylvia notes with a smile.
We wave goodbye to Sylvia and head for our next stop. Everyone knows Father Bill and his shock-absorber-less Subaru, and most of the people on the streets wave at us, or flag down the car to share a moment with this remarkable man of the cloth.
At another point, we get into a drag race of sorts with a pickup full of drunken men who refuse to let us go around them as Father Bill guides the Subaru through the neighborhoods. Laughing and raising beer bottles, the men in the back of the truck nearly bounce out several times, as the driver's impaired skills take them for a kidney-jarring cruise. Father Bill finally loses them by turning off onto a side street.
Old school buses that have been retrofitted into city buses do service the area at regular intervals. They lumber down the streets, and the smell of diesel is one of the most permeating of the day.
After visiting a roofer and several other talented tradespeople, we return to the clinic for lunch. Father Bill has promised a more in-depth tour after we eat. Often, those who have the least will offer the most, as someone in the neighborhood will usually have the workers at the clinic over for a traditional homemade meal. Today, however, Sarah has arranged to bring aluminum casserole dishes of green enchiladas from a Las Cruces establishment. Enchiladas do not travel well, and by the time they are served up, the lunch has become a congealed mass of green chile, corn tortilla and cheese. It is like a green meatball, and I, not being the biggest fan of local cuisine anyway, only take half a serving, thank you. I have come to visit the clinic, not be a patient.
After lunch (I note that Father Bill has excused himself after only a few bites, too), several of the clinic workers lie on the massage tables scattered about the great room, to rest or catch a brief nap. Theirs is demanding and exhausting work, and everyone is starting to look a little haggard.
All during lunch, a sing-song type of cooing could be heard from the tiny porch of the clinic. When the doors are opened for the afternoon patients, we are joined by a woman and her son who is confined to a wheelchair. The boy smiles as he taps on various things with his sadly twisted hand. He could be 8 or 18, and the only thing Sister Janet knows for sure is that he is a new patient. This is the only free clinic of its type in Juárez, and the word is spreading. A very pregnant mom waddles in to the facility and is greeted with tenderness, hugs and a belly rub.
Father Bill Morton is of the Society of St. Columban (SSC), a Catholic missionary society founded in 1918 by Father Edward Galvin. There are more than 700 Columban missionaries around the world now, and besides spreading the word of the gospel, they are also active in social justice issues. I had noted a photo of Archbishop Oscar Romero hanging on the wall of Father Bill's cramped living quarters, and Romero's name comes up several times during our conversations. Romero fought against the policies of the government and their cronies in 1980s El Salvador. His actions led to his murder.
Father Bill previously worked in Dallas and for six years in Taiwan as a missionary, before coming to the border. "I felt the call to come here (Juárez), but I am not sure why," he explains. "I met a young Mexican priest when I was here once, who asked for help, and moved into the area in 1998. I was missing something in my own spirituality until I came here."
Father Bill has hundreds of stories to tell, but they all seem to circle back to the same thing—the faith and resilience of the Mexican people who live here. "Their faith 'muscle' is stronger than ours," he says. "People's faith and generosity is very strong, and they are all very community minded."
Since starting the clinic with Janet and the other sisters, he has also introduced an after-school program operated by one of the neighborhood women, Cristina. In a small room next to her home, she has set up a room that can be used for education, play or both. A row of computers lines one wall, and art supplies are stacked on shelves around the room. Handprints of some of the children who come here or who have been here decorate one wall, with their names printed on the palm.
Father Bill has also started a scholarship program, which now assists 200 of Anapra's children. School is not free in this part of the world, and this program helps assist kids by keeping them in the system and, he hopes, getting them into college. We later meet one of the young scholars. Her name is Maria, and she lives on the edge of a tall mesa that overlooks the entire area. It is funny to think that many rich people would pay millions of dollars for the view that this girl's cardboard-and-tin shack enjoys. She lives with a grandparent, as kind of an indentured servant, Father Bill tells me.
"Her mother is a heroin addict who is now in prison for trying to sell her for $200," he adds. "We don't know where her father is. The grandmother forces her to do all of the housework, but even with that, she is an A student."
Father Bill lays out the background of the modern-day land grab by Pedro Zaragoza. People have been living on this mesa, Lomas de Poleo, since the 1970s, he explains. The population of nearby Juárez now stands at well over a million people and increases every day, as people from the interior move north to work in the maquiladoras (factories built by huge multinational companies along the border, to skirt environmental regulations and to pay slave wages—although many have closed in recent years and relocated to China where wages are even lower). So the city has expanded to the west. Apparently, the city's east side has had all of the financial advantages of sprawl, while the west side got most of the social problems. Father Bill tells me that east Juárez resembles suburbia now, complete with shopping malls and gated communities.
In 1992, Zaragoza started his attempt to take the land. In this case, possession is indeed nine-tenths of the law, as the Mexican Constitution states that if a person has lived on their land for five years, it "belongs" to them, albeit without paperwork. It is here where things get sticky. Zaragoza has tried to lay claim to this soon-to-be-prime land abutting the border, where the Santa Teresa crossing is being built. It also is right near where the hoped-for Sunland Park crossing may be built in the future. The possible cash flow from this land is staggering. Rumors of wealthy landowners who live in Las Cruces being involved also abound.
Lomas de Poleo is also an ad hoc cemetery, as a number of the women who have been murdered in the ongoing and unchecked femicide crisis that grips Juárez have been dumped here.
Zaragoza has been in court for many years about the ownership of the mesa, so far without success. According to an update from Father Bill on the World Hands Project Web site, "Lomas de Poleo residents are cautiously optimistic after a potentially crucial ruling in their favor. On Oct. 28, 10 residents along with the Chihuahua state-appointed Agrarian Reform lawyer to the federal magistrate's office in Chihuahua presented papers proving the residents' right to the land on the mesa west of Anapra. That same day, Pedro Zaragoza Fuentes was to appear before the same judge to present his proof of ownership documentation. He did not appear and was given five days to return on Nov. 4. He did not appear that day either.
"Because he failed to provide appropriate documentation, it was declared on Nov. 4 that the land on the mesa is federal land and that any titles Zaragoza may have are now invalid. In theory, this is a huge victory for Lomas de Poleo residents. However, as they say, the proof is in the pudding.. . . According to the Agrarian Reform lawyer, Zaragoza has 20 days from Nov. 4 to remove all of his belongings, including the vigilantes, fences, building structures, from the mesa."
At press time for this issue, the denouement of the Lomas de Poleo controversy was still pending. "The hesitation to celebrate comes from the fact that this is not the first time a judge has decided in favor of the residents only to have Zaragoza's grip grow ever tighter," according to Father Bill. "We question who has the political willpower to remove one of the most powerful and influential men in Juárez? It is doubtful that Zaragoza will leave quietly, so what does he have up his sleeve?"
Our drive through the area takes us to a spot where a house is half torn-down. This is the site of the first of three recent deaths—which have "unfortunately brought much-needed attention to the land-dispute issues which have existed on the mesa for quite some time," according to the World Hands Project.
Zaragoza, Father Bill tells me, had sent some men out to tear down this place and another across the street. About halfway into this chore, a truckload of residents happened by, including Luis Alberto Guerrero Rodriguez, age 49. A verbal confrontation ensued, and soon guns were drawn, two of Zaragoza's henchmen were wounded, including a lawyer, and Luis Alberto lay dying. The bad men also ran over one of their own with a vehicle, in their haste to flee. Thirty-six hours later, on Aug. 19, Luis Alberto Guerrero Rodriguez was dead. Nothing has ever been done about solving this case, and nothing, according to Father Bill, has been on the news. "Zaragoza takes care of his own. We checked all of the hospitals, and no one was ever admitted that day."
A bit farther down the road is a small church, which is where these confrontations finally came to a head. One Saturday in 2004, several of Zaragoza's force of 60 guards showed up in front of this tiny place of worship, and proceeded to pull it down.
Well, that was the wrong thing to do. The community rallied and rebuilt the chapel in one day, while Father Bill took advantage of current-day electronics, emailing a number of priests and comrades throughout the country. In turn, these men and women flooded the offices of the governor of Chihuahua, Jose Reyes Baeza, and that of New Mexico Gov. Richardson with emails, faxes and phone calls. They used the idea of "terrorism, right here on our border," and it worked. CIPOL showed up, and the thugs were gone. The concentration-camp-type fences were soon pulled down in some places.
(Repeated calls to Gov. Richardson's office for comment on this story were not returned.)
Our next stop is at the place where two small children perished in September in a shack fire. Two stories circulate about this tragedy: One has it that the mother left the children alone while running an errand and a candle used for lighting was knocked over, setting the place ablaze. The second is that the fire was intentionally set by Zaragoza ruffians, who were seen running away from the scene. The witnesses say they were warned that if they say anything, they will be next.
Either way, this could have been avoided, since the electricity to the house had earlier been cut off by Zaragoza.
Two white crosses poke up from the ashes and debris of the fire.
Our last stop is near the only part of the Lomas del Poleo colonia that Zaragoza actually owns. Near the middle of the mesa, a widow has sold her property and a compound is being constructed. Buildings that would look more at home at an army base are being built, and still more of the crooked-finger barbed-wire fences are being built. A large heavy gate with guards highlights the scene.
Father Bill stops at the corner of the property, and we watch as a number of burly men labor at stringing barbed wire around the compound. One of them looks up while I am shooting pictures of this scene, points at us, and yells something we cannot hear at this distance. This alerts his comrades, one of whom picks up a rifle as they all run toward us, yelling and giving us "the finger."
We do not rush to get away, as they are safely inside their "kennel," like a pack of psychotic watchdogs. Father Bill notes dryly, "I can't even remember how many times I have been threatened."
We head back for the clinic, in order to start loading up gear for our return trip to the States. As we arrive, one final patient, who arrived after traveling all afternoon via the city buses, is in tears, as she realizes that she has to do the same thing all over again, after her appointment. The staff is firm but apologetic as they tell her that no one can take her home, since there is a blessing of some kind that the sisters need to attend at 6 p.m.
Father Bill, who does not look the least bit tired after this long day, tells me, "Living here has sensitized me. My journey continues, and it is my vision to get more people involved."
With a smile, he says, "The invasion of the sisters has been good for me. And I want to know how to get people to experience all of this. I would love to see all denominations here in love, harmony, spirituality and education."
After all, it is only Mexico.
Jeff Berg also wrote this issue's article on the