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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   January 2009

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Sometimes We Eat, Sometimes We Don't

Life in Palomas, already a struggle, gets even harder during a dispute with the county government.

A few weeks ago I brought a couple loads of food down to Palomas with Sandra in Columbus and went looking for Maria Lopez, the social worker.

I saw her near the Port of Entry, and she told me, smiling bravely, that she and some other people were on their way to Ascension to protest the treatment of Palomas city workers. "The mayor of Ascension hasn't paid city workers for two months," she said.

Ascension is the seat of government for the municipio (county) that includes Palomas, which doesn't really have a budget of its own. Ascension Mayor Rafael Camarillo stopped paying Palomas workers for two months starting the beginning of October this year — as if the hunger Palomas has been suffering weren't enough to bring them to their knees.

According to Palomas city-hall employees, Camarillo wanted to have work done on some roads but didn't want to pay the workers. (This didn't make any more sense to them than it does to me.)

The payroll stoppage left policemen, public works employees and even Palomas Mayor Tanys Garcia high and dry. The children of some policemen couldn't go to school and some people went hungry.

Elizabeth Sanchez, another social worker, said that about 70 people drove down to take part in a five-day demonstration in front of the mayor's office in Ascension. About 30 of them, including a few children, slept in the blocked-off street in front of the building.

On Monday the decision was made to have nine women stand on the city hall steps to pressure Camarillo to talk to them. This was done on the theory that with females the police would be less likely to turn violent.

But instead this was when the police moved in. They got behind and in front of the women "like a sandwich," said Sanchez. "They squashed us — it was very painful." Then one started beating her. "They hit me on the back and arms," she said. "We didn't expect this response. He acted like an animal."

One policeman grabbed Lupita, the wife of the Palomas mayor. "He pulled at the collar of her jacket," Sanchez said. "He was going to suffocate her."

Maria Lopez told me she scratched the face of this policeman, and he beat her with a pair of handcuffs, which she still has in her possession — as a souvenir, we joked. The beating ripped her pink jacket in two places and left a bruise on the inside of her knee.

Camarillo emerged after about an hour. They held talks with the help of two congressmen from Chihuahua and finally arrived at an agreement. Camarillo started paying the workers and even gave them back pay.

While Palomas is so close to the US and there is so much interaction between our two sides of the border, I sometimes forget how much a part of the Third World it is.

Lopez said she talked to a journalist from the Diario de Juarez, but he didn't write about the abuses. He took a photo of her ripped jacket, but didn't publish it. She thinks he was paid off.

After hearing this story I talked about this event with the cashier and a customer at La Favorita Bakery. I described what the journalist did, and the customer rubbed his fingers together in a gesture meaning "he did it for money," or words to that effect. I guess it's common knowledge that reporters get paid to keep quiet about things.

I talked to Lupita Garcia afterwards and asked if Palomas was going to bring a suit against Camarillo or report the abuses to some human rights organization. She acted as if it wasn't really a concern. "We came to an agreement," she said. So life goes on.

While some reporters may get paid off, others are acting courageously in Juarez after the killing of crime reporter Armando Rodriguez. They're still as relentless and crazy in their chase after the news, although their names aren't published anymore.

The savagery of the sicarios (hit men) doesn't let up, and Juarez is more and more a real war zone. The violence there makes Palomas seem as if they're just having a picnic.

I talked to a little old man at a taco stand in Palomas who said, without emotion, that two of his grandsons were killed two weeks before in Juarez, in a case having something to do with their selling fayuca, or contraband merchandise. "They're crazy in Juarez," he said.

"We're born to die," he informed me. "We live just a little while and then we die."

The danger in dealing with a crisis over time, like the food crisis in Palomas, is that it can begin to seem normal. So I took an hour to go around by myself and talk to people in the streets.

I stopped at one house where three women were working in their yard. Their tabby cat, a lot like my cat Leppy, played around with her frisky kittens. One woman said she'd worked for a doctor in town but had been laid off. Another woman said, with emphasis, they were eating one or two times a day.

The woman who had lost her job looked like such a professional that it was hard to picture her eating so little. I asked her if she had any hope about the economic situation. She said yes, that maybe American customers would start coming back to Palomas before long.

I saw another woman named Zulma out at the western edge of town, walking hand in hand with her little son. They were near the hill with what looks like a little chapel on top, which in reality is, or was, a lookout place for drug dealers to keep an eye on the other side of the border.

Zulma told me her husband had been killed nine months ago. She worked sometimes for a woman who lived nearby, and had a brother who worked a little bit in the fields of Colonia Victoria and cleaning cars in front of the Del Rio store near the Port of Entry. (She didn't tell me she had a boyfriend living with her who was also out of a job.)

Her little boy went to the nearby kindergarten, and punctuated his comments with "Okey?" directed to this gringa. Zulma said they had electricity, but no heating. With a mock smile she said, "Sometimes we eat, sometimes we don't." She has three kids.

As I was leaving I said, "I hope things get better," and she appeared tired and on the verge of tears. When we hugged, she felt limp with grief, like a dishrag.

I told Maria Lopez about this woman, and she's planning to help her.

There's been help for Palomas coming from so many directions. Several truckloads of clothing and food have arrived. An anonymous collection totaling $400 was donated recently through Desert Exposure.

But the Americans involved in this food drive talk with a kind of blank apprehension about the coming winter months. Donations would still be appreciated.

Donations to Integral Family Development (DIF) to help the residents of Palomas may be sent payable to Maria Lopez/DIF in care of Desert Exposure, PO Box 191, Silver City, NM 88062.


Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.

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