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Feeding Smiles

Bringing food, blankets and hope to Colonias.

 

In November, a not entirely audible message appeared on my answering machine in response to my column that month on hunger in the little towns south of Palomas.

It was from a woman named Judith near Silver City. When I called her back, Judith explained that she was retired and had $250 that she'd like to spend on food for those people. She couldn't stop thinking of those children going to sleep hungry.

In a week or two, she drove down to Deming with boxes and boxes of canned chicken, Spam, pineapple chunks and more. Together we drove south from my house for almost an hour, to the Mexican town of Colonia Modelo.

At that point I had learned that almost everyone there was a farmworker and was eating about twice a day. A woman I had talked to there told me she knew seven families who were in a crisis mode and were eating only about once every two days.

Her name was Oralia, and she ran a tiny grocery store that was identifiable only by a small sign reading, "Refrescate aqui" (Refresh yourself here), with a picture of someone drinking from a soda bottle. Oralia had a candid honesty to her face.

 

We drove house to house with Oralia sitting in the back seat directing us. We stopped just 5 or 10 minutes at each house while Judith silently sorted through her canned goods to present the most equitable selection to each group of people. Judith spoke little Spanish, so she was mostly a passive witness to the goings-on.

But there was a striking similarity to the reactions she and I had to the people we helped. Just as I was, she was most affected by Yessica, the woman who had been recently widowed and left to care for three children and her mother. There was a fierce urgency that flickered on her face.

We both noticed that her 10-year-old son, with his round, sober face, was "good," that he looked concerned about his mother.

Judith also felt that Elenita was a special person. Elenita and her husband Goyo were an elderly couple who were picking two garbage dumps in order to eat. Elenita was not much more than four feet tall and had a settled sense of humor and self-possession.

We both saw the hang-dog expression on the face of Sarafina. People said her family was hungry because the husband "didn't want to work."

The last "family" was a 76-year-old man they called Pulido, who lived alone and was earning $3 to $5 a day working in the fields. In the off-season he gets just $10 a month from the government.

 

Some farmworkers in Colonia Modelo and in nearby towns said that there was less work for them because of the drought — that growers were planting less.

But I got a different take on this scenario from Alex Leaños, who works as an agent for Border Foods in purchasing red chile produced in northern Chihuahua.

He agreed that a few wells had gone dry, but that the reduced work level was more for purely business reasons. He said the growers left "because there wasn't business anymore. Management wasn't there — they went broke."

I had left several messages for Leaños at his office, but they were never returned. I figured it was because he was part of the Leaños family that dominated farming in Colonia Victoria, a few miles from Colonia Modelo, and that he was avoiding talking to a reporter about the labor conditions that produced hunger.

But, when I got him on his cell, Alex Leaños said he was just a cousin of that family, which produced about 70% of the crops in the area. His family had a small farm, and he didn't seem defensive at all.

Fifty years ago, he said, you saw a lot more farming going on in Colonia Victoria than there is now. What he saw was just a general decline in agriculture for business reasons.

 

Judith and I went back to Colonia Modelo just a few days before Christmas. She's a very active quilt-maker, and brought with her six or seven quilts she had made or had on hand. Tom from Casa de Amor (which distributes food in Palomas) made a trip to Deming to give me a mountainous pile of blankets and fleece throws that reached almost to the top of my station wagon. There were little toys for the children.

Judith and I had emailed each other about contemplating, as we fell asleep, how people in Colonia Modelo could possibly sleep on winter nights with almost no blankets.

People in general were thankful at getting the blankets, but there was an especially nice touch of justice in the beautiful antique brown and gold quilt that the garbage pickers got. "Es hermosa," (it's beautiful) Elenita exclaimed, as she held it up before her for a second. They got to sleep like a king and queen that night under the quilt.

I think what I was conscious of more than anything during our lightning trip through the town was how finite the amount of food we brought was. But what struck me later, after the Christmas dinner I went to that night, was the smiles on people's faces that weren't there during the first trip.

Sarafina flashed us a smile when she saw us coming. Goyo, who before was fretful, grinned. Yessica looked calm. Oralia's husband, when he came back from working in the fields, grinned at us broadly as his wife explained what had happened.

It was a modest achievement. But something is better than the whole lot of nothing they had been going through

 

After this I wrote a letter to Pepper's Supermarket in Deming requesting money for 100-pound bags of beans for these families. Recognizing the seriousness of the situation, owner Mark Schultz with tremendous grace wrote out a check for more than double that amount.

Judith plans to get bags of flour for the families in mid-February, when she can afford it.

The poverty in Colonia Modelo and Colonia Victoria is a notch worse than in Palomas, and we are working on finding more people in extreme need to help.

But Palomas also has extreme cases of need. There are families eating just one meal a day, and I've heard a report that "a couple of women" died in the deep freeze in mid-January, when temperatures went down below five degrees.

The phone message I got three months ago seems to be spinning into something bigger. Donations are always welcome at the organizations listed, and you may want to specify where the money should be spent.

 

 

Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.

 

 

To help the needy in Palomas and neighboring communities:

 

desertexposure.com/palomas

 

 

 

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