Love Never Dies
At Casa de Soles, the children of murdered or imprisoned parents find a place in the sun.
by Victoria Tester
I stand in a thin field of weeds along the international border fence in Anapra, Juarez, watching a Mexican woman dreaming. Yes, this woman is a dreamer, but for the past 15 years she has waged daily battles of love in one of the poorest, most torn communities in Mexico. "Here," she explains, as we look out over the barren, sandy plot, "is a playground for the children. Do you see it? And look, here is a garden. And there — " She points to the closest deserted house, a little larger than its neighbors. " — is the new Casa de Soles."
Scenes from Casa de Soles. Photos by Victoria Tester
After a while we look down at what might be dusty verdolagas, purslane, at our feet. Maybe something that can be added to today's meal of beans and rice that will feed the Casa de Soles ("House of the Suns") children and volunteers. No, we decide, disappointed, it is not purslane. Not something to eat.
A US Border Patrol truck, a hundred feet away, moves closer. "Be careful," she warns me. "Don't go too near the fence. They shoot at us with bullets. They're only rubber, but..."
She motions towards the many patched places in the tall border fence where it has been cut by smugglers. Nearby houses, patched together with wooden pallets and now empty, stored guns, drugs and desperate people who paid to be smuggled across the border.
She leads me into a house whose owner was murdered three weeks ago.
"This is where she lived. This is where they brought kidnap victims. Hostages. Where they kept them." It is a dirty hovel with little left inside. Long, fingerlike black stains, a candelabra of darkness, mark the walls of the first room. An evangelical pamphlet lies abandoned on the floor.
We go into another filthy room. On the bare wall, a child's bright drawing. A love letter to his or her small world. "Even here," the woman says, in wonder. "Even here, in this place where they hurt people. Even here they speak of love. Of God.'
I am sick with fear. I am afraid of the other, closed door that might open. I am afraid of the very walls around us.
"I stand here," the woman tells me, gently. "But it isn't fear I feel. It is sadness."
This woman is Lourdes Contreras, known affectionately as "Lulu" to the many children served by Casa de Soles, a day shelter that functions mostly for the children of murdered or imprisoned parents. She feeds, educates and heals, with the vital support of the women of her Anapra community, across the border from Sunland Park, NM, more than 65 children in a building that served, not long ago, as a devil's workshop.
According to their size, age and progress, here in this same building, children were taught to rob, to steal cars, to kidnap, and to kill.
The children color pictures. Here, they have a place to be together before and after school. Those too young for school, or not enrolled, can stay all day. Some ask my name, and draw me love letters with winged hearts. Here, they are taught the values printed in Spanish on the wall: Sharing. Tolerance. Love. Respect. Compassion. Justice. Gratitude. Responsibility. Honesty. Humility. Order. Courage. Solidarity. Forgiveness.
Here, they are taught a language for the monster that may still destroy their lives: What is violence? Rape. Murder. Child abuse. Animal abuse. Sexual abuse. Fighting. Yelling. Alcoholism. Robbery. Drug trafficking.
Together, they happily eat a breakfast of donated peanut butter on thick bread.
"These three children here," Lulu tells me quietly, "we're still struggling to get registered for school. They have no mother, and their father won't enroll them himself because he says the two little girls will only marry, and the boy will work." All three children are well under 12. But Lulu found them school supplies, a donation. The oldest reaches into her backpack and takes out her box of crayons, touching its promising rainbow.
This morning Casa de Soles is out of propane. Two large pans of food are raced off to cook at the home of a woman in the community who will sacrifice her own propane. Most of children are now at school.
We women gather at the scrubbed table in the kitchen.
Lulu encourages each woman to share her own story with me, what has brought her to volunteer at Casa de Soles. Their eight stories differ in details, but all the women have suffered deeply from violence, worry, depression.
All are mothers. Nearly all mention God. Some were abandoned by men they loved and would not leave their houses anymore, or else they saw their children did not know how to treat others because they only watched television day and night, if they had televisions. They suffered violence from their fathers or other men they loved.
At least one is an alcoholic, but someone entrusted her with a task that would make a difference to someone besides herself and now she does not drink so much, or sometimes even at all. They were not raised to value themselves and are learning to do so. Some want to share the new strength they'd found through therapy, and others resisted going to therapy because they said God was all they needed, that they had cried enough as children on the banks of rivers in faraway places like Oaxaca. One has leukemia, wears a surgical mask. One is a trained teacher, doing her practicals.
They all count their blessings. All seek unity with each other. They see their eight individual stories as truly one story. All sacrifice. All work hard, sweeping, mopping, cooking, carrying, teaching, calming, loving and listening to the children and each other at Casa de Soles. They see they are making a difference.
I start crying. I call them miracles. I hide my own story. I don't tell them I have been broken, too.
The teacher hugs me.
"I'm going out to beg now. We all have a job here, and that is mine," another volunteer says with a smile. "I go to local vendors, and all over the city, to ask for food to keep the children going."
Five children fall apart. It is a therapy session where they voice their silent rages and their griefs over their murdered loved ones. The children close their eyes and one by one, we women become their lost mothers, their lost aunts, even a lost uncle.
The children hold to us more tightly than anyone has ever held us. They wail. They sob, they keen into our shoulders as they tell us how it feels to have lost us. They beg us to forgive them for the precious lost pencil, for that morning they misbehaved. They beg us to forgive them, and they sob and thank us and thank us when we do.
They tell us they have no one to play with now, they tell us they are so lonely without us, they do not want to go home to do the washing or the cleaning or to take care of tiny brothers and sisters. They want us back, they want us back, they soak our shoulders and the places over our hearts with their tears.
They want only to be where we are now. They will be good, they will be good, so they can be with us one day. They want only to be with us now, wherever we are.
They sob that they do not want to let us go, they do not want to let us go. They thank us for coming to see how they are, they knew we cared enough to come to see how they are. They tell us they know they have to let us go so we can be where we have to be now. But, they tell us, they don't understand why, why they have to be so alone.
We hold them to us as they mourn, and we, their dead loved ones, let them go, slowly, only as they let us go.
No te quiero soltar, no te quiero soltar, a little girl wails.
I am her dead mother and she will not let me go.
I wait, then say, very gently, into her agony: "Love never dies."
Her mouth parted in despair, she opens her eyes and stares into my face for a full 30 seconds. I think she has not heard me. Then she whispers it, as a question, a way, maybe, to go on. "Love... never dies?"
Today, I am holding the broken heart of the world in my arms, and this Love is the only thing on this earth I still know.
"Love never dies," I say.
Then she nods her head softly and is willing, very slowly, to let go.
Victoria Tester is an award-winning poet and playwright, the coordinator of the
San Isidro Bean Project and a postulant to the Third Order Society of St. Francis.
She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.