Page 21

DESERT EXPOSURE

APRIL 2017 • 21

LIFE IN MEXICO • MORGAN SMITH

Tears and Laughter in the Desert A journey to a wedding uplifting in midst of poverty

W

e cross the border at Santa Teresa to the west of Ciudad Juárez, my car loaded with candy for the mental patients at Vision in Action, beans and rice for Elvira and her family, and used clothing to give to the Mixteca Indians who gather on the Mexican side of the crossing and try to sell snacks, plastic horses and other toys, crosses with Jesus on them and statuettes of the Virgin of Guadalupe. They always recognize my car and come storming over. I park at the edge of the parking lot between the border fence and the Mexican customs line, place the clothing in the sand and step back to let the Mixtecas grab at it. They all migrated north from Oaxaca together and they all live near each other in Anapra on the edge of Juárez, but when it comes to sharing the clothing, it’s just a free-forall. Nonetheless, there are several who have become friends — Graciela, who is from Toluca, as well as Santiago, Florentina and their children — and I intend to interview them and their children and write about their struggles. Then we head straight south. My heart always lifts when I drive this barren, trashy section of desert. It’s the same mix of exhilaration and fear, a sense that no matter how well prepared you are, something unexpected likely will happen. Today, however, will be the most unusual of any of the 80 or 90 visits I have made to the border in the last six years. First, we stop briefly at Vision in Action, the mental asylum where two pair of patients will get married that afternoon. This is part of Pastor Galván’s belief in the dignity of his patients and his sense that giving them the same opportunities that we “sane” people have helps them recover. For the past 21 years, he has cared for 100-120 patients, most of whom have been brought to him by the police with a variety of ailments. Although various officials have offered government support, it always has strings attached — someone is going to get a cut — so he remains independent, relying on donations. Then we go to the home of Elvira Romero and her grandkids, the home that was built with funds donated in memory of my wife, Julie, who died last April. This house had a meaning far beyond just beMatachine dancers perform on the dirt street near the new shrine.

Ángel, his son, and an assistant, all with Siguiendo los Pasos de Jesús, a non-profit building company, participate in creating a shrine in honor of Morgan Smith’s wife who died last April.

ing a physical structure. After they moved in last fall, I said I was going to put a plaque in the house with a photo of Julie and an inscription. Instead, they said that they wanted a shrine or “capilla” that would be located outside their home where all the neighbors could pay tribute to it. This seemed completely out of character for Julie and me — two life-long non-churchgoers. But everyone agreed including Jane Fuller, the director of Siguiendo los Pasos de Jesús, (SPJ) the extraordinary non-profit that actually built the house. Not only would this better honor Julie but it could have a calming influence on a neighborhood that has more than its share of troubles. That morning, five of us spoke at the dedication — Pastor Galván, friends from Juárez and Santa Fe and me. I was so shaken I could barely stand. Two of Elvira’s grandkids, Hector and Yeira, led matachine dances in the dirt street in front of the house. As a wiry man pounded relentlessly on a drum, I realized this was their way of paying tribute to someone whom they had never met, but whose death, in a way, brought new life to them. Then it was done, the changing design of the project, the weeks of repeated trips to Juárez to hear Oscar and Ángel, the builders from SPJ, tell me that it would be done in time even though nothing seemed to be happening, the meetings out in the desert and dust with me handing them cash. This tiny construction project became, for me, an enormous test of patience and perseverance and finally a great sense of gratitude and satisfaction. We then drove to the asylum for the wedding. Benito Torres was one of the grooms, a powerful man who since he began taking care of the animals — chickens,

pigs and goats — has had no more of the bi-polar episodes that used to require locking in a cell for weeks until he calmed down. His bride, Viridiana or “Viri,” was all smiles and excitement but Benito waited glumly with a sheen of sweat on his upper lip. It was the opposite with the other couple whose marriage was a last-minute decision: the attractive but unsmiling Denise and the cheerful Daniel with his odd haircut. Guests came pouring in, mostly family members. Then a pickup appeared, its radiator boiling over from the strain of pulling a horse trailer with two horses for the two grooms to ride to the ceremony and two ponies for kids to ride. What ensued was a wedding very much like any wedding you might see. The bridal gowns blowing in the wind, the men looking sharp with cowboy hats, boots and bolo ties, the cake, a ceremony led by Pastor Galván, an exchange of rings, music and food, little kids laughing and playing, the pony rides. To what extent does treating people like they are normal rather than as sick make them more normal? I’m convinced that it helps. Treating people with dignity also helps. That’s why I have been visiting Galván’s asylum at least once a month for six years, bringing food, clothing and whatever donations I can raise. As for the shrine, this is something that neither Julie nor I would have ever imagine, but if it can actually change this barren, impoverished “colonia,” she would be deeply honored. Morgan Smith lives in New Mexico and works with a number of humanitarian programs in Juárez and Palomas, Mexico. He can be reached at Morgan-smith@ comcast.net.

Pastor Galván officiates over the dedication of a shrine created for the community where a home was built for Elvira Romero and her grandkids, with funds donated in memory of, Julie Smith, who died last April. (Photos by Morgan Smith)

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