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28 • SEPTEMBER 2017

Sisters E lia and Leticia Z oto. ( P hotos by Morgan Sm ith)


Invisible Women Finding compassion in the mental asylum

Both ph otos abov e are Cin thia in a cell at V isión en Ac ció n m ental asylum .

n Feb. 23, 2011, a burly man dressed in black picked me up in El Paso and drove me across the border to Ciudad Juárez and Visión en Acción, the mental asylum he had founded more than 20 years ago. This was Pastor José Antonio Galván, ex-addict himself, as well as deportee. Even though I had been – and continue to be – documenting and working with a number of humanitarian organizations in Juárez and Palomas, what I saw at Visión en Acción that day was so extraordinary that I have visited at least once a month ever since. It has become part of my life. When my wife, Julie, was alive it was always brutally hard to tear myself away from her here in Santa Fe and start that long drive to Mexico. Even then, however, I felt a sense of elation as I crossed the border at Santa Teresa on the west edge of Juárez and raced south into the desert, a trip that usually ended with a visit to Palomas as well. That sense of elation is even stronger now that I am alone. These patients are my friends and the friendship we offer each other is more important than the candy, clothing, cigarettes and photos that I bring. I’ve been asked repeatedly why I have


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September Exhibit "States of Motion" by Brian Pottorff, mutli-media artist and Ron Wolfe, Photographer Reception: September 10, 2017 from 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm Exhibition: September 2 through 29 Joanie Wolter will have a sculpture class September 22 and 23. New Students $200.00 repeat students $150.00 Artists Studio Tour: September 30 and October 1. Tour route maps will be available at the Deming Visitors' Center and the Deming Arts' Center starting September 1. Check our website for info: Guatemalan Mercado: October 27 and October 28.

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E lia Z oto, Marta and Leticia Z oto

been doing this so consistently and for so long. The best answer I can give is that it has become part of me. What strikes me the most are the women. Despite their often attractive and “normal” appearances, they have all suffered enormously. They are truly victims, more so than the men. Pastor Galván says that society considers them “invisible.” Yet most of them maintain a spirit, warmth and sense of caring that is remarkable. This is true even for those like Elia Zoto who cannot speak coherently and describe what she has experienced.

Becky Becky was one of the first people to greet me. A dark, powerful-looking but often-moody woman with a red beret cocked sideways on her head, she would take my little notebook and make notes about patients while I was photographing. She would write her life story for me. She would occasionally drift off and sit alone, her mood darker and darker. Bipolar like many of the patients, she would have outbursts and end up in a locked cell until she could calm herself. And she would hound me for cigarettes. “I’ve never smoked; I don’t be-

lieve in it,” I told Pastor Galván. “Yes, I agree,” he answered. “But do you know that she beat another woman to death over one cigarette?” More practical than principled, I started always bringing cigarettes, quickly realizing that they provide a needed moment of extraordinary pleasure and relaxation. Becky died suddenly, just before she was to marry Juan Carlos, another patient. Pastor Galván had even bought her a white wedding gown. I was to be her wedding photographer. I had seen the wedding as something that might lift her out of that sense of despair that often seemed to engulf her. But then she was gone. It sent a terrible shock wave through the asylum, through me.

Elia and Leticia When the parents of Elia and Leticia, these tiny, incoherent sisters, died, they were sent to live with neighbors who kept them chained up and sold them for sex. Eventually the police rescued them and brought them to the asylum in January 2009. Leticia, the older sister died in 2016, but Elia will probably live out the rest


continued on page 29

September 2017  
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