Aspen Times Weekly: Finding Shelter in Juarez
Driving through Aspen last June on route to my granddaughter’s graduation from CRMS in Carbondale, I felt a searing pain as I came to the corner of 2D and Frances streets and the former home of my in-laws, Bob and Barbara Anderson. Although I grew up on the North Star Ranch (now the North Star Nature Preserve) it was this house — the Red House, as we called it — where my relationship began with Julie, their daughter. Although we never lived in Aspen, she took care of the house from the time of our marriage in 1965 to its sale many years later. For us, our time at that house and in Aspen was unforgettable
Julie died suddenly April 3 of this year. The one bright spot about this devastating loss, however, is another house far from Aspen. Using donations made in her memory to a nonprofit in El Paso, Texas called Siguiendo los Pasos de Jesús (SPJ) or Following the Footsteps of Jesus, a house has been built in Juárez, Mexico for a family we had been helping for almost six years. The result is a success story, and that isn’t always the case with the Mexico projects I get involved in.
The story began February 23, 2011 when I made my first visit to Vision in Action, an asylum for the mentally ill on the edge of Juárez. Notwithstanding the dozens of patients milling around me, what surprised me most were two little kids in the middle of all those patients. Why were they, so young, in a mental asylum?
Later, I learned that they were Hector (13) and Yeira (12) Beltrán, the grandchildren of Elvira Romero, the cook, and she brought them to the asylum every weekend because to stay in their home without her was too dangerous. I cannot imagine my grandchildren having to be in such a situation. What was particularly motivating was that Yeira is two weeks younger than my granddaughter who just graduated from Coorado Rocky Mountain School yet their lives are so different.
Evira is technically their grandmother but, in effect, she is really both their mother and father. The real father lives in Juárez, has money but provides no help. The mother lives in Sonoyta, is a drug addict and probably a prostitute. Elvira, Hector and Yeira have always had to struggle to survive. They would find scrap metal and haul it up to the Chihuahua-Juárez highway to sell. To warm their house they would dig chunks of plywood out of the sand, bring them home in the old baby carriage, pound them on the floor to knock the sand off and burn them to heat their home. Sometimes there wasn’t food.
I began visiting the asylum at least once a month and, rather than just give them money, would pay Hector and Yeira for various projects — essays about their family histories and their hopes for the future or interviews of patients I was documenting. Once, when I was not there, Yeira interviewed a patient named Aron Carrasco. I was horrified when I found out because he was an assassin who had murdered at least 15 people.
“I wasn’t afraid,” Yeira said to me. “He was the one who was crying.
In August 2014, Yeira had her quinceañera, a night of happiness for the whole family. Pastor Galván, the founder of Vision in Action, and I were the” padrinos” or sponsors. But instead of this being a leap forward, everything continued to decline for this family. Elvira lost her job at Vision in Action and her health problems became worse — diabetes, very high blood pressure, problems with her eyes. Yeira graduated from middle school but then, because of a lack of money, she and Hector both had to drop out of high school and go to work in a maquila where they only made about $50 a week.
Elvira then made a down payment on some desert land, and they built a shack for temporary shelter, hoping that one of several U.S. nonprofits would build them a new house. Their first shack collapsed in the wind, so they built another one, but it too was miserable. And all the house building programs in the area not only had long waiting lists but needed the applicants to find sponsors to help with the costs.
“Morgan, it snowed during the night and when we woke up in the morning, our hair was all covered with snow,” Elvira had said last winter. This was what life was like in the shack but I didn’t have the money or the sponsors to do anything about it.
Then after Julie’s death, there was an outpouring of donations to SPJ in her memory. Very quickly we had enough funds for a house for Elvira and her family.
Under the leadership of Jane Fuller, the founder and Executive Director of SPJ, however, much more is involved here than just a house. The nonprofit also has a clinic and brings medical personnel over from El Paso at least once a month. It has a library, a park where kids can play, food assistance, a market where local people can sell their goods and a focus on education. In the case of Elvira’s family, this means help with her vision problem which will allow her to go back to work. For Hector and Yeira, it means finding better jobs as well as schooling on Saturdays so that they can get their high school degrees.
Now, the house has been completed. “Estamos en la Gloria,” Elvira Romero says as we sit there in early September. I agree; this is like being in Heaven compared to the hovel they had been living in. But the house is more than just a structure or, in my case, a memorial. It’s the long-awaited leap forward for this stoic, enduring family. For the first time, I see the potential for these two kids to reach for the dreams they described in those papers they wrote for me years ago. At last, instead of just enduring, they are finally moving forward.
Former Aspenite Morgan Smith lives in Santa Fe but travels to the border every month to assist various humanitarian programs there. He can be reached at Morganemail@example.com.