Voyages: Invisible Women
On 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-adddict himself as well as deportee. Even though I had been — and continue to be — documenting and working with a number of humanitarian organizations in the Juárez-Palomas area, 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. 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 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. Here are brief comments about four of them.
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 told Pastor Galván, “I’ve never smoked, I don’t believe in it.”
“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.
Then 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 of her life here.
Now whenever I visit, she is one of the first to greet me. She hugs me, kisses me and says “Foto, foto,” the only coherent word I have ever heard her say. She keeps 20 or more of my photos in her Bible — photos of her wearing three hats stacked on top of each other or a mask or with the Bible in her hand or a bunch of bracelets on her wrist or a white plastic cross dangling from her fingers or a crown of little flowers on her head. She always wants more photos.
On a July Sunday several years ago — temperature 103 degrees — eight heavily armed police officers delivered a filthy, aggressive woman named Marta to Galván. Patients bathed Marta, cut off her matted hair, gave her a clean smock and trimmed her fingernails. (There is no money for staff to do this.) Then she shrieked, broke loose and charged to the other side of the patio. “Let her calm down,” Galván said. She was built like a linebacker and no one wanted to tangle with her. Finally, Elia, who couldn’t weigh more than 100 pounds, and Leticia, who was even smaller, walked quietly across the patio and sat next to her. Elia then leaned against Marta, her hand on her shoulder. In a few minutes, Marta was relaxed and smiling.
The next time I visited, it was Marta taking care of Leticia, whose balance was bad, causing numerous falls. Now only Elia is left, dedicated to relieving the suffering of others.
Although a Mexican citizen, Cinthia grew up in Ponca City, Oklahoma, and speaks perfect English. Nonetheless, this intelligent and attractive woman has “cycled” through Visión en Acción four times since I started visiting. By that, I mean that she is brought in drugged up, delusional and aggressive, kept in a cell until she is no longer a risk, and then allowed to be in the main population until a plan is put together for her release, usually to a family member. At first, it was exciting to watch her progress. She would talk about her plans to marry and I would promise to be her photographer. Soon, however, she would be back, crazed and aggressive.
Shortly after her last release, police found her wandering the streets, hysterical. Now she is back again but taking much longer to recover. In early July, she was out in the patio with the other patients but on July 27, she was back in a cell and incoherent. She will always have food, care and shelter but her true potential will never be realized.
Many years ago I watched how my wife, Julie, treated a mentally ill relative: just like a regular person who you love and care for. Therefore, to me, these women aren’t really “invisible.” They are just regular people who have suffered and have illnesses and need to be loved and cared for.
Morgan Smith is a former Aspenite who served in the Colorado House of Representatives and as commissioner of agriculture and now lives in Santa Fe. He can be reached at Morganfirstname.lastname@example.org.
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