Voyages: Tears and Laughter in the Desert |

Voyages: Tears and Laughter in the Desert

We crossed the MEXICO border at Santa Teresa to the west of Ciudad Juárez, my car loaded with candy for the mental patients, beans and rice for Elvira and her family, and used clothing to give to the Mixteca Indians who gather there to try to sell snacks, plastic horses, other toys, crosses with Jesus on them and statuettes of the Virgen of Guadalupe.

I place the clothing in the sand in front of the huge border wall and step back as the Mixtecas charge over and grab at. 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-for-all.

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 I always felt years ago when climbing the Maroon Bells or Pyramid Peak. A sense that no matter how well prepared you were, something unexpected would likely happen.

Today, however, will be the most unusual of any of the 80 or 90 visits I have made to the border in the past six years.

First, we stop briefly at Vision in Action, the mental asylum where two pairs 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.

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. As I indicated in an Aspen Times article in December, I had told Elvira’s family that this house had a meaning far beyond just being 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. They erupted, saying that this was inadequate and that they wanted a shrine or “capilla” that would be located outside their home where all the neighbors could pay tribute to it. The plaque would be inside the capilla flanked by ceramic statues of the Virgen of Guadalupe and Saint Jude. I was stunned; this seemed completely out of character for Julie and I, two lifelong non-churchgoers. But everyone agreed including Jane Fuller, the director of Siguiendo los Pasos de Jesús, the nonprofit 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 shares of narcos, including the next door neighbor nicknamed El Bohemio.

Five of us spoke at the dedication — Pastor Galván, friends from Juárez and Santa Fe, New Mexico, and me. I was so shaken that I could barely stand.

Then 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 that this was their way of paying tribute to someone they had never met. Then it was done, the changing design of the project, the weeks of repeated trips to Juárez to hear Oscar and Ángel, the builders 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.

With as great sense of relief and exhaustion, I then drove the others 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 him 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 of the more than one hundred patients. 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 children to ride.

What ensued was a wedding very much like any wedding you might see. The bridal gown, the men with cowboy hats, boots and bolo ties, the cake, a ceremony led by Pastor Galván, music and food, the little children laughing and playing. To what extent does treating people like they are normal rather than as sick actually make them more normal? I believe that it helps. And could this ever happen in an institution in our country? I doubt it.

Other than weddings and funerals, Julie and I never went to church in our 50 years of marriage. Initially she would have been horrified at the idea of a shrine. Then she would have laughed hysterically at the struggles I went through to get this accomplished, as she did one summer in Aspen many years ago when I tried to rid her parent’s house — the Red House at Second and Francis streets — of its bats. One of them flew at me, I shrieked in terror, and she and my children roared with laughter.

In the end, however, the shrine might actually change this barren, impoverished “colonia.” For that she would be deeply honored.

Morgan Smith is a former Aspenite who now lives in New Mexico and works with a number of humanitarian programs in Juárez and Palomas, Mexico. He can be reached at

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