‘Hidden Treasures’ – A day with El Pastor
June 2, 2011
JUAREZ, Mexico – “People call them basura humana. Human garbage,” says El Pastor, Jose Antonio Galvan in his soft voice. “But I believe that they are hidden treasures.”
We’ve driven some 15 miles southwest of Juarez, out into the Mexican desert, past abandoned buildings and yonkes, or junkyards. Then his asilo or asylum for the mentally ill appears, a long, cinder-block building that looks only half-finished.
“I have 103 people here,” he adds. “Some have been deported from the United States, some I found living on the streets, some were just dumped by the authorities because Juarez has no services for the mentally ill.”
Galvan is a big, handsome man with curly hair and reading glasses pushed up on his forehead. He is dressed in a black suit with a Special Forces pin on his jacket, in recognition of one of his sons, who has been in the Special Forces for the last 10 years and is currently in Afghanistan. I learned about him from Charles Bowden, the author of “Murder City, Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields.” Bowden said, “Visit the asylum. It is like a lens showing one the vast hurts of the city.”
We arrive as breakfast is being served. I enter one room where some 20 men sleep. They eat from trays. There are no utensils because some would eat the plastic. Others are in smaller cells. Manuel, who killed his mother, shares a cell with Victorina and Miguel Angel. Petra Escobar, a heavy woman, had an anxiety attack, threw herself in front of a train and lost both legs and an arm.
“She has nowhere else to go,” says El Pastor. “Medicine and God.”
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When they are finished, we have our breakfast. “The internos always eat first,” El Pastor tells me.
Elvira, one of his only paid staff members, makes tortillas for us. She has seven assistants, all of whom are internos or patients. They chop vegetables for a huge soup that she’ll make for lunch. They also wash trays and deliver the meals to the other patients, some of whom must be locked up for safety. One of them sorts through discarded vegetables that they have scrounged from a market in Juarez. They prepare 300 meals a day.
Born in Juarez, El Pastor went to the United States as a teenager, married, had four children and was making good money as a crane operator. He became an addict, however, served time in prison, was deported back to Mexico and lived on the streets of Juarez until an encounter with a street preacher brought about his conversion.
In 1986, he started this program, Vision en Accion. His hope is to establish other programs along the border and to set up a halfway house to help his clients transition back into a society where they have no family or friends. Recently he preached at several churches in Denver to raise money and was given a car with wild stripes along its sides. He went to Salt Lake City, where Bowden raised money for him at a book signing. He has to find funds for the 300 meals a day, the medications (which are absolutely essential), the two psychiatrists, equipment like wheelchairs for people like Petra who have lost their legs, and his small but very loyal staff.
A stocky, fit-looking man named Josua Rosales is El Pastor’s second in command. Born in Juarez, Rosales was a member of the South Side gang in Los Angeles and eventually ended up serving eight years in prison in California. Deported back to Juarez, he lived on the streets until he collapsed and was taken to the asylum where he had to be kept in a cell for 11 months. “If it hadn’t been for El Pastor,” he says, “I would be dead.”
Magdalena is an attractive-looking young woman who lived in California and Florida, was married to an American soldier named Mobley and had two children with him. She had been released the day before on the recommendation of one of the doctors who works for El Pastor, but within hours the police had returned her. Now she is scraping the carrots for Elvira’s huge pot of soup. She’s dangerous, however. They don’t allow her to work with a knife.
Jaime is in charge of washing the trays. He works outside with another man who doesn’t talk.
Rebeca is one of El Pastor’s earliest patients. She paces restlessly.
Yogi is deaf, fat and cheerful but dangerous.
Tiny Leticia can only mumble but hugs El Pastor. Before she came here, her family kept her chained up in their home.
At first seeing these conditions is a shock, but what are the alternatives? Living on the streets of Juarez, begging and eating garbage, hoping that you won’t be murdered? This city of 1.5 million (minus perhaps 250,000 to 300,000 who have fled) has only eight psychiatrists.
El Pastor tells me that there have been approximately 7,000 murders in Juarez in the last two years, each of which affects some 40 family members and friends. In other words, roughly a quarter of the population is in mourning.
In addition, there are thousands of orphans, many of whom live in tapias or abandoned houses. Because they have no families, no jobs and no education, they are easy recruits for the dozens of local gangs who pay them for killings or car jackings. He calls them ninos del dolor, del odio, children of sadness and hate.
One of the patients is a schizophrenic and has lost a leg in an accident. Laying on his cot, he holds up a book of his drawings. Art is one of the therapies that El Pastor is pushing, but his art teacher moved to El Paso when her husband was kidnapped.
Work is also important. Out in the courtyard, some 20 men and women haul buckets of water to a huge trough where one man is walking on wet blankets. Then, working in pairs, they lift the wet blankets out and wring the water out while others replace the dirty water with clean water from a faucet outside the courtyard. Josua adds soap now and the man begins tromping again. He is talking feverishly to himself and waving his arms, but he is smiling.
“Es un manicomio,” El Pastor says. It’s a madhouse or insane asylum. But these are his children. Los loquitos. Los mas malos de Juarez.