September 30, 2011
JUAREZ, Mexico – It’s Sunday, July 10, 2011, and I’m standing in the desert outside of Pastor Jose Antonio Galvan’s asylum southwest of Juarez. The temperature is 103 degrees and eight municipal police officers have arrived, most of them carrying automatic weapons. Now two of them pull a woman out of one of their cars. She is wearing only filthy underwear. Her hair is matted. This is Marta.
Earlier the police had called Pastor Galvan to see if they could place this woman with him. She had been living on the streets of Juarez and no other facility would take her.
Fortunately, Sunday is when Dr. Vicente Pantoja, Galvan’s consulting psychiatrist visits, so he was able to help Galvan make the decision to admit Marta. He is one of only 11 psychiatrists in Juarez, a city of about 1.5 million people. How would that compare to Aspen?
I have been to the asylum some six or seven times now; many of the patients call out my name when I arrive or ask me to photograph them. This is my first meeting with Pantoja, however, as well as my first opportunity to see how the actual intake process works. It’s obvious that it is very different from what we would see in the United States.
First, Galvan is always struggling financially. So everything that I write about the asylum and about this particular encounter with Marta has to be viewed in that context – the desperate shortage of money.
Before Marta’s arrival, Pantoja talked about the differences between our American mental-health system, which is scientific and precise about things – like the interchange between staff and patients, for example – and the Mexican system, which relies more on simple human contact and interaction. I see this when Pantoja enters the courtyard. The patients all shout his name and rush over to hug him just as they do with Pastor Galvan. I see this when the patients hug and comfort each other. “Es como una familia aqui,” Pantoja says.
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Now I’m outside with the eight police officers. One of them takes the clip out of his pistol, then reinserts it, over and over again. Pantoja is standing behind me. The sweat is pouring off both of us. I can tell that he wants me to come inside the asylum, but I’m trying to persuade the officer in charge to let me take a picture of all of them. Finally, Pantoja says that he is leaving. Then one of the officers walks behind me, his automatic weapon across his chest, and says that they don’t want their faces to be recorded. I’m here to photograph, to “stop time,” as Galvan says. He tells me that my camera is my scepter. But even I know better than to keep after the officers so I retreat into the asylum.
There appears a new Marta. She has been bathed by several of the women patients and is wearing a clean blue smock with little fish on it. Her head is shaved and the filthy, matted hair is gone. Now several patients are holding her arms and a man named Benito is trimming her long, cracked, dangerous looking fingernails. Several of the women patients are trying to calm her as she stands quietly. When they point to her broken, torn toenails, however, she breaks free and runs across the courtyard to a cement bench in the shade.
“Leave her alone,” Galvan says. “Let her calm down.”
We wait, then I walk across, ask if I can take her photo and kneel perhaps six feet in front of her. With her shaved, bullet head, wide shoulders and thick tattooed arms, she looks like a wild animal. When she jumps to her feet, I flinch, thinking she’ll charge.
Then Elia, one of the patients approaches her and she sits again. Elia is a smallish young woman who is always smiling and helping out. She has a speech defect; the only word of hers that I can understand is “foto” because she likes to be photographed. Her older sister, the tiny Leticia who is even more incoherent, then joins her.
Elia sits on Marta’s right and Leticia sits on her left. They lean toward Marta, who has covered her face with her hand. We can see how well trimmed her fingernails are now but we can’t see her expression. Galvan, Pantoja and I as well as perhaps 40 patients are watching in silence. Is she about to explode? She is big enough to hurt both Elia and Leticia.
Then her hand comes down and we can see her face. She is smiling. Maybe now she’s part of the family. This is what Pantoja was talking about.