Friday, July 10, 2020

"Housing Dignity"

TW: Sexual Assault

We had just crossed over the border bridge on foot, hauling half a dozen birthing bags with us. As we got to the Juarez side, K. explained that the street we were now on was known for sex tourism and violence. “See that hotel,” she said as she pointed to the left side of the road, “it’s one of the worst.”

We walked down the street while she gave us a brief overview of its history and how thing had changed since Covid. The street was clean, the sidewalks looking freshly repaved. It seemed like any city’s main drag, except the road was crowded with motorist waiting in line to cross back to the El Paso side, as vendors sold snacks and knickknacks to the drivers. 

She told me she was going to get me one of the weekly newspapers as we walked back to the spot where we were to wait to be picked up. We approached a man standing by the large cross reading, “Justicia.” At this point I still had no clue what the cross was, or that the paper tags nailed to it were toe tags from bodies of murdered women. She gave the vendor a few pesos and he handed her the newspaper. I took it, gave the cover a cursory glance, and then we set off to the spot where we would catch our ride. 

We made small talk while waiting. I didn’t know if it was an Uber or another volunteer from her shelter. About half an hour later a man arrived in a van. I’ll call him “O.” 

O. was a soft spoken man with light eyes and a small bit of red scruff on his face. We piled into his van and that’s when I remembered the newspaper. I pulled it out and began flipping through the pages. The first ten or so were just local news. It looked like the alt-weekly’s we have here in the states, so I assumed the back pages would be where “massages” were advertised. 

As I continued flipping through it though, I gasped. Near the middle of the paper there weren’t small advertisements for women offering “services”... no... there were full page pornographic ads. Women were being sold in these pages. Women who’s toe tags could likely end up on the very cross their images were being purchased next to. 

“This is straight pornography,” I exclaimed. O., from the front seat, asked what I was looking at, and when K. told him what she’d given me, he nodded his head slowly and sadly. 

We stopped briefly to pick up another volunteer from the art collective K. and O. work with, then we headed to a lumber yard. 

O. and the volunteer went in to procure the wood while K., Mel, and I stayed in the van. The air was turned off but the door was open, so a nice breeze filled the car as we took respite in the shade. 

K. began telling us about the women she serves. At one point, when talking about the “torture porn” industry taking hold in Juarez, she asked how much we wanted to hear because so much of it was unfathomable to most. Mel and I assured her that we could handle hearing the reality of what these women endure. She said one of the women in her shelter has scars all over her face. Actually, a few of them do, but this one woman’s were particularly bad. “They stuck toothpicks into her skin,” she said.

That level of desperation to survive and make money for your family in such a way, is so foreign to me, but it is very much a reality here.

Eventually, O. and the other volunteer returned and the van was driven into a large lumber warehouse where planks of wood were fastened to the roof of the van. 

Mel and I still had no clue where we we’re headed, as we weaved through the crowded streets of Juarez. Up until this point, K. had been acting as our translator, when O. said something I actually understood. He apologized for his English, telling us he’s slow at speaking it because he has to translate each word in his head first. It was actually quite good though. Much better than the few words of Spanish I know. He made a joke about how he had a “bad face,” which was untrue. His eyes are incredibly kind. He said people in Juarez tell him he looks like a hillbilly because of his light complexion and auburn hair.

As we crawled up a hill in the van, the houses flanking us looked more like shacks. Blankets and pieces of aluminum stood in place of secure doors. Eventually we came to the spot where he was building a house for migrants. K. explained that he believed in “housing dignity,” and that if he could use his skills to do anything, he wanted it to be making sure the migrants waiting on asylum had a safe and dignified place to live. 

We got out of the van, and one by one, he started unloading the planks. Some other volunteers who were already there came over to assist him, and in groups of two we moved the wood to the site where the house was being build. The cinder blocks and frame were already up. A blue plastic tarp served as a make shift roof.

There were a handful of children that lived in the nearby dwellings, and they were watching on as one of the volunteers poured water into a large dirt pile. The water would be poured, then more red dirt would be added until the measurements were just right. K. told me the kids were waiting to mix the dirt and water together with their feet, and she jokingly asked me if I wanted to join them. I’d already started rolling up my pants when I realized she probably thought I was going to decline. I told her it would be just like that episode of “I love Lucy” where they were at the vineyard stomping grapes and that I was all in. 

Sadly, before the time came to mix the clay for the walls, K. told us it was time to go to the shelter and that she’d just ordered us an Uber. I rolled my pants back down and smiled at the children who were about to have so much fun in the cool clay.

“Housing dignity”... that’s something so few of us in the states have to worry about. For many of us, if we lose our housing, we at least have friend’s who’s couches we can crash on, or family that will take us in. But for these women, they are hundreds of miles away from anyone they know. They have zero community to lean on for support. And women with no roofs over their heads - no roofs over their children’s heads - often have to go to great, soul crushing, debasing lengths to provide the safety and security of a home. So, O. is not simply creating safe dwellings. He’s creating spaces for women and children to thrive which don’t require their dehumanization to simply survive.

When we spoke to K. the night before we left, we asked her to come up with a wishlist for what she would like for the shelter. Preferably in order of the most needed first. One of our big BIG dreams we had was to be able to help O. out with some sort of transportation so he didn’t have to keep hauling wood on the top of his van, but that expense seemed pretty unreachable at the time. 

And then, this week as you all bought out the registry for the THIRD TIME I got an email from the refrigerator company informing me that they don’t deliver to El Paso. 

I was so upset. 

As I was trying to formulate a plan, y’all bought the washing machine, and Amazon informed me they wouldn’t be able to deliver that either. The TWO BIGGEST items on the registry, and probably the two most needed.

As I scrambled to figure out what to do, I posted on my personal Facebook asking if anyone in the Dallas area had a UHAUL style trailer we could borrow because maybe the solution was simply for me to drive the two items back across Texas myself. Within minutes someone said they would cover the cost of a UHAUL so we’d have insurance on it. It still pained me to even think about spending over a thousand dollars (because they charge by the mile) on something we’d only be renting for a few days though. Especially since I knew that money would be better spent somewhere else. 

And then, a few minutes after that, ANOTHER donation came in covering the cost of both the refrigerator and the washing machine in case we needed to cancel those orders (at which point the donations would simply go back to the donors, not NWF - which I’m sure y’all would have donated back, but it still would’ve been such a pain for everyone, so I was trying to avoid that if at all possible). 

All that to say, y’all’s generosity completely floored me, and it also gave me the room I needed to breathe. And with that oxygen flowing again, and some input from our brilliant board, we got to brainstorming the best solution. We realized this might actually be the universe’s way of pushing us into the perfect solution after all. 

Within a day, I was able to find a guy an hour away who builds flatbed trailers with high sides. The kind of trailer that would be PERFECT for hauling a fridge and washer to El Paso. And then we could leave the trailer there for O. & K. to use to haul lumber for the houses.

That was a BIG DREAM item and you guys provided it. I’d say I’m speechless, but if you’ve made it this far you know I’m anything but. But my heart is still so full of gratitude for the good work in Juarez y’all have supported this week. 

K. was speechless though. When I told her the good news I just got a string of head exploding emojis.

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