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.


TW: Sexual Assault

When you walk into the shelter in Juárez, the first thing you have to do is sanitize your hands and the bottoms of your shoes. There‘s a small wooden table adorned with an assortment of plastic bottles just inside the door. 

With 20 people, a collection of women and children all staying at the shelter, they have to take every precaution necessary to keep them safe from outside germs. 

I grabbed the hand sanitizer first. Rubbing the cool liquid into my palms and all around my fingers. Then I started to spray off the bottoms of my shoes, as I’d been instructed to the day before, with another bottle of disinfectant. 

K., the woman who brought us to the shelter, is always in high demand. As soon as we got there, she was swept away by one of the residents needing her assistance. Mel and I were left on our own, which normally wouldn’t have been an issue, except an older women approached us and started pointing at my feet - saying something in Spanish. I didn’t know if she was a volunteer or a resident, all I knew was that she was clearly trying to communicate something very important to me.

Had I not done it right? Had I missed a step? My heart began to race and I froze, not wanting to contaminate anything any further until I figured out what I had done wrong. Another younger woman walked over, who we’d met the day before. She’s 17, and we were told she’d just finished up her nursing studies. I looked to her for some sign as to what I should do. Her face gave me no answers, so I turned back to Mel. “What did I forget? Did I do it wrong? WHERE IS K.?!?” Mel was as lost as I was, and that’s when the young nursing student said, “She like... she like... your shoe... where did you get?”

The older woman then removed her own sandal to show me the hard plastic toe separator. Suddenly, we were speaking the same language because I HATE those too!!! I prefer the fabric kind that don’t rub against your toe pits. Yes, I said toe pits. It’s a thing! Ha!

Immediately, a wave of relief washed over me as I began explaining to them, probably in too many words for the younger woman to translate, that I’d just stopped at Walmart that morning, while we were still on the American side, to pick them up. 

See, I’d come down to El Paso in a dusty old pair of Vans, I knew I should’ve packed my flip flops, but alas, I didn’t. And after traveling the streets of Juarez the previous day, my Vans had rubbed awful blisters on both my pinky toes. 

Mel, my partner-in-crime, had been telling me for a month now that I needed new shoes since I’d been slowing her down at all of the protests we’d attended in May. 

“My feet were just made for flip flops, Mel! I don’t know what else to tell you.”

Mel is sensible and wears sensible shoes, but I’ve never been sensible and flip flops are life. 

I told the two women I would find her a pair next time I was at the store. I’m not sure if they were able to understand my words, but a few hours later we needed to go pick up some diapers for a family with a newborn that just moved into the shelter.

Because there was a recent outbreak which shut down a number of factories where people earned their livelihoods, Mexico is taking this virus VERY seriously. So seriously, that only one person is allowed in their grocery stores at a time. I told K. I could just give her my card and PIN number, but she said she’d feel more comfortable if I just ran in myself, so I did, even though I was completely incapable of communicating with anyone. 

An officer at the front of the store took my temperature, squirted a dollop of sanitizer into my hands, and gave me a small paper number to use when I checked out - I guess to confirm I’d gone through the proper decontamination steps upon entry. As I turned the corner to find the diapers, there is was... a glorious display of my beloved flip flops.

I searched through the racks mad at myself for not getting a better look at the woman’s shoe size, before finding a nice comfy pair that looked like they’d fit just right. 

When we returned to the shelter, I carried in the diapers and a few other bags of small knickknacks and toys we’d picked up for the kids. And then I saw the woman from earlier and remembered the flip flops! I was so excited to give them to her and she was just as happy to receive them. 

We’d told K. about our funny foible early, and how that was the woman the shoes were for. Then she told me who she was. She was a resident of the shelter who had survived a horrific amount of sexual abuse and because of it suffered from Fistula. Fistula is debilitating, and the only other time I’d really heard much about it was in regards to women who’d suffered nearly lethal rapes in the Congo.

(You can learn more about Traumatic Fistula here:

My heart broke for her. We might be walking in the same literal shoes today, but I can’t begin to imagine what she went through on her journey to seek asylum. 

So many of the women we met had similar stories, some with (physical) scars more visible than others because “torture porn” is taking a hold in Juárez and these women have been subjected to things most of us in the states can’t even fathom.

But their smiles, flip flop discomforts, hopes and hearts are still just as real as our own. There wasn’t a woman or child there that hadn’t suffered seemingly insurmountable challenges, but yet they were all still standing. Still persevering, still helping those with whom they shared these walls. 

“We’ve been given much so that we can give much.” That is the motto I live my life by, and it’s clearly a motto this amazing woman lives her life by as well, as she’s now helping care for others alongside those who care for her.

The Intersection

TW: Assault

We got out of the car near where 16 de Septiembre meets Constitucion.
Her face was there. Painted on the wall nearby, her eyes a flat blue, and dozens of bodyless eyes were floating around her head. The words "te observan" were written at the top. "We're watching."
Karina told us it was a painting by Isabel Cabanillas, one of her best friends. She was an artist who worked as part of several collectives focused on protecting the women of Juarez. They worked tirelessly to counter the femicide that had taken root in their city over the last few decades. They also acted as guides to migrants, showing them to the places where they could access resources and safe lodging. She painted clothing to sell in order to raise money for them. She kept a neighborhood watch. She was doing the work. 
And then, last January, Isabel was shot in the head and chest and left to die in the streets she fought to protect.
She became another pink rectangle with a black cross. A symbol that haunts their community and covers many of the telephone poles, signaling the spots where other woman were found dead. 
The community that she worked so hard to protect was, and remains, rightfully outraged at her loss. 
Marches were held. 
Crowds of women shut down the Santa Fe bridge, under the shadow of another large cross with the toe tags of all of the murdered women. 
They wrapped black bandannas around their faces and chanted "ni una mas." Not one more.
Across the street from "Te Observan" is a painting of Isabel. Purple hair, a big smile. At various spots around the area, purple stencils of an eye boxes in by the words "Isa Vive" can be found. Isa lives. 
She is still doing the work. "They didn't kill all of us,” Karina, explained. 
Forming a triangle with "Te Observan" and the painting of Isabel is ‘Panaderia Rezizte.’ The Resist Bakery. 
In it 'Yorch' and his wife are baking bread. Gorgeous loaves and sweet buns made from recipes that were passed down from his grandfather. They sell the items they bake to raise money, and they donate fresh bread to migrant shelters. They were close friends with Isabel and the bike she was riding when she was killed is placed in a position of honor above the front door. 
“You have to eat, right?" Yorch told us. "This is a basic need. So we’re making bread." The bakery has the electricity of big things packed into small spaces.
The day before we went to the intersection, a man named Omar picked us up from the border and we talked with Karina in his van while he purchased lumber to take to a build site. When we got there, we helped haul the lumber to the side of a small hut, where they were building lodging for migrant families waiting for their immigration court date. 
Small children were patiently being shown how to add just the right amount of water to dusty clay in order to make adobe for the walls of the hut. Just before it was time for us to leave, they finally got to the part they'd been working for - the moment when they could take off their shoes and squish the water into the clay with their toes. The families who will live in that small home will probably never hear the laughter of the kids who helped build the walls that are surrounding them, but I hope they will feel it. It's not a mansion, it will not have air conditioning, memory foam mattresses, or cable television. But it will provide some measure of protection in a world full of agencies, weather, and human beings that almost always do not. It will give them a sense of home and dignity while they wait for their futures to unfold. 
It's the communities of Juarez - Karina, Yorch, Omar, their families, and the hundreds of others using art, and bread, and mud, and sweat, and laughter to heal the brokenness of this world. 
Isa vive. Isa lives. 

~By NWF Board Member, Melissa Miles

Monday, July 6, 2020


TW: Sexual Assault

Everywhere... they’re everywhere.
Black crosses on pink rectangles cover Juárez.
It’s impossible to drive down any street in the city without seeing at least one... often you see a dozen or more at a time. Telephone pole after telephone pole after telephone pole, covered in the crosses. Some are bright pink with fresh paint, others are faded and peeling. People walk passed them without much notice because they’re so common... they’re so.... everywhere.

But each cross represents a life.
Each cross represents the spot where a woman‘s body was found.
“They will often target migrant women,” my friend K told me... probably in an attempt to make me feel safe. “Because unlike you, they can’t be traced - they know no one will be looking for them.”
Many of these women leave their countries of origin in an attempt to find a safer land, but on their journey the dangers only increase.
When they get to the US border, if they’re not granted immediately asylum, they’re given a court date. Often times it’s at least a year away. And if their asylum is denied all together, they are stuck.
Women from Guatemala, Venezuela, or Ecuador have no way to legally work even in Mexico, without a visa, so they’re pushed into other ways of earning the money they need to survive.... to feed their children.
This frequently leads to sex work. To abuse. To the “torture porn” Juarez is becoming famous for. And more times than not, to death... Because in the eyes of their killers these women are nothing more than property to be used and disposed of.
And this dehumanization spreads. It’s not just migrant women who are property to these predators, it‘s poor Mexican women too, because everyone knows their families don’t have the money necessary to seek justice.
Their value is only contingent on their wealth or documentation - two things so many of these women don’t have - making their lives expendable in the eyes of the killers and the government.
A large cross is on display at the entrance back to the American side of the border. It was originally erected for 8 women who were killed, but has stayed because that was just the beginning.
The black beams rest against a large piece of pink wood. Railroad spikes now surround the cross. Numerous tags are attached to the spikes that flap and twist in the wind. When I first saw the memorial I didn’t give it much thought.
I had no idea what those tags were.
Then K told us they were the toe tags of the murdered women. A group of activists requests them from the morgues and then they hang them on the spikes.
Far too many read, “No Identificada.”
When a murderer is caught, the woman’s tag is removed.
But far too many tags will remain forever on that cross... the only trace left of so many women’s stolen lives.