By Morgan Smith (Law’66)
It’s dawn on New Year’s Day, and I’m crossing the border just west of Ciudad Juárez (Juarez City), México. In dawn’s semi-darkness I can see the silhouettes of five soldiers at the checkpoint. Fortunately, they don’t stop me and inspect my car, which is stuffed with used clothing that I’ll be giving away.
The skyline is turning pink and there’s a pounding, frigid wind from the west. My destination is Vision in Action, a private mental asylum in the desert about 20 miles southwest of Juárez founded by José Antonio Galván, “El Pastor,” a charismatic ex addict-turned street preacher who experienced a conversion some 16 years ago. He founded the asylum to help the mentally ill of Juárez, a city of about 1.3 million on the northern edge of the state of Chihuahua, (no one knows the exact population of Juárez because thousands have fled to avoid the rampant violence there). There are only 11 psychiatrists in the whole city, so mental health services are almost non-existent.
Usually I leave Santa Fe, N.M., where I live, drive five hours to tiny Palomas, on the Mexican side of the border 70 miles west of Juárez, and visit several orphanages. On day two I cross the border at Santa Teresa, just a few miles west of Juárez, to visit the asylum or go from El Paso, Texas, into central Juárez to see other programs, such as a Catholic-run food bank. In addition to telling the stories of these unique people, I simply enjoy being with them.
I met Pastor Galván through the author Charles Bowden, who wrote Murder City, Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields (Nation Books). We’ve become good friends; in fact, he just included me in one of his paintings entitled Angels of the Desert together with Bowden, the historian Molly Molloy and the writer Julián Cardona (see the end of this piece). I’ve come to know many of Galván’s patients and enjoy being with them and watching them progress or, sadly in some cases, regress. In a way, it’s a throwback to my days as a public defender and prison rights attorney after graduating from CU law school.
Visiting the asylum on New Year’s Day symbolizes to me both the tremendous pain and the promise of México. What will this New Year bring? Will the presidential elections in July mean less violence? More jobs? Some semblance of social programs for the poor? Imagine trying to survive in Juárez where the minimum wage is about $4.32 a day and utility costs are higher than in El Paso. No wonder young people join gangs and become carjackers, kidnappers, drug dealers and “sicarios” or assassins.
Now there’s movement at the asylum – people preparing meals, washing trays, gathering firewood in the desert, hauling freshly washed blankets outside in a wheelbarrow so that they can be hung up to dry. Caring for 100 patients is a staggering amount of work, most of which is done by the better functioning patients. Although they are under the supervision of Elvira, the cook, or Josué Rosales who came here as a patient and is now the second in command, many of them simply wake up and go to work, just as we who are not mentally ill do.
Out back there are eight pigs in a corral. Memo, one of the kitchen workers feeds them onions. Little do they know what’s coming.
Then Josué says that a patient named Victoriano escaped last night. Why would he leave? For many, this asylum is like a home or family. Besides, where would he go? Outside there is nothing but desert. Several other patients are in cells because of bi-polar outbursts. Benito Torres, for example, shows me his drawings and asks to be photographed with a picture of his girlfriend, Claudia. But it’s just a picture of a woman he cut out of a magazine.
Pastor Galvan calls these patients “tesoros escondidos” or hidden treasures. He is correct in believing that they can improve. Last summer, I was there when the police brought Marta to the asylum, ragged, filthy and totally berserk. Now she has recovered and gone home to her family. And Josué, the second in command, previously served sentences in several California prisons.
Now Elvira arrives with her two “grandchildren,” Hector, 14, and Yeira, 13. Abandoned by their parents, they live with Elvira and spend their days at the asylum when they’re not in school. Elvira starts sharpening several old knives and says she is going to kill a pig. Soon a crew gathers to catch it. It consists of “El Cholo” who is considered dangerous but has been let out of his cell, Gaspar who dresses as a soldier although he has never been in the Army, Juan Carlos in a silvery jacket that says Alabama on it and four others.
They jump into the corral with a lasso but the sow eludes them. As law students at CU, David Dominick (Law’66) and I once claimed that we were the University of Colorado rodeo team, entered an intercollegiate rodeo and immediately got bucked off. Maybe I still have some rodeo skills and can catch the sow, I think. Then I imagine it hitting the end of the rope, flinging me into the sand and decide to stick with my camera.
Finally they pin the sow down. “Pooom!” Elvira drives the knife in. Squealing and bloody, it finally dies. Then they lift it onto a table and Juan Carlos pours boiling water on it. The others take knives and begin peeling off the bristles. Yeira, Elvira’s granddaughter, is working harder than anyone, her hair blowing in the wind, her two hands gripping a knife.
Heading home a few hours later, the whole day seems surreal – driving some 400 miles to watch mentally ill patients kill a pig in the wind and dust of the Mexican desert. What I felt, however, is elation and gratitude. I saw Galván’s “hidden treasures” working as a team or family, overcoming their poverty and illnesses, and surviving their government’s failures. I also saw two astonishing young people, Hector and Yeira. Maybe they are the hope of México.
Morgan Smith (Law’66) is a former state representative and commissioner of agriculture from Colorado. He lives in Santa Fe, N.M., but travels to the border every month, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.