The Broken Promised Land

Mexican women crossing the border find themselves scared and alone in a new land. Now there is one place they can turn for help.

Maria Hernandez was 18 when a young man filled her head with exciting stories about the world that awaited them to the north. She slipped across the border with her first love, leaving behind her family's Guadalajara farm and the dirt floor where she slept with 12 siblings under one blanket.

Emilia Arteaga was 16 when she married a man 20 years her elder. She was raised to believe that a man is always more important than a woman. When he came north, he expected her to follow, and she did.

After watching a video about illegal immigration, Virgie Estrada leads a group discussion about each woman's passage to the U.S.
photos by Paolo Vescia
After watching a video about illegal immigration, Virgie Estrada leads a group discussion about each woman's passage to the U.S.
Ana Maria Branham, HIV/AIDS educator for the county gives a presentation to the group about safe sex.
Paolo Vescia
Ana Maria Branham, HIV/AIDS educator for the county gives a presentation to the group about safe sex.

Gloria Herrera prayed to San Pedro before slipping into the Nogales "tunnel of death," with a young heroin addict as her guide. She was determined to reunite with her husband, who had left to work a year earlier and never returned home.

The three women ended their journeys in Phoenix, and their struggles began. In Mexico, they had lived with noses pressed against the glass, suffering dreams of the promised land. But across the border, they have found isolation and loneliness they never could have anticipated.

More and more, illegal immigration into the U.S. is taking on a feminine face. Over the past decade, the number of female Mexican immigrants apprehended by the INS in the Tucson sector alone has increased eight times over, and those are just the ones the border patrol catches.

The women are coming to join husbands who promised to be gone for only a year but found the money too attractive to leave. Others arrive in search of a better life for themselves and their children. Nearly all leave behind family they may never see again.

What they don't leave behind is the concept that a woman's place is at home with the family, subservient to her husband at all costs. Here, their husbands make more money than they ever imagined. Their children become Americans before their eyes.But the women become invisible, shut up in their houses, unable to communicate, idle. In the worst cases, they suffer extreme domestic abuse, and they suffer it in silence because they have nowhere to turn for help.

So they are turning to each other. This past year, Maria, Emilia and Gloria joined a group of immigrant mothers in the parent center at V.H. Lassen Elementary in Phoenix. It is the only place they have found where they can discuss everything from the INS to pap smears to abusive husbands.

Their conversations are marked with a sense of loss. There are echoes of fear and frustration and disillusionment. They are waking up to the American compromise.

"We came here for a better life," Gloria Herrera says. "He's better. I'm worse."


A larger-than-life-size photo of a disease-ridden, uncircumcised penis flashes on the overhead projection screen.

"Parece una chimichanga -- no?" asks Ana Maria Branham, HIV/AIDS prevention program manager for the Maricopa County Department of Public Health. A sly smile crosses Branham's lips as she surveys the room. A giggle begins to spread as the group realizes the penis does, in fact, bear an uncanny resemblance to a chimichanga.

This is potentially a tough crowd for a sex educator. A roomful of staunchly Catholic immigrants, raised in a culture in which sex ed consisted of "don't." Branham attacks the room with a feisty sense of humor, straight talk and a fixed pair of eyes that unequivocally state: There is no shame here.

Branham, who emigrated from Ecuador 30 years ago, has been a sex educator within the monolingual Hispanic community for 12 years. She says these Mexican women gathered in the Lassen parent center are unique.

"I think this group is more open to talking about taboos," Branham says. "It usually takes me a bit of time. This is a community where 'We don't do this.' But they are open. I was really surprised."

Emilia, a 35-year-old mother of four, raises her hand and says she has never had an orgasm. "I thought maybe I was close once, but that was after I drank a beer," she says.

From an armchair in the back of the room, a raspy voice offers some helpful advice. "Try drinking three," it says.

The room again erupts in laughter. This is the dry humor of Virgie Estrada, and it is how she wins them over. Make a person laugh at something she is embarrassed to even think about, and you have her attention. You have her confianza. Trust.

Estrada has spent the past six months earning the trust of this group of Mexican mothers, preparing them for sensitive themes like sexually transmitted diseases. What started out as a timid group of uncertain women has evolved into what they now call their second family.

And nobody seems to be exactly sure how it happened.

"They are learning to become self-sufficient, to decide their own destinies and make decisions," Estrada says.

When the school opened a parent center in 1999, it was open to all parents. A group of Mexican mothers showed up. A teacher's aide at Lassen asked Estrada to come in and teach a class on self-esteem. There, she met Ansanett Del Rio, coordinator of the center. After class, Del Rio called Estrada and told her the women were asking for her to come back. Estrada agreed, and has been donating her time and money ever since.

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