By Monica Alonzo
By Stephen Lemons
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Dulce Paloma Baltazar Pedraza
By Ray Stern
By Pete Kotz
By Monica Alonzo
By New Times
All the women in the group have children or grandchildren who attend the school, and all live in the surrounding South Phoenix neighborhood. They range in age from 25 to 75, and live well below the poverty line. On average, they live on less than $300 a week for a family of four. Many are undocumented; some have been here for months, others for years. With few exceptions, their education level does not exceed grade school.
"This is one of those segments of the community that very rarely has an opportunity for something like this. It's new to all of them. Even the concept of a group of women coming together and discovering they're not alone," Estrada says.
The school is the place to reach these women, because they walk their children here, and most say it is one place they feel safe.
Estrada brings in professionals, like Branham, who volunteer their time explaining things like gynecology, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, depression, breast and cervical cancer and social-service resources. But the women also cook for each other, eat, laugh, dance and share the intimate details of their lives.
"From the beginning, I have been completely honest with them. I share life experience. I'm not using a book. I'm making analogies and telling stories," Estrada says.
Many women in the Lassen group say this class has changed their lives.
"They live on a basic level -- they don't take anything for granted," Estrada says. "Their problems can be as simple as 'My kids don't have shoes,' and as complicated as domestic abuse. Their lives are so tragic, so harsh, that what we might call a catastrophe, they call a "problema."
Maria Hernandez isn't able to define what love is. Just that it's what remains -- in spite of everything.
When the 36-year-old mother of five talks about her life, nothing in her voice suggests she fully understands the dramatic nature of her story. It's just what happened. (The names of Maria, and several other women in this story, have been changed because they feared the legal or domestic consequences of speaking openly.)
At the height of his alcoholism, Maria's husband beat her frequently, and he locked her in a room every day for three years. When he returned home each day, he let her out, but if someone came to visit, he banished her again to the bedroom.
"He said, 'I want to put you in a sack so nobody can see you,'" Maria says. "Imagine, all day not looking at anything but these walls."
A white cat sunbathes in the grass outside Maria's small South Phoenix home, and rose bushes line the path leading to a front door bearing a sign that reads: "This is a Catholic house."
The drafty interior is decorated at random. Framed photographs of horses torn from a calendar, '80s-style multicolor posters and crucifixes grace the walls. A plant growing out of a Country Crock butter dish hangs from the ceiling above mismatched table and chairs. Maria sits on the edge of her seat with her fingers splayed out on her thighs, bracing herself as she rocks back and forth. Her hands fly up wildly, drawing pictures in the air, when she begins explaining how life happened to her.
Life on the Guadalajara farm was difficult. There was never any work unless it rained and the crops grew. Maria was always hungry. "It's a poverty you can't imagine," she says. "Even when you see it, you can't believe it."
But Maria wanted to leave her alcoholic father behind as much as the poverty. She wanted out so badly that she was willing to leave with a man she had only known for one month.
In Phoenix, Maria found herself farther away from home than she ever contemplated, but not free from the problems she knew too well. Her new husband had a drinking problem, a jealous streak and a violent temper. She became pregnant shortly after arriving here, and the beatings worsened. Whatever money the family earned went toward alcohol.
"We were hungrier when we got here than we were in Mexico," Maria says. "Without speaking the language, I didn't know how to ask for help."
Maria's husband wouldn't let her talk to the neighbors. "I never talked to any other person. If he found out I had talked to someone else, he would hit me."
So she and her children lived a life of extreme isolation, scared to leave the house for fear of getting lost or in trouble. She says she never so much as walked the kids up the street to the park.
"I spent all day inside with the curtains drawn and doors shut. I didn't want to see the light. I wanted it to be dark -- the sun bothered me. At night I would watch the TV on the Spanish-speaking channel, and when it would go off the air, I would start to get scared."
They lived this hell for 14 years. "Now I know it wasn't right, but I didn't have my family here -- it was just me," she says. "Me and the kids lived so many years without knowing."