By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Maria's children are the only metaphor she has for love. She holds up her hand and explains her five children are like five fingers. It would hurt her equally to lose any one of them. The oldest one is already slipping away into violence and problems at school. "What hurts me most is that my kids saw everything," she says. "I feel guilty for my silence."
For Maria, the trip to Lassen is now the only venture outside the house she makes all week. She drops the kids off at school and goes to the group while her husband is at work. She says going to the class has even helped to alleviate her headaches.
"For me it's a diversion," she says. "I'm always shut up in the house. Sometimes singing, sometimes crying, sometimes dancing. But always enclosed. I felt there was no one. I walked and breathed, but I felt dead. I felt like I was deaf and mute."
Maria says this is the first time she has known where to turn for help.
"All of us who have a husband who drinks, and don't have our family here to help us, we live in a hole. Tons of us live like this and are ashamed to tell anyone."
Virgie Estrada teaches self-esteem in subtle ways. She hands out pieces of white drawing paper and gives each woman a box of crayons. She joins the circle of women and asks each to stand and tell the group who she is. "Some of them are 70 years old and nobody has ever asked them who they are," Estrada says. "I have to give examples of who I think I am so they can understand."
Each woman stands, says her name, how many children she has, where she comes from in Mexico. Estrada questions them about likes and dislikes, ideas, opinions. And they struggle.
After the introductions are completed, Virgie explains what to do with the paper and crayons. "I want you to draw your tree," she says, so the women diligently begin drawing trees. Afterward, they must answer questions about their tree, each question signifying something about their own character. It is a group of grown women who don't know themselves, learning to think about who they might be.
Raquel, a 63-year-old from Zacatecas, draws a tree that is broken and has fallen over. The not-so-subtle symbolism catches Estrada's attention. Raquel says she feels tired, like she would just like to go to bed and sleep for weeks. Estrada tells her what she needs is a day at the beauty shop. Raquel nods in agreement, but doesn't seem to believe it will actually happen.
A few days later, Raquel is working on her second basket of chips and salsa at Poncho's. She has lived in this neighborhood for four years, but has never eaten here. Estrada decided to take her out.
Raquel looks at the menu, confused. She doesn't read or write much, so Estrada orders for her. Estrada gets her to sip a margarita, but Raquel won't order a drink because she says her husband will hit her if she drinks. She didn't tell him where she was going today, just that she had won a prize.
"How is your tree now?" Estrada asks.
"Me siento bien." "I feel okay," Raquel replies in her soft voice.
She is a woman of few words and is the loner of the group.
Raquel has one son in jail and another she hasn't seen in two years. Her older kids still live at home, and she and her husband fight because he wants them out. Raquel has eight children.
After lunch, Estrada drives Raquel to Protégé, the Metro Tech salon where young students learn to become cosmetologists. As she waits for the appointment, Raquel flips through a book of hairstyles. Glossy color photographs of models with hyper-styled hair stare back at her. These women may as well come from a different planet. Raquel looks at the book, then looks up at her image reflected in a full-length mirror across from where she sits.
Raquel's eyes are set close, and her hair lies flat against her face. Her clothes are roomy, leaving her form indefinite. She has the deeply tanned skin of someone who spent years working outside. Raquel runs her hand across the glossy page and taps her finger on the style that pleases her.
A Metro Tech student, 18-year-old Karla Pineda, leads Raquel to the back for a facial. Pineda talks incessantly while applying a greenish mask to Raquel's face. When Pineda finds out Raquel is a monolingual immigrant, she compares her to her aunt -- her father's sister whom he brought up from the rancho.
"Down there, she would talk to everybody and go places. When she got here, she would hardly leave the house. She was scared all the time. I took her to the mall once -- big mistake."
Pineda says the women who come up from Mexico are extremely timid. As she pulls out a warm towel to wipe away the green mask, she says Raquel probably won't even mention if it burns her.