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.

Raquel moves to the pedicure station and removes one of her sandals, revealing a tan line where the straps crossed her foot. A white woman across from Raquel asks if this is her first pedicure. Raquel sits stoically, struggling to not look confused about why someone is touching her feet.

In the hairstyling room, Pineda poofs up Raquel's flat hair, and at finish she looks different. Her toenails are painted red, and her heaviness seems to have lifted.

Estrada disregards Pineda's advice and takes Raquel to the mall, where she buys her a red dress, new shoes and underwear. She makes sure to remove the price tags before Raquel goes home so her husband won't see. Raquel shows up at Lassen the next week wearing her new dress, showing off her painted toes to the group.

Gloria Herrera came with her two daughters to join her husband in Phoenix. Of her passage through the Nogales tunnel she says, "It was ugly."
Paolo Vescia
Gloria Herrera came with her two daughters to join her husband in Phoenix. Of her passage through the Nogales tunnel she says, "It was ugly."

For Emilia Arteaga, the day the sex educator came to Lassen was an awakening. She and her much older husband are always fighting about sex. He gets mad when she isn't interested. "I feel like a used piece of furniture," she says. "When we have sex, I don't feel anything. I thought maybe it was because of my illness [she has had polio since childhood], but when we first met, I felt something. Once he started hitting me . . . nothing. I thought maybe it was all in my head, but my body feels nothing."

Emilia is starting to realize that her illness may not be the problem.

"I didn't want to have sex with him when he was drunk, and he would force me," she says. "I'm conscious now that it is wrong. Before, I stayed quiet about it."

When she came to the U.S., Emilia says, she began to see that many women and men seem to have the same worth.

"My husband says if he had come here alone he wouldn't marry a woman from here because they do whatever they want. That opened my eyes. I always thought it was normal to be treated badly, but when you come from there and see the difference here, it's not normal."

Emilia still has trouble breathing from the time her husband broke her nose. She feels like she always has a sinus infection. She says that after that incident, she considered leaving. Her 9-year-old daughter begged her to stay. "She said, 'Who will pay the rent, who will get us food?'"

Since Emilia has been going to the group, her husband says she has changed, that she wants to be like the women here. Before, she wouldn't leave the house without permission. Now she goes. She doesn't cry anymore when they fight, and when he threatens to leave, she doesn't beg him to stay.

"I know now if he leaves me I will have the support of the group," she says.

Emilia says the group is the first place she's felt listened to. Now she stands up for herself. And she is teaching her daughter to do the same.

"I told my daughter to speak up for herself and tell her father what she feels about him. Even if he hits her -- even if he hates her -- because there is a price for staying quiet."

Virgie Estrada draws a house on the board, with arrows pointing out from it in four directions. Next to the house, she writes the words "two miles."

She explains to the class that most of them never travel outside a two-mile radius of their homes. In many cases, the distance may be more like two blocks. For some, prior to coming to this class, the distance was closer to 20 feet.

In an attempt to break the isolation, Estrada loads the group on a school bus for an outing to The Farm at South Mountain, then a movie. Anita worries her son will have to use the bathroom at the theater. Estrada explains that there are rest rooms there. Maria hasn't been to a movie in 10 years.

At The Farm, the women wander through the park together, looking at all the various plants. They know all the names. Many of them are not from the city, but come from an agricultural background. This place feels familiar.

Terri Nacke-Siwinski runs Garden Territory, a small shop at The Farm that will be holding classes in organic farming. Forever bargaining for these women, Estrada asks about the possibility of having them volunteer at the shop in exchange for free classes. Estrada and Nacke-Siwinski exchange cards.

The group gets back onto the bus and heads to the movie theater. They wait en masse at the bottom of the escalator as Estrada buys the tickets. The theater workers look a bit confused as more than 20 Mexican women, children in tow, descend upon the theater to see Girlfight in the middle of the day.

The group fills up the back half of the theater. They don't understand most of the dialogue of the movie, about a young Latina boxer from Brooklyn's notorious Red Hook housing project. The boxer ends up in the final featherweight match fighting her Cuban boyfriend. But the group gets most riled up when the character beats up her abusive father.

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