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.

"Others said it was bad," Maria Hernandez says. "But I thought he got what he deserved."

The most impressive thing about Karina Vasquez is her age. It isn't deep laugh lines or lack of personal care that makes her look decades older than her 27 years. She just seems tired.

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.

She is tired. She doesn't sleep at night, instead holding vigil over her children, who she believes are being sexually molested by her husband. "I walk around like a zombie because I don't sleep," she says.

After the second time her son told her about the molestation, she loaded the family in the car and left. They drove around for hours but had nowhere to go.

Estrada was the first person Karina confided in about her "problema." She told Estrada that going back to Mexico seemed the only option. With the whole family undocumented, Karina worried that alerting the authorities would get the family deported. Estrada offered to buy plane tickets back to Guadalajara for Karina and her children.

Much of the funding for the Lassen group has come out of Estrada's own pocket. "Some of us are poor, but we're still philanthropists," she says.

Estrada is preparing grant proposals to get funding for the group so that it can sustain itself and expand into other schools. A plane ticket home is not something she can afford to offer every woman in trouble.

Victims like Karina are a concern of Donna Irwin, program administrator for the Governor's Office for Domestic Violence Prevention. This summer, the Department of Justice and the American Bar Association asked Irwin to identify a team to address the issue of battered immigrant women. Irwin says the initiative is focusing mainly on southern Arizona because, unlike Maricopa County, the region has more of the necessary social services in place to help immigrant victims.

"I would caution you to raise the awareness of victims and not have the essential resources in place to assist them -- it would be creating more harm than help," Irwin says. "As sad as that sounds, it is the reality."

Estrada says she believes that one person can challenge that reality. If the culturally sensitive domestic-abuse resources aren't in place in Maricopa County, then a new way has to be found to help these women.

"Just putting a Band-Aid over this area -- what kind of answer is that?" she says. "What I'm doing is getting these women out of the box. The Governor's Office is still in the box."

But one woman can't address the "problemas" of this entire community. When Karina changed her mind about her trip back to Mexico, Estrada admitted that she needs domestic abuse professionals to better help Karina and her children. Still, she maintains that keeping these women in the dark while the Governor's Office gathers resources is the wrong approach.

"What I can do is get them to see themselves as having value as human beings and as women," Estrada says. "If they can see they have value, acknowledge that there is domestic violence, perhaps they can muster the guts to say, 'I don't deserve this.'"

And once they decide they don't deserve it -- what then?

"As this awareness is raised, it will precipitate individuals coming forward and looking for support," Irwin says. "If we have not done the preparation, we will be losing victims."

Virgie Estrada has a vision for the Lassen group: to develop a structured curriculum for the class and identify women in the group who can become "promotoras," or community workers. These women will be trained to conduct this class with other groups of women throughout the Hispanic community.

One of the potential promotoras she has identified is Angelina Lopez, who describes the Lassen class as an addiction.

"I'll lack sleep to come," she says. "It's like you're always looking for more, and on the days I can't come, I need to know what I missed, who went, what happened. That's why it's like an addiction. You've got to have more, and the more you get, the more you want."

Addiction is a familiar concept for Lopez, whose husband and father both had alcohol problems. The Lassen group helped support her when her husband went to jail for drunk driving and a probation violation.

"At first I worried and cried a lot, and I had migraines really bad. Now, I'm only five-foot-three, but I feel like six feet."

Lopez was inspired by the group to get a job outside the home for the first time. Now she works two jobs, pays the bills and takes care of her two children by herself.

"What this group and Virgie has taught me is to stand up for myself and just continue on," she says. "I was always dependent on him. Financially and everything. He never let me work."

As the only woman in the group who isn't a Mexican national, Lopez has certain advantages. She is a citizen and speaks English. There are other differences. She's the only one in the group with tattoos, for instance. However, the similarities between Lopez and the other women are striking.

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