After watching a video about illegal immigration, Virgie Estrada leads a group discussion about each woman's passage to the U.S.
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

The Broken Promised Land

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.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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.

She says before her husband went to jail, she spent most of her time shut up in the house, feeling like a maid. She kept her problems to herself. The Lassen group is the first group of girlfriends she has ever had. She and Maria Hernandez live a few doors down from each other, but never spoke before meeting at Lassen.

"My husband never allowed me to have friends," she says. "I left all my friends for him."

Lopez says when her husband gets out of jail, things will be different.

"I gave him enough chances, and now it's up to him to change," she says.

Her husband is not a citizen, and Lopez says if he gets deported because of his record, she and the family won't be going with him.

"I'm not going to live in Mexico now that I know I can do it by myself."

The water drainage tunnel is about one meter by five meters and provides underground passage from Nogales to the north. At dusk, people slip like rodents into a hole in the curb just large enough to fit a human body. What happens inside the "tunnel of death" is the stuff of urban legend, and a nightmare Gloria Herrera relives in memory.

"Once we were inside, [the coyote] tried to take advantage of me," she says. "He told me to take off my clothes. I said, 'For what? What are you going to do to me?' I told him if he harms me my husband will go to the police."

Gloria worried that if she and her two daughters didn't join her husband, he would find another woman. When she thinks back on it now, she says nothing was worth the 40-minute scramble through that tunnel.

"My husband didn't understand that I suffered a lot getting here," she says. "I felt he didn't appreciate what I sacrificed in order to be with him."

Gloria seems younger than her 31 years, with her purple toenail polish and childish giggle. It isn't just the innocence of someone who would put her life in the hands of a junkie on a prayer to San Pedro. There is something in her eyes that shows she is full of life. And bored to death here in the United States.

She says the hardest part about living here now is accepting that she may never go back to Mexico. She explains that every time her husband brings home a new piece of furniture, she feels one step further from home.

"Everybody but me seems to know we're not going back," Gloria says.

Initially, her husband promised her they could return to Jalisco after one year of working and saving money. Their one-year anniversary passed in October, and he said just one more year.

"I'm thinking about our future," her husband, Eduardo, says. "It's a very American way of thinking -- to plan ahead."

Eduardo had his own difficulties adjusting to life here. He says the pace is much faster and he has to work more hours and more days to keep up. He worries about not spending enough time with his family, and about his daughters growing up too fast -- growing up American. "It's not freedom," he says. "It's liberalism."

Still, Eduardo can make more money here than he ever dreamed of, and his family is no longer sharing a one-room house with relatives. He admits that things were harder for Gloria initially because she doesn't speak English or drive. Also, he prefers that she stay home and raise their two daughters. However, Eduardo says he, too, suffers from a lack of community.

"Mexicans aren't united here," he says.

He hears stories about neighbors reporting each other to the INS. Often when he asks another Mexican a question in Spanish, he or she replies in English, pretending not to understand. Gloria, he says, has made friends faster than he has.

Recently, Gloria has not been able to find a ride to Lassen, and she lives too far to walk. But when the class first started, she was a regular.

"The first place I went was the school, and little by little, I grew to trust it," Gloria says. "But it was hard. I just wanted to stay inside and try to feel as if I were in Mexico."

As time passes, Gloria is adjusting to life here. She says when she first arrived, she felt less independent than she felt in Mexico. Her husband performed family duties that were typically hers. He had to do the shopping because she didn't understand the labels, and the laundry because she couldn't figure out how to work the machines.

"The washing machines were always my hands," she says.

Gloria's parents are aging, and she's accepted that she may not see them again before they die. More than anything, she misses home and family.

"You know how it smells here when it rains? It smells like that all the time where I come from. I miss the climate, I miss the plants. Of course I miss my family. I miss the satisfaction of looking around me and seeing my family, knowing they are there and feeling safe."

Seated around the table in the parent center at Lassen, the women share nostalgic stories.

"I haven't seen my family in eight years," Mari says. "For me, this is my second family. I decided to make my own family."

Mari says the first time she crossed, the coyote left her and her husband in the desert in the middle of June. They walked for more than 12 hours without stopping, and Mari lost her baby. Mari says the difficulties she had getting here are the reason she doesn't go back.

Most of the women agree they had no idea how difficult it would be to get here. They also agree that they will always consider themselves Mexican -- even if they never leave the United States. For all, being in this group has been an awakening.

"It's like going into a dark room and lighting candles," Angelina Lopez says. "We are learning to be ourselves and not hide."

Estrada sits at the head of the table and surveys the room.

"Are you saying you have a voice now?" She asks.

Heads nod.

From the back of the room, one of the older women speaks up.

"We're not hens anymore," she says. "We can be eagles."


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