JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) – The saying goes “if walls could talk, what stories they would tell.”
The earthen and cinder-block confines of Good Samaritan shelter remain silent, but the woman who has looked after thousands of cold, hungry, fearful migrants there for the past several years is ready to tell their tales.
Martha Alicia Esquivel Sanchez hopes the manuscript she has just completed will change people’s minds about migrants who come to the U.S.-Mexico border and shed light on the suffering they endure along the way.
It’s about men and women who saw their friends die before their eyes, children who learned what it’s like to go without food for days and mothers who grieved the loss of a child. It’s also about miracles coming about through faith and patience.
“I have seen and heard so much that I could sit down and write 500 pages. They are stories that break your heart and that people need to hear,” said Esquivel, first a volunteer and, up until she couldn’t go on any longer, head caretaker of one of the largest migrant shelters in Juarez.
A witness to border history
Sitting in the tiny living room of a West Juarez home – a few steps forward and you’re in the kitchen, three steps to the right and you’re on the bed – Esquivel explains she identifies with the migrants’ sense of estrangement and loss.
As a child, she was raised in an orphanage after her older sister determined that she could not protect her. Her life came crashing as an adult after the loss of a federal government job. She sought refuge in a Juarez Methodist church called Good Shepherd.
The church at the foot of the mountains ran a children’s community kitchen. Esquivel began volunteering there. She cooked, she cleaned, she served and she talked about the Word of God. Then the migrants started to arrive.
“At first, it was just Mexican males. They were weary and they were hungry. They were looking for a place to stay. We always told them not to trust the coyotes (smugglers)” and instead trust God, she said.
The community kitchen added sleeping spaces and that’s how Good Samaritan was born. Esquivel settled into a routine during the first eight years of her volunteer work. The massive migrant caravans that came across from Central America in the fall of 2018 forced volunteers to become miracle workers.
Esquivel remembers the day that tested her conscience and planted the idea of sharing the migrants’ stories with the world.
It was a cold November in 2018 when Pastor Juan Fierro and his wife left to attend church training in Mexico City. The couple left Esquivel in charge of the shelter.
The pastor had told his caretaker not to let in more than 40 people because the refuge was nearing capacity. But migrants kept knocking at the gate as temperatures dropped and the wind blew mercilessly.
Esquivel made a telephone call and she got permission to let in as many as 67. When a new group of 13 adults came to the gate, she had to tell them to go because there was no more room. The migrants promised they would sleep on the floor, but even the patio was getting crowded.
“I was about to turn out the lights and I looked outside. They were (huddled together) and holding on to one of the flags (at the gate),” she said. And then she saw the children, about 20 of them. She prayed and then she let them all in.
One child approached her, tugged at her skirt and told her, “Sister, I have not eaten in four days.” As she proceeded to feed the kids, a father came to her and told her, “I have not eaten in five.”
Those are the stories Esquivel believes people in the United States and in Mexico should hear before shutting their hearts to the migrants. She has not traveled much north of the border, but Esquivel has seen plenty of bigotry in Juarez to know Mexicans also need to be more open-minded.
“One time we took a van full of migrants to (a hospital) and a cab driver yelled at us saying to take those filthy (expletive) away. I faced up to him and told him, ‘Do you know they volunteered to come donate blood here for a sick patient?’ The man was ashamed. He apologized,” she said.
On other occasions, before the state of Chihuahua and the municipal administration of Mayor Armando Cabada donated security cameras and provided night patrols for the shelter, neither the migrants nor Esquivel felt completely safe at Good Samaritan.
“Sometimes trucks would drive by and people would yell, ‘We are going to come in and kill everyone here. All these (expletive) migrants you have there.’ We were there, too. We could only call on God to protect us,” she said.
Later, a man in a van with the logo of the Juarez Airport came to the gate. The driver said he was bringing nine Cubans, but Esquivel could see no one inside when he opened the vehicle’s door. “We almost opened the gate, but we didn’t. Maybe he was there to (kidnap) our migrants. People come up with all sorts of ways to try to harm others,” she said.
Breaking cultural and language barriers
In the last three years, Esquivel has developed a knack to comfort the migrants who come from Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East with emotional wounds so deep they hesitate to open up.
She tells the story of struggling to talk to an African woman, both attempting to communicate in broken English. That dialogue was important because she became the first non-Mexican woman ever to stay at the shelter and Esquivel had to make sure she was safe. Somehow they managed. Esquivel found out she fled after doing missionary work.
“We try to make ourselves understood as best we can. One time a volunteer came up to tell me a Brazilian woman was insulting her,” Esquivel recalled. . But the word the woman was using — “faca” — referred to needing a knife to cut some vegetables.
Pastor Fierro has facilitated a learning space where children from various countries gather together for a few hours to read, write and spend time together even if they all don’t speak the same language.
Esquivel has worked with the women, in particular, to teach them serenity through weaving. Well into her middle years, She has become quite a seamstress.
“Whatever the situation they experienced, I tell them to have faith, that God will help them. They need to leave everything in the hands of God,” she said. “Many come here sad, depressed, hopeless. They come with fever, wounded. When it gets cold it’s when more of them come sick. They left their countries many months ago, and their money ran out.”
Children lost in the desert, friends eaten by jaguars
One of the stories in the manuscript involves a Latin American couple who was traveling with two friends through the Darien Gap in Panama.
The jungle terrain, heat and insects were hard enough but there were also wild beasts to avoid and hills to climb. It was on one of those muddy hills that the couple’s two friends – also a couple – slipped and fell. By the time the first couple was able to locate their friends, a jaguar they had avoided a few hours earlier was feasting on their broken bodies.
Another account tells of a mother who set out from Venezuela with three children and lost her 6-year-old son on the way. The family was being led by a smuggler over the desert, but a windstorm kicked up the sand and the child was lost.
“She turned to God. She prayed that she be able to find him,” Esquivel said. “God took pity on this woman. […] A man later heard her story, and told her where to find her child, for someone had picked him up to help him.”
She has heard plenty of stories of migrants seeing their friends die. One Honduran youth spoke to her about a multitude trying to cross a river at the Mexico-Guatemala border and witnessing drownings.
Helping each migrant carry their burden and either serving or making herself available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at Good Samaritan has taken a toll on the 61-year-old Esquivel. Not long ago, she asked Pastor Fierro for a leave of absence. During that three-month respite, she managed to complete her manuscript, “Good Samaritan: The Footprints Left By Migrants.”
Now she is looking for a publisher and she has already asked someone to translate it into English.
“I would like for people here and in the United States to read the memories that so many migrants that have stayed at Good Samaritan have shared with us,” Esquivel said. “That would make them happy.”
Other than the memories, Esquivel said she often gets telephone calls from migrants who made it to the United States, are working, and are in the process of securing asylum. They tell her they’re grateful for her help.
Esquivel tells them it wasn’t her who helped them, but God.
The former shelter caretaker is looking for help to get her book published. She asks that anyone with ties in the publishing industry call her at (011-52) 656-280-6865.