Just past the last junkyard on the curdled fringe of Juárez, Highway 45 begins to cut through open desert. Distant mountains frame scattered abandoned houses. Silent witnesses to thousands of people escaping poverty and violence or those dismissed in shallow graves. The US border is only several miles away. There’s good reason why a mental asylum run by its own patients exists here.
In 1998, ‘El’ Pastor Galvan, a street preacher from Juárez, started to build the asylum in the desert for the dispossessed. He called it Vision and Action.
We started with four rooms – abandoned houses without a roof with 25 patients and two donkeys – the donkeys where utilized to carry firewood to the kitchen. My wife was with me and she was
the one who cooked and cleaned the dishes.
Some years later Juárez photographer Julián Cardona was driving down Highway 45 with his friend, writer Chuck Bowden. Julian was going to take advantage of the late afternoon light to photograph a replica of the English Uffington White Horse etched into a mountain. The horse was paid for by Juárez cartel boss Amado Carrillo Fuentes, so called ‘Lord of the Skies’ because of his fleet of Boeing 727s.
While taking pictures they encountered people wandering the desert, draping mesquite bushes with blankets so as to burn off bloodsuckers in the sun. These people said they ran their own mental asylum nearby. The photographer and writer were amazed at what they found.
Pastor Galvan makes sense of the carnage in his home city by producing paintings. These works speak for themselves. In 2010 Pastor had an exhibition of his work in Salt Lake City, Utah. The paintings are for sale and all proceeds go to the asylum. Exhibition and/or purchase enquiries can be made by contacting Pastor Galvan via email.
Paintings are also produced by patients and occasionally when charity offers opportunity, an art Occupational Therapist visits the asylum. The positive affects of drawing and painting are undeniable. Patients produce their own work with intense pride and joy while keeping their chattering mania at bay.
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, In as much as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Matthew 25:40. KJV
On a spring morning in 2008, Pastor Jose Antonio Galvan opens up his office in a dusty neighborhood near the old center of Ciudad Juárez. It was a cold day even though near the end of March… a dry windy desert cold that gets close to the bone… Parked outside is a pickup with a US Army Special Forces insignia on the license plate and a sticker that says: “Real Men Love Jesus.” Pastor’s oldest son is a special forces officer and at the time he was stationed in San Antonio. Since then he’s done several tours in Afghanistan. Pastor was making calls to a long list of evangelical churches in Texas hoping to line up preaching gigs to raise money for the asylum in the desert and to win souls for Jesus.
A lady from the neighborhood, Sister Maria, came by to check on the Pastor, because the night before she had been called to the hospital to visit the dying father of a friend and while there someone told her that Jose Antonio Galvan had suffered an attack and was in the ICU… Maria was glad to find that it must have been another man with the same name because Pastor was here and healthy in his little kitchen making instant coffee for visitors. Galvan has instructed his wife and followers that in the event of his death, he is to be embalmed with a smile on his face because he will be happy at home with his Lord and that his loved ones are to have a big carne asada (barbecue) in his honor with mariachis and all manner of rejoicing. When Maria heard that he was in the hospital, she woke up in a cold sweat wondering, “¿A donde vamos a encontrar la vaca? / Where will we get the cow?
Pastor gave me a tour of the house that used to be a place where neighborhood addicts would crash and shoot up. It is rare in media accounts of the “drug war” in Mexico to learn anything about addiction, violence and death in poor barrios in Juárez and other Mexican cities. But Pastor Galvan came from these streets and is a former addict. Now he ministers to them–preaching the gospel and sometimes he scrapes up the most damaged people–homeless sick and dying men and women–and gives them shelter. He has been condemned by a priest in this neighborhood as a devil. He keeps the devil in his office–a red and black punching bag–and he beats the devil himself several times a day if he wishes. On one side of his desk is a full-sized suit of armor, a constant reminder of this guiding passage from the Bible:
10 … be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Ephesians 6:10-12, American King James Version
Pastor Galvan spent years working in the United States to support his family. His children are American citizens and have professional careers. Pastor is proud to be a Mexican though as he says, “I love Mexico, but not the Mexican system.”
This Mexican system throws people away: the honest hardworking poor who leave their homes to go to the United States without permission to earn enough from their work to feed their families. And those are the strong ones. When Pastor began his work in Juárez, he found people dying in the streets, in the snow of a Juárez winter. When he could, he picked them up and brought them to his shelter in the desert which began as nothing but a few concrete block walls with straw mats for roofing. Since that beginning more than 17 years ago, the asylum has grown to include several strong buildings for dormitories, a walled courtyard, bathrooms, an institutional kitchen with facilities for preparing and serving 300 meals each day and an industrial-strength washer and dryer. This last is a recent innovation and is still not completely functional as it requires extensive remodeling of the electricity and plumbing. For most of the asylum’s existence, the residents carried water for drinking, cooking and washing in buckets from a cistern filled with scarce rain runoff or water pumped from tanker trucks that sell at a premium to all the outlying colonias in Ciudad Juárez.
Washing clothes and blankets–even washing bodies–was a full time job. Some people could take care of themselves and those would often help those who could not. The most damaged were sometimes called “los cagaditos” because they would try to eat excrement and sometimes throw it on others… Pastor described this to me in simple terms: “La demencia huele / dementia smells.”
For many years now, people have been delivered to the asylum by government officials in Juárez, mainly from the local police and from the National Migration Institute. Some cannot say who they are. They have no family who can care for them. They have been expelled from jails and prisons because their behavior cannot be controlled. Or, the United States has deported them to Mexico but they have no documents and no idea who they are or where they came from if they ever did have a home in Mexico… So these official government agencies bring people to the asylum in the desert and there, they are given a bed and food and become part of a community supported by small donations, love and improvisation.
On a visit to the asylum in 2008, I saw Cristal, a small person in a wheelchair. At first I did not know if she was a girl or boy, she was so very thin and small, less than 5 feet tall if standing and weighing at most 80 pounds, probably less… Her head had been shaved and the hair was barely growing back. Other people wandered close to us in the patio. They were animated, curious, some came to talk to us… many shook our hands and reached out to touch Alice’s light blond hair. But the person in the wheelchair just sat hunched over and very still. Her lips got my attention. They looked deformed as if they had been chewed or bitten or perhaps she had been severely beaten in the face. She had scabs and sores on her forehead and elsewhere on her skin. She wore pink pajama pants and a loose black and white man’s shirt. Pastor told us she had been abused by many men, that she had lived in east Los Angeles and was in a gang and got deported. She first came to the asylum sometime in the past year and she had just given birth a few hours before. DIF (Desarrollo Integral de la Familia) took the baby and brought the girl–still hemorrhaging from childbirth–to the shelter. DIF is the government family services agency, traditionally run by the wife of the president. The baby was probably put in an orphanage, perhaps to be adopted later.
Galvan said for the first time in his life, he had to find a breast pump because the girl’s breasts were so swollen and painful. Becky, one of the longtime residents, helped nurse Cristal through this period. She stayed several months, got better and left. Then, just a few weeks ago, they (someone, the police?) brought her back. She had been beaten and had a broken leg. As Pastor was talking, she pulled up her pants leg and showed us the steel pins in her right knee. The doctor was going to be there tomorrow to check on her. Her leg was so thin, I could easily encircle it at the thigh in one of my hands and my hands are not very big. She understood everything we said in in both English and Spanish. I asked Pastor her name, and before he could answer, she pulled up her sleeve and showed us a tattoo on her right upper arm: Cristal…
I visited the asylum once every few months since then but I never saw her again. She left again shortly after I met her and later died on the street. Many people are so sick or injured by the time they find shelter at the asylum that they succumb to common illnesses. From the little I learned about Cristal’s life on the streets of LA and then Juárez, it is possible she had contracted HIV and she may have died from an infection her weak body could not fight off.
On several visits in subsequent years, I got to know others in this improvised therapeutic community. Marisol was a tall, rather shy young woman. She was always quiet when I saw her, though she did sometimes suffer from seizures. Pastor began to paint in 2011 and soon provided spaces and materials for a therapy project, Arte en el Psiqiatrico. Pastor gave me Marisol’s last painting one day in 2012 as I walked through the hallway that serves as a gallery. He had wanted her to sign it, but the morning after she finished it she fell sick and then died a day later.
On Sundays some families come to visit their relatives at the asylum. On a Sunday visit in 2011, I met Becky’s son, his wife and her 6-yr-old grandson. Becky was one of the first people I met at the asylum in 2008–she had been a lap-dancer and a drug addict. Now she is one of the most functional people there, acting as nurse and caregiver, always smiling, often dancing and one of the resident artists. Her son was born after a rape. He is now a manager in a border factory. Becky loves her grandson but she cannot live with the family because she has psychotic crises and can be violent. She does not want to do any harm. She had planned to marry another resident in May 2013, but she died in the early spring and was buried in her wedding dress.
At any given time, 100-120 people live at the asylum where they get a safe place to sleep, three meals a day, medicine when it is available and the companionship of other human beings. Some get better and leave on their own. Others have been lost for years and are finally found by their families. One patient was brought there from a hospital in the city after suffering a head injury. He had physically recovered but he had no memories of family or life before the injury. Then one day he “woke up,” recovered his memory and his family came from another state to get him after giving him up for dead. More than 11,000 people have been victims of homicide in Juárez since 2008.
Juárez has one official mental hospital operated by the government. It has 35 beds. The hundreds of people who have been cared for at the asylum in the desert are “the least of these…” None would have survived without Pastor Galvan providing the shelter, the food and the care of this improvisational therapeutic community. Nothing else exists for them.