“I do this because I live here, because there is so much need,” says Guadalupe (Lupita) Sanchez de Otero.
These are very difficult times for tiny Columbus, N.M. (population 1,800). Federal officials arrested the mayor, police chief, a village trustee and others — a total of 14 defendants — and charged them with gun running. It was probably the most shocking event in Columbus since Pancho Villa’s raid on March 9, 1916. And after the arrests, the townspeople discovered that Columbus was essentially broke. Where did the money go? No one knows.
Therefore it’s a moment for leaders like Sanchez de Otero who has spent many years serving this impoverished community. In 2003, for example, she received a prestigious award, Community Health Leader Award, from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in New Jersey, which stated in part: “ Since starting as a community health worker in 1995, Otero has become virtually a one-woman social services agency. She has established the Andrew Sanchez Memorial Youth Center, helped to start the public library, successfully lobbied for a community health clinic and worked in the cancer clinic, cooked meals for seniors; started pesticide safety education programs for farmers; and offered classes on immigration laws. She has even served as a Girl Scout leader and collected for the Salvation Army.”
Now she runs the Salvation Army program, helps deliver hot lunches from Mondays to Fridays for homebound seniors and has a lunch program that provides food for kids on Fridays so they’ll have food over the weekend. Every Thursday she organizes a food bank on behalf of the Roadrunner Food Bank, which in turn, gets its food from Walmart. She delivers 140-170 boxes of food per week on their behalf.
At one time, she was the head of the Promotora program and had a staff of six. The funding dried up in 1999 but her dedication never stops.
Reina Cisneros lives very close but on the other side of the border in Palomas, Chihuahua. Born in Hermosillo, she and her family moved to Palomas 23 years ago. Her husband has a small shop to paint cars and she has a house that she uses as a shelter for people who have been abandoned.
I first visited volunteers from Deming and Columbus two years ago who were repairing the roof and painting the rooms to make life better for her clients. But the house still had a crack in front that runs from the roof to the ground. Is it going to collapse?
Santiago is one of her residents. A drinker and bar fighter for many years, his nose is completely flattened. But he’s sober now. When I come to visit, he is always working, or digging a trench to repair a pipe that broke in the cold last winter. Cisneros has changed his life and saved him.
Twenty-five-year-old Gabriel is another resident. Mentally retarded with a speech defect, he has some problem with his legs that require him to use a walker. His own family lives in Palomas but they don’t want to help him. He wants to be normal, to have a family and a girlfriend.
Nasaria Velasquez, who is part Indian, is an older woman in a wheelchair. During the summer months, she will live with her 80-year-old brother in Palomas, but he has no patience and beats her.
Cisneros would like to be reimbursed $50 per week per person but the government of Palomas doesn’t have the money. Palomas once had some industry; many Americans would come across to the dental clinics or to buy medicines. For example, the Farmacia Express advertises “American Standards at Mexican Prices.”
Now because of the violence, tourists no longer visit. Many of the residents have left — we don’t know where they have gone — it seems like half the homes in Palomas are abandoned and most of the businesses are closed.
What makes people like Sanchez de Otero and Cisneros work so hard for others? In Sanchez de Otero’s case, it is a tradition that comes from her now-deceased father, Andrew Sanchez, a great community leader in Columbus. For Cisneros, it is her faith. “I do this for God — for his divine eyes. My treasure is in heaven.”
Columbus and Palomas are communities that have been abandoned by their governments. Like so many towns along the border, it’s people like Sanchez de Otero and Cisneros who have taken charge of helping the poor. They are heroes.