Esther Chávez Cano died in Juárez on Christmas Day. She was 76 years old. She was a hero, a fronteriza woman who in the early 1990s in Juárez saw the continuing tragedy of women being killed and decided to do something about it. With much help she started Casa Amiga near downtown Juárez. At the time it was one of only six rape crisis centers in Mexico and the only one on the U.S./Mexico Border. She brought international attention the continuing murders of women in Juárez and the uncaring and apathetic response by the Mexican government on all levels--city, state and federal--to these murders. Indeed, as we now know, law enforcement was more concerned with supporting the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S. than it was with investigating and prosecuting the murders of women. If anything, the authorities wanted to keep activists like Esther quiet because she brought attention to the vacuum of justice in Juárez. She has received many awards for her work, as the number of obituaries state, but she never veered from the task at hand--helping the women of Juárez.

In 2002, when Cinco Puntos Press was putting together the anthology PURO BORDER: DISPATCHES, GRAFFITI AND SNAPSHOTS FROM THE U.S./MEXICO BORDER, three of us--novelist Jessica Powers, who worked for us at the time, Lee and I—walked over the bridge and went to visit Esther at Casa Amiga. She was a diminutive and very hospitable woman with a quiet way about her but she had a presence that commanded respect. Her work at Casa Amiga was self-evident--women and children were coming and going, and some were staying, being protected inside the walls of the center from husbands or boyfriends who would harm them if they had the chance. Indeed, in December 2001 her receptionist, who had come to the center as a client, was killed by her husband in front of Casa Amiga. When we asked her why she started Casa Amiga, she replied quietly--

“Because I am a woman, because I felt helpless and because I have a conscience.”

Below I am pasting the mostly unedited notes that Lee took during that visit that I found in our archives (Lee also took the photograph above), and below that I am pasting an article by Tessie Borden that originally appeared in the Arizona Republic and that we republished in PURO BORDER. But first, Casa Amiga as always needs financial help. Those who wish to help may do so by making a donation to their account:

No. Cuenta: 65-50227820-0
CLABE 014164655022782007
1427 Suc. Plaza las Torres
Cd. Juárez, Chih. C.P. 32575

Notes from Esther Chávez Cano Interview, June 24, 2002

There is terrible violence against women right now in Juarez. She will give us her list of the names of murdered women with pleasure. She gathered the list from reading the newspapers. She only includes the names of murdered women, not of children, or of people who have disappeared. We asked if she thought the authorities had a bigger list and she said it will do no good to check with the authorities. The authorities will not give us access to names. Everyone who has a list has gathered their information from the newspapers. But what of the women who never get mentioned in the newspapers?

She said, Here is an example of a girl who has disappeared and of what has happened with the mother.  She shows us a photo of a girl, Brenda Esther Afrara Luna, who disappeared two years ago when she was 15. Several months ago (time is uncertain), the mother was told by the authorities that her daughter has been found. But the mother went and looked and it wasn’t her daughter. Then they told her again they had found her. It was not the body of her daughter, but the body was wearing her daughter’s dress. It was very confusing. Esther said there are many cases like this.  The mother in this case has endured a lot of domestic violence herself.

Casa de Amiga was started on February 9, 1999, about three and a half years ago. Esther is the founder. We asked her why she started it. She said because she’s a woman, because she felt helpless, and because she has a conscience. It was funded initially with $31,000 from FEMAP. Last week they received $25,000 from the U.S. embassy [see article below]. It is earmarked for a project to provide therapy for women who suffered incest, rape or violence as children.

Casa de Amiga is the only center of its kind all along the border, the only one in Juarez. There is nothing for battered women.

She mentioned that there have been two deaths in Chihuahua that have similar M.O.s. Why is it different here, we asked. Why is there more violence? This is the border, she said, with its traffic of drugs, its maquiladoras. Poor people come here to seek opportunities, they want to cross the river to live the American dream. In this city there are 500 gangs. There are no opportunities here, conditions are very poor. Have you been to Anapora? It’s a terrible place.

The police hate her. They don’t ignore her. “I would like it if they would ignore me,” she said. They campaign against her. One year and seven months ago, they began their campaign. Governor Patricio doesn’t like her: according to him, she doesn’t do anything right—she’s a terrible director, she steals the money, she herself is a violent woman. And so the stories go. When Esther began talking about the women, Patricio tried to silence her.

In this building, last December 21, 2001, her own receptionist was killed by her husband. This receptionist had four kids, eight years on down, and she was a wonderful worker, good, hard-working, prudent. The husband came to Casa de Amigo to kill her here. From jail, the husband has called for custody of the kids.

When we expressed dismay over this, she said that last week, she had to go rescue a woman who was impregnated by her father. She was 19 and had been raped by him for the last 8 years. She’d had two children. One, a little boy, died of malnourishment. The other, a little girl of 3.5 years, was asked by Esther what had name was. The girl said she had no name. When Esther took the 19 year old woman away, the father went to the Human Rights Agency and demanded that his daughter come back and they agreed to his demands.

There is another girl now who is 11 years old and in the fifth grade. She’s 7 months pregnant. Some woman, a neighbor maybe, took her to a man and he raped her. The father and mother of this girl are separated and she is treated like a puppet.

By Tessie Borden
Arizona Republic Mexico City Bureau
Feb. 26, 2002 12:00:00

JUAREZ, Mexico -- It’s 9:30 a.m., and Esther Chavez Cano’s daily personal war with the unwanted problems of this largest of the border cities has begun.

She rushes into her office at Casa Amiga, the rape crisis center that grew out of the violence that has claimed the lives of more than 200 young women here in the past nine years. Close behind is a staff member describing this morning’s emergency: a neighbor found two girls, 8 and 10, wandering in the city’s El Chamizal park the previous night. They told the woman they were running away from their father’s beatings.

Chavez Cano immediately calls the local district attorney’s office, and one gets the feeling she has done this hundreds of times. In a firm but friendly tone, she calls on the attorneys there to take charge of the children and investigate what they say.

“The authorities just don’t do anything,” she whispers while on hold.

Chavez Cano’s Casa Amiga is the only center of its kind on the Mexican side of the 1,950-mile line that separates the country from the United States. Established in February 1999, it receives funding from both U.S. and Mexican organizations.

Chavez Cano, 66, a diminutive, retired accountant whose mild manner causes listeners to lean in just to hear her, is perhaps the most outspoken and militant voice here on violence against women.

In 1993, she noticed a trend among crimes committed in Juarez: dozens of young women were turning up slain in the surrounding desert. The bodies showed evidence of beatings, rape and strangulation. Many of the women fit a distinct profile: tall and thin, with long, dark hair and medium skin, between ages 11 and 25. Often, they came from the ranks of workers who yearly swell Juarez’s population from other parts of rural Mexico to work at border assembly plants, or maquiladoras.

Prodding the police

“They try to pretend these are not serial crimes,” Chavez Cano said of the local authorities. “It just brings your rage out. It makes you boil.”

Chavez Cano and others formed the Liga 8 de Marzo, an awareness group that collected data about the slayings and prodded police to give the murder investigations high priority - often by picketing the police station, holding crosses bearing names of victims.

No one agrees on the exact number of killings that are related.
Chavez Cano says about 230 women have been found in the past nine years, the most recent in November when eight bodies were discovered in a shallow pit. Some slayings have been traced to jealous husbands or drug traffickers. But a large number share characteristics that make investigators believe a serial killer and perhaps copycats are at work.

After raising awareness of the problem to a national level, Chavez Cano decided someone should work to prevent the deaths, rather than just clean up after the murderers.

Help from elsewhere

With start-up money from the Maryland-based International Trauma Resource Center, the Texas Attorney General’s Office and the Mexican Federation of Private Health and Community Development Associations, Chavez Cano opened Casa Amiga near the city center. A paid staff of four and an army of volunteers served 318 clients in Casa Amiga’s first year, providing a 24-hour hotline, counseling and group therapy.

Last year, the center added three staff members and served 5,803 clients, of which 1,172 were new cases.

Chavez Cano now worries about a troubling side issue: child sexual abuse and incest. Fifty-seven of her clients in the first year were raped children. So among her most successful programs is a puppet show that teaches children about “bad” touching and instructs them, in a gentle way, to respect their bodies.
The center takes most of her attention, but Chavez Cano does not let the police off easy when it comes to the slayings of women in the desert. They, in turn, have lashed out at her.

An attitude of disdain

Arturo Chavez Rascón, Chihuahua state’s former attorney general, came in for some of her sharpest barbs because of his comments implying the victims contributed to their own deaths through their dress or lifestyle. It’s an attitude shared by police officers on the beat, who Chavez Cano says discourage families from associating with Casa Amiga.

The center used to receive about $3,000 a month from Juarez for rent and salaries, but that stipend has been cut, Cano said. Now, the center relies on money it gets from donations and showings around Mexico of the hit play The Vagina Monologues.

Tragedy close to home

Recently, the center suffered a blow of a different kind.

In December, Maria Luisa Carsoli Berumen, an abused mother who had become a client and then a staff member at the center, was killed in front of Casa Amiga, witnesses say, by her husband, Ricardo Medina Acosta. The two had had a long and violent history that led to Carsoli Berumen leaving him. A court granted custody of their four children to Medina Acosta. She stayed in town, planning to wait until after the Christmas holidays to resume the custody fight.

On the morning of Dec. 21, the pair argued and struggled outside the center, and she was stabbed twice in the chest as she tried to flee. A black bow at the door expresses the staff’s grief. No one has been in arrested in Carsoli Berumen’s death.

Fighting for respect

“The death of Maria Luisa forces us to work more intensely to instill respect in children, men and women, and to sensitize the authorities to the grave risk for families and all of society that domestic violence represents,” Chavez Cano wrote in a column in the local newspaper.

“Rest in peace, Maria Luisa, and watch over your children so they remain united and sheltered by your loved ones who lament your absence.”


Joe Somoza at El Bar Palacios

I want to catch up now on some things that have been on the back burner for a while.

In October I drove up to the Palacio's Bar in Old Mesilla a few minutes outside Las Cruces. For years now a group of poets have been hosting an open mic poetry series the 3rd Tuesday of every month. Joe Somoza was one of its founding members. Joe has long been a fan of open mic series. He likes the democratic ambiente. I don't go to many but when I do I enjoy myself. Anyway the night I was there Joe read two poems he had written that week. He said he was still fiddling with the poems and reading them aloud to an audience gives him a way to listen to the words different. I enjoyed his reading and the poems very much--playful and pensive and, if I may say, lonely in that way that happens along when we get older. I know the feeling. I drove home (50 miles) with enough energy to write in my journal and take some notes on some poems  I've been working on. And I wrote to ask Joe if I could paste the poems in my blog. Here they are.

Late Quartet

Beethoven must’ve been deaf
by then. But not blind—though
what does that mean?
That two “buts”

don’t make an “and”?
Outside the window, sun and leaves
don’t concern
themselves with my phrasing.

They’re making love this morning,
turning sunlight to
maple trees
for later generations to sit under

the boughs,
or look out their windows
at them while smoking
pensively, as we did,

when cigarettes, cheap then,
made you feel cool, not
though everything you do

kills you
eventually. Is this why Beethoven sounds
so sad, so richly
melancholic, so continually

in the darker tones—that he saw
when he could no longer


The Private Lives Of Words

I don’t want to sound
I don’t want, even, to pretend
to some importance.
So why set the words
down—preserving them.
For others?
Clarifying them
for myself?
Already, you see patterns
start to form.
The words, once
written down, call
to other words.
It’s so lonely
on the long, blank page,
so isolated living in your head,
behind eyes that are
forever looking
at the surfaces of things
from their secure
outpost, wondering
how it would be
inside a locust tree, for instance,
or a hummingbird.
Even inside that old rocking chair
sitting in the living room
since Mary, the ex-neighbor, sold it
at a yard sale.
And it’s stayed
against that wall, overshadowed
by the piano, hardly noticed
beside the shelves of multi-colored novels
that probably
with each other nights—
Hemingway continuing his belligerence
with Fitzgerald. De Maupassant
chatting with Flaubert.
You get some words together, and you
never hear the end of it.


Will U.S. Government, World respond to Border S.O.S.

Will Government, World Respond to Border SOS? This is a good article. For those of you who don't live on the border, I recommend highly keeping up with Frontera Norte Sur, a non-commercial news service located at NMSU in Las Cruces, NM, just up the road from El Paso. It has long been one of the true sources of border-rooted journalism in the area north of the wall. They their eyes and ears on both sides of the wall, and they keep their shoes and hearts on the ground and among the people who live and so often suffer in our region.

A friend sent me these photographs from the December 6 "Marcha para Solucion" en Juarez. Writing this I hesitate to use his name or the name of the photographer which he sent me. So I won't. But I will if he writes me to do so. The march included organizations and people from all political persuasions--juarenses are exhausted, they want and need help. A note about the young boy holding the "NI UNA MAS" sign. He's 12. Six years ago, when he was 6, he carried the same sign in solidarity with the women who were being killed, their murders ignored by the judicial systems at all levels. He told his dad that he wanted to sell hot-dogs to raise money and donate, so that the murder of women in Juárez would stop. Now there's this other thing, this monstrosity of violence as two cartels war on one another for control of the Juárez plaza (the franchise for using the region to transport illegal drugs). The psychological toll on his generation of young people is enormous. These memories don't go away.


Marching for Peace & Justice in Juárez: December 6, 2009

Antonio Briones turned towards the City Hall of Juarez and demanded that something be done to stop the violence. (Vanessa Monsisvais from the El Paso Times. Read more at the EPT website and also the Diario de Juarez [and here] website. Problem with the EPT website is that they don't keep their work online after two weeks but it can be purchased. I don't know about the Diario.)
Sunday on December 6 between 4,000 and 5,000 juarenses mixed with some folks from El Paso marched yesterday asking for peace and justice for their beleaguered city. The drug war between La Linea (the Juárez cartel) and Chapo Guzman's Sinaloa cartel continues. It's merciless, fed by the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion--maxed out and insane. Nearly 4,000 people have been killed since January 1, 2008. Presidente Calderon sent in federal troops, but they've not been trained in the niceties of urban policing and citizen rights so they've caused more problems. The U.S. leadership, of course, cannot understand our own collusion in the bloody chaos. We think our hands are clean, yet our jails and prisons are full of citizens using the drugs or out to make a shadowy living by selling the stuff. The video link below and the photo above are from the El Paso Times. I hope they will continue to keep this video on-line and not archive it. It's inspiring. May the New Year bring peace and justice for the people of Juárez and may the New Year bring sane and just drug laws for the United States. Our drug laws are directly responsible for this madness.

The December 6th March for Peace and Justice in Juarez