A Member of the Family by Morgan Smith

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

elia, marta and leticia on the porch

I hear a strange, clicking sound and look down the semi-dark corridor and see a shadowy figure near the second of the two cells. A man is holding what looks like an old coffee can in his left hand. When he withdraws his right hand from the can, I see that it’s Cholo, one of the more dangerous mental patients and he has a blue plastic Gillette razor.

Then Cholo leans forward and reaches through the bars with the razor. He’s shaving someone inside the cell; the clicking sound was him swishing the razor around in the water in the coffee can to clean it.

Holding my camera, I edge closer. This is my job – to tell the story of these patients, the men and women who  Pastor José Antonio Galván, the founder of this mental asylum in the desert west of Juárez, Mexico, calls his “loquitos,” or little crazy ones.

Inside the cell, a lean, dark-haired man stands passively, his face soaped up. The only sound is the scraping of the razor as Cholo gently shaves him. Neither man pays any attention to me and my camera. Then the blankets on the floor of the cell begin to twist and move as if there’s an animal or snake underneath. I jump back but it’s only two more patients who have been sleeping. They stand up to await their turn.

This is Friday, shaving day. Every one of Pastor’s one hundred “loquitos” will be bathed and cleaned up. These are people he has rescued from the brutal streets of Juárez, protecting them from being killed by the “sicarios” or gunmen as well as the police and soldiers who are often just as deadly. Many are addicts, many have been recently deported, a number of them have committed murders, others seem to be chronically brain-damaged. Galván doesn’t care what their backgrounds are; he believes that they all have potential, that they are “tesoros escondidos” or hidden treasures. He is giving them dignity as well as food, shelter and safety, and a sense of family and caring.

As for me, I’m a retired lawyer who writes and photographs for a scattering of newspapers throughout the Southwest. I began this border project several years ago with the idea of making monthly trips to every border town from the Pacific coast on the west to the Gulf of Mexico on the east. I traveled to Palomas, Sasabe, Naco, Agua Prieta, Sonoyta, Tijuana. Finally, overcoming my own fears, I began to visit Juárez, then the most dangerous city in the world. I visited a rehab center for young women, an orphanage for the badly damaged infants of Tarahumara Indians, a food bank in the Colonia 16 de Septiembre that is maintained by Catholic volunteers from El Paso, a local jail and a public mental hospital and a Christmas gift program that took me southwest to Asención. I also helped build houses near the border with two different US non-profits. There’s a hidden world here of volunteers – Mexican and American – who provide the human services that the Mexican government has ignored. They often work under very dangerous circumstances. I became so attached to these people that, rather than trying to go from one coast to the other as originally planned, I began to make repeat visits to Palomas, Juárez, and this mental asylum in particular.

Cholo rinses the razor, puts the coffee can down and reaches through the bars again. With his left hand, he holds the man’s right ear and steadies his face while he carefully shaves his cheek. Then he pulls out a wet rag and wipes the rest of the soap off the man’s face.  A stocky, powerful young man who hears voices, he’s one of the few patients who scares me yet he is caring for another patient with an astonishing gentleness.


When I return to the patio where the majority of the patients spend their days, breakfast has just been served and several patients are collecting the trays and taking them into the desert behind the building where another crew washes them. I had arrived just after dawn, crossing the border at Santa Teresa west of Juárez and El Paso, hoping that the Mexican soldiers wouldn’t check the boxes of used clothing, candy, and cigarettes in my car and then either confiscate them or take me into custody. What had surprised me – because I had never arrived at the asylum this early – was to see so many patients at work. Whether it was collecting firewood in the desert, building a fire under the huge barrel of water outside so that there would be boiling water for washing the trays, chopping vegetables in the kitchen, or washing clothing and blankets, many of the patients have assignments and they just get up and do them. To Galván, this is crucial. Working, producing, having a role in the running of the facility – all this leads, he believes, to a sense of dignity and usefulness that is therapeutic.

I had also driven to the shack where Elvira, the cook and her two teenaged grandkids, Hector  and Yeira, lived. They needed a ride to the asylum. As a grandfather myself, it’s hard to imagine having my grandchildren spend their weekends in a mental asylum, but what else can Elvira do? Her son abandoned the two kids, she has to work on weekends, and it’s not safe for them to be alone in their neighborhood. When I first met them, they were mixing with the patients in the patio so I assumed that they too were patients. Now they’re helping me with my photography projects. I photograph patients; Hector and Yeira write down their names and other basic data. Then we hand out candy and cigarettes. This may seem like a tiny reward – one candy bar and a cigarette – but it’s a break in the monotony of the ample but bland food, something to look forward to and a sign that an outsider cares about them (I come at least once a month without fail). Unless you actually see the reactions on the faces of the patients, it’s hard to understand the enormous pleasure that these tiny gestures brings them. Hector and Yeira also watch out for me. When I was photographing a man in one cell, a man named Victoriano reached out from another cell and pickpocketed me. Hector caught him and made him return my papers.

In return, I either take them to the “segunda” or flea market and buy them clothing or pay Elvira directly. This fall, I’ll pay for the band at Yeira’s “quinceañera” or fifteenth birthday party, a crucially important event in the life of a young Mexican woman. She is exactly two weeks younger than my oldest granddaughter but their lives are as different as if one were living on the moon and the other on Mars.

Once they interviewed patients when I wasn’t there, one of whom, Arón had killed at least fifteen people.  I was stunned.

“Weren’t you upset when he described these killings?” I asked Yeira.

“No.” She shook her head stoically. “But he was crying.”

Although Elvira is the boss of this simple little kitchen (her primitive two burner stove has to turn out three hundred meals a day), her kitchen crew begins work well before her arrival. They may be “loquitos” but when the sun begins to rise, they simply get up and go to work. Although Pastor Galván has only two employees who are not also mental patients, most American companies would give anything to have a workforce this reliable.

The patio where most spend their days is a rectangular space perhaps 150 feet long and 50 feet wide. At the west end there is a sliding gate that opens up to the parking area and the desert. At the east end, there are large rooms on each corner, one for the men and one for the women. The women have beds or cots, the men sleep on mats on the floor. Along the center wall, there are more cells for the permanently dangerous, for new arrivals whose behavior might be unknown and for people who have suffered bipolar breaks or eruptions and have to be restrained temporarily until they calm down.

Each time I visit the mix has changed. The wiry, handsome Jaime will be in a cell one month, then for three or more months he is one of the best kitchen workers. Becky, for whom I bring the cigarettes because she killed another woman in an argument over a cigarette, is generally a calming influence in the patio. I’m a lifelong non-smoker but when I heard her story, I decided to be safe and bring her cigarettes. Then I saw how much pleasure one cigarette could give these patients.Unfortunately she too has bi-polar eruptions and has to be put in a cell.

“You know about mental hospitals, don’t you?” Dr. Pantoja, the visiting psychiatrist asks me. He comes out every Sunday morning for which Galván pays him $50 when he has the money.

After law school, I had been the Public Defender of Adams County, Colorado; part of my job was to act as the guardian ad litem for all of the county residents who had been detained on mental health holds. So I’ve spent hundreds of hours with mental patients as well as with defendants in criminal cases.

“Once I went to visit a patient in the Colorado State Hospital in Pueblo,” I answer. “The guards let me into the ward where all the patients spent their days and then they forgot about me. I was locked inside for hours.”

Pantoja tries to control his laughter. He also works in the “cereso” or municipal jail, one of the most dangerous jobs in Juárez.  Seventeen inmates were killed in a recent riot there. He and Galván both live under threat, whether from killers who try to extort them or the police who are just as frightening.  It’s hard, therefore, for me to allow myself to feel afraid during these one- or two-day a month visits when this is something they live with every day.

In the center of the patio sits a large white enamel tub half full of water where blankets have been dumped for their weekly washing. One patient, wearing rubber boots, is stomping on them to work the dirt loose. Others carry buckets of water in from a tap outside. Soon they will lift the heavy, wet plaid blankets out of the tub, dump the dirty water out, pour in fresh water, add soap and do the stomping again. Then they’ll take the blankets out a second time. A patient will hold each end of each blanket and they’ll twist it and squeeze out the water. Finally the blankets will be loaded in a wheelbarrow and wheeled out to the rear of the building to be hung on a long clothesline or draped over mesquite bushes to dry.

Now Cholo is back in the patio, shaving an older man who is blind in one eye.  A big, powerful looking patient named Benito is trimming the toenails of an older woman in a wheelchair. Two tiny sisters, Elia and Leticia are seated in a shady area. It looks like Elia is combing Leticia’s hair.

Dr. Pantoja  grips my arm. “You saw what happened when I walked in this morning. They all yelled my name and came over to hug me. You can’t do that in your country. Hug patients. Show that kind of emotion. You can’t have patients shaving each other, trimming toenails.” He waved at the two sisters, Elia and Leticia. “They can’t talk coherently but somehow they know how to cheer the other patients up.”

He points to the room where the medications are kept. “Imagine this. The medications are dispersed by Josué, a former addict. He spent ten years in prison in California before they deported him.”

When we sit at the small table in the kitchen, Galván grabs Pantoja’s arm and tells him that a police patrol has just called and they are bringing a new patient, a woman named Marta.

“We know nothing about her.”

“It doesn’t matter, Pastor. If the police say take her, you take her. You just do what they say. It’s a tiny price to pay for keeping the police happy,” Pantoja answers.

Galván is angry. The goal is to run the asylum as a real hospital where people are taken in for legitimate medical reasons, not just because the police are, in essence, doing a “street sweeping.” But this is Juárez and Pantoja is right. With the police, there’s no room for bargaining or equivocation.

Then we hear the vehicles arriving outside; the engines have a heavy, oppressive sound. Two police cars have stopped in the desert at the edge of the building and a number of officers are getting out. Most have automatic weapons. Three of them are pulling on the arms of a burly, ragged looking woman. Her clothes are torn and she had no pants, just underwear. Her hair is matted.

“This is Marta,” Pantoja whispers to Galván as an officer approaches with papers for him to sign.

Then Pantoja turns to me and says, “We have to care for her but we get no money, nothing to cover her costs. We get no real diagnosis so we don’t really know what’s wrong.” Then he shrugs. “Así es México.” That’s Mexico.

I wait outside with the officers as several patients take Marta’s arms and lead her inside. Chatting with the man who looks like the leader, I think that maybe I can get him to let me photograph them with their automatic weapons, the desert in the background. One of the officers takes the clip out of his pistol and re-inserts it over and over with a harsh clicking sound. Pantoja has retreated to the gate and calls for me to follow him but I feel that I have to get the picture. Then another officer steps behind me; I can feel his breath on my neck. Pantoja returns, grips my arm, yanks me towards the patio.

“Don’t be crazy. Get in here. It’s not safe with them,” he whispers in a strained voice. We are both pouring sweat as we lean against the inner wall of the patio and catch our breath.

Then I see a new Marta. The other patients have bathed her and given her a clean smock. Her head has been shaved and the filthy matted hair is gone. Benito is trimming her fingernails as Elia and Leticia gently hold her arms. With her round, bullet head and tattoos on her thick, powerful arms, she looks like a linebacker. I wonder what she has done. Killed someone as Becky did? The relative calm of this place obscures the fact that many of these patients have killed, you just don’t imagine it until you hear their stories.

Then Benito says something about her toenails and I look down. Her feet are bloody and the toenails ragged and infected looking. As he reaches down to her feet, she lets out a shriek, breaks loose and runs across the patio. The other patients dart away from her.

“Let her be,” Galván shouts. “Let her calm down.”

We stand and watch, Galván, Pantoja,  Benito, Cholo who is still holding the coffee can and razor, the two sisters, some forty other patients. No one knows what to do. Finally Elia and Leticia walk quietly over to her and sit on the cement bench, one on either side. The patio is silent. Marta is big enough to crush both women.  Elia puts her arm on Marta’s shoulder, carefully leans towards the agitated woman and rests her cheek on her shoulder. Marta has her hands over her face. All we can see are her freshly trimmed fingernails.

Leticia rests her head on Marta’s other shoulder. I have no idea how long they remain that way. It seems like forever as we watch nervously. Finally Marta takes her hands away from the front of her face, revealing herself, revealing a smile.

“Now she’s a member of the family,” Pantoja whispers. “Now she’s a member of the family.”

morgan-smithMorgan Smith is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture. He now lives in New Mexico and is heavily involved in documenting issues on the Mexican border and assisting a variety of humanitarian programs there. He writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines in Colorado, Texas and New Mexico.


STORY IMAGE PROVIDED BY AUTHOR: Sisters Elia (right) and Leticia (left) comfort Marta on the patio.


  3 comments for “A Member of the Family by Morgan Smith

  1. I remember this story so well, I felt it read like something from a Best of anthology. Thank you for the work you do, Morgan, and for sharing such a raw, unusual, humane perspective of such a brutal yet tender society.

  2. A rare thing in a ironic, post-modern literary world — a writer who is unafraid to put honest sentiment forward.

Share a Comment