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Sunday, December 21, 2008
New Mexicans help needy neighbors across border By Story By Rene Romo Copyright © 2008 Albuquerque Journal Of the Journal PALOMAS, Mexico — Maria Lopez speaks no English and Rita Holden speaks no Spanish, but both women understand the pangs of hunger spreading among residents of this struggling border town. Over the past year, more and more families in dusty Palomas have coped with hunger on a regular basis, local residents and officials say. The town, three miles south of Columbus, N.M., is the only Mexican town lying entirely on this state's border. Recently, it's been hard hit by Mexican drug-war violence, the U.S. clampdown on illegal immigration and the ensuing loss of tourism and jobs. Lopez lives in Palomas and Holden lives on the U.S. side of the border in Columbus. But they, like other people from Las Cruces, Santa Fe, Deming and Silver City, have joined in a binational effort of regular citizens to help the Mexican border town's neediest families with food and other necessities. Palomas Mayor Estanislao Garcia said the town has been so hard hit by violence and a faltering economy that roughly a third of its residents have simply left. More than half of local businesses, the mayor estimates, have closed. More than three dozen families have lost bread-winning heads of household due to the drug violence. Many of the remaining Palomas residents are suffering, the mayor said. "In the U.S., the situation is tough and the economy is bad," Garcia said recently, "but if you have it bad, we have it worse." Hungry families While delivering groceries to about a dozen families around Palomas recently, Lopez, who works closely with the mayor as director of the local office of a state social services agency, stopped at the home of 26-year-old Miriam Salcido. Salcido, who is single, lives with her three children, ages 8, 6 and 14 months, in a one-room home made of cinderblock with no running water. A wood-burning stove provides heat. Laundry was hung to dry on a barbed wire fence ringing the property while socks dried on a wall. "It's desperately needed help,'' Salcido said after Lopez handed her a bag of groceries. The food, meant to last the family for most of the next week, included two pounds of beans, two pounds of rice, a pound of frozen beef, potatoes, tomatoes, two dozen eggs, a stack of 30 corn tortillas and a can of freeze-dried coffee. "If it weren't for this, we wouldn't eat," Salcido said. When Lopez was first referred to Salcido several months ago, the mother of
three had not eaten in three days. At Lopez's next stop, the home of a couple with five children, mother Daniela Monsilla was asked what her family would do if they did not receive the groceries on a weekly basis. "Without the food, we'd ... ," Monsilla paused, shaking her head side to side, "do what we can." After another pause, Monsilla added, "Go out and beg. Lately, thank God, we haven't. For the most part, we get by." Monsilla said her husband works odd jobs when he can, but like others in the cash-strapped town, she said work is extremely hard to find. The Palomas mayor's office sponsored a Christmas party for needy families on Friday and Saturday because many residents said they would not be able to give their children any presents this year. Mayor Garcia reached out to church groups in the United States to help make it happen. Mexico has been ravaged by bloody battles between drug cartels fighting over trafficking routes and police and troops fighting the cartels. More than 1,500 people have been killed in Juárez this year, and the violence has spread to Palomas — a town that for many years has been a staging ground for people crossing illegally into New Mexico to seek work in the United States. In and around Palomas, 46 people were killed and 18 others disappeared in a little over 12 months, said Garcia, the mayor. Lopez, the social service worker, estimated that 40 families in Palomas lost a head of household in the violence. Despite repeated assertions by Palomas residents that those not involved in drug trafficking were safe from harm, the drug violence, which has largely abated since the summer, has spooked not only many residents but Americans who frequented the town's pharmacies and dental clinics. Loss of income The town's population, which had been about 12,800, has shrunk to an estimated 8,000 residents, Garcia said. "Some left out of fear, some for lack of jobs," said Garcia, noting restaurants, pharmacies and hotels have closed. "Small businesses went under, and that was the majority of the jobs." In addition, increasingly tough border enforcement, such as the construction of miles of fence and the prosecution of apprehended immigrants, has virtually halted illegal border crossings from the Palomas area. That has meant a loss of income to hotels, convenience stores and restaurants that served the stream of immigrants who used to steadily flow through town — on their way to crossing the border into southwest New Mexico, Interstate 10 and other states with bigger cities and more jobs.
"This town is dead now," said 68-year-old Ramon Rojo, who has worked loading trucks and selling ice cream in the summer. Garcia said Mexican state government aid is minimal. Groups around New Mexico have reached out to offer help to the people of Palomas. Two Las Cruces activists recently collected a truckload of food, clothing and blankets to be divided among the mayor's office, a local senior center and a Palomas-based cooperative founded by members of a Columbus religious community. A Santa Fe-based, non-denominational church, the Light at Mission Viejo, hauled down Christmas presents — clothing, a pair of shoes and a toy — for 330 children identified by local churches. Fifteen elderly women sponsored by the mayor will also receive gifts. Light at Mission Viejo volunteers have hauled about 1,000 pounds of rice, beans and flour to Palomas on a monthly basis for the last year and a half. Holden and other members of the Columbus-based Our Lady of Las Palomas Hermitage and Retreat Center have collected money for the last three months — from $75 to $200 each week — to turn over to Lopez to buy groceries for needy families. Three young people from Silver City, who attended a Dec. 12 prayer vigil at a wooden cross several hundred yards from the Columbus port of entry, said they planned to host an informational meeting in Grant County to solicit help for Palomas families. A flier recently circulated in Las Cruces by two activists collecting donations said that more than half of Palomas' population was "on the brink of starvation." Mayor Garcia said that residents are not actually starving to death but that "hunger is a daily experience" for many here, and that the problem has worsened over the last year. 'It means we eat' Standing outside his unpainted home on the edge of Palomas, his calloused hands stuffed in his pockets, unemployed brickmaker Antolin Holguin said the weekly bag of groceries from Lopez was sorely needed. "It's necessary in this day and age when there's no work. Hey, it means we eat," Holguin said, as his four children stood silently nearby. "We love to work, but right now, what can we do?" "I won't abandon you," Lopez told the family. In Palomas, Esperanza Lozoya, a Chicago-born resident who has lived in town for about three years, founded a nonprofit called La Luz de Esperanza that provides school supplies to local students and, increasingly, food for the hungry. Operating with donations supplied by Americans, Lozoya operates a food pantry and on Dec. 1 opened a senior center that provides lunch daily to about two dozen elderly residents.
Lozoya said she believes that, for most of her clients, the lunch they get at the senior center is their only meal of the day. One client, Apolonio Acosta, an unemployed 63-year-old, said that was true in his case. "There's no work. ... It's one meal per day at best," Acosta said. "I'm not going to lie to you. Sometimes, I don't have anything to pay electricity, to pay for water. I've got a little heater. Sometimes, I turn it on." How to help Anyone wishing to sponsor a child or elderly person through Esperanza Lozoya's nonprofit organization may write to: Donations may be made to Our Lady of Las Palomas Retreat Center a nonprofit organization, Hunger Project, P.O. Box 622, Columbus, NM, 88029, or call 575-531-1101, donations are tax deductable.