Monthly Archive for January, 2010

Womanhood, Fertility, and Identity

by Jessica Powers

In college, my best friend once described her hips as “child-bearing hips.” She knew back then that she wanted children and, indeed, now has six beautiful and healthy daughters. 

Me? I didn’t even know what hips were. Literally. If somebody had provided me pictures of two headless bodies-one male, one female-I wouldn’t have been able to distinguish the outline of hips on the female body.

A boyfriend once pointed out a transvestite, then said, knowingly, “You can always tell the difference between a woman and a transvestite. A transvestite lacks hips.”

My response? “Huh?” The transvestite looked like a perfectly beautiful woman to me!


I was never one of those women whose overwhelming desire in life was to have children, what some childless men and women have sneeringly referred to as a breeder.

Motherhood was simply never one of my goals.

One of the reasons I left organized religion, in fact, was the emphasis it all too often places on motherhood. I always felt devalued as a woman in the Christian church, and it never comforted me to have my feminist concerns pooh-poohed with a well-meaning, but completely off the mark, comment like this: “But women are completely valued in the church. There’s nothing more important than motherhood. That’s the most important role in life, male or female.”

I heard a preacher one time say that he was sick and tired of hearing people say that God doesn’t value women. “God chose a woman to carry his only begotten son,” he said. “That should prove how valuable women are! They’re more valuable than men!” (I didn’t have the guts to raise my hand and ask if he actually thought God would have chosen a man to give birth to his only begotten son, which would have truly been a miracle….but I definitely thought about it.)

Whenever I heard the emphasis on motherhood in sermons, I wanted to ask: If women are valuable because they are mothers, what happens to a woman’s value if she’s infertile? Or if she can conceive, but her body is incapable of carrying a baby to term? If women are valued precisely because they are mothers, does a woman cease to be valuable if she is unable or unwilling to contribute to the ongoing human gene pool? And are women to be valued for nothing else? Can’t they be valued as scientists, artists, educators, and healers? What about being valued because we’re funny, smart, thoughtful, or we make a good friend?  

I never got around to asking those questions. I just stopped going to church. I was tired of crying all the time, tired of fighting people with stupid ideas about what constitutes a person’s value.

I’d go as far as to argue that this strong correlation between motherhood and saintliness, and the conflation of our value as women with our fertility, can be labeled as spiritual abuse.

A person is valuable because of who they are, not because of the fertility-related identity role(s) they assume in life, roles such as wife, mother, grandmother. A woman should never be valued simply because of her ability to conceive and bear a child, just like a man should never be valued simply because he produces viable sperm.

So why do so many women’s self-images founder on their ability to conceive and bear a child, to successfully raise functioning members of society-at-large?


I never thought of myself as a slow learner, but when it comes to parenthood, I’m definitely a late-bloomer.

Throughout my twenties, I was grateful that I didn’t have children. The life of an artist is hard enough without adding babies to the mix, I thought.

When I first got married in my mid-twenties, my husband (now ex) and I planned to remain blissfully childfree. I hadn’t anticipated, then, that my biological clock would kick in with a vengeance as I approached thirty. Suddenly, to my surprise, I wanted kids. Oh, not the goobery, snotty-faced, diaper-rashed babies that grow up into delightful, creative, intelligent young people; no, as I approached thirty, I suddenly realized that I’d be thrilled if my children could emerge from my womb, already 10 or 11 or 12 years old. Talking in complete sentences. Potty-trained. Relatively independent already. You know, little adults.

This was an impossible dream, of course, unless I was willing to adopt an older child and deal with the potentially debilitating emotional problems they might have-always a crapshoot.

In lieu of heading down that path just yet, my husband and I have recently been trying for the flesh-and-blood variety, a normal baby conceived in the normal way pushed out of a normal vagina at the normal age of 0 months’ old. I guess I’m willing to subject myself to sleepless nights, poopy diapers, and sore breasts so I can get that pre-teen, teenager, college-student, and adult child I long for down the road.

But even as I embrace my identity as a woman “TTC” (a popular internet acronym that stands for “trying to conceive”), I still vacillate in my desire for children and it has to do with that fragile thing called identity.

There is always one solid reason for me to give up on the idea of motherhood: my identity as an artist. I’ve worked hard to get to the place where I am. I write five or six hours every day, and then teach college writing classes and run my small literary press on top of that. Recently, I’ve started working as a writing coach, and offering private writing classes in my home for children, teenagers, and adults. I easily put in twelve hours a day. It’s hard to imagine how I’ll balance all of that with motherhood.

It’s when I contemplate the vast gulf between what I desire to do with my life and the reality of raising children that I begin to wonder if I really want them.

Yet just when I think I might be “okay” with foregoing the pleasures of parenting, I realize I’m still captive to the idea that being a woman means being a mother. Intellectually, I know that this is a false belief. Emotionally, somewhere deep inside of me, I still believe that to live a full life, experiencing the full range of human emotions, requires adopting the role of parenthood, however your children come into your life.

Why the hell do I continue to associate my value as a woman with my fertility?

And so, I’m on the verge of giving up, of saying, “No more. I don’t want to try to get pregnant any more. That doesn’t mean I’ll try to prevent pregnancy, but I don’t want my life to be dominated by cervical fluid, basal body temperature, and that period that comes late but inevitably comes.”

It’s true that I’ve only been trying for eight months but I’m already tired of the emotional roller-coaster. Twice, my period has been a week late. In those days when I think I might be pregnant, my mind jumps to sugary fantasies of what it’ll be like, and I’m overwhelmed by the I can’t wait-ness of it all.

And then the disappointment sets in when my basal body temperature drops, menstrual blood arrives, and I discover that I’m not, after all, pregnant.

I wonder how women do this over and over and over? You know, those women that try to conceive for years and years and years? Those women that go to heroic efforts, spend all sorts of time and money, all in their quest to have a child?

I don’t think I can keep it up.

I’m beginning to wonder if I’m willing to give up on the so-called “fullness of life experience” b.s. I was just blathering on about if it means some emotional sanity.

I’m fortunate. A few days ago, as we were having yet another discussion about my on-again off-again desire to get pregnant, my husband looked at me and said, “You are my world. I don’t need anything else.” And we once again talked about what we will do if we don’t get pregnant-move to South Africa or Mozambique, to the Caribbean, to Ecuador or Argentina or Brazil, or maybe to all of those places for a few years apiece. Or we could take in foreign-born foster children, generally teenagers by the time they make it here after spending years in refugee camps.

Without children, the world is our oyster.

But still, it all comes down to this crux issue: What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean for me to feel valuable as a person?

We all, we all, need to learn to value ourselves apart from these roles we assume in life. For me, that includes the role of artist. If I replace motherhood with artist, am I really any better off? I’m still valuing myself by something that is transitory, fleeting. We don’t achieve immortality through our art. Nor do we achieve it by bearing offspring.

As I move forward TTC, or not TTC, I hope I can learn to value myself as Jessica with no titles attached to my name.


Last November, I had a dream about motherhood and identity. In the dream, I was in a house, surrounded by women I know who have young children. I wandered from person to person, but I couldn’t relate to any of them. In fact, I felt inferior as I talked with them-there was a sense in which all of them had experienced a part of womanhood that I lacked, and so we couldn’t connect. I felt, well, robbed.  And even as I tried to interest them in non-motherhood-related topics, I realized what I was doing: they seemed to think I was inferior because I wasn’t a mother and so, subconsciously and nastily, I was trying to turn the tables by demonstrating that I’d had an interesting career and had traveled to so many exotic locales and done so many interesting things that they would never do, encumbered as they were with snot-faced babies and dirty diapers.

 Eventually, not liking that dynamic one tiny little bit, I separated myself from the mothers with babies and went to another part of the house. There, I was joined by my many African friends, and we discussed Africa, and politics, and health, and religion, and we ignored the issue of motherhood. Though many of my African friends are also parents, I felt none of the distance I’d felt from my mother-friends, who were treating me as though I was less of a woman because I wasn’t a mother.

I woke up and felt a moment of grief, like the dream was telling me I’d lost my chance at motherhood, that I’d traded it in for Africa and my writing.

On reflection later, I realized that of course, I have never given up my dream of motherhood-until the last few years, I didn’t have a spouse with whom I could have children. Instead, the dream was speaking to me about my hidden desire to be a mother as well as the obvious calling on my life to Africa and as a writer. My desire to have it all.

It was also reminding me of this unassailable truth: While all the other women in the room had chosen motherhood first-and let me add, they are all young women I admire, who have made the choices they wanted to make by choosing children over career, at least for the time being-I had chosen it second. And ultimately, I found myself in a room with the people I had chosen: Africans.

It was a revelation.

As I embark on this next stage of my life, trying to get pregnant, I’m constantly filled with doubts. Sometimes I wonder if motherhood is what God intends for me, or even if motherhood is something I want to add to my mixture of things I’ve already chosen (or that has chosen me)-Africa and writing. Sometimes I feel desperate to be pregnant, now, and sometimes, I secretly hope I’m not pregnant, so that nothing needs to change.  In fact, I worry about how motherhood will prevent me from doing the things I feel I’m supposed to do, in Africa, as a writer-those vague, hazy outline of things that make up my future. I’m still waiting for the clarion call from God, the angel of the Lord appearing to me in a dream, the way he did with Mary and Joseph, and telling me, “This is what you’re supposed to do. I’ve arranged everything for you. It won’t be easy but at least there’s no doubt about it.”

But that’s too easy and, in all likelihood, false. The path that God marked out for Mary and Joseph must have seemed hazy and uncertain to them. It is only clear in retrospect, when written about as a narrative, a narrative that brooks no other possible paths.

I wonder how fearful and frustrated Mary and Joseph must have felt as they walked down that road, wondering all the time if they could veer in a different direction, or if they even wanted to, or if this was really the path they were supposed to be on and if they weren’t just fooling themselves.

I wonder how much of this path I’m following I charted myself, and how much has been charted for me.

I suppose I’ll never know.

And, at least some of the time, I’m okay with that.


Jessica Powers is the author of The Confessional (Knopf, 2007), a novel that explores racial tension and school violence at an all-boys Catholic high school on the U.S.-Mexico border; editor of Labor Pains and Birth Stories: Essays on Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Becoming a Parent, editor of The Fertile Source, and publisher of Catalyst Book Press.

To Let Go

A short story by Jeff Bowles

     I can’t cry. The worst thing to ever happen to us and I can’t cry about it. I’m tired. My mind is shot. Jagged black spots flutter in my peripherals, my bowels gurgle, loud noises make me wince. I tell myself that sleep deprivation must be keeping the pain at bay. I still feel ashamed.

     I hate the hospital, hate the emergency room. I cuss every time I have to come. Before I met Stephanie, I’d only been here once. This is my sixth visit, and it’s all because of her. Abscessed teeth, Bronchitis, stuff you usually go to a doctor’s office for. The only good thing about the hospital is that they accept Stephanie’s crap insurance, worthless coverage that the state of Colorado hands out like “How was your visit?” questionnaire cards.

     I glance at Steph. She’s curled up on a double-wide chair. Her bare feet dig into the light-blue vinyl cushion, causing it to pucker and stutter and hiccup rudely. She rocks uncontrollably, twirling her red hair with a finger, breathing as if she were in a Lamaze class.

     “I’m sorry, baby,” I say. “I shouldn’t have stayed up all night. I do it too often. Maybe every weekend is too much-”

     “It’s okay.” It’s more of a coarse grunt than fluid speech.

     The cramps had begun in the afternoon, just before I was about to go to bed. We worried, began to panic as they intensified. I called a nurse hotline. The woman told us it was okay, that light cramps and a bit of spotting were normal. Then Stephanie started to bleed, and the cramps grew until her face paled and she had to bite her lip to keep from moaning.

     She’s not the only one in pain here, of course. A family huddles around a kid with a broken arm over by the soda machines. A woman in a neck brace behind us cries and wails. An obese man with an oxygen tank and wheelchair is being led past the security guard. If I weren’t so tired, all the pain and suffering gathered in this waiting room might really get to me. I usually have a hard time dealing with this kind of stuff. For an instant, I’m glad I haven’t slept.

     Calm, pulsing tones sound from the hospital’s speaker system. Another ambulance coming in; we’ll have to wait even longer. The sound forces my mind to sharpen. I glance at Steph.

     “You doin’ okay, baby?” Somehow I feel like I’m only pretending to care. “Do you need anything?”

     “It hurts.”

     “I know it does.”

     “I’m sorry. It’s my fault. I didn’t eat…right or I got too wound up about…work.”

     I can’t tell if I’m imagining the faint sting behind my eyes. “It’s not your fault. Maybe it was me. I read that smoking does something to men genetically, you know, reproductively. Maybe that’s what did it.”

     She touches my hand, almost speaks, but her face suddenly contorts. She whimpers and her hand presses into her abdomen. It’s another two hours before we’re taken to a room.


     Finding a good ER doctor is like playing a game of Go Fish. You keep asking for hospitality or a bit of humanity and they keep sending you back to the deck. Sure, occasionally you’ll get a decent one. They’ll speak to you like you’re a human being instead of trying to rush you out the door. Still haven’t pegged our doctor tonight. He gave Steph pain killers, said comforting things. He said Steph might see some tissue but that it wouldn’t be the fetus. He let her wear her coat over the hospital gown when she said she was cold. He tried to comfort, but it didn’t seem to register in him that we might have actually wanted a baby.

     The doctor ordered a vaginal ultrasound because Steph wasn’t far enough along for the other kind. A nurse led her from our room ten minutes ago. I wasn’t allowed to come with.

     I have no hope, no illusions. I know it’s over and done with. It’s been a weird two months. Stephanie had time to come to terms with it. It was in her body; it was a part of her. I was just the guy being asked to rub feet and prepare meals. It was never real. That’s it. I can’t cry because it was never real. It was a game of pretend, like playing dress-up. I was never going to be a father. It’s time to take off our mommy and daddy clothes and go home.

     This notion is comforting. My mind tosses it back and forth, allowing it to strengthen and fade along with the waves of fatigue. There’s no shame in feeling nothing if you were never attached to begin with.

     The curtain parts to reveal the nurse. She says something I don’t catch. Steph follows and replies, “Thank you.”

     She doesn’t seem sad. She looks at me and gives a bitter smile. She still clutches her abdomen, but I think she might actually be okay. I think that maybe neither of us will be in much pain.

     Then the nurse lets go of the curtain, leaves, and Stephanie’s face changes. Her smile vanishes, trembling slightly before it does. Her eyebrows lift, her free hand passes through her hair. She starts to cry.

     “I’m so sorry,” she whimpers. “I couldn’t leave it there on the floor. It was ours. I’m sorry. It’s all my fault.”

     She climbs into the hospital bed, won’t stop repeating herself. I slide my chair closer and wrap my arms around her. She lays her head against my chest.

     “It isn’t your fault,” I say. “These things happen. Maybe…maybe it was just a bad pregnancy. Maybe it never really had a chance.”

     “I know I did it. I ate wrong, too many sweets. I forgot my thyroid pill for a couple nights. I didn’t take my prenatals as much as I should have.”

     “Babe, please stop.”

     She sobs for a time. I can feel that stinging behind my eyes again, but that’s all. She speaks again.

     “I couldn’t leave it on the floor.”

     “Couldn’t leave what on the floor, baby?”

     Steph wipes her eyes. “She put that thing inside me. It was so cold. It hurt. There was nothing left. I didn’t see the monitor, but she said there was nothing left. She pulled it out and went to get me some pads. I looked on the floor and…”

     She begins to cry again. She tries to speak through it, but I can’t understand her.

     “Slow down,” I say. “What happened?”

     “It was on the floor. Just lying there. Bloody. Small. I wrapped it in a napkin and stuffed it in my coat before she came back. I didn’t know what else to do. They would have just mopped it up.”

     I suddenly feel so tired, like I’ve been awake for weeks.

     I brush her cheek. “Baby, he said you might see some things, but that it wouldn’t be-”

     “It was our baby. I know it was. It’s still in my pocket. I don’t know what to do with it.”

     The stinging intensifies, but still, nothing. I want so badly to feel and to let that feeling out. I want to be miserable with her. I want a connection. A jagged black spot flutters in the corner of my vision, my bowels gurgle, I just want to sleep.

     “What do we do with it?” she asks.

     I’m silent for a moment, but I don’t need the time to think.

     “Throw it away.”

     She raises her head. “What?”

     “Throw it away. It’s not the baby. It isn’t anything. Don’t do this to yourself.”

     She stares at me. She isn’t angry or offended. She isn’t accepting and she doesn’t say no. She stares long, unblinking.

     I shrug. “What are we going to do with it, Steph? We can’t take it home. That’s not good. That’s not healthy. Throw it away.”

     She finally blinks, reaches into her coat pocket and pulls out the waded napkin.

     I don’t look at it. I take it, stand, and walk to the garbage can. I don’t pause or think or let it bother me. I let it fall, hear the light rasp as it makes contact with the plastic bag. I move back to my seat and don’t feel any different. Still tired, still pent up, still ashamed of both.

     Stephanie’s stopped crying. I can’t tell if she’s angry. Can’t tell if she ever will be, if she’ll ever resent me, if she’ll ever forgive me. For now, at least, she isn’t crying. I take comfort in that.

     The doctor enters. We tie up the loose ends. Follow up information is given and discharge papers are filled out. Stephanie asks if she should see her doctor, have a pelvic exam. He says she could, but that he doesn’t think there’s any danger. It’s all gone. He’s sure of it.

     Steph changes back into her clothes and we stand to leave. As I make my way to the curtain, I look at the garbage can. I start to wonder if Stephanie was right. I start to wonder what kind of boy or girl it would’ve been, what kind of man or woman. I think of all that potential nestled against the plastic sack, cradled next to Styrofoam cups and discarded Kleenex. I think these things to force the tears, but I’m not surprised when they don’t come. Maybe that’s the good part of not sleeping. I don’t have the choice to feel or not to feel. I’ll cry. Tomorrow I’ll cry. Tonight I’m that man who rubs feet and prepares meals. Tonight I’ll sleep.

Jeff Bowles is currently pursuing a BA in English from the University of Colorado Denver. He spends his nights writing creatively and his days preparing for a hopefully not too boring career as a technical writer.


by Donna Vorreyer

Each flea-market stall smells like cedar,
and mothballs, the only exception
the ammonia-sharp tables of Depression
glass gleaming in the early morning sun.
My friends and I come once a month

to saunter through relics of the past, spot
pieces of our childhoods for sale, search for
things we did not know we wanted. Everyone
here hunts for that hidden desire. A burly
woman in a too-tight cardigan beams at antique

gumball machines. A small blond boy and his
sunburned father study bobble-head dolls and
baseball cards. We are not immune. Sally buys
small wooden tables and old china, Diane
salt and pepper shakers, tiny juice glasses.

My treasures are less predictable – croquet
balls with chipped paint one weekend, a bowl
that reminds me of my grandmother the next.
Today I spend hours on my hands and knees
sifting through boxes of old hardware – doorknobs

of textured metal and burled wood, keys to
unknown closets rusting on wrought iron rings,
things that open, close, have weight to them.
Most of the time, it is all just useless junk:
oil lamps with fractured bowls, rotary phones

with lists of emergency numbers for a town
I’ll never live in. A vendor selling lace and linens
nurses her tiny baby in the shade of a quilt.
This is what I really want, but I can’t have it.
The doctors say that I am useless too.


Donna Vorreyer lives in the Chicago area where she teaches middle school and tries to convince teenagers that words matter. Her work has appeared in numerous journals including Cider Press Review, Apt, New York Quarterly, Boxcar Poetry Review, Autumn Sky Poetry, and After Hours. “Empty-Handed” is part of her first chapbook Womb/Seed/Fruit, which will be published by Finishing Line Press in June 2010. Visit her on the web at

Esther Chavez Cano: “Because I Am A Woman”

by Bobby Byrd

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 to 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 Byrd 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

(taken by Lee Byrd)

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. [to the women being killed in Juarez.] Why is it different here, we asked. Why is there more violence [than the rest of Mexico]? 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 Anapra? 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.”

Editor note: Likewise, may Esther Chavez Cano rest in peace after her many years of good work protecting women from violence and murder.


Bobby Byrd is a small press publisher (Cinco Puntos Press) and poet. His latest work of poetry, White Panties, Dead Friends, and Other Bits & Pieces of Love, was published in 2006. He is currently editing Lone Star Noir, an anthology of noir stories set in Texas, forthcoming from Akashic Books.

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