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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:

**BANCO SANTANDER**
No. Cuenta: 65-50227820-0
CLABE 014164655022782007
Titular CASA AMIGA CENTRO DE CRISIS AC
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.

“JUAREZ CENTER FIGHTS FOR FORGOTTEN WOMEN”

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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