By Victoria Tester
Three hundred and fifty children who are U.S. citizens live in Palomas and attend school on the U.S. side in Columbus, where on June 11, when school ended, many lost their only meal of the day, as have most of the remaining estimated 2,500-3,000 children in Palomas.
When the work of La Luz de La Esperanza Palomas Outreach first started six years ago, it was hard but not impossible to accomplish our work of addressing need in Palomas. We operate a daily meal program for seniors and the disabled, and we do emergency family food distribution.
Unfortunately, during recent years, due to cartel violence and the consequent high unemployment and high numbers of disappearances or murders of family providers, hunger has escalated to such a degree that we are finding 2010 to be plainly the worst so far.
This violence in Palomas and the subsequent hunger are unreported or vastly underreported, due to the brutal murders of so many journalists in Chihuahua, and the danger faced by U.S. journalists who try to go there. We did take Channel 7 out of El Paso crew Tom Scott and Jill Galus into Palomas at the end of May 2010, where even as we were put under police guard in the highly tense situation they documented some of our story.
We are writing to you out of grave need, overwhelmed by the number and circumstances of extreme cases of hunger presented to us.
Through the Outreach’s trained promotoras who go into homes and work confidentially with families to identify and report on need, we’re receiving information that families are eating rats, or surviving on horsemeat, mothers sending their children to bed early, with only a teaspoon of sugar as their food for the day. Families without refrigeration (we estimate a quarter to a third of the families are now either without electricity or else without water as they used their money to buy food instead) are forcing themselves to eat spoiled food that they reboil in order not to waste.
We have reports of mothers unable to nurse their infants because their own basic nutritional needs are not met, and with only cornmeal and water or else plain water to feed their infants.
We are hearing about mothers of families turning in desperation to prostitution, to feed their children.
We have personally witnessed the grief of families in Palomas who cannot even help their suffering relatives, for fear of literally starving their own children. A mother told us recently that children felt fortunate that they had at least a bowl of eggs in their otherwise empty refrigerator, because “we go to our aunts and uncles houses, and they have nothing.
Even in the face of the very high unemployment, in the last two years food in Palomas has become as or more expensive as it is in the United States. Beans that two years ago were 75 cents a kilo in Palomas are now a 1.85$. Milk in Palomas is between 4 and 5 dollars a gallon. Most people no longer have meat or milk in their diets.
Many of the people who come to us for food are mothers whose spouses have disappeared, murdered in the drug violence, or who have abandoned their families, unwilling to watch them starve, or they are the elderly parents of sons who’ve disappeared or been murdered, and these mothers and elderly are utterly without resources.
One of the main tasks of the Outreach is to distribute emergency food to many families who can show they would have no food otherwise. Our most current experience records this figure at approximately 325 families in Palomas in dire need of emergency food. Early this June, the day after the Outreach did a distribution of 3 to 4 days of food to over 250 recorded families, approximately 75 more families applied to us because they were completely without food. We had no food left to give them.
We are devastated by our inability to help so many Palomas families now living near starvation level.
Our most immediate concern is that of the needs of the estimated 2500-3000 children who lost their only meal of the day when school ended.
We are in the second week of our new Meals for the Children program, during which from June 14 to July 16 we are distributing 1500 boxed meals a day Monday through Friday to school age children at three locations in Palomas, the Outreach building on Buenaventura Street, the Main Plaza where the Catholic church is located, and in Pancho Villa Plaza, near Ford Elementary school. We now find we will lose 500 of those meals on June 25, and have no means of replacing them.
So far we also have no means to continue this program or any program of this scale from July 17 to August 22, the last crucial five weeks before school starts again. We are deeply fearful that most children in Palomas will then be utterly without a meal.
We hope you will agree this situation should not be tolerated.
On behalf of the people of Palomas we beg for your help in addressing this extreme suffering in our neighboring border town.
(The author is U.S. Coordinator for La Luz de la Esperanza Outreach of Palomas, a U.S. secular nonprofit operating inside Palomas, Chihuahua on Buenaventura Street. The piece is based on a letter that she wrote to New Mexico Cabinet Secretary John Garcia.
The above photo is a mural of St. Francis at a chapel on the premises of La Luz de Esperanza Outreach)