This week, Jean Friedman-Rudovsky presents a five-part series featuring stories of women and girls in Bolivia and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. It's called Ground Shifters: Stories of Women Changing Unseen Worlds.
Today, we revisit Ciudad Juárez, now ground zero of a drug war that’s killed more than 6,000 people in the last three years. The carnage has left an entire population of families steeped in grief. We get an intimate look at one young woman who recently lost the love of her life. She tells Friedman-Rudovsky how her emotional wounds have helped others to heal.
JEAN: Meet Erika Salazar and Ernesto, her three year old son.
JEAN [with ERIKA and SON mixed in]: Since last June, this is their daily ritual: Mother asks son: where’s daddy? Ernesto points to the sky. And you love him a lot? Yes, he says. And where is he watching you from, making sure you are alright? Up there, answers the little boy with the slight lisp, eyes floating up towards the heavens.
ERIKA: I found out watching the TV news; I thought I saw his body. So I went to where the news said the killing happened and no one was there. I looked for him all over the city and then just as I was heading home I saw the car he had been driving. It was full of blood and the windows were shattered. In that moment, I knew it was him I had seen. So I went to the morgue and he was there. The district attorney hasn’t investigated it at all, just like with many other cases.
JEAN: Erika and Ernesto lives in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico homicide capital of the world, where thousands have died from the years-long “War on Drugs” that many see spiraling out of control. An increasing number of politicians, experts and activists now wonder if the billions of dollars spent were worth the human cost. Recently we’ve learned about “Operation Fast and Furious,” a scheme through which the US government intentionally allowed thousands of guns to flow into Mexico in order to track their sale to violent drug cartels.
Erika’s husband was shot, assaulted and killed for his cash, she says. 29 years-old Loving father of three.
ERIKA: Era los 24 horas estando en la casa. Llorando, sin dormir…
JEAN: At first, I was just in the house 24 hours a day, crying, not eating, not sleeping. Not even showering, and not paying any attention to my kids, she remembers. But then she recalls saying to her self: Erika, enough. You have three kids and don’t have the luxury of falling down.
JEAN: So instead of falling, Erica landed here.
JEAN: Welcome to SABIC, Salud y Bienestar Comunitario, or Communal Health and Wellbeing, where dance therapy class has just let out.
DORA: Aquí se llama Salud y Bienestar Comunitario, es una asociación civil, estamos en la zona poniente de ciudad Juárez…
JEAN: That’s the center’s Director, Dora Davila. Dora explains that residents of this periphery neighborhood created the center eight years ago.
DORA: This center is completely community run. It’s based on holistic healing. Here we work with an all-encompassing concept of health. Health as harmony, as equilibrium, as life—emtional, social, environment and body. We have a wide range of services including floral therapy, reiki, massage, group therapy, dance. We have a very clear concept of gender too—meaning the reconstruction of women’s lives, particularly now as this relates to the current situation of generalized violence in this city.
JEAN: The small building perched on a hill, overlooks the rest of the city. I can understand how Erika must have felt first coming here. The all-glass entrance is filled with plants and sunlight pores in. Children amuse themselves with Legos as their moms drink coffee and prepare for the day.
ERIKA: Yo empecé a trabajar aquí en SABIC por medio de las terapias…
JEAN: Erika says her neighbor, who had also lost a loved one to violence, brought her here for the first time to attend the grief support group. She then involved with dance classes, reiki, and as a peer counselor for other women. Now she works here as an administrative assistant.
ERIKA: My life changed completely. I used to be a housewife and I depended on my husband for everything. Now I am rediscovering myself as a woman, as a worker, as a mother because I am using skills that I didn’t even know I had or that I never put to use. I arrived here destroyed, with my self-esteem on the floor. You could say I arrived here dead inside.
JEAN: It’s hard to reconcile Erika’s reflection of her past self with the woman sitting in front of me. She now has a quiet grace, the serenity of a survivor who is at peace with what life has thrown at her, and the strength of a warrior who knows the battle is not yet over. This is not uncommon in Juarez, notes Dora Davila.
DORA: To be a woman in Juárez is like being in a whirpool from which you can’t escape. It tires you. Women of Juarez are tired of the hours they work in the maquila, tired of living in fear of what will happen to their kids. We sometimes feel like our energy runs out and we aren’t sure where we’ll find enough to keep on. But also, being a woman in Juarez means very brave and very strong. Recently, there is a strong sense of solidarity. To be a woman in Juarez is to be all women of Juarez. All of us who are here say to ourselves “being in Juarez gives my life purpose.”
JEAN: On a recent morning, Erika and two other women gather for their weekly group therapy session. They sit on plastic chairs with bare feet resting on mats and rugs.
ERIKA: Ya saque saque su ropa, fue dificil, mucho mucho pero parece que ya..
JEAN: Erika lives with parents now that her husband is gone. In group therapy, she recounts her previous day. She spent the afternoon getting rid of her husband’s clothes and belongings. It was her first time back home since he died. It was hard, she says to the group. Very, very hard. Seeing all his things, she continues, made me feel like I had fallen again. But with she says her friends helped her move her emotions, from anger, to sadness and finally to relief.
The other women nod understanding Erika’s story in a way I can not. One, who asked me not to use her name, also lost her husband to the city’s escalating violence. She reflects on the struggle that has become that of so many Juarez women and how she like Erika has found a path forward.
ANONYMOUS WOMAN: There are so many women who are alone now. From the moment we lose our husbands we begin a constant challenge—trying to earn enough money from work and also becoming better mothers. We end up sacrificing part of ourselves. We dedicate all our time to work, to our kids, to the daily struggle of keeping our families going and the days pass into years. We are honest, dedicated working people and we have learned so much by being together with other women. We are better able to take on life’s challenges and to have a more positive attitude. The therapy helps us express our emotions and to move forward psychologically.
Despite this, it seems that such intense personal reflection is only for the truly strong. The group has dwindled over time, from 16 to four.
ERIKA: The moment we start to touch on the hard stuff, you find ways to escape. We dont really want to work that hard stuff. People think that pain is normal, that it’s natural, that if you lose a loved one then you have to suffer because if you stop suffering it means you no longer love that person. That’s not the way it should be. Let that person go and rest in peace. Don’t wait for time to heal your pain because that only makes it worse. The sooner you start to heal the better.
JEAN: For this reason, Dora, Erika and the others spread out around Juárez, offering peer counseling and therapy to women who can’t get to the center. This collective experience is crucial for Erika.
ERIKA: Sharing the experiences of others who have gone through what you’ve lived helps to minimize your own suffering. You start find silver linings. For example when I sit down and talk with someone who has gone through what I have, sometimes it’s like I am that person on the listening end. The first time I tried peer counseling it was with a young woman like me. She had lost her husband a year ago before and she was totally destroyed, crying. By telling her “listen, chin up, be strong, everything happens for a reason,” it was like I was saying it to myself, almost like I was looking into a mirror and comforting myself too.
JEAN: Back at home, Erika gives little Ernesto a bath. She says they’ll probably stay with her parents longer than she first thought. She’s just not ready to go back to the home she shared with her husband. That’s how her life is right now, one day at a time.
ERIKA: I used to be a person that planned everything. I was the one, as they say, who built castles in the sky. But everything that happened made me realize that the only thing you have is this moment. We dont know what’s going to happen tomorrow. What happened to me helped me open my eyes and live everyday in the present.
JEAN: Erika’s life today feels almost like a life-after. There was something else before – love, joy, partnership – which she mourns but she knows she can not turn back the pages of time. Instead, she moves forward, without regret, present in her skin, in her space, in her city—unlike the quarter-million Juárez residents who’ve fled over the past four years in fear. Erika could have left too. Her three kids are all U.S. citizens. But, she says she and her children are Juarenses and they won’t be leave.
ERIKA: Juarez is not just violence. There are many good people, many people who receive you with open arms. There are many of us still here with the hope that this is going to change and we don’t let ourselves lose that hope. We are hard working people, we fight to make our lives better. We are united. We have faith our current situation will change. We are from here and this is where were will remain.
JEAN [with ERIKA and ERNESTO mixed in]: Ernesto stands on the couch. His tiny legs wobble as he tries to steady himself on the cushions. Erika kneels below. “Jump, Jump!,” she tells him. Don’t be afraid. He laughs and hesitates. For this three year old, the inches that separate him from the safety of his mom’s outstretched hands, must seem like a one story drop. “I’m right here,” Erika says. “I’ve got you.” Ernesto looks straight into her eyes and springs off the couch, right into her arms. I notice he’s got her full lips and smooth skin. His eyes are someone else’s.
ERIKA: Me amas? Hasta donde? Hasta donde esta tu papi? Es mucho verdad que sí?
JEAN: You love me? Erika asks. Yes, he answers. How much? He mumbles: I love you from here to where my daddy is up there.
[end Erika and Ernesto original audio]
This series is part of an ongoing collaboration between WBEZ and the Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women & Gender in the Arts & Media at Columbia College-Chicago called Gender, Human Rights, Leadership, and Media. The Institute develops projects with journalists, artists, human rights workers and activists to investigate global issues.