The community of Anapra sits on northwest border of Juarez, Mexico, and, from practically anywhere in town, you can see the city of El Paso. In fact, before a wall was erected in the late 1990s, residents easily traveled back and forth across the border to trade and sell in the United States.
Anapra was once known as the gateway to Mexico, but, as Juarez expanded over the last few decades, it subsumed the enclave. It now holds the undesirable distinction of being the poorest area in or around Juarez. Nearly half of its residents are migrant workers who came from other Mexican cities to work in “maquilas” or factories that manufacture products for export to the U.S. It is a town scarred by hardship and dislocation, a population uprooted from any support networks or structures: extended family, community, and even culture. The crushing effects of poverty can be seen everywhere: little access to healthcare and education, illiteracy, domestic violence, mental-emotional health issues, and isolation.
In 2002, Linabel Sarlat and Elvia Villescas took on the challenge of confronting Anapra’s difficulties at their very roots by working to help families and children, the foundation of any community. Both Sarlat and Villescas were former Catholic nuns who left their congregations to put their faith into practice in Anapra. It was their vision that launched the organization Las Hormigas Communidad en Desarollo or “The Ants” Community Development, which has, over the years, offered an array of crucial services to Anapra’s residents.
We recently had the opportunity to speak with Sarlat and Villescas – respectively the Director and Program Coordinator of Las Hormigas – about their work and the challenges they face in fostering healthy living and child development in a community that has seen so many struggles.
What is the mission of Las Hormigas?
We are dedicated to working cooperatively with families, fostering their growth and development. Our work has two strands: offering educational opportunities to children and therapeutic services for adults. Therapy sessions focus men and women on self-awareness and healthy development. They become healthy, so they can be strong parents to their children. These services are hard to access for poor people in this area, whereas the more wealthy have many options.
We do this work with children and adults to mitigate violence, to disarm the triggers for violence. For anyone, rich or poor, who has learned damaging patterns of behavior, life in general becomes dissatisfying and full of violence and ignorance, instead of the miracle that each life is.
Every human being is full of light and love. When we don’t do the work to realize our true selves, we live lost, confused, and lacking self-awareness. When we work with someone here at Las Hormigas and that moment comes when they recognize their own, deep value…it’s fantastic. They throw away all of the baggage they’ve been carrying around, the violence and sexual abuse. The evolution is amazing.
We see that same transformation in children when they realize they are intelligent, that they can stand up for themselves, that they can read and write, and even get along with their peers. Then, they go home and see that their mother and father have changed, too. “Mom doesn’t hit or yell anymore. She doesn’t tell me anymore that I am stupid. Instead, she says, ‘You are a miracle.’”
So, we have parents becoming more self-aware and letting go of negative behaviors, while at the same time the child learns new skills and develops a positive self image. We walk with parents and children as they learn these new processes – as they develop and transform.
Why did you decide to focus on gender equality and therapy?
I used to be a nun. At that time, I was conscious of the fact that I needed to work on some things inside myself, and I realized that therapy could help me do that work and bring out my inner light. Later, I realized that that same work could have special significance for people struggling with poverty.
I learned this all from my father, who was always very respectful and loving towards the poor. He planted that seed within me, the desire to be near the most disenfranchised. I became dedicated to this work, to helping people take charge of their lives and leave victimhood behind. I wanted to help them realize that, if you change yourself, everything in your life will change along with you.
I walk my journey enriched by many teachers who fought for women’s rights, so that women will be treated with respect, not as objects or servants for men.
Is there a moment that you witnessed a transformation that really stands out in your memory?
There are so many cases. I remember one woman who held so much rancor towards her grandmother. But in the third session, she realized that her grandmother has been a victim of discrimination and violence herself and was simply repeating old patterns of behavior, and she just began to cry and cry. When she calmed down, she became completely tranquil. She realized that if she continued holding onto the anger in her heart, that the only person it would hurt would be herself.
The progress can be slow, drop by drop. But it’s a privilege and a blessing to do this work.
What do you want to tell people about your work?
I want people who don’t know about our work to become engaged and support us. Our work here isn’t about charity. What we’re doing is giving people the tools to live better lives independently, so they won’t need charity. We’re helping people find an honorable way to meet their inner needs. We want people to value this process of human development, to understand that, little by little, we can change the whole society for the better.
To learn more about the important work that Las Hormigas is doing to address violence, discrimination, and the crippling effects of poverty on the U.S./Mexican border, you can visit their website at http://lashormigascomunidad.org. You can also make a donation to help them continue these vital efforts. Facebook: Las Hormigas Comunidad en Desarrollo A.C.