On the drive to El Paso, I stopped in Colorado City, Texas, at a local Mexican restaurant called Mi Ranchito, for what I hoped would be an authentic, home-style Mexican meal. Mi Ranchito did not disappoint; the food was delicious. But what stood out most to me was when a patron asked the waitress how much extra it would cost to have avocado added to their dish, and the waitress happily replied that she’d add a few slices of avocado at no extra charge. That simple gesture spoke volumes.
I asked myself, ‘Is this what collectivism might look like?’ It’s common practice in American restaurants to charge extra for any added items—avocados can easily fetch an additional two or three dollars. This wasn’t the typical American profit driven model for running a business, but at this particular Mexican restaurant, owned and operated by Mexican Americans, in this West Texas town of 3,931 about a five-and-a-half hour drive from El Paso, there would be no additional charge for a few slices of avocado.
On both sides of the border, in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, I met people from different walks of life who join forces to help provide humanitarian aid to human beings in need. They invest their time and energies in the pursuit of making the lives of complete strangers a little bit easier. They share a common collective spirit and cause: help people in need, especially the most marginalized. They have absolutely no profit motive in mind—they don’t ask themselves, ‘what’s in it for me?’ There are no political motives behind their actions and efforts. Their motivation is rooted in an empathetic desire to simply help those in need; help human beings. That selfless spirit hearkens back to a time when a United States President once said in a speech, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” But, in this case, I’ll substitute your country with people in need.
According to the late Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede’s 6-D Model of National Culture, the United States is ranked as having the most individualistic culture on the planet. With this in mind, the sister cities region of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez is like a tiny island of collectivism in a vast sea of individualism. The people, activist groups, and organizations that collectively work together to help human beings in need are in direct resistance to the status quo of our individualistic society. It is through their selfless actions of assistance that they protest and resist a society governed by selfishness and greed.
It was encouraging to witness for myself what collectivism in action looks like and how it can help improve the lives of all those involved; both donor and recipient.
The region that covers present day Ciudad Juárez and El Paso became a Spanish settlement in the 17th century, with Spanish settlers and Indigenous people living on both sides of the Rio Grande river (known as the Río Bravo in Mexico). In 1848, at the conclusion of the Mexican-American war, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed and the Rio Grande became the boundary between the two nations; marking the first time the two settlements would belong to different countries, thus dividing families and friends, and forever changing the lives of a people who had been living in the area for hundreds of years.
Ortiz, 46, is one of five founders of Casa Carmelita, a native-led collective of activists and directly impacted people with a two-fold mission: assistance by way of aid and support to the most vulnerable and marginalized people in the border region of Ciudad Juárez and El Paso; and, resistance in the form of direct action against the injustices espoused by U.S. immigration policies and the hateful rhetoric aimed at people of color.
“Those narratives that are meant to exacerbate the problems that exist here, to vilify those folks asking for help and the refusal to see those folks as human beings are at the heart of the struggle we have here,” Ortiz said. “There is a concerted effort by many people in this country to dehumanize those folks, and it’s our job to push back against that. And part of that is to treat them like we would treat our own family in the truest sense of the word. And so, we’re out there trying to share what we have, feed folks, guide them to resources, rewrite the narratives, resist in the ways we can, resist the xenophobia and racism, resist the violence.”
The space is named in honor of Carmelita Torres, a Mexican domestic worker from Ciudad Juárez, who in 1917 engaged in an act of resistance that sparked what would become known as the “Bath Riots.” On her way to work one morning, a 17-year-old Torres led a group of Mexican workers to protest the new U.S. immigration policies at the El Paso-Juárez border, which required Mexican laborers crossing the border to be sanitized at a disinfecting station by subjecting them to delousing baths and vaccinations.
The Casa Carmelita collective tries to provide humanitarian aid to the migrant shelters in Ciudad Juárez at least a couple of times a week. However, these donation runs are fraught with risks: Mexican border agents or police who sometimes want to tax or confiscate the material donations; safety risks; and the not-so-uncommon scrutiny and harassment by U.S. border agents upon their return.
Ortiz, 46, ancestrally from the El Paso/Ciudad Juárez region, has been an activist for over 20 years and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Arizona, where he is a Mexican American Studies major working on his dissertation on mass incarceration on the border.
Ortiz’s belief system is rooted in his Indigenous upbringing, which has influenced his entire life, including the work he does as an activist with the Casa Carmelita collective. Growing up, his grandmother inculcated in him the belief that there is no shame in asking the universe for what you need, as long as you make an accord to share and pay it forward when you can. She was instilling in him a cosmovision that most Indigenous people hold as a sacred truth. “I come from a culture in which helping others is deeply inherent in what we do, and our mantra is, where one eats, two eat; donde come uno, comen dos,” Ortiz said. “And that extends to the way I view my politics, the way I literally live my life in practice, and it’s deeply rooted into those ancestral ways of viewing the world.”
Juan Ortiz, a native El Pasoan, has family that lives in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, and his ancestors are Indigenous to the region. Growing up in the 70s, 80s and 90s, Ortiz, 46, fondly recalls spending almost as much time in Juárez as he did in El Paso, living the life of a fronterizo—a person with strong cultural and familial ties on both sides of the border. “Our generation practically lived in Juarez because this is where we had come for glasses, for medicine, for healthcare, for entertainment and to visit family,” Ortiz said.
But after 9/11, a way of life that had existed for generations began to drastically change in the Sister Cities region, according to Ortiz. Under the guise of National Security, a more racist anti-immigration agenda against brown people gained traction in American politics and culture, culminating in the Trump administration’s xenophobic anti-immigration policies and their build-the-wall agenda. As Ortiz put it, “We were literally a city that was cut in half, and in the American imagination I don’t think that people realize what that means; they don’t realize what that means to a people, because people don’t stop being a people because you erected this wall.”
Pastor Sieve, 51, a gay man raised in a German Catholic neighborhood on the south side of St. Louis, relocated to El Paso in June 2019 where, in addition to his pastoral work with the church, he’s been working as an activist and organizer in the fight for border justice, and helping the most vulnerable and marginalized people in the region. Sieve said he’s always “had a deep, deep empathy for people who were suffering and for people who were judged, and for people who were bullied” thanks to his grandpa who “hated bullies and racism, and always rooted for the underdog.”
Pastor Sieve was the first activist on the El Paso side of the border to learn about eight trans women from El Salvador who were trying to establish a shelter in an abandoned hotel in downtown Ciudad Juárez. With the help of a fellow MCC pastor from Juárez, they were able to raise funds and provide some material donations for the shelter, which, after a vote by the residents living there at the time, was given the name Casa de Colores (House of Colors). After his fellow pastor became infected with COVID-19 and as the number of trans women living at the shelter continued to gradually increase—the total number of trans women supported by Casa de Colores would grow to more than 50 over the course of about four months—Sieve sought the help of the Casa Carmelita collective out of El Paso, Texas. Together they’d team up to help provide the residents of the Casa de Colores shelter with the assistance and support they would need until they were able to enter the U.S. as asylum seekers.
Members of the LGBTQ community, particularly trans women, are extremely marginalized in many countries around the globe and are often the victims of violent attacks and murder. They’re usually shunned by society as a whole, including family. Because of this overt discrimination, they’re not afforded the opportunity to get an education, have a career or even obtain any meaningful work. It is common for trans women to have to resort to sex work in order to survive, which makes them vulnerable to criminal elements and corrupt law enforcement.
Susana, 40, was pivotal in establishing and managing Casa de Colores (House of Colors), a shelter in downtown Ciudad Juárez that, at its peak, provided a safe haven to more than 50 trans women from Central America and Mexico over an eight-month period from September 2020 to May 2021, and they would come to be known as las chicas (The Girls). Their intention was to seek asylum in the U.S., but because of the Trump administration's Migrant Protection Program (MPP)—more commonly known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy—and the COVID-19 pandemic, they were trapped in Ciudad Juárez for 15 months.
The building that housed Casa de Colores was once a hotel that had been abandoned for 20 years. The owners of the building allowed the trans women to live in the space as long as they agreed to clean it, and, within a few weeks, they converted the once derelict hotel, devoid of electricity and plumbing, into a livable space equipped with running water and electricity. Thanks to Susana’s work experience—she possessed a skill set that included plumbing, electrical, and construction work—she oversaw all the necessary repairs. Susana was also instrumental in tapping into a network of aid groups and activists from Ciudad Juárez and El Paso that helped provide the ad hoc shelter with financial and material support.
Susana reflected on her experience: “I never in my life even thought about leading such a large group or building something so big. I had never even thought about it, much less planned it. It was something that really arose from the need of a vulnerable group that was literally on the street. There is a saying that says that necessity is the mother of ingenuity and seeing us really on the street and without any hope, without any resources, I think that was when the strength came, from where there was none, and we created this project that to date seems to me a little hard to believe the extent it’s reached.”
Within the first month of the Casa de Colores shelter becoming a home for las chicas (The Girls), the Casa Carmelita collective from El Paso got involved and provided them with a great deal of support and assistance for the next eight months. Once in office, the Biden administration halted the MPP program and by May 2021, las chicas from Casa de Colores successfully crossed the border into the U.S. as asylum seekers, and the supplies donated to the Casa de Colores shelter were then passed on to other migrant shelters in Ciudad Juárez. The Casa de Colores project was terminated.
Once across the border in El Paso, Casa Carmelita became a temporary home for las chicas until each of them either joined family or friends already living in the U.S., or were able to obtain a sponsor and live with them while awaiting their immigration hearings and proceedings. Susana and three other trans women were unable to immediately obtain sponsors who could provide them with a place to live in the interim, and so they remained living in Casa Carmelita for a few months. During this time, Susana and the others made it a priority to pay forward, in whatever way they could, the invaluable acts of selflessness and kindness that they received from the Casa Carmelita collective.
“If we’re here, the idea is to collaborate with the Casa Carmelita movement with repairs to Casa Carmelita,” Susana said. “They’ve maintained us for such a long time, they’ve given us support for a very long time. In some way we would like to return the favor… though really, what we do is very little compared to all the help they’ve given us; they were practically supporting 50 people from this place. So now, in some way, we are going to see how we can help with some repairs, some things and activities.”
Susana uses three phone lines for her day to day affairs. One phone hosts her Mexican line; the same line she used during her time in Juárez to network with aid organizations from both sides of the border that helped support Casa de Colores. Her newest phone line is with an American carrier, which she intends to transition to as her main point of contact for the immigrant aid network and volunteer social work she’s become involved in since her arrival to El Paso. The third phone hosts her oldest phone line, the same one she brought with her from El Salvador. Susana uses this line exclusively for communication with her family and close friends in El Salvador. It’s only on this phone line that she presents as a male because her parents are religious conservatives and opposed to anything that has to do with the LGBTQ community. She prefers not to put them through the experience of learning that she presents as a trans female.
Susana explains, “The same number that I brought from El Salvador, with which I continue to communicate with my family and with all the people who are close to me in El Salvador, my dad, my mom, my aunts, my cousins and all the people who know me... I'm going to keep that one for years or I don't know how much longer, but that phone is for my family. My parents, who are 85 years old, both are very, very religious, very anti community, and I think that at this point I don’t need to give them that news. I think they end their last days thinking that nothing happened, nothing is happening.”
In 2009, Susana worked driving fuel tankers around El Salvador when, late one night, after delivering 8,000 gallons of gasoline, she was on her way back to return the truck and she picked up three hitchhikers she thought were cis women but turned out to be trans women. During this ride, she opened up to the trans women and shared with them her desire to also wear makeup and dress as a woman—something Susana began doing privately when she was a young teenager. Friendships were formed and the women invited Susana to join them on a night out whenever she wanted to.
Shortly after, Susana began presenting herself as a trans woman in public but only at night when, once or twice a month, she'd secretly go out with her new friends to an LGBTQ discotheque that was 80 kilometers (about 50 miles) from her home. The next day she’d return to her job and pretend as if nothing had happened. Susana had to be extremely careful to wash away any trace of makeup from her face since presenting as a trans woman had to be kept secret at all costs. “It was about trying to totally cover that up, because it’s not something that in El Salvador the culture or the people are going to be proud of. On the contrary, it’s something dangerous where your life and your social relationships could crash to the ground in a couple of minutes. So you had to be very, very careful with that part. Yes, it is dangerous to be trans in El Salvador. It’s not something that people accept very well. It’s not something that people understand, or have even a little bit of tolerance towards. Very few people tolerate it,” Susana said.
Susana and Alexa first met in 2019 at a Pollo Campero fast food restaurant in San Salvador—the Kentucky Fried Chicken of El Salvador—where a group of LGBTQ people gathered to plan their trip to the US-Mexico border with the intention of seeking asylum in the U.S. Susana, Alexa, and 19 other members of the Salvadoran LGBTQ community set out on their journey on January 14, 2020; they hoped to make it to the U.S. within a month, but because of the Trump administration's Migrant Protection Program (MPP), more commonly known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, and the COVID-19 pandemic, it would take them 15 months.
Of the original 21 individuals to leave El Salvador, eight of them formed a group that eventually made it to Ciudad Juárez and about seven months later. In September, 2020, the eight chicas became the founding residents of the Casa de Colores shelter. Shortly after establishing the shelter, las chicas were joined by another 34 trans women from El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Guatemala, and Mexico. They all lived together for eight months before successfully crossing the border into the U.S. as asylum seekers.
During their 15 month odyssey, which featured many highs and lows, las chicas formed strong relationships; especially Susana and Alexa. Susana said that she and Alexa were able to organize the group and create a collective of trans women that blossomed into a family unit: “We spent so much time together. We shared food and we shared time; we shared music. We shared everything, even the bathroom. We developed a family bond in which you feel so comfortable with this person because you consider them your family, part of your family, and you have so much trust that you reach the point where we all eat from the same plate or we all sit on the same bed. I mean, in the way you see your sisters or daughters, and it is that familiarity and that attachment where you know that if this person is sick, you feel bad for them. There is no difference. I mean, you care about them as if they were really your blood family, or maybe even more.”
In addition to being in charge of the maintenance and management of the day-to-day affairs at Casa de Colores in Ciudad Juárez, Susana also found herself assuming the role of house mother and credits her innate maternal instincts for her ability to have forged such strong bonds with most of the chicas of Casa de Colores, and for providing them with everything they need; from basic first aid to emotional support. It didn’t take long before some of the chicas began referring to Susana as mami, mamá, mother or mother Susana, and she didn’t mind it at all: “It never bothered me,” Susana said. “On the contrary, I found it funny and sometimes it touched me because several times there were cases of anxiety attacks and panic attacks. I think there were countless times when suddenly someone called me crying, having woken up from nightmares and I’d have to run out of my room and go to her room, sit next to her bed to stroke her head and say, ‘Don’t worry, everything is going to be fine, don’t worry’, until she fell asleep.”
Unable to legally work in the United States while her asylum case is pending, Susana opted to volunteer with a group of non-profit immigration lawyers helping screen migrants who wish to seek asylum. Susana sits down to her two computers and large monitor—each screen performing a different function—and she takes calls from people who were fortunate enough to have obtained her phone number. After the initial interview, if Susana determines a valid asylum claim exists, she refers the case, along with any documentation she may have collected, to the legal-aid attorneys. Susana said helping others in need is the least she can do while she awaits the processing of her asylum case: “Well, this time that I’ll be waiting I can take advantage to help people who come after me and who really need it. So, I consider it not as time wasted, but time to pay back somehow the favor they did me and the good treatment they gave me; to pass it on to the other people who come after me.” Susana also takes advantage of the relationships she’s established with the network of shelters and aid organizations in Ciudad Juárez to help find lodging and support for asylum-seeking migrants who are waiting to cross into the U.S.