I originally became interested in the struggles of Mexican women while vacationing with my husband in August, 2004. We spent three lovely weeks enjoying San Miguel de Allende, Mexico - a colonial town just north of Mexico City renown for its culture, great food and perfect weather. During our visit, I became curious about the obvious absence of young Mexican men in the town. The frequent response I received was - “Se Fue Norte” which means they have gone north. This is a commonly used statement to reflect the economically driven social behavior which forces young Mexican men to leave their families and travel to America for jobs. Many of the husbands never return home. Their wives and children are left to fend for themselves.
For generations, Mexican women have been expected to marry young and raise many children. Few are encouraged to pursue a career or seek education for advancement. They are not equipped with the confidence or skills to become the financial provider for their family. As a result, many women resort to the age-old occupation of begging - totally dependent on the generosity of others. They tether their pre-school aged children to their sides day after day using them as the hook to arouse sympathy from the more financially secure.
As an American, I can not ignore our roll in this predicament. The social economic status between Mexico and the US drives this migration of men north and our work ethics enable them to find the jobs that perpetuate these actions.
A foundation in San Miguel called Casa de los Angeles – House of Angels was established to offer an alternative lifestyle for the poorest of mothers and break the culturally accepted cycle of begging. Casa has taken mothers off the streets, helped those secure jobs and has provided a safe haven for their children while they work.
Founded by Donna Quathamer in September 2000, it now accommodates over 100 pre-school children ages 0-5, 83 families in two facilities. The children are given pre-school education, fed three healthy meals daily - sometimes their only source of food - bathed, clothed and provided with medical care as needed.
All this is done through charitable donations. In return, mothers are asked to help out one hour for each day their children are at Casa. The center also provides workshops for mothers to address wellness issues, money management and other services to help develop independence and increase self esteem. Today, with the generous help of American support, Casa is expanding to provide bathrooms for families who own their property and building transitional housing for the mothers in Casa who are homeless.
I became passionate about the need to help these mothers and in November, 2004, I returned to Mexico on my own. I intended to use my photography as a vehicle to raise both awareness and dollars for those Mexican women who have been left behind. I spent 12 days with six Mexican families living without husbands in an effort to capture their story on film. I generated a body of photographic work and diary of personal experiences which I hope to publish.
When I returned to the US, my images were used as the visual backdrop for “The Milk Money Project” fund raiser concert in Dallas, Texas. Hosted by Grammy nominated Texas singer/songwriter Radney Foster, this concert raised over $10,000 for the children of Casa de los Angeles. Similar fund raising concerts are ongoing to provide additional relief.
To be totally honest, I did not envision this story from the start. My first impression of Casa was to recognize the progress which had been made over the past three years. The children were well dressed, demonstrated excellent social skills and appeared to be healthy and loved. The program was working.
It was not until I realized the dichotomy between their accommodations at Casa and the impoverished circumstances of their private home lives that my story took form. These children leave Casa at the end of the day with their mothers and go to their primitive, door less, dirt floor shacks. Most have no water for drinking, bathing, washing their clothing or even brushing their teeth. When it rains, they capture the runoff water from their corrugated tin roofs to accommodate their necessary hygiene needs. Few have indoor toilets. The simplest things we take for granted are non existent there.
I knew emotionally that this story would be a challenge. It was important to me to communicate the same feelings I experienced of hopefulness and avoid the horrors of despair so frequently associated with poverty. I trusted my gut and set forward on the path to capture the story.
What you will see in these images is my attempt to illustrate the hardships these women endure from one generation to the next. I contrast it against the innocence and love seen in the children of the Casa community.
I am optimistic about the future. The old women of San Miguel have few options in life and are destined to live off the streets. But now with the Casa de los Angeles Foundation, young women will have some choices. Casa women are learning self respect, independence, and survival skills which they will pass along to their children. Over time, it will help to shape a more productive lifestyle for women and children in San Miguel. Through charitable donations, Casa can become a pilot program for other Mexican towns and villages helping to eradicate begging while perpetuating the well being of the family.
This story and images should appeal to all generations of women who have known or have experienced hardships. It is an uplifting story about mothers who have had the courage to step outside their cultural mores and find a meaningful life for their families. I celebrate their progress.
To learn more about Casa visit their website: www.casadelosangeles.org