The Angel of Juarez

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico--The fine-powder caliche dust rises from the road, forming a suffocating haze that clears only when Esther Chavez slows her car to avoid ruts and rocks or to yield right of way to the dozens of stray dogs trotting aimlessly through the colonia located on the northern edge of Ciudad Juarez. Without comment, she passes row after row of homes fashioned of crumbling adobe, discarded plywood, and cardboard boxes; she says nothing of the piles of fly-blown garbage that fill the gullies along her route.

Here, literally a stone's throw from American prosperity, where the lights of El Paso wink down from the Texas side of the Rio Grande, a brand of pain and suffering thrives. This Mexico border city of 1.5 million people is a world of poverty and death, human injustice and lost hope. And it is this environment that drives the 66-year-old Chavez through 14-hour days focused on gaining new recognition for the rights of the downtrodden, seeking justice for the hundreds of young women who continue to travel here in search of the $4-a-day dream the maquiladora assembly lines promise, only to wind up dead and discarded in the isolated canyons of the nearby Chihuahua Desert.

Those who live in the outlying colonias quickly recognize the red-haired visitor, waving as she passes, calling out for her to stop and visit. Though she stands only five feet tall and weighs but 90 pounds, it is clear Esther Chavez is viewed as larger than life by the people she champions. A woman who never planned to make Juarez her home, she is today the most recognized voice of the city's poor, the last hope of the abused and those grieving for murdered loved ones.

It was Chavez who first spoke out about the endless string of murders of young female maquiladora workers, publicly criticizing what she viewed as police indifference and lobbying for more aggressive investigations into the deaths. She also demanded that managers of the factories provide better security for employees. "For a long time," she says, "the managers of the plants didn't want to talk to me. The police didn't like me. But I have to say what is true."

Helenmarie Zachritz, executive director of the nonprofit Mexican Federation of Private Health and Community Development Associations, is among those who applaud Chavez's efforts. "She's one of those incredible people who draw others to her and her cause. The government, I'm sure, still looks at her as a bothersome fly in the ointment. And, yes, she drives people crazy with her persistence. But believe me, she drives them crazy in a way that is good and positive.

"When you see her out front in the women's marches, carrying a cross bearing the name of one of the murder victims, you immediately know she is a sincere, concerned person who wants nothing more than justice and a better way of life for women. I've known her for years and have grown to admire her more and more with each passing day."

So, too, have those for whom she fights.

They hear her speaking out in their behalf on the radio. They read her weekly column on human rights in El Diario de Juarez, the city's highest-circulation newspaper. They see her on television, lashing out against what she views as corrupt government, chauvinistic mindsets, and shoddy police work. They see her at the front of marches and rallies. And they see her walking their dusty, unpaved streets and visiting their homes, where there is no running water, no electricity, no sewer system. And while the horrible living conditions trouble her, it is the lack of hope she sees all around that causes her the greatest pain. Progress, she admits, comes in increments almost too small to measure.

As Chavez stops and steps from her car, a pretty girl named Jessica, just a few months past her 12th birthday, stands outside her ramshackle house with a small black kitten clutched to her chest. The girl smiles shyly as she moves toward the woman she's heard of but never met. In a matter of minutes she is joined by her older sister, Monica; 7-year-old brother Angel; and, finally, their 33-year-old mother, Maria Elene Vasquez-Lopez. The magnetism of their visitor is quickly apparent. Within minutes they are talking like old friends and exchanging smiles and embraces. Chavez learns that the children's father lives in Durango and is unwilling to join his family on the border. Maria explained that she had previously worked for the maquiladoras but, frightened by the stories of rapes and murders, recently quit. Friends, she says, lend her financial help, and occasionally her husband sends money.

Chavez gives her a card and tells of the Casa Amiga Centro de Crisis, where she serves as executive director. As the only rape crisis center in Ciudad Juarez and one of just four in Mexico, it offers a wide spectrum of services to women, young and old.

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers