House of hope

San Miguel de Allende, a small town just north of Mexico city, is known for its popularity with retireees popular with retirees and for being part of the set of Once Upon A Mexico. The architecture is stunning, the nightlife is surprisingly good and the people are amazingly friendly. It is also a perfect microcosm of Mexican society. While the town as a whole is one of the most wealthy and most expensive places in Mexico, it is still impossible to walk down one of the main streets without seeing a beggar extending an empty hand.

The situation in Mexico as a whole is no better. In the country as a whole the situation is no better. Around 40 per cent of the population livesis below the poverty line. It is worse, as always, for the women. Living in a traditional and machismo nation, they are not seen in many respects as equal to men. Domestic abuse is endemic with around one in four women being victims of sexual or physical abuse in the home.

{{ quote When everyone seemed just happy it is easy to forget why these girls are there }}

In San Miguel, around the corner from the main plaza, is the Casa Hogar Don Bosco, a shelter for girls who have run away or been abused at home. The shelter is in a beautiful old house whose grand bedrooms now hold rows of bunk beds. The numbers of girls staying there varies as do the ages. During my time there the youngest was 9 and the oldest, 20.

Casa Hogar’s mission statement says it takes in those who have been subjected to “a lack of affection”; more clearly defined as girls who have been abused by one or both parents or suffered in a dysfunctional family and thus subsequently, who ran away from or were kicked out of their homes. On most days the girls go to school and then fulfil their responsibilities such as cooking and cleaning inside Casa Hogar, and outside activities with volunteer groups or the church.

After volunteering there for some time, one of the girls, Nanci, invited me to her fifteenth birthday party. When I came to the shelter that day it had been transformed. The girls, dressed in their best, raced around the tables set up in the courtyard and in the hallway fetching snacks, drinks and plates, while others made the finishing touches in the kitchen and those remaining greeted the guests and family members.

Nanci sat beaming at the head of the table, dressed in a flowing, Cinderella-like pink dress. She was making the passage into womanhood in keeping with the tradition of quinceañera. While in the America sweet 16 is the important birthday, here for girls it is 15, when they leave la ‘edad de las illusiones’ (the age of illusion) and begin their passage into womanhood. A custom attributed to the Spanish colonizers, this celebration transcends class and wealth boundaries and girls all over Mexico and in other Latin America are traditionally honoured on this birthday.

However, Nanci probably wasn’t reflecting on the history of quinceañeras, especially not when her cake was brought in. This four-piece tower had everyone licking their lips with, and a few sneaking a bit of the frosting. She may have, instead, been thinking towards the future. She plans to be a kindergarten teacher one day. Her patience with the guests certainly shows an aptitude for it. Celina, who dreams of being a violinist, watches the musicians closely. There are also aspiring veterinarians, lawyers, singers and one budding geologist.. Ranchero and cumbia music swooned in the background as the girls laughed and Nanci enjoyed being the centre of attencion. Soon the plates with chicken and mole, rice and vegetables came, accompanied with a ridiculous amount of soft drinks. All the tables were now filled with girls, nuns, guests and (part of) Nanci’s family. Then a rush of excitement filled the girls closest to the main doors, even the Sisters couldn’t hide their smiles, the corner of their lips curving up like , those of someone with a big secret they are trying to keep. The music was turned off. Nanci, who had been up and about, was hurried back to the table and as she sat down the first strings of the mariachi played. One after the other the group of mariachi entered the Casa Hogar decked out in the traditional black studded outfits and sombreros. All listened attentively, smiling, giggling and looking at Nanci to see if she was enjoying it too. The sparkle in her eyes gave her away. At the end of the song everyone clapped enthusiastically and requests for the next song were made.

Mariachis might have become a joke in the US but in Mexico they are the thing to have at a party, no matter the age. And for men trying to woo a girl or ask their girlfriend for forgiveness, nothing says I love you like a mariachi troupe under the moonlight. The matching costumes and pimped out sombreros may look, admittedly, amusing, but they can entertain.

On a day like that, when everyone seemsed just happy it is easy to forget why these girls are there. Especially when one looks down the table to see Nanci flanked by family members on both sides of the table. Her mother didn’t come. After all, it was her mother’s abuse which made Nanci run away from home and later end up in the Casa Hogar. When asked about the scars on her arms, Milagros, 20, answered that she couldn’t remember were she got them from. Probably from my mother, or my sister, she responded looking away. Milagros is the oldest girl at the shelter and because of a serious learning disability there has been little chance for her to leave. Nanci posed for photos next to her cake, the folds on her dress mirrored by the layered frosting. As Nanci leaned towards the cake, someone gave her a gentle push and Nanci’s face fell into the cake; she came up with frosting from nose to chin and a big smile.

On a day like this, a rare Sunday off for the girls, they can forget the troubles of their pasts and simply enjoy the present. One can’t help but feel that in that moment lies Mexico, in the tradition, the music, the food, the people and, yes, the problems. Though even the latter is lined with smiles and hope. While the Catholic Cchurch provides and organizes the staff (the Dominican Sisters of Maria), it does not ensure steady financial support. Nor does the government, as Casa Hogar, a member of Sociedad Civil, is a non-governmental organization. In fact, apart from their independent sales from a food stand in a neighbouring town, it is completely dependent on outside sources for funding and volunteer aid. The director noted that while at Christmas-time there are always sufficient or surplus funds, this peters out during the rest of the year.

Instead residents of the town pay for expensive meals and £2 million vacation homes. The gap between rich and poor, fortunate and unfortunate in San Miguel could not be much more obvious. The same could be said for Mexico as a whole, and of the gap between men and women’s chances. There is also a boys shelter just outside of town but they do not accepthave residents over the age of 16. They are able to find work and get out if they want. The girls on the other hand must wait to meet a boy who they will marry. Some of the girls in Casa Hogar do return to their families though.

“On my last visit to San Miguel and the Casa Hogar Nanci was no longer there. She had gone home to her family and we haven’t heard from her since.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.