In 2013 we opened a library in Anapra. It sits on a corner of two dirt streets in the center of this 10,000 person neighborhood of Juarez. Most people in Anapra survive on around $70 per week for six days of factory work. Public schools are not free, nor do they have libraries. Books are rare. Except at this library where the shelves are filled with over 1,000 titles covering everything from llamas in pajamas to what to expect when you're expecting. This corner of Anapra has become a portal to adventures and to learning. This little library tells a story, too; to the single mother, the elderly grandmother, the tired father, the confused teen, the curious child - that they are valued, worthy of investment, and have a place to belong.
Over the last six months we have added another large space in an "L shape" to help with the library overflow. The building sits back-to-back with the library with a door between the two. The main room is ideal for tutoring and game playing and crafting. The smaller room is great for guests to sleep or potentially a quiet place to read, when needed. For the first time we now have a safe place to stay that does not require inconveniencing our friends or crossing back to the U.S. at night. The space is bright and welcoming, though it is not yet fully finished. The floors are still bare concrete and the walls need paint. One thing at a time and patience, these are things Anapra has taught me.
The library, the new expansion, the books, the activities, none would be possible without Estela. She, and the small group of women she has empowered and entrusted with this ministry, are some of the most incredible leaders I have ever met. Despite their own personal challenges, despite the daily struggle to make ends meet and just stay warm, these women serve selflessly. They show up to open the library. They greet the patrons with hugs. When someone new comes they get to know them, they ask about their story, and they listen. Despite only having a sixth grade education Estela manages the library and the volunteers and the programming like a seasoned pro. She laughs about the unlikely role of 'librarian' but it fits her talents perfectly.
In the early days of ministry in Anapra Estela learned of a young mother whose palette house had burnt to the ground and left her and her five children homeless. Estela worked with her contacts in the US to build this mother a new cinder block home and they soon became close friends. Bertha and her five, now-grown, children continue to help Estela with ministering to the needs of others. Bertha hosts Vacation Bible School every summer which has grown to serving over 200 children on most days of the four-weeks that it runs. Two years ago Bertha suffered a debilitating stroke that left her badly crippled and blind. The people of Anapra and local nuns went into downtown Juarez to tell Bertha's story and request donations for a much-needed surgery. Donations received, along with those from the US, enabled the surgery to save her life and some of her sight. Recently Bertha worked with Estela to begin a Pajama Club at the library. Though she struggles walking long distances, and only has partial sight, her enjoyment of the children is all that is evident when she sings songs and reads stories to the little ones cuddled up on blankets in their pajamas.
Though much has been done in Anapra in the twenty-plus years Estela has been doing ministry to her neighbors, there is still more that is needed. As winter set in last year Estela visited an elderly woman who was living up on the mesa above Anapra. When she arrived at her house she was surprised to find the woman living in a palette house with her six grandchildren and no blankets on the beds. The woman explained that they had hung the blankets on the outside of the walls to try to keep out the bitter wind. Estela reached out to us and shared the story. As a minimum they needed a heater and blankets, but ideally we'd get a house built. We shared the story, we found donors, and a house was built. During our visit we piled into Estela's van and headed up the mesa to see the new house and to meet the woman and her grandchildren.
Lorenza is a petite woman. She was quite but grateful. Her six grandchildren sat quietly and watched as we stood in their 10 ft. by 20 ft. home, beds in each corner, neatly swept. Two more babies lay sleeping, more grandbabies who need watching while their mother is at work. The home sits a stones throw from the edge of the mesa, which is how one granddaughter ended up falling down the steep hillside and breaking her leg several months ago. Estela points to the granddaughter and notes that her leg is healing well. Lorenza tells us that she prays often for those who help the poor, then asks us if we would like to take a look inside of her old house, which she now uses for storage.
Entering someone's home is so personal, especially when they've built it with their own hands. When I was younger, before I had babies of my own and bills and real life experiences, I avoided looking inside a palette house too closely for fear of making the owner feel shame or embarrassment for their fragile dwelling. But Estela started in a palette house. When Anapra was first settled 30 years ago everyone lived in palette houses and those houses meant hope and space to raise kids and having your own plot of land, it is what drew Estela and her husband to this place. Now I know that putting a roof over your children or grandchildren's head is admirable, no matter how meek.
Before we leave the mesa Lorenza comments on William and his size. She tries to hold him but he is overdo on a nap and wants his mama. We walk to the mesa edge and take in the view. Lorenza tells us the best night is the 4th of July. The children line up along the mesa edge to watch the fireworks that light up the sky in the US. The proximity of such severe poverty against the green grass and malls and fireworks of the US has always bothered me. It is the accepted reality of life in Anapra.
Saturday is the busiest library day. The shaded patio out front is quickly filled with readers. A few children grab a game from the shelf and take it outside to play quietly together. Inside many mothers have found their book on the shelf, bookmark right where they left it. The elementary-aged children head to the new space where a long table awaits them. They line up for 90 minutes of tutoring from a local teacher. Nearly 100 people will visit the library from 10:00 to 2:00, and yet it is never chaotic.
Estela's son wants to make the visit extra special, so he offers to drive the big girls up to a new scenic overlook that was recently built in Juarez. Walking out to the domed portion of the overlook requires a special amount of bravery as the grating you walk on reveals how high above the road you are. Everyone wants to see the view so they are brave.
Border towns are unique in the blend they find between the two cultures they share. Juarez is no different. Estela and her family celebrate Thanksgiving every year, though they wait until Saturday since the holiday is obviously American and no one has Thursday off work in Mexico. This year was no different, and we gladly join the festivities. Rather than turkey we are served delicious grilled chicken with tortillas and mashed potatoes. For our part we bring chocolates to share and a store-bought tres leches cake.