Saving Marta by Morgan Smith

Morgan Smith lives in Santa Fe and travels to the border every month to photograph, write about and assist humanitarian programs like Vision in Action, Pastor Galván’s asylum.  Vision in Action is a private mental hospital that was founded by Jose Antonio Galvan about 18 years ago. He is a former addict who was deported from the US and then lived on the streets of Juarez until he became clean and decided to dedicate himself to helping the mentally ill. Almost all of his funds come from donations.  Smith can be reached at  Morgan-smith@comcast.net.

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Saving Marta

 

L-R: Elia, Marta and Leticia. Photo by Morgan Smith

L-R: Elia, Marta and Leticia. Photo by Morgan Smith

 

It’s a blazing hot July Sunday – 103 degrees – and I’m standing in the desert outside of Pastor José Antonio Galván’s mental asylum west of Juárez. Eight municipal police officers have arrived, most of them carrying automatic weapons. Now two of them pull a woman out of one of their cars. She is wearing only filthy underwear. Her hair is matted. This is Marta.

Earlier the police had called Pastor Galván to say that they were going to place this woman with him. She had been living on the streets of Juárez and no other facility would take her.

Fortunately, Sunday is when Dr. Vicente Pantoja, Galván’s consulting psychiatrist visits so he is able to assist. Nonetheless, when the police tell you to take someone, you do it. There’s no negotiation. As for Pantoja, he is one of only eleven psychiatrists in Juárez, a city of about 1.5 million.

Earlier, Pantoja talked about the differences between our mental health system with its rigid rules about things like the interchange between staff and patients and the Mexican system with its heavy reliance on simple human contact. I see this when Pantoja arrives and the patients rush over to hug him just as they do with Pastor Galván. I see this when they comfort each other. “Es como una familia aqui,” Pantoja says.

Several patients take Marta into the facility and soon a new Marta appears. She has been bathed by several of the women patients, wears a clean blue smock with little fish on it and her filthy, matted hair has been shaved. A male patient named Benito is gently trimming her long, cracked, dangerous looking fingernails. When he points to her broken, torn toenails, however, she shrieks and runs across the courtyard to a cement bench in the shade.

“Let her calm down.” Galván says. With her shaved head, wide shoulders and thick tattooed arms, she looks like a wild animal.

Finally a tiny patient named Elia approaches, sits next to her and puts her hand on her shoulder. Elia has a speech defect; the only word I can understand is “foto” because she likes to be photographed. Nonetheless, she has a sense of when other patients need consoling. Her older sister, Leticia – smaller and even more incoherent – joins her.

They lean towards Marta who has covered her face with her hand. We can see how well trimmed her fingernails are now but we can’t see her expression. We watch in silence as the minutes tick by. Is she about to explode? She is big enough to hurt both Elia and Leticia.

Finally her hand comes down and we can see her face. She is smiling. Maybe now she’s part of the family. This is what Pantoja was talking about. This is the environment that Galván has created, one of caring and affection, an environment of dignity.

 

About 6 weeks later, a patient named Blanca kisses Marta whose hair has partially grown out.  Photo by Morgan Smith

About 6 weeks later, a patient named Blanca kisses Marta whose hair has partially grown out. Photo by Morgan Smith

 

 

 

About virginiaisaad

Virginia is a journalist based in Los Angeles who's written for publications including Los Angeles magazine, Upworthy, and Elite Daily. She was born in Argentina and raised in the San Fernando Valley along with her three siblings. Fun fact: She took a Chicanas and Feminism course with Eva Longoria while studying for her master's in mass communication at California State University, Northridge. Follow her on Twitter @virginiaisaad

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