A brave woman now runs a border town

  • Marjorie Lilly

 

I live in the flat, scruffy desert of southwestern New Mexico, a half-hour from the Mexican border town of Palomas. There's been a war going on in Palomas for over two years.

A dusty town of 5,000 people, Palomas has more murders per capita than any city in the world, some say. I talked recently to people who live there, mostly by going to little grocery stores. They estimated that 50 to 60 people have been murdered this year, though you'd never guess it if you just strolled through town.

The violence has hardly affected either Columbus, N.M., five minutes from the border, or Deming, N.M., where I live. There's virtually no spillover.

But it has deeply damaged the economy of Palomas, which partly depends on the dentists, oculists and pharmacists that have catered to Americans for years. Americans are staying away in droves.

A couple of years ago, our government's building of a border wall that stuck up like a giant metal comb prevented Palomas residents and other Mexicans from crossing illegally to work. The tanking world economy also caused a Japanese car-parts maquiladora to close. Now, there are almost no jobs, and hunger is rampant.

A little over a year ago, in September, I first met Maria Lopez in the mayor's office. From her nametag I could see she worked for a Mexican social service agency, Desarrollo Integral de la Familia. She told me about the hunger, and how she realized the donations she used to get for the organization often came from "narcos" -- drug dealers -- who had either died or fled.

I started asking for donations for Maria's work in a column I write for a regional paper, Desert Exposure, based in Silver City, N.M. Several times I've gone bouncing over rutted streets with Maria and her assistant, Tere. We've developed an important friendship, although we have wildly differing tastes.

One day, Maria decides to distribute food wearing a new pink Norteño-style cowboy hat, which she pops on to her head with an impish grin. She adores high-heeled shoes -- one pair bright red, another silver. I stumble in shoes over a half-inch high.

I asked her once, "Do you wear them when the roads are muddy?" "Como no (of course)," she shoots back, smiling.

Maria remembers her farmworker father in Durango, Mexico, crying because he couldn't feed his nine children. This inspired her rather single-minded purpose -- feeding poor people.

Maria has a visa to cross to the United States, and cashes the donation checks there because there's no bank in Palomas. I saw her once at Peppers Supermarket in Deming, walking with her hand on the forearm of a male friend, looking a bit like visiting royalty.

On Oct. 8, the mayor she worked for, Tanis Santelis Garcia, was kidnapped, brutally murdered, and burned in his car south of Palomas. The killers will probably never be identified. This was a great shock to me, even though I'd often heard rumors of his corruption. He didn't deserve to die. Then I was astonished to learn that Maria had been appointed to take his place as mayor.

The killing happened on a Thursday, and I met Maria three days later in front of the Dollar Store. We were within walking distance of the border, where her husband waited for her.

She was still struggling over the death of the mayor, whom she loved. She spoke fervently of her intention to get help for her people "con todo mi corazon" (with all my heart). She had already gone back to her home in Palomas by Saturday morning, less than two days after the killing. There aren't many people I know with a firmer faith than Maria. I tore a picture of a lion from a magazine I had and gave it to her. She already knew what it was to be a lion.

I saw her a few weeks later in her windowless mayor's office. I was nervous about how she'd handle the position. There was the danger involved, of course, along with the stress of running the town – she'd told me her education stopped at the sixth grade.

But with her long mane of hair cut at a stylish new angle, it was clear that she was facing her job with poise. A paperback Bible lay beside her on the almost bare desk.

The drug war in Mexico is ugly, senseless and mean beyond belief. It destroys everything. Most Americans just think, "I'm not going there." I would almost turn my back on the situation myself, if it weren't for people like Maria. Honestly, it's humbling.

Marjorie Lilly is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). Her column is called Borderlines, and she can be reached at [email protected] at Desert Exposure in Silver City, New Mexico.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...