CHAPPARRAL – It may be no mistake that, in Spanish, sisters of the Catholic Church are often called madre, or mother.
The four nuns living in a straw bale house with rose-colored stucco worry over the residents of this working-class community as mothers would, and the people they help call them madre.
The sisters hail from the U.S., Germany, Spain and Mexico, and spend their days aiding the many residents whose families are often a mix of U.S.- and foreign-born, living legally and illegally in this country.
They often trade the lavender skirts of their habits for pants. They pray with men and women awaiting deportation to Mexico and Central America in an Otero County detention center, educate locals about their rights as immigrants, teach English, host summer camps for kids in Spanish, run a food bank at a local church, tutor high school students and care for children whose parents have been deported.
“I look at them at church on Sundays and say, ‘How do they do it ?’” said Mireya Meza, bookkeeper at Chaparral High School and a local resident. “Somehow, they find a way, and probably it’s through God.”
Bringing happiness to town
Sister Chabela Galbe speaks English but can’t be bothered when she gets excited, which is often.
“We wanted to work with the immigrant population,” she said in Spanish with the lyrical lisp of her native Spain. “Life tells us what we need to do and opens the doors.”
Another sister hands Chabela a photo from a collection of pictures on the refrigerator of a young woman in a graduation cap : the eldest of five siblings who were left abandoned five years ago when their parents were swept up in a raid by the Otero County sheriff and deported by federal agents to Mexico. At the time, the eldest was 15 and the littlest was 5 years old.
Guardians came and went, but the sisters have been a constant in their lives, filling parental gaps.
They stepped in to help the kids get passports to visit their parents in Ciudad Juárez, just across the border ; they gave them rides to school and football practice, and persuaded a local truck driver to teach them how to drive as they came of age ; and they fretted over finding the eldest girl’s prom dress and someone to do her hair.
“She didn’t have a father and a mother to tell her how beautiful she looked,” Galbe said. “So she came over to see us.”
One of the siblings, Jesus Rodriguez, sits outside the twin pink and blue mobile homes where he and his brothers and sisters live. He was just 14 when his parents were deported and describes how the nuns helped his family.
“It was pretty hard for the first couple of years,” he said. “I don’t know how to say it, but they bring happiness to this town.”
Yes, we can
Chaparral straddles the Otero and Doña Ana county line about 30 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, a desert sprawl of mobile homes where more than a third of the 14,000 residents live below the poverty line and per capita income hovers around $11,000. It’s an informal suburb of Las Cruces and El Paso.
More than 40 percent of residents are foreign-born, according to Census data.
The sisters, part of a global community of 1,300 Sisters of Assumption, came to Chaparral in 2001 and brought their group’s commitment to effect change in society through prayer, education and “biblical hospitality.” They founded their convent, “Flor y Canto,” and quickly became a cornerstone of the colonia.
They are as comfortable leading games at their summer camps as they are leading prayers at a federal prison and an immigrant detention center in Otero County, where they attend to incarcerated men and women.
“We are only allowed to pray with them,” said Maria Teresa Tellez, lamenting that prison officials do not permit the sisters to answer the immigrants’ many pleas to contact family members or other requests. “And they have so many needs.”
Tellez met parents and handed out milk boxes to children under the shade of a cluster of pines in Chaparral one afternoon as day camp ended. She wore a lavender T-shirt printed with the phrase : “Don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do” and, on the back, “Sí podemos” – yes, we can.
Mother of four Maria de los Angeles Herrera embraced Tellez when she arrived to pick up her children. “I adore them,” Herrera said of the sisters. “They are such beautiful people.”
Confidence, trust and prayer
Back at the straw bale house, sisters Evelyn Strahl of Germany and American Diana Wauters sat down to a lunch, prepared by Galbe, with several other young women, including two yearlong volunteers and four teenage girls from Mexico City on a volunteer vacation.
The sisters attract support for their causes from within the community and without. The yearlong volunteers tutor at the high school and help with the sisters’ other programs. Youth from Chaparral stop by to fold donated baby clothes destined for the hundreds of Central American migrants arriving at Catholic shelters in nearby El Paso.
At lunch, Wauters said she believes Chaparral always had the community spirit that the sisters seem to inspire, saying “I think we walked into it.”
But something she said earlier strikes closer to the heart of it. “It’s a presence of confidence and trust, and of prayer,” she said. “They know we’re walking with them, and they have the support of our faith.”
By Lauren Villagran
Journal Staff Writer - Las Cruces Bureau