In rural Mexico , Yolanda Méndez Torres lived in a society where sexual violence against girls often goes unreported and unpunished. In America , she joined legions of undocumented abuse victims who have little hope of finding justice. This narrative series chronicles Yolanda's crossing between the two worlds. Originally published in The Dallas Morning News (Dallas, TX), in Dec., 2006.
Girl's Rape Begins Hidden, Too-common Form of Abuse
LA BARRA del POTRERO, Mexico – She should be getting back to the cornmeal left unattended in the kitchen. These muddy river banks, cloaked by banana trees and a half-hour walk from the house, are no place for a young girl after dark.
But the woman who brought her to bathe is insistent.
More than an hour passes as night settles on the coastal village in southern Mexico. Earth-worn men walk through fields of peanut and corn to primitive homes where children orbit barefoot in the dirt around their mothers. Sea turtles nest in the nearby beach, and hawks make final surveys inland.
A man emerges by the river near where he fishes for shrimp. The girl knows him. She lives with him and his wife, a cousin on her mother's side, in a home up the hill. Tonight he has come to claim her, a virgin, as his other woman. He grabs the girl by the arm as the older woman scuttles away. He muffles her screams with his hand, strips her sleeveless blue dress, pushes her against a rock and rapes her.
His name is Juan García Aguilar. He is 38. The girl's name is Yolanda Méndez Torres. She is 11.
It is the summer of 1998. Over the next six years, he will take her over 5,000 miles, from the tropical scrub brush hills of Oaxaca into the Sonoran Desert and to the United States.
To North Carolina, where she will be a child laborer in blueberry fields. To Georgia and Tennessee, where she will live trapped in motel rooms as Juan pours concrete for Wal-Mart gas stations. And to Dallas, where she will sleep in a closet and decide whether to murder him or escape.
At each step, Yolanda will personify a dark migration: domestic abuse victims taken from a region beset with unreported violence against women and children to a country where they become phantoms, fearful of authorities and ignorant of legal protections.
In Mexico and the rest of Latin America, gripped by a centuries-old culture of machismo, rates of physical and sexual abuse against children are some of the highest in the world, according to a recent United Nations study of violence against children.
And the number of minors reported abducted in both directions across the U.S./Mexico border has more than doubled in recent years, from 168 in 2000 to 397 so far in 2006 – though experts warn that most abductions go unreported. Among the estimated 5 million children living in America as undocumented or with undocumented parents, the number of abuse victims cannot be known. They are largely invisible, unseen until they surface with their stories.
They call the town La Barra del Potrero, named for the ranchland where the river meets the Pacific Ocean. In all, there are fewer than 100 homes, most with walls stitched from tree branches and tin roofs held together with rusted bottle caps and pieces of found rubber. The land is raw and lush, its heavy tropical air spiked with smells of sweet flowers and burning trash.
At the west end of the village lives Yolanda's grandmother, Juana Alonzo Pedro. To the east, just before the river bridge, stays Juan's family, including his mother and father.
Nearby stands a small wood church on a hill, a community center, a health clinic, an iguana farm and a few small food stands along about a mile of asphalt highway.
Many elders cannot write their own names, and few children finish high school. Husbands and sons fish, tend to crops and migrate back and forth to work in America. Girls wed as young teenagers, families are knit tight and the local history is barbed with machismo and violence. Juan's cousin, Simona Aguilar Torres, runs a roadside store with her husband. She once watched as a man killed her father and Yolanda's uncle after a girl's quinceañera. Down the road, a man shot Juan's aunt in the back as she stood in the kitchen.
Yolanda knows little of the history.
She was born in a still smaller and poorer community called San José, a short walk up into the hills where villagers dipped rags in petrol and lit them for heat.
Her mother was Francisca Torres Alonzo, the oldest child of Juana Alonzo. Yolanda's father, Artemio Méndez Martínez, worked as a common laborer.
When Yolanda was small, her parents fought bitterly and split. Artemio took the children. Her mother moved to La Barra to live in a one-room adobe house with Juana Alonzo. Her mother was sick and bone thin. She ate dirt, ash and mineral lime.
Her body swelled from her toes to her head. She died Dec. 9, 1994, when she was 27 and Yolanda was 7. The medical examiner found she suffered from chronic malnutrition, intestinal parasites and an internal infection.
The family prayed over her body all night. Yolanda's grandmother Juana Alonzo had no money and borrowed 3,000 pesos, or less than $900, from a neighbor for a wood coffin and proper burial for her daughter. The next morning, Yolanda joined the funeral procession, six miles along a dirt road into the countryside, to a red-earth cemetery at San Francisco Cozoaltepec. Francisca was entombed under a raised rectangle of unadorned concrete, with a small wood cross at its head that bore her name. For one year, the family regularly brought flowers and candles.
Yolanda does not remember the funeral, only that her mother was gone.
She moved to La Barra after the services, living with her father and paternal grandmother in the adobe home where her mother died.
Some said the grandmother was bewitched by a curandero named Jesús. She began vomiting and died. Yolanda moved down the road with her father in a stick shack. She stopped going to school. She could barely read or write. Her older sister Gabriela ran away with a boyfriend. Her father was not equipped to raise a young girl alone.
In early 1998, Efigenia, Yolanda's cousin, found her walking through the village. She asked her to come live and work in the home with her, her husband, Juan, and their children.
At first, Yolanda liked life there. She slept in a room with one of the young girls. The boys slept next door. The oldest son, Bertín García López, had already left for America as a teenager. Juan was a construction worker in the U.S.
He was a largely unexceptional man, known as quiet, serious and friendly. Short with rounded indigenous features, he had a wide forehead and a groomed black mustache. His family owned much of the land in the village, hundreds of acres where they raised goats and mangos and corn.
He sent money to his mother while working in America. He drank, but no more than most, and had few enemies.
Then he came home from el Norte.
By the time Juan finishes with her by the river, Yolanda does not know if the feeling is pain or fear as she struggles in sweet, sticky darkness. She is a tiny girl with delicate features, inky black eyes and straight black hair that cascades down her back. Crying, she puts on her panties and dress, and the two walk up the rocky hill. Juan leaves her outside the house and goes down the road to visit family.
Inside, Efigenia notices Yolanda is wet and dirty, her knees all sandy. She touches her forehead and thinks she has a fever.
What's wrong, what's wrong? Why are you crying? Why are you all wet?
Because your husband forced himself on me, Yolanda says, explaining the night's events as best a child can.
Efigenia can't believe it. She confronts Juan when he returns.
Do you realize what you did? You took advantage of a little girl?
At first defiant, he denies it. Pressed, he becomes angry. He calls them to his room and closes the door. He grabs Efigenia by the hair and beats her bloody. He beckons Yolanda.
Look at her closely, because this is what's going to happen to your family if you say something more.
That threat will be her prison. She won't tell. Not directly anyway.
This has to be accepted. Speaking up won't do any good. There are stories of what happens to women who turn in their husbands. These stories generally end the same way.
Yolanda, this is the way things have to be, Efigenia tells her. Years later, Efigenia would say that even if her own daughter was raped, she would tell her to not report the crime.
They live like this for a few months in the village. Yolanda tends the home, helps cook tamales and tortillas and stays as a kept woman. Juan rapes her daily, sometimes in the afternoon while his children are at school, sometimes out in the countryside or by the river. She has few friends and rarely ventures outside, except to be with her confidant, a mutt she named Daisy.
Juan's son found the dog abandoned in the village as a puppy and gave her to Yolanda as a gift. Yolanda always liked the name Daisy. She fills up large plastic bottles with rocks and dirt and drags them for her to chase. She bathes her with shampoo, sometimes twice a day, causing the dog's fur to fall out. She tries keeping her inside so she won't get pregnant. On some days they sit under the banana trees, the dog at Yolanda's feet.
If you eat one of the rabbits, they're going to kill you or hit you , she tells the dog. I don't want them to hit you.
The dog complies.
Around town, rumors of the older man and young girl spread. Neighbors say they have heard Yolanda's cries coming from the countryside. Simona, the shopkeeper, notices changes in her body, her hips and the way she walks. More like a woman, less like a girl, she says.
A few family members say that Artemio has sold his daughter for 2,000 pesos, about $200, to Efigenia and Juan. Others say that he gave her to them to pay off a small debt. Artemio denies all of this. Yolanda has gone to live with them of her own free will, he says.
Yolanda won't acknowledge her relationship with Juan.
Gabi, who are you going to believe – other people or me, Yolanda tells her sister Gabriela one day when confronted with the rumors.
No, Yola, I believe you, but I don't know the truth. I have doubts about whether it's true.
No, Gabi, it's not true. People are just talking, but it's not true.
Yolanda cries and leaves. They never speak about it again.
Yolanda's grandmother, however, can't shake her suspicions.
In early June 2000, she walks down the highway, around a curve to Efigenia's house and finds Yolanda in the kitchen. She says she doesn't want people talking about her granddaughter the way they are around the village.
Did he grab you? Tell me, what did he do to you? You can confide in me. I'm going to press charges against him because this isn't right for him to be abusing you.
No, it's not true. It's just a rumor. It's not true.
She cannot tell, but her eyes again betray her.
Why are you crying?
It's that I don't want to hear you say that he is abusing me.
The grandmother leaves unconvinced. She finds Yolanda's father and convinces him to come with her to file a judicial complaint at the Agencia del Ministerio Público in Pochutla, A 30-minute bus ride away. If they file a complaint, authorities can open an investigation, get a doctor to examine Yolanda for signs of rape, and interview Juan. Yolanda will be safe and can move into Juana Alonzo's home down the road, the grandmother thinks.
On June 6, she and Artemio enter the agency housed in a spartan building with dirty white walls, naked light bulbs and shelves that bulge with crusty manila files of rapes and murders and robberies.
In a large book with lined pages, the accusation is handwritten.
Privacion ilegal de la Libertad.
Illegal privation of freedom, or being kept as a de facto slave.
Juan knows. He has caught wind of the grandmother's plans.
He tells his family that they are leaving. Within days, the family flees the village, taking only what they can carry – leaving furniture and Daisy behind. They travel by bus along the winding highway to Oaxaca City, more than six hours away. Yolanda's grandmother comes for her but finds only an empty house.
Yolanda has never been across those hills and has never seen a city. They arrive by day in the valley where the city of more than 250,000 people sits surrounded by the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains.
They show up at the metal door of Juan's brother, Eucebio García Aguilar, on a dusty street called Calle Monterrey in a Third-World neighborhood called Ejido Santa María.
Surprised by his visitors, Eucebio welcomes them in and offers the kitchen as a place to sleep. Juan tells him they plan to live and work in Oaxaca. He does not share that Yolanda is his woman.
Within weeks, however, Eucebio's wife, Epifanía, finds out about the girl and tells her husband.
It's true, Juan says when confronted by his brother.
But she's too young.
What's wrong with that?
Eucebio was a boy when he watched his dad hit his mom. When he married – he was 17 and she was 15 – he told his wife he would never treat her like that. He knows of a village over the hills where young girls are sold to older men. He wants better for his children.
Leave it alone, Juan tells him when pressed.
You're an adult. You're the oldest. You should be the one to set the example for all of us.
I can't set the example, so why don't you do it?
Most, however, don't share the suspicions of their new neighbors.
Down the street, a coyote's mother looks out her convenience store with the Coca-Cola sign out front. She sees Juan and Yolanda walking some days. She thinks they are father and daughter.
It is not until much later that she and her son, the immigrant smuggler, will find out otherwise.
In 1543, after the Spanish conquest of Oaxaca, locals found a box abandoned near a rock outcropping, legend tells. They opened it, and the image of a virgin appeared. The Virgin of Solitude. She would become Oaxaca's patron saint.
The ground became righteous space. By 1690, the Catholic Church finished building a temple on the land with an imposing array of domes and bells and rough hewn stone, with virgins and saints and skulls carved into the façade.
On some Sundays, Juan takes the family here. The meaning is not lost on Yolanda, surrounded by images of martyred suffering inside – faded oil paintings of Christ on the cross, angels in perpetual peace, and a bearded God in a blood red robe looking down at the Virgin from above. On the ceiling, a Latin inscription reads:
O all you who pass by this way, look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow. Yolanda prays. The sanctuary fills with the rhythmic chants of priests and the tolling of bells and the singing of the flock.
God, why won't you kill him? He's hurting me so much. Why don't you kill him if he's hurting a child?
She then asks for forgiveness. She believes in God and knows you cannot pray for him to murder. Still, she doesn't understand.
God, why do you let this animal inside your house?