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Casa Juan Diego – the Work of Many – and the Sufferings of Immigrant Women in Houston

Juanita called to ask if she could come to Casa Juan Diego with her three children. The police had taken her husband to jail the night before because he had beaten her and he would soon be released. She was afraid to be in the house. This was not the first time she had been hit; in fact, there was a long history of physical abuse. We said yes. As we always do in these situations, we cautioned Juanita not to tell anyone where she was going and reminded her to bring all important papers for herself and the children with her-whatever papers she had, including inoculation records, etc. because going back to get papers would be dangerous.

We met with Juanita that day and the next and the next. Each time she saw Louise she asked when she could have an “appointment” to talk, which meant within the hour, later in the day, or the next morning.

This intense counseling is an advantage of Casa Juan Diego, as we can meet daily with guests and have lunch with them. There is a richness in these encounters. Workers meet daily with guests and start each morning to focus on helping to implement plans for them. Personalism is a core philosophy of the Catholic Worker movement. With the emphasis on personalism, every opportunity is seized to intervene immediately if there are problems.

After a couple of days of sharing her problems, Juanita asked specific advice. She had called a friend who had spoken with her husband. Juanita emphasized that she had not broken the rules-she had called from a pay phone away from Casa Juan Diego, she had not told anyone where she was. The friend confided that she had spoken with Juanita’s husband, who had offered to move out of the house and leave it for the mother and children; he didn’t want to lose his children.

What should she do? She was frustrated. The couple had two vehicles, now she had nothing to drive. She was uprooted from her home; she would love to return. Maybe things would work out beautifully. Her industrial size sewing machine was at the house, she could work as she did before in her home (The youngest child was two and it would be difficult to find affordable day care for other work.) This sounded like the solution. Her husband, music minister at her little church and studying at a Bible institute, might even be willing to go to counseling.

We presented her with information from our experience in working with battered immigrant women, explaining that many promises were always made in these circumstances by a husband who wanted his wife back. We did not recommend that she return. However, if she insisted, we recommended that he participate in a program for batterers (such as PIVOT) before she considered returning, that he attend many sessions before she returned. We told her of the many women who had returned quickly, to their sorrow, on the basis of promises, before any programs such as PIVOT or AA were attended. We explained the cycle of violence, in which a marriage may begin with a wonderful honeymoon and later deteriorate into periods of arguments and frustration which eventually lead to violence, after which the batterer asked pardon and began another honeymoon period. When we noted that each time, the honeymoon period became shorter, the times of tension and blaming and then violence coming more quickly, she nodded in agreement from her experience. We told stories of the women who had believed their husbands who promised to change, attend a program, and had returned to Casa Juan Diego a few weeks later with more bruises. No programs had been attended or even investigated.

Battered women who keep secret the location of the house, may return to Casa Juan Diego if their attempts at reconciliation fail.

Juanita listened carefully. She wanted to follow advice and not fall into the old history of being the recipient of violence, which had included excessive violence against the children, which she had covered up in the past.

She came back to tell us that she had called her husband from an outside telephone. His response: “I don’t want to talk to you until you reflect on what you have done!” When we described the battering syndrome to her, “Probably that is not the first time that you have had to apologize after he hit you, as if it were your fault,” she said, yes, every time–every time he complained that she had caused him to do it. We told her, “We know you make mistakes, you are not perfect, but you do nothing to deserve such treatment.” She was reassured.

Juanita made her decision. Since that was the response, there was no hope. She would go her own way. She made an appointment with a local group to help with her separation, and with another to look into VAWA, the law that allows battered women married to legal men to become legal without the husband’s signature. Since Juanita wanted to get things from her house, we followed our usual procedure, taking her to within a block or two from her house and calling the police, who usually are willing to protect a woman while she retrieves things from her home, in case the husband returns. Juanita was able to retrieve her sewing machine and left Houston to live with family in another city.

Violence Increases in the U.S.

One of our other guests, a pregnant, also battered woman, commented, “I have never seen such violence against women as I see in Houston. In Mexico, it is not like this.” We agreed that the situation of immigrants contributes to these possibilities-people are uprooted from their families and communities, there is often no family member to whom to turn when violence occurs, and the frustrations for the men in finding any kind of employment, let alone employment that pays a living wage, contributes.

Busy Saturday Morning

Bob Parks, who belongs to a discussion group from St. Vincent de Paul parish, came to build walls for bedrooms in our new sick and injured men’s house at the corner of Shepherd and Rose. Don Bosco house is already full.

Tom Casey, from St. Theresa’s Church in Sugar Land arrived to make sure the grass is cut, so the neighbors won’t complain.

Patricio Montel, a bilingual volunteer who heard us speak at St. Anne’s, has been at the hiring hall since 6:00 a.m. working-hoping for jobs for Casa Juan Diego Guests.

Fred Apffel (St. Anne’s) arrives early to help with the mail. His wife will join him today.

The community service people start arriving. Some have become very much a part of the operation. We appreciate all these law-breakers and wish that more of them could be dentist (we need dentists!).

Maryknoll Associates came, a hard-working group who are trying to finish off the newspaper mailing before the next issue. They are a lively group who present a challenge.

We talked to Ayshe, who wants to volunteer on Saturday mornings to work with the children in arts and crafts.

The group from Woodlands Presbyterian arrived to do just about everything, working with the children, cooking lunch, attacking the upstairs clothing room at the women’s house, which is always a mess after new guests who often come without extra clothing have the opportunity to select clothing, and above all, cutting down dead trees-with a hand saw, no less, until Tom Casey discovered a Texas chain saw, which is more effective on the trees.

Stephanie Rozak, who has been at Casa Juan Diego as a full-time Catholic Worker for a year and a half, was running back and forth all morning, organizing the mailing and finding things the various volunteers needed in order to work.

Jaime arrived with a face like a balloon with a bad tooth infection-what to do? We took him to a local medical clinic, where they gave him medicine for the infection so that the tooth could be pulled later (we need dentists!).

Following Jaime was Joseph, who had a deep wound in his head and needed to go to the hospital to sew the cut. There appears to be a conflict between the immigrants who have been here a long time and newly-arrived African refugees.

All of this and more happened before lunch, which the Presbyterians prepared.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXII, No. 2, March-April 2002.