Sandra began with a smile, but stole my heart with a rose.
I met Craig Johring, co-founder of Hope of the Poor, a few days into my Mexican journey. Having listened to the research that I was engaged in, he looked up intently and said, “You have to speak with Sandra.” Craig was unable to come, so he sent us pictures to help identify one another. I thought, “Her smile. She has a captivating smile, and this I will be able to find in a crowd.”
Having met at the Basilica, Sandra and I went to a nearby coffee shop, where, surrounded by delicacies, pastries, and sweets, we ordered our coffee and sat down. I asked Sandra to tell me a little about herself. She calmly, intentionally began a story full of pain.
Orphaned at two years old, her physically abusive aunt in Puebla pulled her out of school at the age of seven, telling Sandra that “women weren’t meant to study [but to] clean, cook, and iron.” Then, Sandra said, as she looked me tranquilly and fully in the eyes, “when I turned eight years old, the gift my cousin gave me was sexual abuse.” She told her aunt, who accused her of lying, and beat her. The little girl ran away. When she recounted her story to the woman who found her sleeping on a park bench, the woman told her not to worry, she would help her. “And yes, she helped me,” Sandra asserted. “She took me to eat, she took me to her home, she bathed me. I could sleep peacefully because no one was going to abuse me, to touch my body. However, the next day, she woke me up very early, made me put on a mini-skirt, a little top, began to put make-up on me, and called for a taxi.”
For six months, at the age of eight, Sandra lived the hellish nightmare of sex-trafficking. “There were days that I didn’t remember anything, I awoke already on the ground, thrown about, completely beaten, bitten, I was in pain between my legs, the part behind…I don’t remember how many men…passed in a night for me.” It was here that I got up the courage to touch Sandra’s shoulder as a sign of compassion. Although we were both sitting up straight as though for a formal interview, the tears were shining in our eyes.
When an older woman finally helped the little girls to escape, Sandra traveled by foot to Mexico City; she went to an orphanage for help but was told that she was already “a rotten apple. And they weren’t going to let me spoil the other little girls.”
So, for the next 22 years, Sandra lived on the street, sometimes in a bus terminal, sometimes in a manhole, turning from a child into a mother. She was violated by passing men, policemen, and the boyfriends who claimed to love her. She sought to feed herself and her children by cleaning windshields, selling roses and rosaries that she had made by hand, and when that failed, looking for food through dumpsters at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Already the mother of Samantha when her son Adán was born, Sandra managed to escape from his father, get a job, and rent a little room at a hotel – until his father returned and demanded the son he had never recognized.
However, Sandra described her most painful suffering as the suffering of her children, for it was only her children that gave her any desire to continue living; she desired to give them better lives. When Adán was five, after they had escaped from his father, she had found a home that took in people struggling to get off the streets. One day, when Samantha was at school, Sandra was hit by a feeling that her heart was about to explode. She ran right to their room in the home – and saw a 14 year-old boy violating her little son. They left the home.
It was after the violation of her son that Sandra “raised her face and said to [God]: ‘Then, if you truly exist, help me. Why are you so bad with me? I am already tired of this. I want to change my life. I don’t want any more violation, any more beatings. They have violated my son; I don’t want to them to violate my daughter’…I was asking and begging him to help me. That he would save me, that I was also his daughter. And yes, then he helped me; within a week, Craig appeared.” In this moment, as she spoke, the same captivating smile of the photo appeared in the midst of the bustling café.
Craig asked to buy her rosaries. Sandra told him that for three pesos he could have the whole lot, to which he replied that “he was going to buy each one for ten pesos, what each rosary cost, and that he would buy all of my rosaries.” From here, Craig helped Sandra and her children to find a room in a hotel, and then he asked her to work with him. They began feeding the people in the street, helping those people to find homes, and bringing school clothes and supplies to the children who live in the dump with their families.
“Then,” Sandra said, “I began to save children from the street.” Living now in an apartment with ten children she has taken in, in addition to her own two, she elaborated, “A woman who didn’t have a mom, dad, from the streets, who ate from the trash, today I have job for Craig that I like to do. My son is doing well at school, and I have many children and a boyfriend who respects me…it cost me to find myself. Now I give to myself this love that I need.”
When Sandra finished her story, it felt strange to be sitting still in the same coffee shop, full of orders for lattes and scuffling chairs. I felt that I had traveled through suffering to hope, to the hope that allows a woman and especially a mother, to not only survive, but also to flourish. Mothers, Sandra, had told me, are warriors. “From the moment that a baby is formed within us is something immense. In every way, the word ‘mother’ is an immense word. It is something to be proud of. It is something to be proud of and at least for me, being a mother is a blessing, having an engine for whom to make the most of your life.”
And it was when I finished saving the audio file, and turned around, still seeking my bearings in this banal setting for such a story of suffering and hope, that I saw what had occupied Sandra in the last minute or two.
The woman whose life had begun with thorns had taken her napkin and made me a rose.
Reflecting on Sandra’s experience as a Mexican woman, how might it help other women to live out their femininity?
Women, like Sandra, do you share your story with others who can learn from your suffering and your hope? Have you learned how to distinguish between those who can help you and those who will hurt you? And, how do you “give this love that you need” in such a way that you – and those you meet – can flourish like a rose?
Thank you for accompanying me on this gender journey! May the wisdom of the Mexican women be a gift to you!
To learn more about Sandra and her work with Hope of the Poor: