A series on students from Chalco and Guadalajara
Zayra, 13, from a tiny village in the mountains of Guerrero
Perhaps no one in Mexico knows Loma Larga Mountain (Long Hill Mountain) as well as Zayra, who wears a worn scapular around her slender neck. As a small child, she climbed it each day – an hour and half down in the morning darkness to attend school, and back up again in the blazing afternoon sun. Her familiarity with Loma Larga saved her life. Without knowledge of its terrain, hidden pathways and hollows, you likely wouldn’t know Zayra Ramirez Altamirano.
She likely would be lost within the underworld of human trafficking.
“Down where school was, there were kidnappings [human trafficking is prevalent in parts of Guerrero] – and one day a man came after me,” she said as casually as smoothing the hem of her royal blue skirt. “So I ran up the mountain as fast as I could – but he wouldn’t stop. I went to every path I knew. But when I came out of hiding, he was there again.”
So Zayra ran higher and higher. Finally, after an hour of pursuit, the man tired and disappeared back down Loma Larga. She was safe.
But not really.
Near the top of Loma Larga, like some kind of cruel comedy sketch, her grandfather was frequently in an alcoholic rage. The ramshackle house in the woods was shrouded in darkness. Loud fights and disorder were the backdrop of Zayra’s life. “When he was fighting loudly with my grandmother, I knelt in front of a small altar of the Blessed Mother,” Zayra said. “On the walks up and down the mountain, I prayed he would stop.”
The tumultuous routine of life persisted in Zayra’s childhood. She continued to fall in front of the statue of Our Lady to beg for peace in the home. She hoped her father could be healed by Mary’s intercessory care. She also felt projected beneath Mary’s mantle.
Zayra’s mother, also from poverty, understood the pain in her daughter’s soul.
In fact, she, herself, thirsted to find a home with the Sisters of Mary some 25 years ago, but her family lacked the resources and opportunity. So Zayra’s mother began to save money and sacrifice to find a way for her daughter to make it to Girlstown in Chalco. Although she couldn’t mother Zayra as she had hoped, she knew the Sisters would.
“I’ve always felt Our Lady’s presence,” Zayra said through an interpreter. “Even when things were bad, I prayed to Mary. And she has helped me.
“And my grandfather is not involved with alcohol any more.”
Jose Ernesto, 16, Oaxaca
One hot May afterternoon in Guadalajara, I joined Ernesto and two other students on a three-mile hike through the winding and rock-strewn hills surrounding the wide acreage of Boystown. I took note of Ernesto watching my steps. Every so often, he quietly warned me of loose rocks and offered me water every 15 or so minutes on the 95-degree day. He directed me to the easiest paths up steep inclines.
He was reflective and quiet throughout the hike, like a courteous old soul wanting to help an unfamiliar visitor. During a break in the hike, I asked if he was beginning to consider his future.
“I’d like to pursue international business,” he whispered. Then he mumbled something I didn’t catch, so I requested that he repeat himself, “I’m also discerning the seminary,” he said in a barely audible voice.
I said I would pray for him, then asked how long he’d considered the priesthood. He smiled coyly. “Not long,” he said. Then he opened up on his past.
“When I was a boy on Oaxaca, I was in a hole,” Ernesto said with a far-off look. “There are so many vices at home. The smoking, the drinking, the peer pressure to use drugs.”
Somebody mentioned the Sisters of Mary and Boystown and I wasn’t sure what to think.”
He applied, was interviewed, and accepted into the Sisters of Mary’s community and everything he ever knew changed.
“The Sisters offered me their hand to pull me out of the hole; then they offered me the other hand to help me walk,” he said. “They put me on top of the world. They told me I could change my life and I believed them.
“Boystown is my second home now. In my own house I was never given the opportunities or possibilities that I’ve been given here. The Sisters have power – and they transferred that power onto me. They pushed me and here I am.”
Then Ernesto smiled widely. It is one I will never forget.