*The subjects of this story asked that their names be changed because of immigration status.
It was a sunny Thursday morning in South Gate, California.
A group of women rushed behind a line of plastic tables assembled parallel to the front wall of the Faith and Hope Lutheran Church. Some of them were wearing plastic gloves, others wore aprons. Some looked like they were mothers, others like they were grandmothers. All of them were immigrants.
The women had lined the tables with cardboard boxes each filled with a vegetable, herb, fruit or loaf of bread. The women hosting the food drive were volunteers for the church, each charged with handing out the items in front of them.
As the front lot of the church started to fill with people holding empty re-usable grocery bags to collect the food, more and more people started to ask what the mysterious herb in the fifth box was.
The volunteers at the beginning of the line started to joke around: “We don’t know, We call it the mystery herb.”
Lupe,* the woman handing out handfuls of the herb, neatly held together with a single rubber band, knew what it was. She stood quietly behind the booth, wearing a cream striped, button-down shirt that fell loosely over her slender body. She was well into her 60s; she tied her long, marble white hair into a high bun.
“It’s alfalfa,” she said quietly, looking back down.
Those on the other side of the tables widened their eyes as they smiled and made remarks to each other – what was a fancy herb like alfalfa doing in a food drive?
As the visitors collected their items, one of them reached Lupe and told her, “I’ll boil this alfalfa in some water – it’s actually great for your kidneys.”
Lupe smiled as she placed a bundle of alfalfa in the bag. She knew that, too.
Lupe’s daughter, Fatima,* was 28 when she told her mother she wanted to go to the United States.
Their home, a small town of nearly 7,000 inhabitants in Jalisco, Mexico, was not big enough for Fatima’s ambitious dreams. She was her mother’s favorite, but she was also the most adventurous.
“I found an uncle that will help pay for someone to get me in. I will go in through the cerro,” Fatima told her mother. Lupe did not know what cerro, or hill, she’d cross. All she knew was that her daughter would go whether she liked it or not.
Fatima made it into the United States. And did find adventure. She fell in love with a man. They had a baby boy, Juan.
But she also found heartbreak. Separation. And disease: diabetes.
She left her husband and returned to her mother in Jalisco, 7-month-old Juan* in tow.
Her uncontrolled diabetes was ravaging her organs.
She developed nephropathy, also known as kidney disease, an illness caused by untreated diabetes that, if diagnosed at an early stage, can be treated with medication or, in extreme cases, with a kidney transplant. But Fatima’s condition was too advanced.
She fought her disease for three years before she died. That’s how Lupe knew Alfafa was good for kidneys.
Fatima’s ambition for herself was transferred to her son. Leaving Juan, then age 3 in her mother’s care, she made Lupe promise she would give Juan the best education and quality of life she could.
Lupe talks about her daughter.
Spanish: “Hace cinco años se me murió mi hija. De esa hija me quedó un nietito, y es por el cual ando yo acá. (Pause) (Ella) se enfermó de los riñones. Unos tres años y medio después ella murió. (Pause) Ella decidió regresar con nostros para allá para Mexico, falleció, y ya me hice yo cargo del niño.”
English (as translated by author): “Five years ago my daughter died. What was left of her was my grandson, and he is the reason why I am here.(Pause) (She) got sick from her kidneys. Three years and a half later, she died. (Pause) She had decided to return with us in Mexico to die, and that is when I took charge of her son.”
Lupe is struggling to keep her promise.
She wakes up at 5 a.m. every day in a small room she has been renting for the last three years. She lives in South Gate, a city just 12 miles southeast of Downtown Los Angeles.
After preparing her grandson Juan’s lunchbox for the day, she goes back to her bed to rest. She doesn’t fall asleep, though. She waits to make sure Juan wakes up and gets ready for the day.
Juan is now 12 and, after only a couple of months of staying after-school for intensive tutoring, he is fluent in English and a great student.
“He’s such a good boy. I don’t have to wake him up in the mornings for school. He wakes up and gets ready on his own,” Lupe said with a proud mother’s smile, as though he was her own son. Her words have been translated into English.
Lupe moved to the United States with Juan when he was 8. His godparents, undocumented immigrants living in California, had told her they would help and let her live with them.
“They promised they would help and support me for the sake of their godchild,” Lupe remembers. “Just two weeks had gone by since I arrived to the United States when they came to me and said, ‘You know what? You can’t be here.’”
They worried their son, who was the same age as Juan, would be a bad influence. He was hooked on drugs. They feared Juan might follow the same steps.
“I do not know what he suffers from but he constantly needs to get drugged,” Lupe said. “He would always start sniffing something, but I don’t know what it was.”
Lupe and Juan were homeless. She had no one, no where else to go.
“I remember thinking what I was going to do then. My world crumbled before my eyes.”
One of her neighbors took her in, offering a free room in her home. “She said she’d give me the room because she needed someone to keep her company.”
Lupe and Juan lived there for eight months until another one of her neighbors offered to rent her a room in their house. Lupe accepted the offer; she has been living there ever since.
Lupe still remembers the day she saw her daughter in a casket.
“When she died, my only concern was that her son didn’t see her in the casket. I wanted to take that pain away from him,” she said.
Lupe asked her sister to take her grandson home so he did not see the casket.
“But my sister’s son, he was studying psychology, he told me I could not do that. He said Juan needed to see what was happening with his own eyes. So I took him to say goodbye to his mother.”
Remembering her daughter, remembering her promise, helps her survive, Lupe said.
“I remember her every morning when I need some motivation to get up and get through my day,” she said.
With a tourist visa in one hand and Juan on the other, Lupe entered the United States four years ago by claiming she was Juan’s aunt. Lupe rehearses the memorized words she says to the officers at the United States’ border every time: “My nephew studies here, I am just dropping him off. I will be here for no more than two months and then I’ll go back.”
For the last four years, Lupe has been entering and living in the United States with a tourist visa, which allows visitors to stay in the United States for periods of six months at a time. Every six months they take a bus to El Paso, cross the border, visit their family in Jalisco and then re-enter on the tourist visa.
“I take him to his home, Mexico, for him to de-stress. But then we come back in and he knows we’re going back for a purpose to the same routine: going to school every day,” Lupe said.
Juan had a hard time adjusting to life in the United States at first.
“He would tell me he didn’t want to be here, that he wanted to go back home to Mexico because the kids in this country liked to fight too much,” Lupe said.
They didn’t have any money when they arrived, no form of income, barely a place to lay their heads at the end of each day. Things got better after she met with the director of the school she wanted Juan to attend. Lupe told the director about her promise to her dying daughter.
“She asked me why I chose to bring him here from Mexico,” Lupe said. “All I had to say was that I only did this because I knew this was how I could give my grandson a better life with more opportunities. The director told me I had done the right thing by thinking about his future. She immediately offered to help me get welfare by writing me a recommendation letter that I could present at the welfare center.”
One of her neighbors offered to take her to a welfare office. Lupe took the school director’s letter and Juan’s citizenship records to the Rancho Dominguez welfare office, where she was able to get monetary help with her rent in addition to food stamps.
“I was able to get the help, but only for him, because I don’t have papers (legal status) so they can’t help me,” Lupe explained.
With welfare help for just one person, Lupe has struggled to use the welfare money carefully so she can sustain herself and Juan. “Here we do not live with more than what we get from Juan’s welfare and the produce I am able to get here in the Lutheran Church,” Lupe said.
Every Thursday, the Rev. Marta Moscoso from the Faith and Hope Lutheran Church in South Gate hosts a food drive for the needy families in the community.
“My mission is to serve the community in ways that go beyond the spiritual aspect,” Moscoso said. “I believe that no person can be well spiritually if they aren’t also well physically.”
Since she was assigned as the pastor for Faith and Hope, Moscoso has focused her efforts on creating more community programs and events. In addition to the weekly food drive, the church prepares lunch for community members every day. She hosts a health fair every year in the church to teach the community about important health topics such as HIV, alcohol abuse and drug consumption. More recently she has invited lawyers to do pro-bono work and give free legal consultations and advice.
Many of the people who help volunteer at the church are also those in need.
“So many people that aren’t even from this congregation come to visit,” Moscoso said. “They come to help. If you ask them why they’re here every Thursday to help at the food drive they couldn’t tell you why exactly. Most people simply come because they have so many problems and they just want someone to trust and talk to.”
Lupe volunteers every Thursday at the food drive to pay back the church for the food she gets to take home each Thursday.
“I find ways to keep busy so that I don’t miss my daughter or my home,’ Lupe said. “Once Juan leaves for school, I either work small side jobs caring for my neighbor’s children or I come to the church.”
Lupe smiled quietly as she placed one bundle of alfalfa at a time inside a strangers’ bag.
“They say it helps the kidneys,” she said, placing a bundle of alfalfa in a pregnant woman’s bag. “Take an extra lettuce too though, they’re very healthy. You’ll need to be strong and healthy when you become a mother, as well.”
Life is still a struggle for Lupe. But things are better for Juan. She said Juan has not told her that he wants to go home to Mexico any more. He’s happy now that he has learned English, made friends at school and started getting good grades in his classes.
She’s keeping her promise.
Her eyes look tired. Her tears have carved crevices that dangle like tipped quarter moons under her almond eyes.
Lupe misses her daughter every day.
Juan found her crying one day. He told her he missed Mexico and his mother too, but that he remembers seeing his mother for the last time through the glass in her casket .
“He tells me she was smiling. He tells me that when she died he saw her smiling because he knew she was happy and she knew he would be in good hands. And that is why we’re still here.”