A Family’s 20-Year Quest for Truth, Justice and the Border Dream

August 31, 2015

At the center of Paula Flores Bonilla’s tidy living room hangs a picture of daughter María Sagrario Gonzalez Flores. Taken in front of the border factory in Ciudad Juárez where Sagrario worked, the photo portrays a young woman with the look of someone who was headed for big things in life. Dressed in smart attire and showing a dignified beauty, Sagrario projects a serious and stately presence, almost as if she were a border ambassador.

Snapped by one of the photographers who roamed the export-oriented manufacturing plants, or maquiladoras, offering to take pictures of female workers, the photo was shot shortly before 17-year-old Sagrario was abducted and murdered back in April 1998.

Inevitably moved to tears when she talks about Sagrario, Flores described her daughter as “friendly with many people,” but possessing a quiet personality and a preference for socializing within the family or among the girls in the church choir in which she performed. Besides chorus, Sagrario liked to play guitar and teach Sunday school to kids, her mother recalled.

A member of a financially struggling but hardworking family, Sagrario began working in the maquiladora industry at age 16. To celebrate the teen’s quinceanera, or 15th birthday party, the family bought Sagrario a small cake and adorned her with an older sister’s ceremonial dress because of the lack of money.

“She was happy with it, in spite of the fact that it wasn’t bought for her,” Flores said.

In interviews with Frontera NorteSur, Flores and two of her other daughters, Guillermina and Juana, remembered Sagrario, spoke about efforts to preserve her memory and curb similar violence, and traced back their lives in a tough Mexico-U.S. border city.

In so many ways the story of the Gonzalez Flores family is the story of Juárez.

Originally inhabitants of Durango state, the hopeful newcomers arrived in Juarez searching  for a better life in 1995. Once on the border, the Gonzalez Flores clan joined hundreds of thousands of other internal migrants who had gravitated to the border city in a bid to escape economic deprivation and get ahead in life.

Bursting at the seams after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the foreign-owned maquiladoras clamored for workers. Though the wages were low, work was plentiful.

Son Chuy planned to attend a university while Sagrario dreamed of studying computing, Flores said. The close-knit family found a plot of land on a wind-swept strip of land on the northwestern edge of Juárez called Lomas de Poleo. Situated at the tri-state junction of Chihuahua, New Mexico and Texas, the neighborhood overlooks Sunland Park, New Mexico, and El Paso, Texas.

Together with her father, Jesús, and sister Juana, Sagrario found employment in a maquiladora at the Bermudez Industrial Park. Their hands joined hundreds of thousands of others in cranking out products for the voracious consumer society just across the Rio Grande that nibbles the highway winding up to Lomas de Poleo.

Despite family members’ busy schedules, Flores insisted that they all sit down together to eat every day.

Digging into her belongings, Flores pulled out Sagrario’s old employee identification card. For the CAPCON company, Sagrario was Employee #11168. On the back side of the card, a message defined CAPCON’s commercial mission: “to deliver products and services free of defects, on time, all the time.”

Sagrario and Juana, who was only a year older than her sister, were especially close. Almost two decades later, Juana recalled Sagrario as a generous sweet tooth who always had gum to share.

“If she had a piece of gun, she’d give me half of it.” Based on her recollections, Juana calculated that she and her sister earned about $50 each every week making electrical capacitors for refrigerators and air-conditioning systems.

The two sisters worked the same swing shift but were separated after the company decided to move all the employees under the age of 18 like Sagrario to the day shift, according to Juana. Shortly thereafter, in April 1998, Sagrario disappeared after leaving work one day.

Flores, who was accustomed to meeting her daughter at the bus stop down the street after returning home from CAPCON, became alarmed when Sagrario was more than ten minutes late that fateful spring day. To get home to Lomas de Poleo, Sagrario had to take a bus to downtown Juárez and then transfer to the Number 10 service for the final and lengthy excursion home. Both routes passed through sketchy zones.

Almost three weeks after she vanished, Sagrario’s body was discovered in the rural Juárez Valley, an area far from the opposite side of the city where she lived. In subsequent years, many other murdered women with signs of sexual violence would be recovered from the Juárez Valley, a hotbed of organized crime and a zone of militarization opposite the border from the Texas.

Sagrario was a “simple person with very beautiful feelings,” her older sister Guillermina said. “It’s not right that so much harm should have been done to her. This shouldn’t have happened, and it shouldn’t continue happening.”

Sagrario’s violent death would not go forgotten. Flores and family banded together with Irma Perez, Bertha Marquez and other relatives of victims of  feminicide, to form Voces sin Eco (Voices without Echo).

A pioneering relatives’ activist group that was active from 1998 to 2001, the scrappy organization demanded justice, pressured for better public safety and raised hell with state authorities over the growing toll of unsolved, violent crimes against women and the impunity that accompanied them.

As part of its justice campaign, Voces sin Eco introduced the black crosses on pink backgrounds that have since become icons of the international anti-feminicide movement and continue to cover utility posts and other public surfaces in Juarez to this day. Flores credits Guillermina, who served as the spokesperson for Voces sin Eco, for the pink cross idea.

Periodically, whenever the paint on the crosses fade, Flores and other Juárez activists take to the streets brush in hand to touch up the symbols that honor their loved ones and cry out for an end to gender violence.

The story of Sagrario and Voces sin Eco was depicted in “Senorita Extraviada”  (“Missing Young Woman”), Lourdes Portillo’s landmark 2001 documentary about the Juárez feminicides.

In the aftermath of Sagrario’s disappearance and murder a fire of activism gripped Flores, forging a grassroots community leader who also got involved in improving the quality of life in her neighborhood.
The mother of seven children (six girls and a boy) served two terms as neighborhood association president, helping bring electricity in 2002 and 2003 to Lomas de Poleo, a settlement that developed along the classic lines of similar colonias in Mexico, Latin America and the U.S. Southwest, where low-income people with dreams of a patrimony settle undeveloped lands and then struggle for basic services.

A resident of the lower portion of Lomas de Poleo, Flores supported neighbors in the upper section of the desert settlement who were locked in an explosive land dispute with members of the Zaragoza family, one of the most powerful in Juárez and Mexico.

By the middle of the last decade, violence rippled through upper Lomas de Poleo, with residents’ buildings burned or bulldozed and homeowners and their guests beaten and harassed. Two people were killed. Residents pinned the violence on security guards for the Zaragozas, whom they charged were drawn from gangs and criminal elements. Flores called upper Lomas de Poleo at the time a “concentration camp.” She added, “We saw how the authorities allowed this to go on.”

Flores fondly remembered one protest when she was arrested, put in different police campers to confuse the protesters and nearly rescued by her comrades. “This was a bitter but beautiful experience,” she said. “I saw how the people responded by running after us.”

Her twinkling eyes bursting with a young and contagious energy, Flores conveys a genuine warmth that touches many people the world over. Fetching her archives, Flores retrieved a photo of herself with Salma Hayek.

For Flores, however, the justice movement is not a one-way street of outsiders coming to Juárez to express sympathy and lend a hand to victims’ mothers like herself.

She’s hit the road in Mexico and abroad to support others demanding justice in their own lands. Flores was struck by the parallels to Juárez she encountered on trips to New Mexico and Canada, where she met family members of some of the hundreds of indigenous women who have disappeared or been murdered in recent years.

“They are humble, poor girls and live on reservations,” Flores said. “They have families that can’t struggle. (Relatives) complained about the same negligence and lack of justice.”

Four hours up the old Camino Real from her own home, Flores met women with missing or murdered relatives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She compared the 2009 West Mesa case, in which the remains of 11 murdered girls and young women of color, who were also from working-class backgrounds, were recovered from a clandestine burial ground on the outskirts of the city, to similar finds in Juárez.

“It’s the same thing. I saw many similarities to the Juárez cases,” Flores said. “(Victims) were found in empty lots and (police) hauled out (earth moving) machines and erased evidence…just like here.” The Juárez activist added, “I asked (relatives) what can we do to make known the voices of the 11 murdered women. We can do something in Juarez.”

Back at home, Flores doggedly pursued Sagrario’s suspected killers, forcing the authorities to arrest and finally convict in 2007 one man, Jose Luís Hernandez, for the crime, while still pressing officials to go after additional suspects. Hernandez, she said, set up Sagrario for a gang of drug smugglers and human traffickers in return for a payment of $500.

“The day I shut up I will turn into an accomplice,” Flores said. “Sagrario is dead but as long as I speak out, she is alive.”

Dr. Patricia Ravelo Blancas, professor of sociology and gender violence researcher for the Center for Research and Higher Education in Social Anthropology (CIESAS) in Mexico City, produced a 2010 documentary about Flores entitled “La Carta.” “We’ve learned a lot from her,” Ravelo told FNS.  “She’s been a first-class investigator.”

Paula Flores and her family have delivered important lessons, Ravelo said. “It’s a story that has taught us a lot, and to not stop struggling for social justice,” she added.

A lot has changed and a lot hasn’t in Lomas de Poleo and Juárez 20 years after the Gonzalez Flores family found a new place to call home. In 2015 modest homes of cement, block and wood homes have running water, electricity and sewage hook-ups; commercial chains such as S-Mart and Oxxo are opening up for business.

Down the street from the Flores homestead, the neighborhood kindergarten is now called María Sagrario Gonzalez Flores Kindergarten.

Yet Lomas de Poleo remains an underdeveloped place, bearing more than a passing resemblance to a poor Mexican country town, with rutted thoroughfares that spawn pools after the summer rains and unpaved roads that kick up dust and impair air quality in a tri-state region. Five years ago Flores shut down a small family store after suffering a half-dozen robberies.

Once again, the maquiladoras beckon thousands of new workers. And once again, the wages are rock bottom.

Now a mother of two children, Guillermina is disturbed by ongoing acts of violence in Juárez. “It’s sad that 15 years later girls keep disappearing and getting killed in Juárez, “ she sighed. “(Authorities) don’t want to stop the problem, or nobody can stop it and it just continues.”

Nowadays, a statute-like pink cross is plopped in front of Paula Flores’ home. Since April 2015, a mural of Sagrario covers the front of the abode. Painted by Juárez muralist Maclovio and friends, the art work is among dozens of similar projects dedicated to victims of gender violence springing up across Juarez.

“This is a memory of my sister,” Guillermina said. “It’s important for us as a family and as a society.”

Splashed with contrasting scenery, the mural alludes to the Gonzalez Flores family’s migration from their pine-rich, mountainous homeland of Durango to the high and hot desert of Juárez. Indeed, Sagrario missed the cool days of Durango, her mother said.

“They detained your flight but your memory echoes,” read words written on Sagrario’s mural from the Juárez poet Armine Arjona.

Behind the mural, two parakeets chirp from a small cage on the house’s patio. Flores explained she has kept such birds ever since Sagrario had a pair of them. Two big and beautiful parakeets figure prominently in the mural.

Strangely, one  of the pet birds died the day Sagrario disappeared. The second one, “Luís,” suddenly flew away, never to came back, on the very same day Sagrario’s remains were found in the Juárez Valley, according to Flores.

“(Sagrario) hasn’t gone. She is here,” the mother said. “She’s on the mural, in the María Sagrario kindergarten, in the community, and on the pink crosses.”

-Kent Paterson

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