Every day, I am amazed by the people who I get to call mis vecinas.
Living in an all-female community in Ecuador, working at Casa de Acogida and spending time with many women in the community has only deepened my admiration for La Virgencita Maria. Mary’s willingness to say “yes” to God’s call, her ability to love fiercely, her vulnerability, her strength, and her faith are all qualities that I have seen in the women I am living with here and who I constantly learn from.
Mujeres fuertes – I like to call them – fuertisimas.
Living in a five person, all female volunteer community has been quite the experience. Though full of great aspects, its challenges are clearly present – challenges that come about because of community dynamics, personal characteristics and of course, cultural expectations. Sometimes I sit in our dining table and just stare at all 4 of them for a while and realize that a few months ago these four women were complete strangers to me. Up until July, I had no idea who they were, what they did, or where they were and now, I spend every one of my days with them. Every day I have the opportunity to talk to them, listen to them, cook with them, walk with them, and learn from them and about them.
Katie, Jess, Mattie and Lizzy are all women who I can very openly say are very different than me, but who each carry stories that have invited me grow in a love that knows no differences, much like God’s.
Outside of my home especially, I am amazed by the many mujeres fuertes who surround me. Elena is my 27-year old neighbor. She is funny, kind and very curious. She lives with her brother Alfredo and his family. She didn’t have a job, until a couple of weeks ago and now works for a family near us, helping take care of their children. Elena is a woman who has challenged the typical female stereotype in Ecuador. She is a woman who is single and who doesn’t want to get married. She is a woman who is fueled partly by her family, but mostly by her dream of learning English and traveling, a woman who loves her freedom and is willing to express it, a woman who wants to keep growing.
Luz is a 14-year old woman currently living in Casa de Acogida with her two baby boys. A young woman who has had to grow up much faster than most 14-year olds, but who I believe teaches me so much at her young age. She just gave birth to her second baby boy, D.E. He is one month old and such a cutie pie! Her case is very complicated and is expected to live in the shelter for the next 3 years until she reaches the age of 18. Though maybe she doesn’t realize it, she mimics Mary in a way that to me is beautiful and inspiring. To see her there, in this triple-locked compound holding D.E. in one of her arms and her oldest son with the other and then look at where I’m standing, I become aware of two very different perspectives, two very different lives. Our lives are drastically different yet she faces each day with a strength that is mind-blowing.
Gloria is one of the older neighbors I know here. She is a mother to 4 children. Her youngest son, Raulito, is 24 years old and has Down syndrome. She lost one of her older sons years ago. The rest of her children rarely visit her. She is also a Diabetes patient and got her leg amputated a couple of months ago. Gloria has been through an unimaginable amount of pain and suffering, yet the way she talks about God and her faith in Him takes my breath away. The way both, hers and Raulito’s eyes light up when we visit them is no clearer sign than that of God being present. She is a woman who needs and loves company more than anything in the world. A strong woman who has had to learn how to live her life in a completely different way, but has managed to do so in such a fierce way. I particularly think of something she mentions often… her biggest fear. And that is leaving her son, Raulito alone. Her voice breaks every time she talks about it. She is so scared of that and loves him so, so much that she has said she prays to God He may take him before He takes her, so that he does not have to live a life of suffering alone. It is always a powerful thing to hear – a woman who would rather go through the pain and agony of losing her child, so that he doesn’t go the rest of his life uncared for. Only a mujer fuerte can say that.
Jessica Jessica is one of the sweetest women I know. She used to live in the corner of our street, but moved to a different neighborhood about a month ago, but who we still keep in touch with. She is a single mother to two teenage girls – Mel and Ivis. Jessica is one of the most hardworking women here. She works at a food bank and does everything in her power to keep her daughters in one of the most prestigious schools in the city. Her youngest daughter, Ivis suffers from Lupus. At the beginning of this month, we were getting ready to go have dinner at her house, when suddenly I received a phone call from her. As I answered and listened to her, the pain, worry and agony I detected in her voice was so profound. Her daughter had suffered from a crisis and was admitted to the hospital. The way she sobbed, her inability to fully pronounce her words and her desperateness was such a proof of love, a type of love that only Mary knew.
Henri Nouwen writes, “Mary is the mother of the living, the new Eve, the woman who lives deeply in the heart of the Latin American people. She gives hope, inspires the fight for freedom, and challenges us to live with an unconditional trust in God’s love.”
All of the women I mentioned: Katie, Jess, Mattie, Lizzy, Elena, Lucy, Monica, Gloria and Jessica Jessica (and the countless other women who I didn’t mention) give me hope, inspire me and challenge me to trust in God’s love in completely different ways, each through their own stories. These mujeres fuertes have allowed me to come to know Mary in a way like never before and I can’t fully wrap my head around it, but my heart sure does hold on to that tight.
Most Sundays I walk out of mass singing, “Ven con nosotros a caminar, Santa Maria, ven,” and I hadn’t realized that every one of my days, I get to do exactly that… walk side by side with La Virgencita Maria, manifested through the faces and stories of the mujeres fuertes I am coming to know here.
Valeria Garcia is a current Rostro volunteer living and serving in the community of Monte Sinai. Her ministry site placement is at Hogar de Cristo’s Casa de Acogida, a shelter for women and children who have been victims of domestic abuse.