By Amy Joyce
In houses of God there are often stained glass windows depicting saints and martyrs and symbols of their holiness and sometimes of their death. In my dreams, the house at 1003 E. San Antonio has windows of stained glass—on them are images of guests, past and present. The scenes they depict are colorful, comical, strange, blessed, joyful, and desperate. They are scenes of the people of God.
In the women’s dorm there is the Salma window. The dominant colors black, white, gray, powder blue, and hot pink. Black and white for the black sweater and white t-shirt Salma always seems to wear. Powder blue for the blanket that covers her aged body where she lays in bed most days gasping for breath, her asthmatic lungs clenched tight, threatening her very life. Gray for the smoke from the cigarettes she, astonishingly enough, smokes on the roof. Hot pink is for the t-shirt of her 12-year-old, motherless granddaughter, Perla, who is with her. Perla, in hot pink, sits on the edge of Salma’s bed most days, Salma’s caregiver and her dependent at the same time.
Salma comes with Perla every five months. She is a social-security widow. Because she is Mexican, U.S. law states that she must reside in the United States for 30 consecutive days of every six months in order to claim her husband’s benefits. She lives on these benefits, so she must come, whether Perla is in school at the time or not. So in my 23 months with the house, I have welcomed Salma and Perla three times, though they have been welcomed many times before. If Salma were French or German, she could claim her deceased U.S. husband’s benefits from home. But she is Mexican. And that makes a great difference to the U.S. government. The Salma window tells a story that defies logic. It will always confound me.
The Gustavo window is downstairs in the sala. When I see it in my dreams it comes to life. Gustavo limps across the sala to the office door. He has a bad leg. In his 55 years he’s been through a lot. He is here to better his life. Just like everybody else. With his leg, he is never chosen to work by the patrones who ring the doorbell looking for day laborers. At the office door he makes his daily request. “Por favor, dáme mis cosas.” (Please give me my things.) His cosas are huge bags of nueces (nuts) and rolls of red cellophane and string. With them he limps to a sofa and begins his work for the day: packaging individual bags of nuts to sell in the plaza downtown. The sunlight through the Gustavo window shines on the cellophane and sends red sparks all around. The sparks speak to the great will and determination of this man to “make it” in this country. This window gives me hope.
The Josefina window is in the family section. It lets in light only sometimes, though it’s multiple panes are brilliantly colored. The panes reflect the light of Josefina’s four children—turquoise blue for eight-year-old Alma, the color of the falda (skirt) she found in the banco de ropa (clothing bank) the day she arrived; yellow, red, and blue, the colors of Spiderman and Superman, the heroes of Carlitos and Jesus, seven and four-years-old; and maroon for Isabel, age four, the color of the sweatpants and sweatshirt from the banco that has become her uniform.
My dreams give me entry into the sanctum of Josefina’s room where she, her four children, and mother, María, live with one bunk bed and a pallet on the floor. And my dreams let me see that a black curtain hangs before the gorgeous window obscuring the light. It hangs there to shield her and her children from the abusive husband she ran away from but who is looking for her. It hangs there as a symbol of her struggle to make a life for herself and her children in this new country—without papers, without money, without English, without a partner. It hangs there as a reminder of all the doors that have been closing in her face as she has gone from one social service agency to another pleading help for Isabel, who is autistic.
The black curtain speaks of Josefina’s heartache. But I have seen her window underneath the curtain, and it speaks of esperanza(hope). Josefina is a good, patient mother. She loves her children and is able to give them a feeling of security and well-being, even though they are living in a shelter. She is also persistent and proactive, immediately enrolling Alma and Carlitos in school, and daily seeking help for Isabel’s special needs. The odds for “making it” in the United States are so stacked against undocumented families like Josefina’s at this time. Still, I pray that things will change for them. I pray that one day Josefina’s black curtain will come down and my vision will be obscured only by the brilliance of the rainbow colors streaming into their tiny family room.
The window in the cocina (kitchen) is the window of so many: Omar, Victor, Marisela, Juan, Paula, Olivia, Jose Luis, Jaime, Flor, as all the guests take turns cooking meals. It is the window of the most amazing colors and of surprising combinations—like the food that is prepared in this room. There is bright, firy red, for all the chilesthat get made into salsa here; yellow and orange and deep green for the peppers that, with queso (cheese) and aceite (oil), get made into a delicious side dish; and light green and lime green, the colors of the calabazas (zucchini) and limones (limes) that are so aplenty among the donations.
But then there are also the colors of the cocineros in their regalia from the banco: a rich orangish-brown mustard color for Jose Luis, from Honduras, who is wearing a Texas longhorn t-shirt; navy blue for Victor, from Oaxaca, in his El Paso Fire Department t-shirt; kelly-green, orange, and white for Marisela, from Guadalajara, who is wearing a “Southside Irish” t-shirt; and maroon for Olivia, from Juarez, who is wearing a Harvard sweatshirt.
And then there are the colors of the laughter and surprise in the cocina. I guess they wouldn’t be colors as much as hues—brilliant hues that make the yellow yellower and the red redder, that make the window almost glow and pulse with life.
The laughter comes from when three cocineros named, for example, Juan, Antonio, and Jorge, insist to me at 6am that, though they volunteered to cook breakfast, they don’t know how to cook at all, not even avena (oatmeal). And when I, not believing them, insist that they do and send the 66-serving container of oatmeal upstairs with them after telling them it will be a small group for breakfast, maybe seven or eight people. And, when
an hour later, they surprise us all with 66 servings of avena the consistency of wet cement. Yes, there is laughter. And the gay colors in the cocina’s window reflect that.
Finally, this amazingly beautiful window also has panes of bubblegum pink—for the industrial soap that is used to wash the dishes after every meal—and of brown and purple and sage and apricot, the colors of the trapos (rags) we use to wash and dry the dishes.
These technicolor dreams I have of windows filled with people from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador will stay with me forever. These windows with their myriad images of people who, only at the beginning of their journeys into new lives in a foreign land, have already lived through enough pain, joy, sorrow, hope, fear and faith for a lifetime—will remain in my memory as the most profound images of the people of God that I could be privileged to see. No cathedral I will ever enter could have stained glass windows to rival those of the red brick house on the edge of the Segundo Barrio in El Paso. Of this I am quite certain.
Originally from Chicago, Amy Joyce is beginning her third year of service with Annunciation House, where she functions as Volunteer Coordinator and serves our guests in a myriad of ways.