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Difference Maker

Ellen Calmus helps Mexican families cope with cross-border challenges

The Corner Project assists families with relatives in the US, ensuring, for example, that children of migrant workers born in the US are able to register for school or other services in Mexico.

By Gary G. YerkeyCorrespondent / November 30, 2012

Ellen Calmus (c., standing) poses with teachers and students from The Corner Project, which helps the children of migrants away in the US.

Courtesy of Ellen Calmus/El Rincon

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Malinalco, Mexico

Here in the stunningly beautiful highlands of south-central Mexico, thousands of families facing economic hardship have seen relatives leave to seek work in the United States. Families have been torn apart, and many of those who have returned to the region continue to need help and support.

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Ellen Calmus, an American writer and photographer who founded and today runs a community-based aid organization here, has seen it all.

Her nonprofit group – The Corner Project, or Proyecto El Rincón in Spanish – has won her Mexico's gold Quetzalcóatl medal and praise in Mexico and elsewhere for providing crisis support and other assistance to local families with relatives in the US. It is also seen as a model for how nongovernmental organizations can deal with cross-border migration. A growing number of towns and villages beyond the Malinalco region have turned to El Rincón with requests for assistance for their own families of migrants.

Working with a staff of four full-time employees, along with dozens of part-time participants and volunteers, Ms. Calmus helps create jobs by supporting the design, production, and sale of Aztec-inspired jewelry, handcrafted by local artisans. She also oversees weekend and summer programs for migrants' children.

But she says the bulk of the requests received by her organization are for crisis assistance for the families of Malinalco's migrants in the US, for those who have returned to Malinalco after suffering injuries or falling ill in the US, and appeals for help for the widows and orphans of migrants killed in highway and workplace accidents.

Calmus says she is especially happy when she can help young people like 19-year-old Jovani González-Jiménez, whose father died three years ago in a logging accident in Virginia. She found a lawyer to file an insurance claim on behalf of him and his twin brother. The resulting payments have made it possible for the two boys to fulfill their father's dream of putting his sons through college.

"Without that help," Mr. González-Jiménez said, "we wouldn't be in school today.... What we wanted was to get ahead, to be somebody. My father didn't want us to live like he did, a life of suffering, working in the fields. He wanted us to study."

Edgar Monroy, a local woodcarver and teacher, credits Calmus with spearheading development of a cottage industry of craftsmen in Malinalco, which is becoming well known for its woodcarving expertise.

"Ellen is a visionary," he says. "She understands our culture.... My work is valued."

Calmus says that a growing challenge for her and her organization has been to ensure that the US-born children of migrant returnees are able to register in school, and receive vaccinations, health care, and other basic services that Mexico provides to the children of its poorest citizens free of charge. Lack of Mexican documents has stopped or delayed service to US-born children here.

A recent report by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Hispanic Center said that about 300,000 US-born children were brought to Mexi-co between 2005 and 2010 by a rising number of Mexicans returning to their homeland.

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