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.

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

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.

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.

Calmus is pleased with the success her organization has achieved in getting families the assistance needed to get their children's documents in order, she says. But the children's predicament is just one of many unintentional "family-breaking" consequences of US and Mexican immigration policy, she says. Excessive reliance on border control has left many Mexican workers effectively trapped in the US by the risks and costs of visits home even for such important family events as deaths or graduations, while tough US visa requirements also make it impossible for family members in Mexico to travel to the US to care for their sick or dying migrant relatives.

In a policy paper available on the project's website (www.elrincon.org), Calmus sets out certain "policy fixes" that the US and Mexican governments could implement to help keep families together. They include providing a low-cost telephone connection for Mexican detainees in the US with families in Mexico; allowing more of the seasonal visas that make it possible for Mexican workers to return to their families at home; simplifying the procedures for certifying US birth certificates for use in Mexico; and creating a network of bilingual volunteers to work with US and Mexican agencies in sorting out problems encountered by migrants' families.

Robert B. Myerson, a 2007 Nobel Prize winner in economics who is familiar with Calmus's work, says that she is a true "community organizer," in the best sense of the word.

"She's helping people with their personal problems in tangible ways, while also working to influence the way society is organized for the good," Mr. Myerson told the Monitor. "She's very much a part of the community."

Born in Texas, Calmus came to Malinalco by way of journalism and academia after graduating magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1973 and receiving a master's degree in public policy from Princeton University in 1986.

She spent the late 1980s in El Salvador working on a book about that country's civil war. But her research was cut short by the November 1989 assassination of six Jesuit professors, including the social psychologist Ignacio Martín-Baró, an adviser, colleague, and close friend whose death left her traumatized and battling writer's block and depression during a decade working as a university professor and translator in Mexico City.

A return visit to postwar El Salvador in 1995 introduced her to an American Jesuit, Dean Brackley, who had gone to El Salvador after the assassinations and had become a priest in her mentor's country parish. Her appreciation for his support as she revisited the scenes of her war experiences led to Calmus helping Father Brackley rewrite a manuscript that would become his acclaimed book, "The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times: New Perspectives on the Transformative Wisdom of Ignatius of Loyola," published in 2004 with a foreword by Calmus, which describes how editing the manuscript helped her emerge from her depression.

It also led to a job for Calmus as a long-distance editor for a US publisher who had also read Brackley's manuscript.

It was this editing job that allowed Calmus to move to Malinalco in 1997, a place she had discovered while searching for a rural retreat near Mexico City where she could write and think "and just walk in the hills." She had fallen in love with the place, and in 1998 she opened an educational center for neighborhood children.

In 2003, El Rincón was born. Today, it operates on a shoestring budget cobbled together from contributions from a wide range of sources, including many friends in the US and Mexico; a congregation of Ohio-based nuns; and the Berkeley, Calif.-based San Carlos Foundation, cofounded by actor Martin Sheen.

Her work in Malinalco is driven by, among other things, an American desire "to help things work" better, Calmus says.

"When you see things are working badly, to everybody's disadvantage, you just want to fix them," she says. "I can't bear the thought of things being terrible when they could be better."

Dulce Medina, a doctoral student at Arizona State University who was born in Malinalco and specializes in migration-related issues, said that El Rincón – with its focus on community-based solutions to community problems – could be replicated in other parts of Mexico that are experiencing high rates of returning migrants.

Too often "outsiders" come to Mexico for a brief stay with preconceived notions about how to solve problems, Ms. Medina says. But Calmus is "in it for the long haul," relying on the advice and counsel of the people she is trying to help, Medina says.

"She really cares about these families," Medina says, "and that's really what stands out."

• For more information, visit www.elrincon.org

Helping in Latin America

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations worldwide. Projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause.

Below are three opportunities to help in Latin America, selected by UniversalGiving:

Border Partners unites people from both sides of the US-Mexican border to improve life for those living in poverty along the border. Project: Support the Palomas Community Learning Center.

Seeds of Learning educates North Americans about the rich culture and needs of poor communities in Central America. Project: Help create a sister school program.

Literacy Partners Inc. provides free community-based adult and family literacy programs. Project: Volunteer to assist in teaching English as a second language.

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