By Morgan Smith -  Volunteer. Writer. Photographer.

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In late 2010, a friend from El Paso contacted me to suggest that I read the book, Murder City, Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Field by Charles “Chuck” Bowden (1945-2014). I had been documenting and assisting several humanitarian organizations in that area, read the book and was immediately fascinated by what Bowden had written about how he and Julián Cardona, ( 1960-2020) the extraordinary photographer had discovered this mental asylum called Vision in Action in the desert on the west edge of Juárez. 

To quote Chuck, “We had pulled over because Julián was entranced by the blankets drying on clumps of desert shrubs with the Uffington horse in the background. They looked like buffalo. The building was just to the east with something about vision in action painted on it. It was early 2008 and the bad killing had just begun. We were roaming trying to find a center of the slaughter. We never did. And then a stream of people came over the wall from the building to the east and they flocked around us. Of course, at that moment I knew nothing of them except they seemed crazy.”

In late 2010 Chuck came to Santa Fe to give a lecture at the Lannan Foundation. I had a chance to meet with him at his hotel, told him that I was fascinated by this description and he immediately agreed to introduce me to Pastor José Antonio Galván, the founder of Vision in Action as well as Julián.

On February 24, 2011, Galván picked me up at my hotel in El Paso and we headed across the border. A big burly man dressed in black with a Special Forces pin on his lapel, he was an imposing sight. When he said that his son, Joe was in the US Special Forces, I told him that I had served there many years earlier and we immediately bonded.

Soon we passed through the center of Juárez and reached Vision in Action at the edge of the desert. When I stepped into the central patio, dozens of patients surrounded me, ragged looking, many of them incoherent but welcoming as if I, this stranger from another country, would be able to brighten their day.

I knew then that this facility – I would call it a mental asylum even though the word “asylum” is not politically correct – would become a major focus of my monthly trips to document conditions on the border and assist various humanitarian organizations.

Up until COVID, I visited at least once a month, bringing clothing, shoes, food, and candies as well as my camera and writing dozens of articles about Galván and his patients. I’ve also been consistently involved as a fundraiser. Since getting fully vaccinated I have been visiting twice a month.

Galván was born in Juárez, got married there and then moved to California where he and his wife, Esther had two sons and two daughters. He found good paying work as a crane operator on large construction projects but got into drugs, broke up with his family and was deported back to Juárez where he lived as a street addict.

On January 6, 1986 while drunk he spotted a street pastor, went into a rage and hit the pastor on the head with his beer bottle. Bleeding, the pastor forced Galván to the ground. “It was like he held my head in a vice,” Galván says. The pastor prayed over him. “His blood was falling on me like the blood of the Lord,” Galván relates. 

This incident – what he has called a divine moment - changed him; he then determined to devote his life to caring for the mentally ill. For several years he managed a food bank in Juárez, then he acquired this patch of desert on the west edge of the city with a few shacks on it. Piece by piece he began building this facility while also taking in more and more patients, many of whom were dumped on him by the police. 

Now Vision in Action cares for roughly 120 patients, making this the largest facility for the mentally ill in Juárez, a city of about 1.5 million. Operating with almost no government support he has managed to survive for the last twenty six years, a tribute to his persistence and ingenuity and the use of techniques that would be unimaginable here in the US.

For example, there is no money to hire professional staff so most of the management is carried out by a small group of better functioning patients who receive small stipends when the money is available. Josué Rosales is an example. He too was born in Juárez and moved to California when young. He got caught up in gang life, ended up spending nine years in various California prisons and then was deported back to Juárez where he lived as a street addict.

Finally, he was hospitalized and the hospital, assuming he was about to die, had him dumped at Vision in Action. Other patients took on his care, bathing and feeding him for months while he slowly recovered. He then became a caregiver himself, got a nursing degree and now is the principal nurse for the facility.

Viridiana “Viri” Torres (pictured left) was brought to Vision in Action six years ago, having been a patient in other facilities. Pastor Galván soon discovered that despite her bipolarity she had a gift with numbers and he had her work on his accounting issues. This almost immediately paid dividends when she discovered that his second in command had been stealing. Now Viri not only keeps the books but has been the leader in defining new programs for the women patients.

There are five other patient-trustees who manage the kitchen and the feeding of the patients, monitor patients in the patio area, administrate medications, and are in charge of maintaining cleanliness.

Many other patients, some of them incoherent, have daily tasks like washing blankets and bedding, helping in the kitchen, gathering firewood, taking care of the animals, or helping with repair projects. Work gives dignity and a sense of purpose, Galván says.

Upon my first visit, it was clear that the major issue was the crowding together of different types of patients – men and women, the old and the younger, those who could be treated with those who had suffered permanent damage, mostly from bad drugs.

In 2012, Bowden and Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi ( together that had produced the documentary El Sicario Room 164) helped arrange for the asylum to get a grant from a European foundation  that was used to facilitate some of the new construction to provide more comfortable quarters for the patients.

Other funds were then raised to build a shower area and enclose part of the patio so patients could congregate in an area with air conditioning in the brutally hot summers and heat in the winters.

Two years ago we built a separate kitchen area for the dementia patients so that they wouldn’t have to contend for food with the sometimes aggressive younger patients.

We then built an 8 bed unit for the women dementia patients so that they could live apart from the male dementia patients. The goal now is to complete a 20 bed dormitory for other women patients. Not only will they have a secure and comfortable place to live but this dormitory will have a patio where they can relax during the days. Juárez has been a brutal city for women. There was a wave of violence against women between 1993 and 2005 and now it has surged again with nearly 500 murders in the last three years. The government has initiated a Crimes Against Women unit and finally many of these cases are being investigated but this will be a slow process. In the meantime, we will be creating a safe haven for women here at Vision in Action.

This project is under way but more support is needed. Donations can be sent to me at the address below. They should be made out to the El Paso Community Foundation; that will ensure that donors get a tax deduction. The funds will then be passed on to Vision in Action. With the help of many donors, we will be able to set an example of decent and dignified treatment for these twenty women. Thanks for your help. 

Morgan Smith

717 Calle Resplandor

Santa Fe, NM 87505