A birthday party
Marisol turned sixteen last Saturday. Sweet sixteen.
Dressed in a bright pink jumper, her eyes sparkling, she looks so pretty as I watch her putting the last-minute touches to the pillow she's making. A little while later, when she comes in for her birthday party, I see her eyes fill with tears. The cake, a light chocolate sponge interleaved with strawberries and cream and topped with 16 blazing candles, takes her by surprise. She bursts out crying with the emotion. She hadn't expected anything like that.
Marisol's birthday party
A few days earlier, when I discovered it was her birthday on Saturday, I told her we would have to celebrate. Instead of excitement and joy, I detected a look of sadness in her eyes. She hugged me tight and whispered in my ear, "I miss mi mama. Every time I have a birthday, I realise another year has gone by without seeing her." So that was the reason for her sighs. Yes, every teenage girl needs her mother to confide in, to feel loved, to share life's moments. "It must be very hard not to be with your Mum, but for the moment, you've been given another family. This is your family now. We all love you."
Unlike many other girls her age, whose priorities are most likely to be chatting with friends on Facebook, going to the cinema to see the latest film, wandering around the shops looking for clothes, or maybe keeping up with Maths and Mexican History at school, Marisol has been burdened with extra responsibilities. Barely a girl herself, she is also a single teenage mother with a two-year old daughter to bring up on her own. Literally on her own. Brenda Lupita is running around among the bright balloons, happily making as much noise with them as possible. Marisol would love her mama to see her beautiful cheeky little girl but she lost track of her mother's whereabouts a long time ago due to the circumstances in her life. They haven't seen each other for many years. Nor her little brother. And she's just turned bitter sweet sixteen.
Mother and daughter
The other girls sing Happy Birthday in English to Marisol as we've taught them in our classes. I'm so proud of them. Then it's time for another song, "Las Mañanitas", the Mexican equivalent. Marisol is wiping the tears away from her cheek using a serviette decorated with party balloons. "Blow the candles out!" everyone shouts. She has a go. Unknown to her, they are magic candles which mysteriously light themselves again. This brings a smile to her face. Others help her until the candles are lifeless wax sticks.
I think back to the day when Marisol arrived at Casa Daya, almost a year ago. It was a cool crisp day up in Cuajimalpa when I arrived to give my class. The girls were sitting in the sunshine outside, warming themselves and holding their babies and kids. As I went round hugging each one, I suddenly came face to face with Marisol. She had recently arrived. Her face echoed sadness, fear, tears, hurt, uncertainty, doubt.... She clutched at me and wouldn't let me go. I still remember the exact words she said to me, "¡Me siento tan sola!" She felt terribly lonely, so alone. Her little girl clung on to her. "Welcome to Casa Daya then!" I said, telling her she would soon become one of the family.
A photo of Marisol giving me a hug on her arrival at Casa Daya
Casa Daya is a home for single teenage mums or pregnant girls who have nowhere else to go and no-one to support or help them. It offers a safe place for these girls and their children, most of whom have traumatic past histories and have been the victims of severe violence in their homes, abuse, rape, exploitation, abandon and rejection or who have been living on the streets. Here they receive psychological and medical care, are taught how to look after their children and take turns doing the housework, cooking and caring for the children. They are also encouraged to continue their schooling. Those who have never been to school are taught to read and write first. Some of them are learning a trade such as cookery or computer studies and they all learn new skills in workshops, like sewing and crafts. Their children go to the small Montessori kindergarten which is also part of Casa Daya. But perhaps most importantly, they find a home and family.
It often takes them quite a long time to settle down, to trust adults again, to open up and share. These are girls with broken bodies and broken minds, some of whom have such a low self-esteem they can't look you in the eye. Others, understandably, have difficulty in relating to their children. For so long they have been told they are"good-for-nothings", that they believe it. Although they've already lived a lifetime of abuse, they are just starting to heal and discover they are special and have talents. Casa Daya is helping them to find help, hope and and faith.
Casa Daya, Cuajimalpa
One of the girls' bedroom
Some of the mums and kids
Many hands make light work
A big family
Children in the Montessori kindergarten
Doing an activity with the girls
Artwork as therapy
Perla with her newborn baby
Playing the recorder
Learning about nutrition
Now it's time for another Mexican custom. The candles have been removed and the birthday girl has to take a bite into the cake. Marisol stoops down and sinks her teeth into the soft chocolate sponge and creamy topping. She emerges with white smudges all over her face, provoking howls of laughter from the others. Then I watch her as she proudly helps hand round a piece of cake to everyone. The children get chocolate-flavoured milk and some yoghurt with fresh papaya cut up into it. There's fruit juice for the adults. She's come a long way, I think.
I remember a certain day, sometime back in January when she had already been at Casa Daya for a few months. Marisol drew me aside and said she wanted to show me something. I was intrigued. Out of her bag came a dog-eared notebook which she had covered with some pink paper. She handed it to me. "Can I look inside?" I asked, making sure she wanted me to see. She nodded and I opened the notebook to find pages and pages of emotion-filled writing and illustrations by her. Amo a Lupita, I love Lupita.... cropped up many times. Sitting down with her, I read her writings, profound descriptions of how she felt, her hurting soul, her heartbreaking past, her fears, her doubts... it had all gushed out from her pen. And on other pages she'd scribbled touching texts about the simple beauty of the stars and flowers, her love for her daughter. I turned to her, astonished. "But Marisol, you are a poet! You are very talented!" You see, she hadn't even let anyone know that she could write and in fact we had just started doing literacy with her. That day marked a turning point. We encouraged her to open up to the others, start sharing her feelings with them, and to our surprise she began to write letters to us and the other girls, decorated with photos she'd been given and stickers. It was a hopeful beginning.
A budding writer
The party is almost over and as I turn to say goodbye, she hugs me tight and says, "Muchísimas gracias por todo. Thanks so much for everything!" I take her aside. "You have changed so much this year. You are a completely different girl, a caring mum. I watched you as you served everyone here too. You've really gained a lot of self-confidence. You have so much to celebrate this birthday! Happy Sweet sixteen!"
The girls doing an activity
Rocio goes to cookery classes and shows us how to make spaghetti
Jonathan watches us cook from a safe spot
The girls make cards in their crafts workshop
And warm scarves... to sell
Mums and children at the Christmas party
Jaqueline with her sweet baby
Having fun making choco-crisps
An excursion to the park
Having some teenage fun
Happy to start school!
Cute little girls