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The children of Chiapas

The Children of Chiapas

Emma Poole
Calgary Herald
Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas

Fernando Flores Kante with his sister Rosy and brother Gonzalo. The brothers show the scars they have on their abdomens. They were used to smuggle drugs (an operation was performed and the drugs were inserted into their abdomens). The sister was abused as a child. See story for more info. They are now living at the Orphanage Casa Hogar Alegre, in the town Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas region of Mexico.

Mama Liz has 74 children- two of her own and the rest neglected and abused Mexican orphans.

For seven years Elizabeth Castelaso Noguera- known as Mama Liz to her "kids"- has taken in southern Mexico's unwanted children.

Far from the beaches of Puerto Vallarta, the small compound of Casa Hogar Alegre is burrowed high in the hills above Tuxtla Gutierrez.

Three white stucco buildings house, and shelter Mama Liz's orphans from a life if abuse and torture.

All but one of the kids has been sexually assaulted, some have been abandoned and others left for dead.

The children all have one thing in common, they have been abused by their parents, and have come to the orphanage in Chiapas with little more than the clothes on their backs.

Some were left at the gates of the compound where Mama Liz found them alone and scared.

Other were taken away by the Mexican police when the signs of abuse became so visible no one could turn their backs.

Fernando Flores Cantes, 9, his brother Gonzalo, 10, and sister Rosie were apprehended from their parents by police several years ago and brought to Casa Hogar Alegre to live with Mama Liz in Chiapas' largest orphanage.

Fernando and Gonzalo were used as pawns by their drug smuggling grandfather and father.

Their tales of abuse are masked by huge smiles and large brown eyes which can only now look ahead to a future of love and laughter.

Fernando and Gonzalo hide several scars but none worse than the 10 inch long semi-healed lacerations to their stomachs.

For years their father and grandfather would cut into their bellies and insert bags of cocaine as a means of smuggling contraband across the border.

"I took the kids to get bread one day that's when I found out the truth," said Mama Liz. "When Fernando saw the money I was carrying he said he kept lots of money in a suitcase for his grandfather. He said they would take the money on a plane to a big home where they would give it away."

Elizabeth Castelaso Noguera with her 'children' at the Orphanage Casa Hogar Alegre, in the town of Tuxtla Gutierrez.

To protect the siblings from knowing too much about their past, Mama Liz tells them that their grandfather's operations were to remove worms. Not much of an excuse she admits, but better than letting them grow up with the memory of what a family member had done to their bodies for money.

Little Elias Gomez was only one year-old when his Zapatista rebel father and uncle tried to kill him. In a fit a drunkenness and rage the pair unloaded two shots into the skull of the pint-sized tot.

For nine hours Elias lay in his own blood before neighbours heard him crying and called for police. He was taken to hospital where he recovered, almost completely. Elias still has a large scar across his forehead and another in the back of his skull, a permanent reminder of what happened one summer night last year.

Within weeks of arriving at the orphanage, Elias' relative banged on the gates at Casa Hogar, guns over their shoulders. They wanted him back and threatened Mama Liz with their AK-47 weapons.

But Mama Liz promised long ago that she would protect each and every child who came to Casa Hogar. Once they passed through the gates they would never be subjected to heartache and abuse again.

"These kids now have everything they need," said Mama Liz. "I give them confidence and tell them that this place in not an orphanage, this is their home."

Maria Teresa Sanches Altunar - Terri to the rest of the orphans- was the first child Mama Liz took under her wing and into her heart. Terri arrived at Casa Hogar at 12 years-old. Her mother beat her repeatedly, but that paled in comparison to the sexual abuse her step-father committed day after day.

Lilibeth - another of Mama Liz's orphans - also fell prey to her step-father and now lives at Casa Hogar with her five year-old daughter Abigail, a product of that abuse.

Her step-father was thrown in jail for a short time after Abigail was born. "But they let him out soon after and once again my nightmare started," she said.

At 19, Lilibeth is one of the older orphans. She is now responsible for bathing the little ones, feeding them and making sure they are ready for school on time.

Mama Liz - the daughter of missionary parents - started Casa Hogar to take care of senior citizens in the area. But soon after police officers and government workers were dropping Mexico's downtrodden children at her steps as well.

Rosario, 12, and Karina Del Rosario Perez Cancino, 7, share a laugh at the Orphanage Casa Hogar Alegre.

She tried to integrate the two groups but there wasn't enough room for all of them and Mama Liz was running out of money. "The home started breaking down. The kids were forced to sit on the floor to eat supper because their weren't tables or chairs," said Mama Liz. "I thought I wouldn't be able to keep the kids under those conditions."

Then friends and family started donating furniture for the orphanage. They helped build beds and donate food for the continuous stream of children who were being brought to the compound weekly.

At one time there were 300 kids calling the orphanage home. Over the years, Mama Liz has seen it all.

One mother who showed up at the orphanage told Mama Liz she would trade her son for a tape recorder. Others have asked for money to turn over their children.

Then came Samaritan's Purse and a man called John Clayton. He promised help from Canada, and for the last three years has continued to support Casa Hogar. "Lots of people said they would help. They took pictures of the orphanage and we never heard from them again," said Mama Liz.

If help was what these kids were looking for, help is what they got from Mama Liz.

Diego Perez, 9, spent almost a day hiding under a table in his house after his step-father killed his family. "Someone found me under the table and that's how I got here," said Perez. "Today Mama Liz makes me feel good. She gives me all I need, and she takes time to teach me everything I need."

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Copyright © 2000, Photographer Mikael Kjellström, All rights reserved