From Suffering to Service
“You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” — Leviticus 19:34
A sea of concrete, cars and crowds, the San Ysidro Port of Entry is the world’s busiest land border crossing, channeling approximately 90,000 commuters a day who stream north from Tijuana (TJ), Mexico to San Diego, California alone. While the vast majority of travelers enter California’s southernmost county to work, one woman flows against this tide, spending her retirement navigating customs in the opposite direction almost daily
Several streets away from the bustling international border, this seventy-five-year-old woman and her tan chihuahua stand on the asphalt sidewalk. Wearing a black hoodie and jeans, Maria greets her new guests with a smile- the kind that causes creases as evidence of a life well lived and makes people feel welcome. She extends a hug to each visitor as if they were long-time friends and ushers them in. Surrounded by cement and tarmac, the entrance to her building is unmarked, but with such a warm reception one can’t help but feel valued.
Well known for her volunteer work around Tijuana, Maria C. Galleta, or Doña Maria as she is affectionately called, has created a safe haven for sojourners seeking to one day build a better life in the United States. With seemingly boundless energy, Maria works nearly every day- two days a week cleaning buildings for extra income to help fund the shelter she runs, and the other five days a week volunteering in TJ with whoever walks through her doors. She is tireless in her pursuit of loving and caring for anyone she encounters.
Maria grew up in a little town close to Guadalajara, called Jalisco. With 12 siblings on her father’s side and six on her mother’s, she describes her childhood shuffling between two homes as dysfunctional and difficult. At 17 years old she moved to the United States to further her education and at 20 got married to a US Navy serviceman, working two jobs to help support her and her husband’s extended families.
They were blessed with five children- three sons and two daughters. However, when her son, Rudy, was just 18 months old, he was diagnosed with liver cancer and tragically passed away at two years old. The resulting grief and depression Maria walked through birthed a profound empathy for others who have suffered as she has.
“Only God could help me when my mom was having a hard time or when my son died,” Maria says with gratitude. “God is always doing something good for me, I could never pay him back.”
Desiring to help others like her, she established a Spanish support group for parents of children with cancer. During that time, she met someone with AIDS whose frailty and vulnerability reminded her of her son, Rudy, while he was ill. This inspired Maria to accept a county job working with patients dying from AIDS.
Noticing that many of the people she served were being ostracized by society and even their own kin, Maria dreamed of opening a center with a home-like atmosphere which would focus on serving families since other organizations at the time primarily served men.
In 1996 her dream was realized when she co-founded Christie’s Place, the first nonprofit of its kind in San Diego helping women and children impacted by HIV/AIDS. She named it after a young, courageous Puerto Rican mother she had helped years earlier who had passed away.
In TJ she concurrently helped run ACOSIDA Clinic, the first private, free AIDS outpatient center in Mexico and Casa Nicole, providing transitional housing for individuals living with HIV/AIDS.
Whenever Maria saw a need, she couldn’t look away. The more she witnessed suffering and experienced it in her own life, the more she felt compelled to give back
Planting Seeds of Compassion
Still volunteering regularly in Tijuana, Maria saw another way she could help and in 2010 founded a center for vulnerable women and children in transition called Madres y Familias Deportivas en Accíon (Deported Mothers and Families in Action).
While her center initially focused on empowering women and their children by meeting material needs, providing vocational and English language training, and assistance finding employment, it grew into something even more meaningful.
With Maria’s sensitivity and willingness to meet the needs of those around her, the center quickly evolved into a place of inclusive community that transcends nationality and unites people together with a common dream of a better life.
Deported Mothers and Families in Action hosts a neighborly space not just for mothers and their offspring but for anyone in TJ who has been displaced. Some find themselves here to escape violence or a tyrannical government, others wanting job opportunities or more freedom and economic stability.
One day while distributing food and water at a temporary encampment of makeshift tents not far from her building, Maria met a 27-year-old man trying to seek asylum in the United States. Jhonaikel was an artist and student activist in Venezuela, speaking out against the oppressive government and trying to help establish democracy in his home country. Receiving increasing threats, he was forced to flee, leaving behind his mother, sister and brother he hopes to be reunited with one day.
Maria, moved by his story, offered up her apartment in Tijuana where he stayed for free and out of gratitude, Jhonaikel helped manage the center doing whatever was required from helping visitors make phone calls to distributing clothes.
“Maria was like a mother to me,” he said. “She provided food, shelter and clothes but most of all, words of love because she knows the sorrow of immigrants, she knows their pain.”
Maria’s heartfelt compassion has in turn inspired compassion in the hearts of others, such as the case with Ambrosia from Oaxaca, Mexico.
Ambrosia met Maria in Tijuana after she was repatriated and awaiting paperwork to re-enter the US. Needing clothes and assistance with her two children, she reached out to Deported Mothers and Families in Action. Maria acted almost as an adoptive parent, helping her young adult children get established in San Diego and continue their education.
Now Ambrosia volunteers alongside Maria two full days a week, even after working the night shift, to teach sewing classes to other women like her.
Regardless of why visitors like Jhonaikel or Ambrosia came or how they journeyed there, all who enter Maria’s understated building, experience camaraderie, kinship and refreshing honesty because she and her volunteers encourage storytelling as a form of healing.
“I’m an immigrant myself,” Maria explains. “I came to the US to go to school, to help my family, to have an opportunity.” And with that opportunity, Maria has chosen to give back to others even when she has endured setbacks.
Three years ago, Doña Maria had a stroke while serving at Deported Mothers and Families in Action. Volunteers rushed her to the border where an immigration officer called an ambulance. Miraculously, Maria has made a full recovery and believes God kept her alive so she can continue her ministry work on the border.
Preparing Another Place Setting
At the forefront of the room, Doña Maria- with her short salt and pepper hair- smiles to herself as she reminisces about God’s faithfulness over the years. Generous to her core, Maria funds much of the project out of her own pocket. With cost-of-living increases, particularly post-COVID, at times she wonders whether the food she provides will be sufficient but there always seems to be enough.
“Giving is a blessing…” Maria shares. “Whenever we give something, God gives you more than you expect.”
Alongside a tall, hard-working volunteer who has a knack for cooking, Doña Maria quietly prepares to serve a feast as she does several times a week and for every major holiday. The table before her overflows with a lunch spread of roast chicken, baked bread, white rice, pasta salad, and salsa fresca with cake and pumpkin pie for dessert.
Visitors begin to enter the building and greet each other- a mother and baby, men on their lunch breaks from manual labor work, a young teenage girl and her parents, a grown mother and daughter, a volunteer from San Diego who has arrived to teach an English class…
Each place setting is laid with care- down to the chocolate favors and fresh flowers cheering up the centers of all four tables. These hospitable details make visitors feel important enough to make the effort for.
Frequently individuals visit for an item of clothing or to partake in an English class, other times a cup of coffee or meal, but most often, a listening ear.
“Many are away from their family and friends…” says Maria, as a woman who understands the feeling of starting afresh on foreign soil. “They want to be heard… they want love.”
Journeys For a Better Life
Located on the border of Mexico and the United States, TJ is a gateway city and a transient home to multitudes hailing from all over the globe. Visitors to Deported Mothers and Families in Action have emigrated as far as Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Venezuela, Columbia and beyond.
Maria points out that no matter where the people who walk through her doors come from, they all share the commonality of gratitude to God and a desire for a safer and more stable existence. Being a survivor like many of the people she invests in, Doña Maria can relate to what they have been through and is unsurprised most of them have faith as she does.
“People who come here thank God for being in TJ,” Maria explains. “They are grateful for making it so far…”
Many of the treks sojourners have embarked on in efforts to enter the US have led them through life-changing, traumatic circumstances: traversing dangerous jungle terrain on foot, witnessing or experiencing violence and at times encountering prejudice or exploitation.
“People go through so much to come to the US for a better life,” Maria shares with compassion. “A lot of people who make it [to TJ] have seen people die along the way or have been abused.”
Paul Lawrence, who journeyed from Haiti, was crossing a flooded river with his 22-year-old younger brother when he got caught in the rising surge. The tragic memory of watching his sibling drown and being unable to save him is something that will always remain with him.
Robert, also from Haiti, traveled to Mexico with his wife, one-year-old child and two-month-old baby. While they were temporarily living in Chiapas, his family experienced racially motivated acts of violence including one day when he came home from working in a factory to see their home being consumed by flames. Fortunately, his family was absent when the arsonist ignited the blaze. Relocating once again, the family is currently in TJ awaiting legal documentation to enter the United States.
Alexander hitchhiked and walked on crutches to Tijuana from Venezuela with two of his daughters and his wife. Carrying a knapsack of tinned food for sustenance, his family traveled through jungles by light of day. When the pitch black of night made it too dangerous to continue, they would find refugee encampments to rest until daybreak. He and his wife dream of seeking asylum and emigrating to the US with their children.
Soft-spoken Arturo fled from Honduras after witnessing a murder outside a convenience store. Despite reporting everything to law enforcement, he continued to receive threats and was pursued by the gang who committed the crime. On his way home from work one day, he was shot at eleven times and side-swiped on his motorcycle which fractured his leg. During his escape to Mexico seeking refugee status, he was kidnapped and held for ransom but managed to escape and now resides in TJ. Working as a carpenter, he hopes to get a work permit in the United States so he can help cover expenses for his mother’s medical care.
“When you grow up with hard things like a lot of us,” Maria says. “We are more thankful to God than anything else.”
While Maria recognizes nothing can erase previous trauma, she encourages weary travelers she encounters to help others by sharing their stories and in turn, ameliorate their healing in the process. By facilitating conversation and asking honest questions, Maria makes courage and authenticity contagious while also bonding visitors to one another as they feel less isolated.
“I do what I can without expectation,” she says. “The more I do it, the more I want to do more.”
Jane Register, Church Mobilizer for World Relief and a volunteer at the center, speaks of Maria as an inspiration, saying Maria has caused her to reflect on her own resources differently.
“In a world of complex international and political issues and injustices, Doña Maria’s gospel is simple,” Jane says. “Share what you have…be it a jacket, a cup of water, a hug, an empty bedroom in your house.”
Maria goes a step further by not just contributing possessions or offering temporary assistance but embracing strangers as if they were already her neighbor or her friend. As she ever so humbly models: the roots of hospitality are extraordinarily simple yet deeply profound because an open door, or an open invitation, both connects people to one another and dignifies them. In an age of excess, distraction and frivolity, inclusive hospitality serves as an age-old reminder that inherently every person is a child of God, invited to the heavenly banquet of Christ Jesus.
At the very heart of the Christian faith, hospitality was established in the act of creation and echoes throughout Scripture. The origins of hospitality began at the inception of the world where God invited humans to the undefiled planet he created knowing what it might cost him.
From choosing some of the most flawed individuals as protagonists in the Bible, to breaking bread with sinners, to willingly embracing the cross, God has repeatedly and intentionally chosen to inhabit broken stories and spaces to foster community and welcome the lost as his beloved children.
As Maria has exemplified in opening her doors to all, cruciform hospitality removes barriers and adapts to include outsiders as extended family.
“I will do God’s work wherever I go,” says Maria. “I believe all of us need a second chance.”