Doing Good in Mexico

In 2002, I bought a home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and have now been living there part-time for twenty-one years. While there are many things I appreciate about San Miguel de Allende’s large expatriate community, my favorite thing is the unspoken agreement among us that says, If you live here, you will give something back to the community. Practically everyone I know in the charming Mexican hill town volunteers for one charitable cause or another. We raise money for scholarships, literacy programs, clean water projects; we build houses for the poor, volunteer to teach English and run medical programs; we work with orphans and in battered women’s shelters. We organize free spay and neuter clinics for dogs and cats and take in the town’s mangy, starving street dogs. I’ve visited and lived abroad in many wonderful and interesting places and have never found a community of people so committed to doing good.

During a six-week sojourn one our first winters in San Miguel, I decided it was time my family and I volunteered for something. When I read one day in Atención, the town’s bilingual newspaper, that the Sociedad Protectora de Animales (S.P.A.), was looking for helpers, I figured it was perfect. We’re all animal lovers in our family and I thought our lack of pedigree among San Miguel’s wealthier expats wouldn’t matter to folks running an animal shelter. I also figured the S.P.A. was likely to have real use for volunteers with an abundance of enthusiasm and few skills. Strong backs and arms should be enough and we could provide those.

My husband opted out, but my kids were up for it, so the following day, my son Will, 10-year-old daughter Hannah, and I took a taxi across town to #7 Los Pinos, where we found a single-story, grass-green building with windows secured by iron bars, and a torn screen door hanging loosely from its hinges. A few minutes after we arrived, a tall, enthusiastic woman with a Canadian accent hustled up and asked if we needed help.

“We’re here to volunteer,” I said. 

“Great!” She quickly sized up my strapping, eighteen-year-old son. “We could use a strong fellow like you to exercise the big dogs.”

Hence Will was roped into a job he adored. It didn’t take him long to bond with a number of the shelter’s lop-eared mutts and choose favorites: a Bluetick hound mix named Hank and a sweet-tempered Lab-mix named Lola. Lola and Hank took turns dragging Will uphill every day to a junk-littered lot above the shelter. 

Over the course of the next two weeks, Will exercised the dogs while Hannah and I volunteered for a few of the shelter’s easier jobs: playing with kittens or walking the smaller dogs up to the jardín on Thursdays, where we chatted up people interested in adopting them. When Lola was adopted by a gay couple from Connecticut, Will lobbied hard for me to let him to adopt Hank. I reminded him that Katy, our golden retriever, was enough big dog for our small backyard in Seattle. But the thought crossed my mind that a smaller companion for our aging retriever might be something to consider. We ended up adopting a miniature poodle and named him Nacho after our town’s hero. Since then, we’ve adopted two more Mexican street dogs and have helped others find and adopt Mexican street dogs, too. 

I continued to do a little volunteer work here and there, but when Donald Trump was elected and his administration began cracking down on migrants and refugees, the outlook took a dark turn and I felt the need to do something. In late 2017 and early 2018, as waves of migrant caravans were passing through Central Mexico, many of us in the San Miguel expat community responded to the clarion call for action. Along with many others, I became involved with Albergue ABBA (ABBA House), a migrant shelter in Celaya, Guanajuato. 

Soon afterwards, I signed on with the board of the Latin American Relief Fund (LARF), which provides financial support for ABBA House. Since our collaboration began in 2018, LARF has helped ABBA pay the rent, purchase the building where the shelter is housed, and provide shelter, food, and medical support and educational services to over 80,000 people. 

In addition, ABBA House now serves as the primary shelter in Mexico for migrant amputees, many who have fallen or been pushed off of La Bestia, the freight train that travels from southern Mexico to the US border. These folks, who’ve had arms or legs crushed under the train’s wheels, often require multiple surgeries, psychological counseling, prostheses and rehabilitation services. 

LARF and ABBA are currently trying to get the city of Celaya to donate a property for a new Cultural Center for Human Rights, a permanent housing project for migrant amputees and families. This transformational community would include workshops, gardens, an infirmary, a rehabilitation gymnasium for amputees, and apartments for families. In addition, the new center would provide educational information and legal support for migrants who’ve suffered human rights violations in Central Mexico. We need to raise $300,000 over the next two years to build this new center. 

Friends and dog lovers who know I’ve rescued three Mexican dogs, often ask if it’s difficult to bring a dog into the United States from Mexico. What I’ve discovered is that it is infinitely easier for a Mexican dog to immigrate to the United States than a Mexican human.

The average Latin American risks life and limb to cross the border, only to spend years trying to obtain a green card and/or citizenship. All a dog needs is a certificate from the veterinarian verifying he was current on his rabies and distemper vaccines, and a letter stating he was in good health. What does that say about our priorities in the U.S.? 

With monthly encounters with migrants at the border remaining at record levels, there is  a desperate need for shelters like ABBA House and our new cultural center. For more information or to support our mission, go to:

Judith Gille