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Stories of Hope - Casa Juan Diego


Churchgoing was social pageantry for Mario when he was part of Mexico's industrial elite. Now, as a poor day worker, celebrating mass is an act of faith and joy.

Mannerly and dignified, with shirt neatly tucked into belted shorts, and smiling broadly, Mario seems a proud host. He lives at Casa Juan Diego, where he shares a tiny windowless 6-bunk bedroom and takes his turn cooking meals. The Casa was founded over 20 years ago by the Zwicks, a couple inspired by the Catholic Worker movement, who have run it without pay ever since. It shelters mostly uneducated, undocumented campesinos fleeing poverty in Latin America and helps them find day labor, save a bit, and move on.

Though Mario shares the need for a place "to stay, to eat, to pray," he is an unlikely Casa "guest." Trained as an engineer, Mario worked for Lloyds of London, then Texas Gulf Sulphur and later established his own machine parts business, which grew to 28 employees and $3 million annual sales. On hundreds of trips to the United States, he frequented New York City's Plaza and Houston's Galleria hotels and swank clubs. He and an American fell in love, and Cynthia moved to Coatzacoalcos, knowing they could live better in Mexico. Together they had a son and a home with three servants, two nannies, three chauffeurs. They enjoyed their life among the social and economic elite.

A change in status

Mario laughs, deep dimples on both sides, amused at his current status. On day jobs he runs like a "little puppy following its master," as a "patron" bids him plant, dig it up, replant. Or high on construction scaffolding, he imagines people who knew him, below pointing, "That looks like Mario Aguilar, but it cannot be. Mario Aguilar is something different."

In 1992, Mario fled his country after threats and an attempt on his life by a former business partner. He lived "in hiding" in a trailer on a car lot in El Paso and possessing valid passports and papers, made hurried excursions across the border, selling cars to support himself.

The 1994 uprising in Chiapas threw Mario into turmoil. He had information that outgoing President Salinas and his successor candidate were in danger. Though agonizing about the potential risk to loved ones, his father's teaching "to honor truth, law, and country" ultimately prevailed, and Mario notified both the Mexican consulate and the FBI. Candidate Colosio's assassination occurred two months later. Mario made further denunciations. Authorities seemed uninterested.

Meanwhile Mario learned that Mexican newspapers had reported his death, and a mass had been held for him. Cynthia had married. Feeling foolish and useless, fearful of reprisals and kidnapping, Mario surrendered to the INS in the summer of 1998 seeking political asylum.

"You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt." Leviticus

A 28-month nightmare ensued. Mario was detained behind barbed wire, in Barracks 7 Bravo. He was charged as an illegal stowaway, beaten, placed in an outdoor cage on the coldest day of winter. Stamped visas and other evidence of legal entry were withheld, attempts to get legal assistance were blocked, copies of his petitions and cassettes of his hearings disappeared. Mario feels certain the INS was part of a conspiracy to return him to Mexico. Using his wits, Mario eventually contacted pro bono lawyers who obtained his release. He has spent the three months since at Casa Juan Diego, in INS limbo.

"I arrived bitter and full of hatred," Mario says. But watching the Zwicks "living the gospel," dedicating their lives to others, moves him profoundly. Although in Mexico Mario had treated his workers well, he never gave their concerns much thought. Now he is surprising himself.

Living the gospel

He often gets up at 4am to make sandwiches for the laborers to take as lunch. The other day he found himself rummaging through donations for shoes to fit a new arrival. He has been a father figure to a young black housemate from Togo, Africa. "I used to be prejudiced," Mario confides. "I take Mr. Zwick as a mirror to me and I try to copy the image," Mario says. "I am becoming more humanized. Believe it or not I am happy here. I am being changed."

Mario hopes soon to be "blessed with the status of a normal human being." He has in mind plans to develop an engine with double current efficiency. But at 61, Mario worries that life "is on the descendent part of the parabola." He totally severed connection with family, to protect them, and the thought of life alone frightens him. He wants to share his future, but in his circumstances wonders what he can provide. "What I can offer is honesty, respect, loyalty. That is all right now."

Carol Safran

Houston Catholic Worker
Casa Juan Diego
Houston, Texas

  • Provides temporary home for immigrants fleeing Latin America and some from Africa and Asia. Long-term shelter provided for the chronically ill and battered women and children.
  • Assists immigrant men find day jobs through a hiring hall, and monitors that they are paid. Provides free medical and dental services, optometry, mammography, and artificial limbs.
  • Shelters over 10,000 immigrants in a year; provides medical services to 8000.
  • Run by Mark and Louise Zwick who started the program over 20 years ago.
  • No fees charged and no salaries paid. Annual operations of $1.5 million entirely supported by donations.

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This site last updated October 12, 2008