Recounting the history of the San Miguel Walk
By Nadine Goodman
CASA, a local nonprofit founded in 1981, has grown to include an extensive team of staff and volunteers that work locally as well as nationally and internationally for human rights. While a lot of CASA´s history has been documented, there are many things that are not written down. It was only recently, for example, that a group of volunteers and staff at CASA set upon a plan to interview the multiple chairs who over more than a decade have been the fearless leaders of the San Miguel Walk – a yearly march against violence.
The San Miguel Walk has been carried out every January since 2004 to coincide with a religious pilgrimage during which hundreds of thousands walk nine days as a means of expressing their reverence to the Virgin of San Juan los Lagos. The SMWalkers respectfully join the procession with the goal to educate about the chronic but preventable problem of violence and to raise funds to help support CASA. This year, the walkers will join the pilgrims on Friday, January 24. The Walk is also an opportunity for one as an individual and as a group to reflect, feel inspired and, as one of the cofounders of San Miguel Walk puts it, “feel the warmth of the heart of Mexico’s campo.”
The goal of the interviews was to sketch out the history of CASA’s anti-violence programs, achieve a good understanding of the San Miguel Walk’s past and share this written information now and in the future with the intention of always improving. Hence we provide here to the readers the first of three articles with some of the wonderful things we learned through the various interviews.
Naturally we begin with the cofounders of San Miguel Walk – Ilva Invernizzi and Susan Bloom; in the second article we focus on stories from Alejandra Sauceda and Dulce Ortiz, two psychologists who have worked with CASA over numerous years and in the third article we share the interview with Trish Snyder, the current chair of SMWalk who has been at the helm since 2009. Susan Bloom, co-founder of SMWalk arrived in San Miguel in 1992 and her husband, Chuck, introduced her to CASA shortly after. In reference to San Miguel Walk, Susan explains,
“It was Ilva´s idea. She had walked in Santiago and also in the Pilgrimage to San Juan de los Lagos. We started thinking about women – all women, but especially Mexican and poor women and the fact that there is still total inequality. We wanted to help combat this inequality that still exists between women and men…I already knew and admired CASA. It was a natural fit to organize the Walk for CASA. During the Walk I was completely humbled by the commitment of the people on the pilgrimage, overwhelmed by their willingness to give. I felt and still feel in awe by CASA and the experience of SMWalk.”
“I enjoyed Santiago but was looking for a more spiritual, collective energy. This is what I found with the pilgrims going to San Juan. This is what I wanted to accomplish with the group participating in the first San Miguel Walk. “
These dynamic women were successful. Ilva organized a committee whose members to date feel bonded by the experience. The decision was made to walk three days and the team trained together to be able to walk comfortably at least eight hours a day and camp out with all the other participants for two nights.
The first night the group arrived at the campsite they were publicly received by the priest giving mass there,
“We welcome those who are here to protest violence,” he said.
Many members of the SMWalk team were surprised over this warm reception and still talk about their experience as, “exhilarating, spine-tingling and breath-taking.”
They readily share that they found themselves tripping over rocks at 4 and 5am and that at moments the blisters were unbearable. Nonetheless the group responded to Ilva’s call to action every morning and during each new leg of the journey, new joyful experiences were shared by all. From the beginning Ilva respectfully worked with the Mexican celadores who are in charge of making the San Juan de los Lagos pilgrimage a safe, orderly and enjoyable experience for all; so while the SMWalkers were distinct from the pilgrims for many obvious reasons, they were accepted as part of the Pilgrimage.
More than US$40,000 dollars were raised the first year for CASA´s anti-violence program. There was a celebration after the walk and Dr. Patricia Uribe, Mexico’s Director of the country’s National Center for Gender Equity and Reproductive Health, the nation’s agency responsible for antiviolence programs spoke to the crowd gathered at Susan Bloom’s home; San Miguel’s mayor also spoke and congratulated the group on their efforts.
Today, looking back, Ilva believes that there is more openness to talk about the problem of violence and yet a revolution is still needed. Ilva sees the growing disparity in the world as the reason behind the increasing violence, kidnappings and sex slavery and the worldwide problem of human trafficking.
Michele Connors, one of Ilva’s “walkers” who had a moving experience in the first San Miguel Walk, took over the leadership position in 2005 and shares that,
“Ilva left behind such a well-organized structure that it was relatively easy for me to take the helm. Ilva was a leader; she established a sense of group before the walk.”
Beverly Donofrio and Michele Connors were good friends and Beverly fondly remembers how Michele took full advantage of her,
“We were on the bus back to San Miguel after such an exhilarating experience. I was totally inspired after having participated in my first San Miguel Walk and Michele asked me to be the Chair for the following year. I said yes! Later when I was in the middle of organizing the event – and it was a nightmare for me – I was not sure what I had gotten myself into but it was an incredibly powerful experience.”
After Beverly’s turn, she passed the torch of leadership of the San Miguel Walk to Barbara Erickson, who together with Beverly and others were companions on weekly Sunday hikes. Barbara has many good memories, in particular she found inspiring the participation of midwifery students from the CASA Midwifery School.
“At first the students were timid, even afraid. But it was as if with every step they became more and more empowered. They were passing out educational pamphlets about violence and talking with people about what they were studying. It was invigorating.”
Barbara, too, is very worried about the status of women’s rights these days and says that when she worked in recent years to increase the number of US registered voters in Mexico; she often told people that in particular they need to be involved in the democratic process for their granddaughters’ rights.
Barbara is also proud that 10 years after she met CASA, the organization is still going strong.
“This is wonderful, amazing that CASA is still alive. I feel that I did not waste my time but in a small way am part of a huge success story. It is especially amazing since CASA is principally about women and we still don’t talk openly about the abuses that women go through.”
Following Barbara was the youngest chair of SMWalk to date — Shelley Bull — who first came to San Miguel in 2007. Shelley had been working at a birthing clinic in Florida and was thinking of becoming a midwife, when she came across the CASA international internship program on the Internet. Unaware that she was going to take on the chair position of the San Miguel Walk, Shelley met with Michele, Beverly and Barbara Porter, a big supporter of the Walk, and not being able to resist, she agreed to organize the 2008 San Miguel Walk.
“I was a little stressed out, having had no fundraising experience but I feel passionately about domestic violence and had worked in Florida in the field. Women so need people who will not judge them and who know that violence is never justified…it is still a huge problem, does not matter what race, class, ethnicity…”
As a community nurse, Shelley has seen a lot of violence and as a public health advocate she asks how can we do forward thinking to prevent, not just the normal temporary solutions and interventions. Groups are great for survivors of violence and getting shelter is also so important but the real challenge is how to address the problem in terms of public policy; how can we prevent, break the vicious cycle of intergenerational violence.
“It was the first time I saw the pilgrimage…it was dawn and we were at the Jardín. I was elated and everyone was excited. I felt proud and empowered and knew that the money we raised was going to help meet a huge need, especially in Mexico where there is still less support for women who want to leave violent situations.
“I definitely think the Walk should continue and with the pilgrims…it makes a statement and show the world that belief in something better is important. We need to continue to promote awareness about domestic violence.”
If you would like to learn more about the San Miguel Walk, contact Trish Snyder at email@example.com or visit CASA’s website: http://www.empowercasa.org/san-miguel-walk-domestic-violence-2014/.