After Losing a Child to Violence, Immigrant Families Find Kinship in Support Group

Mercedes Cazarez has created a memorial for slain youngsters at her home - Photos: Valeria Fernández.

Mercedes Cazarez has created a memorial for slain youngsters at her home. (Photos: Valeria Fernández)

PHOENIX, Arizona — Warm, haunting violin music wafts through Mercedes Cazarez’s West Phoenix home. Like many in the room, she reacts to the music with conflicting feelings of joy and deep sadness.

In sharing their tears twice a month in a support group, some Latino and immigrant families here have found a sort of kinship. What brings them together is that they’ve lost a child to a violent crime.

The girl playing the violin is Michelle Ostos, 15, who came from a local church to entertain the group. Cazarez’s daughter, Berenice Camacho Cazarez, was the same age when she was fatally shot on December 10, 2002. The murderers were never found.

Cazarez, 45, an immigrant from Sinaloa, Mexico, founded “Bajo las mismas lágrimas” (Under the same tears), a support group in Spanish, about a year ago. The members sometimes meet to talk about their pain; on other occasions they listen to motivational speeches. Sometimes they just want to be together.

“Here everyone can feel comfortable to open their heart,” Cazarez said in Spanish. About 20 families have joined; their children were between 15 and 24 years old when they died unexpectedly.

Ana Ramirez, left, lost her 19-year-old son, who was killed just outside her home.

Ana Ramirez, left, lost her 19-year-old son, who was killed just outside her home.

After her daughter’s death, Cazarez didn’t want to look for support.

“I knew that no one was going to give me my daughter back,” she said.

When she did look for help, she found most groups were in English.

“I didn’t want to go because I don’t speak the language and you feel like you’re different,” she said.

Cazarez also found out a lot of people don’t want to seek help due to their immigration status. Unconfirmed stories about a child who was denied aid by a psychologist because he was undocumented scared people, she said.

After realizing there was a need for a support group in Spanish, she decided to create her own.

Vicky Contreras saw Cazarez in a news report on local Spanish-language TV and joined her in the effort.

“I was going through a very difficult time, they had just murdered my daughter,” Contreras said. She connected instantly with Cazarez, she added: “I had felt for so long I was the only one.”

Contreras’ daughter, Karla Sánchez, was killed on March 25, 2008. Those responsible were never found and police are still investigating. Contreras could not open her daughter’s coffin during funeral services because of the violent way in which she was killed.

“You are left with a question mark,” she said. “What happened? Why did they do it?”

Those questions haunt other parents in the group. They are part of the reason the group works closely with a Phoenix Police Department officer who helps families in grief understand the investigation process in a country whose institutions are quite new to them.

Ana Ramirez, 52, another member, is still looking for justice in the death of her 19-year-old son Salvador Tarango. He was shot a few footsteps outside their home and those who did it were not prosecuted.

Ramirez feels her son’s case was handled differently because the family is poor and Latino. Talking to others, she finds support to endure her frustration.

“My son was my future and my hope,” said Ramirez. “They just didn’t take away his life, they took mine and that of the rest of my family.”

One of the members’ goals is to help other youngsters accomplish the dreams their children couldn’t reach.

“We want our children to live through other children’s dreams,” Cazarez said. The group has organized a number of events to teach children dancing and modeling – which were her daughter’s goals.

But the members are still looking for assistance from psychologists, counselors and even legal experts who could help them work through the many challenges they face.

Cazarez at her murdered daughter Berenice's bedroom.

Cazarez at her murdered daughter Berenice's bedroom.

Cazarez has turned her daughter’s room into a memorial. The floor is covered with white satin fabric. Plastic roses and pictures of Berenice’s quinceañera –a traditional Mexican celebration similar to a sweet sixteen– cover the walls. She has also staged an area to honor other children. A long table covered in red hearts displays their pictures, which the parents could see on a recent meeting as they listened to Michelle Ostos’ violin.

Contreras, the other organizer, said she sometimes thinks she can feel her daughter’s presence. But she doesn’t like talking about this with others who haven’t gone through the same experience.

“They think we are crazy or sick because we want to talk about them all the time,” she said. “You learn how to know, understand and carry your pain. But forget it? You never forget it.”

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