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*NOTE: Some of this material may be disturbing to read. Additionally, the names of all the mothers and children have been changed for the sake of privacy

Somewhere in the middle of Calle Ahuacpinta is a large brown doorway set into a white stone wall. Identical to all others on the street, it would be unremarkable but for a large, pale pink sign emblazoned with dark letters. “Hogar para Madres Adolescentes Juana de Aza (Home for Adolescent Mothers Joan of Aza),” it reads. I spotted that sign at 10:29 am this morning. My feet still smarting from walking uphill in high heels, I rang the bell to request entry. Another minute, and the ceremony would begin.

El Hogar Juana de Aza is a refuge, home, and school for girls who – due to trying circumstances – became mothers at a young age. Madre Consuelo (Mother Consuelo), the director of the home, offered me bits and pieces of their stories.

At 15 years old, María was raped by her stepfather. Her mother, furious, turned against the girl: “¡Esto pasó porque tú lo querías! A causa de tí, mi esposo está en la carcel (This happened because you wanted it to! Because of you, my husband is in jail).” Needless to say, María was devastated. Violated by her stepfather and rejected by her mother, she had lost both parents in one fell swoop. The local court sent María to a group of compassionate Catholic nuns who had just opened a home for girls like her. There – safe from the threat of her stepfather and the vitriol of her mother – she is learning to raise her child and starting to rebuild the future that was snatched from her.

Juliana’s life took a sickening turn at 13. Raped by a stranger on the street, she fell pregnant with a child while still a child herself. Her mother – an alcoholic – decided that she didn’t have the capacity to raise both. Instead, she tried to convince the middle-aged rapist to marry her daughter. “¿Puedes imaginarlo? (Can you imagine it?)” Madre Consuelo exclaimed in a disgusted tone. “¡Una niña de trece años casada con un hombre de cinquenta y cinco! (A thirteen-year-old girl married to a fifty-five-year-old man!)” Something twisted in the pit of my stomach, and I had to suppress the urge to vomit. The story was almost too horrible to believe. Fortunately for Juliana, the local court placed her in the care of the same nuns who had taken in María. They and the volunteers of El Hogar Juana de Aza have been helping her reassemble her life and improve her prospects – one piece at a time.

Currently, the small place on Calle Ahuacpinta is home to 11 adolescent mothers and their children. They have space for only 12. When I asked Madre Consuelo if expansion was possible, she shook her head despondently. “No hay espacio (There isn’t space),” she informed me. I bit my lip and fell silent. A thousand different solutions whirled through my brain – each more implausible than the last.

On Tuesday, I stepped into the home for the first time. With its whitewashed walls and sharp corners, it initially struck me as rather austere. But then I glanced into the playroom and caught sight of the small, colorful socks strung along the central quad. Vibrant letters over one archway spelled out, “Bienvenidos. Te queremos (Welcome. We love you).” That was when all the little pieces clicked into place: this was a home, warm and cheery to the last detail.

Maruja Vira (the home’s Head Psychologist) showed me around, introducing the children along the way. In under half an hour, I had met Harry, Angie, Jacob… “¿Por qué tienen nombres ingleses? (Why do they have English names?)” I asked Maruja. She smiled pleasantly and replied, “Las madres oyeron esos nombres en algunas películas. Se animaron y así se llamaron a sus hijos (The mothers heard those names in some movies. They got excited and named their children like that).” I stared at her for a moment, torn between humor and horror. As a child, I named my stuffed animals and Barbie dolls after my favorite movie characters. I couldn’t imagine having to select a name for a baby at age 13.

Regardless of the circumstances in which their children were conceived, it’s obvious that the young mothers love their babies in a true and unstinting way. During today’s baptismal ceremony, the mothers held, fondled, and kissed their babies as though they were the most precious people in the world. Both groups were baptized together – with the same water, by the same altar, before the same witnesses. Coming from someone who had never attended a baptism before, it was a beautiful ceremony.

After the official procedure in the chapel, we headed to a banquet hall to feast, dance, and celebrate the milestone. When the music came on, I and another American volunteer made it our mission to get as many girls involved as possible. “¿Quieres bailar? (Do you want to dance?)” I offered more than once, extending my hand to a young mother. She smiled shyly, reluctant at first. A heartbeat later, though, she was beside me on the dance floor. I quickly noticed that many of the young mothers were painfully shy about dancing. For some, that might have been a factor of personality. For others, however, their extreme circumstances might have forged a sense of overwhelming self-consciousness. Either way, through copious smiles and conversations, I did my best to put them at ease.

At one point, I approached a young mother to ask her if she wanted to join in the dance. She was sitting with her back to the wall, wearing a solemn expression. “Maybe she’s just shy and needs encouragement,” I thought. But she shook her head silently and nodded towards the infant asleep in her arms. “Ah!” I whispered as realization hit me. “Está durmiendo (He is sleeping).” Just to her left, another young mother was also cuddling her sleeping child. Shock coursed through my mind. Both of these girls were at least four years my junior. At nineteen years old, I’ve never – never – had to sit out a dance for maternal responsibilities. I’ve never had to choose a name for someone more significant than a Barbie doll. I’ve never had to rebuild a life thrown out of control by someone else’s choices.

But this isn’t about me and how lucky I am to have the life that I do. This is about those girls and how I can help them. How I, Madre Consuelo, Maruja, and the other volunteers can help these girls move past their situations and make the most of their futures. Though it’s a long process, slowly but surely, we’ll pick up all the little pieces.