CIUDAD JUÁREZ — Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa and Karina Breceda stood in the darkened foyer of a house for sale. Their eyes met as they caught sight of a star design embedded in the tile floor. They knew they had found what they were looking for. Even as she smiled, tears rolled down Herndon-De La Rosa’s cheeks.

“It truly felt like, ‘Okay, there is some sort of higher power or force of energy that is truly watching over us and working with us and letting us know you’re on the right track,’” she said later.

For the past three years, Herndon-De La Rosa and her Dallas-based nonprofit, New Wave Feminists, has partnered with Breceda, a Juárez-based immigration advocate, in a labor of love to serve migrant women at the border. One of the biggest challenges for Breceda’s work has been the constant need for expanded physical space, so the nonprofit started raising money in October 2021 to buy property that could become a shelter.

On June 11, New Wave Feminists announced the purchase of a large home in Juárez for an undisclosed amount of money. They will convert the house into a shelter and women’s health clinic. The organization has named Breceda executive director of the new facility, to be called New Wave Feminists Consistent Life Ethic Center.

The shelter will serve the hundreds of migrants who are waiting in Juárez for the chance to cross into the United States. The number of migrants on any given day ranges from about 8,400 to 14,000, Enrique Valenzuela, head of the Chihuahua Population Council, told El Paso Matters. 

Once fully operational, the New Wave Feminists Consistent Life Ethic Center will be unique from other shelters in that it plans to have a full-time, fully equipped health clinic exclusively for women migrants.

“We felt this incredible responsibility (because) we have the resources and we have the capacity but we didn’t have the space,” Breceda said of the need to expand.

New Wave Feminists opposes abortion as part of what it calls a “consistent Life Ethic,” which includes opposing war, the death penalty, police brutality and the inhumane treatment of migrants. The organization focuses its support on women’s causes around the world, including another shelter in Juárez that Breceda founded specifically for single and expecting mothers.

Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, right, and Karina Breceda participate in an anti-abortion demonstration in Juárez on Oct. 3, 2021. Herndon-De La Rosa describes her organization’s mission as “making (abortion) unnecessary through providing practical resources to women and children.” (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The property, whose location is not disclosed due to security concerns, is large enough to house about 40-60 women and children on a long-term basis. There is also enough space in common rooms to temporarily expand capacity to about 100 people during migratory surges.

The property will also house a medical clinic dedicated to women’s health. By next June, they expect to have equipment and staff in place to provide gynecological exams, sonograms and prenatal care focused on helping migrant women, many of whom are subjected to sexual violence in their home countries or on their journeys to the border. It will be the first facility of its kind in the El Paso-Juárez region.

Herndon-De La Rosa was raised in a Protestant household but now calls herself an agnostic who believes in a higher power — and in the power of signs. In this case, she said, all signs have pointed to this project being connected to the Catholic figure of Mary.

New Wave Feminists’ hopes were high in February, when it bid on a facility along Juárez’s Avenida 16 de Septiembre, not far from downtown.

Things like dates aligning with Catholic feasts of Mary and a mural within the building that depicted a woman walking over water seemed to indicate to Herndon-De La Rosa and Breceda that their mission was guided by Stella Maris, a title for Mary that means “Star of the Sea.”

“I thought, ‘No one will understand the heart of these women more than Mary,’” Herndon-De La Rosa said.

Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, left, and Karina Breceda wander through the Juárez home where New Wave Feminists will establish a medical clinic and shelter for migrant women. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

But after weeks of negotiations, the sale fell through. That initial failure shook Herndon-De La Rosa’s belief in signs.

“I felt like, ‘Okay, I went too hard in my hippiness, thinking that there was something controlling this and all these signs kept pushing us in this direction,’” she said. “I just thought, ‘Okay, I was manifesting that, none of it is real. There’s nothing that’s actually protecting us and helping us along this journey.’”

Breceda said that she felt “impotent” after that setback. The continuation of Title 42 has meant that she continues to encounter migrants in need and often struggles to find a safe place with the space to accept them.

“It was like that urgency, that I couldn’t settle for a less than dignified place or a less than safe place,” she said.

Discouraged, New Wave Feminists renewed its search. With a new real estate agent and a new list of properties to tour, Herndon-De La Rosa made another trip from Dallas in April to meet up with Breceda in Juárez.

The first thing they noticed when they pulled up to the large home for sale was the 15-foot wall surrounding the property. Security is a primary concern for groups that work with migrants in Juárez because criminal groups often target migrants for kidnapping and extortion.

Inside the compound, their anticipation rose as they walked through an enormous structure, originally built as a luxurious single-family home, with enough space for numerous dormitory-style bedrooms, a kitchen, and common areas for recreation and dining.

The two women then climbed the exterior stairs to a large, flat rooftop, where they pictured future residents gathering under string lights for weekend festivities.

A separate building on the property contains additional restrooms and enough space for the clinic’s offices and exam rooms.

Breceda and Herndon-De La Rosa loved everything they saw. But when they saw the points of the star, partially hidden under the owner’s furniture, their decision was made. Herndon-De La Rosa began to cry.

“That moment when we saw the Stella Maris, which had been this recurring theme throughout the whole thing, it was just like, all the emotions,” Herndon-De La Rosa said later.

They made an offer the same day and the deal quickly moved forward. The facility will welcome its first residents in about two months after being cleaned, repainted, and stocked with furniture and supplies.

Herndon-De La Rosa envisions that one day mothers and children will find their own human dignity reflected in the beauty of the space around them.

“I want it to be a place where people are surrounded by beauty and art and culture,” Herndon-De La Rosa said. “(I want them to) understand that we value their human dignity and they should be in this place surrounded by beauty because of that.”

Herndon-De La Rosa credits Breceda as a “rock star leader” of the effort to provide services for women at the border.

“(Juárez) truly is Karina’s community,” Herndon-De La Rosa said. “It was one of those predestined things for her and I to link up because I think that there’s a lot that can be done, but so much of it has to be respecting her expertise and knowledge at the border and following her lead.”

For Breceda and Herndon-De La Rosa, the realization of the almost-impossible dream of launching Mexico’s first shelter and clinic for migrant women at the border has come about through one small step at a time.

“Sometimes it feels like the problems are too big and we can’t do anything, so we do nothing. But really, I think we just need to love the person in front of us,” Herndon-De La Rosa said. “And that’s what’s brought us here, to this really big thing. It’s just loving the person in front of us.”

Corrie Boudreaux is a lecturer in the Department of Communication at UTEP and a freelance photojournalist in the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez region. She specializes in photography as a tool to explore insecurity,...