Cristina Castaño Henao’s job as a social worker once took her to dizzyingly high altitudes amid Colombia’s active volcanoes. Four other contractors had gone up before her but refused to return.
The assignment was to act as an intermediary between the families who had lived there for generations and the Colombian government. The land had recently been designated a national park. It was her job to explain to them that they had to release their property.
Each trip – and she took many – began with a seven-hour horseback ride into freezing temperatures. She’d stay in the mountains for two weeks at a time, traveling between homes, which were often an hour’s ride apart.
“There are no roads, no electricity, just farmers who have lived there since colonization,” she said.
She and a co-worker secretly showed the mountainside farmers what their land was worth, warning them not to sell to the government too cheaply.
“I think that is why I loved it so much,” she said. “It was empowering people.”
She had found her calling in social work and was making a living fulfilling government contracts, often bringing aid and information to isolated communities in the mountains and valleys of Northern Colombia.
In rural areas, farmers and their families were caught in the violence between paramilitaries and the Marxist guerilla fighters who’d been waging a civil war for more than 50 years.
Much of her work was helping children, whether they were starving in the countryside or fighting to survive, homeless and alone on city streets.
Her interest in social work began in the 1990s, when she was a teenager living in the small Colombian city of Pereira, located at the foot of the Andes’ coffee-producing slopes.
Pereira also sits at the center of Colombia’s Golden Triangle, the area between Cali, Bogotá and Medellín – a city once known as the murder capital of the world, with more than 6,000 homicides in 1991 alone.
Its location made Pereira a center for commerce. It also put it on the route taken by many travelers, as well as drug and sex traffickers.
When Cristina was a child, violence, shootings and car explosions were a way of life in Pereira.
“I remember hearing shootings, and then seeing someone running with blood. You just stop, you see what’s happening, but you don’t stay there,” she said. “You don’t talk about it.”
When she was 20, a man was shot while he was walking right next to her.
She said people were always wary of motorcycles because they were the preferred vehicles of the “sicarios,” cartel hit men.
But despite the danger, people didn’t stop living their lives.
“We would go to school, we would play in the streets with our friends in the neighborhood, but of course it wasn’t safe,” she said. “You could see it in people.”
Her father, Dario Castano, opened an ice cream factory called “Pandy Helados.”
His business thrived, and he and her mother, Orfilia Henao, made a home for themselves and their daughters in a middle-class neighborhood.
Cristina attended an all-girls Catholic high school. But in a country where 90 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, her family was not. She considered herself to be an unconventional teenager. She listened to rock music in English, wore dirty tennis shoes and never styled her hair.
When she was a senior, she said, she was “forced” to join the Girl Scouts.
“You have to do social work in your last year of high school. You can either go to a community and teach them how to clean their toilets, which is ridiculous,” she said. “The other option was the Girl Scouts.”
But it was her troop leader, Elias Pino, who would ignite her passion for helping others. He was a social worker from a rough area in Medellín, hometown of the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar.
One afternoon, Elias took his Scout troop to the children’s section of a local hospital. All the walls were a bland and lifeless white, and it was all the children had to look at. An artist himself, he thought his troop should paint the walls bright colors.
There was an orphaned baby boy at the hospital who was skinnier than the other children. Hospital staff told Cristina and her fellow Scouts not to touch him because he was dying and they could catch his virus.
Two weeks later, Cristina visited Elias’ home and was surprised to see that he had adopted the sick little boy from the hospital.
“That was the first shock for me,” she said. “This is social work. This is what it means. Working with kids and creating a change. Do something – not just say it; not just think it.”
The little boy lived until he was 4 years old in Elias’ care.
Cristina’s youngest uncle, Carlos Augusto Castaño, was always involved in some sort of community project, whether it was fixing a soccer field for local children or helping out single moms. So when she decided she wanted to go to college to pursue a career helping people in need, she told her Uncle Carlos right away.
Upon hearing her plans, he took her to the outskirts of Pereira where he was helping a community of hundreds of displaced Colombians living in a shantytown built out of scrap wood and cardboard.
“There was no law, no electricity, or water, but they were running away from violence,” Cristina said.
“He showed me all the things that were happening,” she said. “The night before, a little girl was raped, and he was trying to figure out what was happening and how he could help. And I was like, ‘But you are not the attorney,’ and he was like, ‘No. But you are supportive, you are a friend, you show that you are willing to help and support. If you can do it with the little you have, just go for it and see what happens.’”
Cartel violence de-escalated following Escobar’s death in 1993, but the civil war intensified, and Pereira took another blow on Jan. 25, 1999, when a magnitude 6.1 earthquake struck. It killed more than 1,200 Colombians, and 250,000 people were left homeless.
“I remember all that change – of how the city was before the earthquake, how the city was after the earthquake,” Cristina said. “I remember seeing my city coming out of that and becoming stronger and becoming bigger and nicer, the kind of city where everybody wanted to live.”
In the years that followed, Cristina attended the Technological University of Pereira, working toward a degree in ethnic education and community development.
She graduated in 2008 and began seeking government contract work in rural areas around Pereira.
“I didn’t want to stay at a typical nonprofit in the city,” she said. There were too many communities in remote areas that had far fewer resources and were in more urgent need.
Her last job in Colombia before she came to the United States was in the sugarcane-producing valleys north of Pereira. She traveled to remote villages where she would perform tests and confirm children’s disabilities so their schools could access badly needed funding.
She would educate parents and teachers about their children’s medical needs. She had one case where a child who was labeled as defiant was actually deaf, and she met a teacher who had labeled a child’s light skin as a disability. Some children she confirmed as disabled because their starvation had advanced to debilitating.
She had learned in college about the problems faced by these communities, but to actually see it was different, she said.
Bountiful fruit trees lined the roads leading to these areas, and fields were full of livestock. But upon arrival, she could see the children were starving.
Villagers told her that guerilla fighters would force their way into their homes and steal food from them. Then, right-wing paramilitary would come in afterward, only to accuse the family of helping the guerillas even though they had no choice. This could result in punishments such as the rape of a daughter or execution of a son.
“There were areas where the paramilitaries wanted part of the money single mothers were making with their micro-organizations, and if they didn’t want to pay, they would kill their kids in front of them,” she said.
These same paramilitaries guarded the crops of rich land owners.
In Colombia, government contract jobs for social workers frequently involve long hours in dangerous and unforgiving environments. For this reason, workers are encouraged to take six-month breaks between contracts so they can rest and regroup before taking another assignment.
In 2012, Cristina had been out of work for eight months. Unable to secure another contract, she was starting to wonder how she would pay her bills.
On top of that, blackmailers had recently targeted her, threatening to hurt her mother if she didn’t give them money. They knew where her mother lived, so she had to relocate her. She explained matter-of-factly that such threats are a common way for people to make money in Colombia. As is kidnapping. But she never paid, she said.
It was around the same time that she was surprised to learn she had an opportunity to leave her country.
Unbeknownst to Cristina, one of her aunts living in the United States had added her name to an immigration wait list in the 1990s. Back then, guerilla warfare in Colombia was intensifying, sending the country into another peak of violence.
Seventeen years later, Cristina had made it up the list. She was 29 when she got the first call from the U.S. Department of State, letting her know she could begin the application process for an immigrant visa. But at first, she wasn’t sure she even wanted to leave her country.
Life in Colombia was not easy, but that’s part of the reason she wanted to stay.
She thought to herself, “Where would I find homeless children in America?”
But, considering that she was unemployed and under threat when the application process was completed, she decided she might as well give life in the U.S. a shot.
“For me, it was like, I have to do something – I have to survive somewhere,” she said.
She had family in Naples, Fla., so she went there. She didn’t like it, and she wondered why everyone was so old – and so overweight.
“It was shocking to see people using wheelchairs because of their weight,” she said. “Everyone is really big, everyone is really white – huge cars, no people in the streets, which was boring for me.”
She soon accepted a cousin’s invitation to come to Portland to stay with her.
While Cristina has found that many things in the U.S. bear little resemblance to Colombia, one of the greatest adjustments was in social work.
In the U.S., degrees earned in other countries are usually worthless. She would have to start all over if she wanted to earn similar credentials here, and it would come with a financial burden.
Luckily her experience was enough to get her back in her field. After a brief stint as a server, she took a job at a family shelter run by Human Solutions, and that was soon followed by a job offer from JOIN, where she continues to work today.
JOIN is a nonprofit that serves the needs of people experiencing homelessness and other vulnerable communities in the Portland area. It needed someone to work with Spanish-speaking families seeking services, and she came along at just the right time.
Her co-workers at JOIN say they were immediately impressed with her ability to jump right in, as well as her dedication to the people she serves.
“She can work with people from a broad range of countries,” JOIN outreach worker Quinn Colling said. “And she understands what it’s like to be an immigrant here, and she has gone through the immigration process. It opens up knowledge for folks she works with that other workers don’t have.”
Street Roots asked Cristina to compare her experiences as a social worker in Colombia with the way things are done in the United States.
“Both are governments and systems that push people away, but in different ways, and you see different shapes of it,” she said. “The common thing is individuals – they are alone.”
One thing she said she wasn’t prepared for in the U.S. was seeing homeless families.
“Here, seeing kids with their families living in their car? That is something I never thought could happen,” she said. “In Colombia, I dealt with kids who were living by themselves in the street, who were survivors, who were fighters, probably drug addicts – but you never see them with their families.”
In Portland, where it’s common to hear advocates and politicians say there aren’t enough resources to go around, Cristina saw an abundance.
The first time she walked into a donation closet at a local charity, she said she was shocked. She couldn’t believe there were so many donated clothes that people could choose their favorite styles and colors.
After she began working at JOIN, she was surprised further to discover she had the means to help people pay their electricity bills and could offer them money to buy groceries.
“In Colombia, I had kids asking me for a little piece of crayon,” she said.
While the problems Latinos face in the U.S. are different from those faced in Colombia, she said they are just as real.
“You see them dealing with racism and not knowing that it’s racism. You see the lack of opportunities,” she said. “They can’t get sick – they have TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and food stamps, which is never enough, but no bus tickets. They are embarrassed to ask for help, so you see them walk four miles to the store.”
She helps the families she works with navigate the city and tells them where they can buy cheap Hispanic foods and how to garden.
“Most don’t know anything outside their three blocks – they don’t know how to use the bus,” she said.
Coming from countries with fewer resources, she said, the people she works with never expect the kind of help her organization and others can provide.
“If you are from there, and you come here? This is heaven! They are shocked.” She said it’s not uncommon for her clients to be so grateful that they will hug her, kiss her and cook for her.
But that’s another cultural difference.
“The first time a man was crying because he was drinking again, I touched his shoulder,” she said. A co-worker told her it was inappropriate for her to touch him.
“I had no idea. We hug and kiss when we say ‘hi’ and ‘goodbye.’ So touching a shoulder is the best way to help to comfort you if you are crying, so there are things I know I am not allowed. But my Latinos, I always hug and kiss them, and I eat in their houses. I don’t think I’m allowed to do that with any white household; it’s just different.”
Since she’s been in Portland, Cristina has touched the lives of many immigrants trying to make their way in a new country, much like she is.
But for one dying woman, Cristina traveled thousands of miles to make her final wish come true.
It took Maria three attempts before she successfully crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, but she was determined to make a new life, documented or not, in America. (“Maria” is a pseudonym, as JOIN requested we not use her real name.)
When she arrived in the U.S., she was healthy and strong, with striking gray eyes and high hopes for the future. She came to Portland because she had some distant relatives who lived in the area, but she never really clicked with them.
She gave birth to a little boy, but then she got sick. First it was bone cancer, and she lost part of her leg, making her permanently disabled.
When Cristina began working with her, she was living with her son in a garage that had been converted into an apartment. Cristina said she remembered Maria saying that she wished she could visit her mother and sister in Mexico City one last time, but Cristina warned her that she wouldn’t be able to get back into the U.S. if she did that, and her son was a U.S. citizen.
Eventually, Cristina was able to get Maria a housing voucher and moved her into a nicer apartment.
Then she was diagnosed with heart failure.
“She could never really understand what was happening,” Cristina said.
This spring, Cristina was summoned to Oregon Health & Science University hospital because she was listed as Maria’s emergency contact.
The hospital staff had called her because they needed her help in telling Maria that she was dying. While Cristina was able to relay the information, she said Maria didn’t fully understand for some time. She was in pain and heavily medicated.
“After a month, she finally understood she was going to pass away,” Cristina said. “She came here full of hope, and all she got was cancer, disability, zero income.”
No hospice would take her, because she was an undocumented immigrant without insurance, and she could no longer live on her own.
One day, while meeting with staff at Portland’s Mexican Consulate with another Latino family she was assisting, Cristina mentioned she was working with a woman who needed to go to Mexico if she was going to die with dignity.
In Mexico, she would be able to access hospice care and could be in the company of her loved ones.
She was told the Mexican Consulate could pay the airfare. But someone needed to accompany her because she was very ill.
Cristina said she would do it.
JOIN’s executive director, Shannon Singleton, said she wasn’t at all surprised when Cristina came up to her and asked if the organization could figure out a way to send her thousands of miles to Mexico.
“She is so dedicated to the folks that she serves that it just kind of made sense to me that that would be on her mind to do,” Singleton said. “I don’t even know that (other) folks would think that it was an acceptable thing to ask for, and I was also really proud that we were able to do it.”
Pulling off this operation was no small feat. Cristina secured dual citizenship for Maria’s 8-year-old son, ensuring he could make the trip with his mother without incident.
She made phone calls to Maria’s family in Mexico, to prepare them for what they would see. The woman who had left 13 years ago looked quite different from the woman who would return, dying and disabled with yellowing skin and eyes, Cristina said.
Cristina flew with Maria to Mexico City, where a room full of excited family and neighbors greeted them at the hospital. Maria’s mother and sister cried tears of joy as they hugged and kissed Maria.
Cristina stayed with Maria for five days, making sure her health care was in order and the family was OK. She said that when she left, it seemed Maria was finally at peace with dying.
Maria died four days later. She was 37.
When asked why she felt it was so important to take Maria back to Mexico City in her final days, Cristina’s response was an incredulous, “Wouldn’t you do that?”
This article is part of Planet Portland, a periodic series on the personal journeys within Portland's immigrant communities. Contact reporter Emily Green at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @GreenWrites on Twitter.