Zuheil is the youngest of six born to Luis and Maria. She grew up in one of the most populated Mexican cities in the high-altitude desert state of Chihuahua, Ciudad Juárez (Juárez City of simply Juárez as the natives prefer) located just south of El Paso in the Rio Grande. Luis and Maria made the best of difficult circumstances rearing their children — four girls and two boys — in Juárez, while dealing with constant distress and concern about their family’s safety. Juárez, one of the major ports of entry to the United States, has been categorized as one of the most dangerous cities in the world with drug cartels and a high level of female abduction and homicides.
Zuheil remembers with joy visiting the city market with her mom and siblings and then taking two Ruteras in order to see her grandpa who lived in another part of the city. Ruteras are school buses brought from America that are painted and used for public transportation in Mexico.
At the Juárez City Market also known as la Marqueta, crafts from all over the country are available, as well as delicious traditional dishes of the region including the famous Burritos, often accompanied by a Cerveza Helada or frozen beer. The market also show cases local performing artists including:
Musica Norteña (northern music) – a genre that combines German folk and northern Mexican music with accordion, bajo sexto, electric bass and drums.
Mariachis, consisting of four or more musicians wearing suits of Charros or Mexican cowboys from the state of Jalisco. The traditional mariachi band consists of at least two violins, a guitar, a guitarrón (large bass guitar), a vihuela (like a guitar but with a rounded back) and trumpets. Mariachis transmit values of respect for the natural heritage of the regions of Mexico and local history in the Spanish language and the different Indian languages of Western Mexico. This genre was recognized as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2011.
Zuheil’s mom, Maria, always kept in good spirits listening to tunes of Juan Gabriel, one of Mexico’s greatest and most beloved singer-songwriters. He grew up and started his career in Juárez. Maria also found great enjoyment making flour tortillas for family reunions. Her father, Papá Luis, on the other hand, spent his days working at a factory. He was a man of rich culture who enjoyed reading multiple books from his extensive collection. He was interested in learning English and taught himself the language. He and his children spent time playing games and doing activities such as the making of piñatas, a decorated container filled with small toys and candy to break as part of a celebration. This is a tradition in Mexico as well as other parts of Latin America.
In 1965, Maquila, a manufacturing operation, began to facilitate industrialization on the United States-Mexican border. As a result, foreign manufacturing investment increased along border cities such as Juarez and Tijuana. During the 1980s, more companies invested in Mexico operations given their low cost, especially in electronics, car assembly and textile. The greatest growth of the maquiladora industry occurred after Mexico, Canada and the United States signed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, making it possible to import materials free of tax. Maquiladora refers to manufacturing operations.
Zuheil’s family was struggling financially and at age 14, she had to drop out of high school to join her sister and mother working at the maquiladoras. She would work the assembly lines for eight to 12 hours a day, all the while day dreaming of someday returning to school to pursue a better life. She also dreamed of a quinceañera. A quinceañera is a celebration recognizing a girl’s 15th birthday. The event is one of the most celebrated Latin American traditions spotlighting the journey of a girl from childhood to maturity. A reception at such an occasion includes food, music and a choreographed waltz or dance performed by the quinceañera wearing a ball gown.
A recurrent dream was moving to United States with her family — La Familia. Family is the greatest asset for Latinos and it is the major source of one’s identity and protection against the hardships of life. Despite the concept of direct family members written in books and immigration laws, a family in Latin America consists of parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, cousins and even others who are not biologically related.
With help from friends and family, Maria and Luis surprised Zuheil with the quinceanera celebration of her dreams. Zuheil’s quinceanera was one of the most beautiful memories and sadly, one of the last she and her family would spend together in Mexico. Since the majority of maquiladora workers barely earn enough income to meet their basic needs, at age 16, Zuheil headed to the United States in search of new horizons.
Jose was born in the municipality San Juanito de Escobedo, located in the Western Mexican state of Jalisco, at the base of the Tequila Volcano and near the well-known Tequila Town, home of the blue agave plant used to make the tequila drink. He was the fourth child of nine and started working at age eight. His first job was loading ladrillos or bricks in a truck, riding on the back of truck and then unloading the bricks at another location. It became difficult to maintain a large family by just working the cornfields in San Juanito. Therefore, Jose’s parents decided to take their oldest two children to the United States in search of new opportunities. Jose and the rest of his siblings were left under the supervision of their 14-year-old sister. Thankfully, in a quiet, small town like San Juanito with a close-knit community where everyone knows the name of everyone else, other family members and friends kept an eye on the children making sure they were all doing well during their parents’ absence.
Childhood was a full adventure in San Juanito, and Jose enjoyed those years of collecting unforgettable memories with his brothers and sisters. Jose’s dream as a child was to become a futbolista or professional soccer player and he would often skip the Sunday classes at church or doctrinas, to play soccer with his friends. Jose also remembers with delight some of the common traditions that took place in his town such as the prayer of the native healers, better known as curanderas. The prayers were offered to avoid the culebras de agua (water snakes) coming from the sky, a phenomenon of visible small tornados in the sky resembling the shape of a water snake of Jalisco. The curandera would take a young kid and while holding one of the kid’s hands and a knife with the other, would whisper a prayer continuously while making the shape of a cross towards the sky. To Jose’s amusement, the tornadoes would disappear suddenly. Three years passed before Jose and his parents were reunited. Now 11, Jose and his siblings embarked on a new adventure to America.
Fate brought together Zuheil and Jose. They met in Albuquerque in 2002 while attending graduate school and it was love at first sight. In 2004, they became parents of an amazing little boy, their first son, Francisco, and a year later the couple welcomed son number two, Gibran “Gibi.” When the couple attended the ceremony to receive their degrees, each proudly held one of their sons. Zuheil obtained a Master’s Degree in Latin-American Literature and Jose obtained a Doctor of Philosophy in 20th century poetry.
In 2006, they moved to Virginia and established themselves in the City of Salem. Jose works at Roanoke College, a private liberal arts school. He is director of modern languages. Both sons were diagnosed with Autism, a condition characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences. It was not easy at first. Zuheil and Jose say. What were the steps to follow now as parents? Where could they go for help? On top of everything, at times they faced hurtful comments towards them from people who lacked knowledge and understanding about Autism. Zuheil and Jose say folks would think the behavior of their kids were simply a case of lack of discipline. Francisco did not receive an early diagnosis because some teachers and health providers insisted his speech delay was due to both parents speaking Spanish.
Ten years after their first and second children, Zuheil and Jose welcomed their third son, Gaddiel and their daughter, Zoleil. Gaddiel also has Autism. Zuheil has dedicated herself to learning all she can about Autism in order to best prepare her children for a good quality of life. She has taken several classes online to be able to provide her children with behavioral therapy based on Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA).
Francisco, 13, Gibran, 12, Gaddiel, 3 and Zoleil, 22 months, are extraordinary like Super Heroes, and each of them has different abilities yet to be discovered. From immigrating to other lands, assimilating new cultures and facing many challenges, Zuheil and Jose say they have been blessed and are motivated to now embark in the most important journey of their life – the discovery of powers in their Superheroes.
“Having three kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has impacted our lives tremendously because it has taught us how to see life in many different angles, appreciate important singularities and learn not to take any moment for granted” — Zuheil and Jose Bañuelos.
I would like to dedicate this article to my dearest friends with origins in the border cities of Mexico/USA who had to immigrate. Also to all those families of super heroes going through their own journey of discovery, and finally to everyone with a compassionate heart, searching for understanding rather than indifference or judgement towards others. – C.S.