The Costs of Caring

La Indita owner Maria Garcia, 74, battles foreclosure and fights to help indigenous peoples

Maria Garcia, a frail, 74-year-old Tehuacan Indian, doesn't have the time to take care of the dying trees on her front porch at her home near Interstate 10.

Nor can she find the time to sell the donated used clothes that sit in trash bags on her front patio and in nearly every room of the home she's lived in for 32 years.

Garcia is too busy saving her home from foreclosure; keeping open her Mexican restaurant La Indita at 622 N. Fourth Ave.; and finding money to build a clinic in Magdalena, Mexico, for the indigenous people of Sonora.

"One of these days, when God does not need me anymore, he will say, 'OK, Maria, time to rest,'" says the 4-foot-11 woman who seldom speaks English. "Then I have time to cook for myself."

Garcia has always opened her home to anyone in need, including sick and injured residents of Sells, the Tohono O'odham capital 65 miles southwest of Tucson. Her husband, Joe Garcia, is active in the government of the Tohono O'odham Nation, and he is just as involved in helping others.

"Joe Garcia is a traditional leader of the Tohono O'odham people in Mexico," says Blake Gentry, who works with the Garcias as education coordinator for the United Nations Association of Southern Arizona, a nonprofit organization that promotes peace and responsible U.S. participation in the United Nations.

Gentry says the Garcias are focused on building the clinic and promoting economic development programs. "Joe has always been persistent in his work to try to help as many people as he can," he says.

Maria Garcia has no political influence on Tohono O'odham land, but that doesn't stop her from doing what she can to help the people she has come to consider her own.

Maria Elena Carter-Garcia, Garcia's oldest daughter, calls her mother a nonstop person.

"She will get up at 5 in the morning, take clothes and try to sell them to buy some more bricks for the clinic, or if she needs to buy something for here," Carter-Garcia says.

"Right now, my mother, with all the things that she's done for other people, is on the verge of losing her home and the restaurant, because all of her struggles have always been focused only on other people's needs, not her own," Carter-Garcia says.

These days, Maria Garcia spends little time at her restaurant, which is now largely run by her daughter and son-in-law. Lately, all the money Maria has raised through fundraisers has gone toward paying for a lawyer to fight off foreclosure, so she can continue to offer her house to visitors in need of a place to stay. Just about every night, someone is sleeping on a makeshift bed in Garcia's living room.

"It's not a beautiful house, but it's my base," she says.

Garcia says giving back has always been a part of her life. She remembers that as a 7-year-old, she stole clothes and food from her stepmother to give to homeless people in her town.

"I saw that my father's house was full of food, so I started stealing from them, and when they found out, they spanked me," Garcia says. "I did this for many years until my father couldn't stand me anymore."

Garcia's father forced her to move in with her half-sister and brother-in-law when she was 12 years old.

"She came from a poor, poor family, and I think there were a lot of things she lacked in her life," explains daughter Carter-Garcia. "So when she sees little girls who are indigenous, especially, and they're little, and they're poor, her heart goes to them, wanting to give them what she didn't have."

Carter-Garcia, Maria's oldest daughter, says that growing up was especially difficult, because she had to help raise her younger siblings while her mother was away helping other families. "We always felt that we were second in her life," Carter-Garcia says. "I had to make all the food for my brothers and sisters and do the chores, because she was always somewhere else."

Several years ago, Maria lost two of her children within one year. Her youngest daughter, Diana, died from liver complications brought on by taking too many pain medications. Several weeks later, her oldest son was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and he died three months later. Garcia says she remained strong after the sudden deaths and continued working toward her goals.

Garcia hopes the clinic in Magdalena will one day offer medical care to indigenous people from all over Sonora. For now, it remains under construction, atop a rocky, steep hill. Work on the clinic has been interrupted by the unexpected foreclosure proceedings on Garcia's house in Tucson. (Garcia says she was duped by a man posing as a mortgage broker; she'd been making payments to him rather than the bank.)

A small house without running water has been built into the side of the hill for Maria and others to sleep in. The walls of the clinic are being built out of cinderblocks, but because construction has been stopped, wires hang loose from the walls, and weeds have grown from the foundation of the floor. The structure wraps around about a half-acre of land and doesn't yet have a roof.

Garcia has planted flowers and herbs around the clinic. She hopes that one day, the clinic will offer herbs for medicinal purposes, along with mud baths, aroma therapy and other traditional healing practices.

"Who is going to help people when they come here, but don't have other friends?" Garcia says. "If they cannot go home right away, then they won't have a place to stay, because their own people do not want to help."

Back at her home, Garcia takes a bite of bread dipped in honey as bees and flies swarm around her. Honey drips onto her loose pant leg as she explains that she is doing what she was put on Earth to do.

"I feel that I do work that belongs to God," she says.

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