PHOENIX, Arizona — A broken, rusty voice is the only trace of the former life of drugs and alcohol José Aguilar used to lead. Now mostly known as “El Padrino,” Spanish for The Godfather, Aguilar runs a recovery center for drug addicts from his home in Phoenix.
His Centro de Rehabilitación “Volviendo a Vivir“ (“Returning to Life” Rehabilitation Center) rests in the heart of a neighborhood surrounded by drug dealers’ stash houses and provides services to men who live in the area without any government help.
“We’re here because this is where we’re needed the most,” Aguilar, 52, said.
Sociologist Graciela Mera, an advocate for Volviendo a Vivir, said the center is unique because it’s not operated by any government agencies and it focuses on a minority population made more vulnerable by their immigration status.
Every year thousands of men receive services at the center — and the numbers keep growing.
“Before, it was the parents bringing the kids to rehabilitation, now it’s the parents coming in for themselves,” Aguilar said. “Heroin is one of the biggest problems.”
Five years ago, the center would house 15 men at a time. Now, up to 30 stay there.
The program uses a unique therapeutic model, according to Mera.
“They talk about an issue in the open that our Latino immigrant community doesn’t want to speak out about because of shame,” said Mera, who has worked for over 12 years on substance abuse issues at the grassroots level. “Many of them are people who came here as migrants and fell into alcoholism because of depression.”
Most of the men who arrive at Volviendo a Vivir stay for a period of three months during which they are paired with a guide or “padrino” who leads them through the process and provides them with counseling.
Aguilar first came to the U.S. as an undocumented migrant when he was 14 and he said some of the hardships in his search for the American Dream led him to substance abuse and alcohol.
When he moved from Los Angeles to Phoenix about ten years ago, he was diagnosed with terminal cirrhosis –a disease caused by heavy alcohol consumption that deteriorates the liver and pancreas– and was told he had only a few years left to live. Despite his debilitating illness, “El Padrino” continues to oversee every aspect of the center’s operation.
“He’s a tough love guy, but that’s what we need,” said Valente Delfin, a former participant. “We need to hear: ‘You either change or you forget about your family.'”
Aguilar said it’s important for every new participant to work with men who, like himself, have gone through some of the same struggles and understand the challenges involved. Unlike at other centers, men suffering from withdrawal don’t take any medication for it.
“You can have at least three relapses during this process,” Aguilar said. He developed most of the Volviendo a Vivir program following some of the principles used by Alcoholics Anonymous.
The center is relatively small. The men have built it themselves. A gate guarded only by a sleepy pitbull called “Blacky” leads to the back of the house, where a new unit has been attached. It includes two rooms that fit at least 5 to 8 bunk beds each. In the backyard, a pile of bicycles and furniture that have accumulated from donations await to be sorted out.
A small room with a checkerboard floor serves both as a meeting area and a chapel. The men meet there daily for group therapy where they share their personal experiences in Spanish. Most are migrants from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador; some are as young as 18, others well into their 60s. U.S. citizens like Delfin, who was born in Texas, also benefit from the services.
“This place has given me life again,” Carlos González, 52, said as he gave a reporter a tour of the grounds. Originally from the state of Yucatan in Mexico, he is currently the second-in-command to Aguilar. It’s only been a year and a half since he entered the center and he feels recovered. However, González emphasized: “This is a disease from which you can’t fully recover.”
Those who finish their stay successfully normally remain a part of the organization. Delfin makes a living as a bounty hunter and proudly wears his official badge. He contributes to Volviendo a Vivir by helping detainees with matters related to the justice system.
“If this place were to close, it would be a total shame because from this place I have a brand new life now,” Delfin said. “I’ll do whatever I can to help this place keep running. But it’s tough… Donations are not what they used to be.”
Volviendo a Vivir needs between $8,000 and $10,000 to sustain its monthly operations. About half of that goes towards mortgage and utility payments. Most of the men who participate help out with kitchen and cleaning duties.
They also try to organize at least three carwashes or yard sales a week to raise funds. Aguilar uses his $700 disability paycheck to sustain part of the program.
The center itself has been part of a lifelong healing process for “El Padrino”, whose life experiences are told in a recently published book, written in Spanish by Manuel Murrieta Saldivar. He’s hoping eventually to be able to raise funds to create a similar center for women.
“Sometimes these guys here make me lose my temper,” Aguilar said jokingly behind dark sunglasses. “But I’m going to continue working on this center with the time I have left.”