Juan Francisco Loureiro talks about the metal bunk beds he made in 1982 when he first opened the San Juan Bosco immigrant shelter in Nogales, Sonora, with his wife, Gilda. The shelter marked its 31st anniversary Thursday with a Mass and dinner.


The sight of an indigenous Oaxacan woman standing outside their shoe store one cold winter morning, a baby strapped to her back and another wrapped in a blanket, was simply too much to bear for Juan Francisco and Gilda Loureiro.

They had to do something.

Thirty-one years later, nearly 1 million people have passed through the San Juan Bosco immigrant shelter the couple opened in Nogales, Sonora. It offers warm meals, showers and a bed to migrants who want to stay for up to three nights.

Opening the shelter and keeping it running has been both a challenge and a labor of love for the Loureiro family. Monthly costs run about $8,000. During the last several years the couple has received some funding through government programs, but most of it comes from donations and their savings.

It all stems from that night in 1982, the woman trembling and telling them there were many more like her in a local plaza.

"We found more than 160 people who had been there for two days or more, in the freezing weather, with nothing to eat," said 68-year-old Juan Francisco, whose office walls hold more than 30 awards surrounding a picture of Juan Bosco, the Catholic priest for whom the shelter is named.

Instead of depending on the kindness of strangers in the shelter's early days, Juan Francisco made sure strangers became friends.

He would scout out restaurants he thought could help feed the migrants. Then he would frequent the place, befriending the manager and ultimately the owner, whom he would then ask for food donations.

"We had a lot of people to feed," he chuckles.

He did the same with the maquiladoras, bus companies and any other business that would open its doors to him.

To save money, he built 40 metal bunk beds, using a trade he learned in high school. He still keeps the helmet and tools he used 30 years ago - a keepsake, he said.

As the Loureiro family grew, so has their involvement.

Their oldest son, now 40, decided in elementary school that he wanted to become a lawyer to represent the migrants. He now is the shelter's attorney. A niece who basically grew up in the shelter decided to become a psychologist to treat immigrants. She volunteers at the shelter.

As the shelter has changed the family, it also has touched the migrants who thought they were just passing through.

Several decided to stay and volunteer because they believe in what the family is doing.

Maria Antonia Diaz and her daughter Adriana have stayed at the shelter for three months.

The two lived in Phoenix for 20 years but decided to return to Mexico because they couldn't find jobs. Immediately after they arrived they started to help clean and cook at the shelter and organize new arrivals.

"Only God knows what would've become of us if it wasn't for this place," said Diaz.

Helping at the shelter has also taught them a lot about themselves, said Adriana Diaz, 21.

"They don't do this because they want to look good, they do this because they see the human suffering," Adriana said of the Loureiros.

"Being here and helping others makes you think about what you can do," she added.

The Rev. Sean Carroll, who conducted Mass on Thursday in celebration of the shelter's anniversary, said the shelter helps protect a vulnerable population.

"The shelter plays a very important role in trying to address the basic humanitarian needs of the migrant population," said Carroll, who is also the executive director of the Kino Border Initiative, a binational organization in Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Sonora, that serves migrants and promotes "humane, just, workable migration."

Migrants at the shelter are constantly reminded of the dangers of crossing the border. Posters show a skeleton trying to reach a gallon of water, or an armed man representing the smugglers of humans and drugs whom migrants are likely to encounter.

Visitors often share their stories of being robbed, attacked or losing loved ones on their journey.

Those stories have marked Juan Francisco for life, he said. But in the end, he said, they're what keeps him going.

On StarNet: Find extensive coverage of immigration issues at azstarnet.com/border


• The San Juan Bosco shelter for immigrants is named for a Catholic Italian priest who committed his life to help those less fortunate, including orphans.

• It's in Nogales, Sonora, and it's open 24 hours, seven days a week.

• Migrants receive two warm meals and a bed and have access to warm showers.

• They can stay up to three nights.

• It is mostly funded through private donations.

Source: Juan Francisco Loureiro, founder

Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at ptrevizo@azstarnet.com or at 573-4213. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo.