Meet Panchito: The Volunteer Nurse Helping Migrants in Nogales, Mexico (Photo Essay)

NOGALES, MEXICO — It was just over 10 years ago that Francisco “Panchito” Olachea Martin was deported from Phoenix, Arizona, to the Mexican city of Nogales on the U.S.-Mexico border. With only the clothes on his back, he was sent through the main port of entry, leaving his family and life of almost 34 years behind. Living in the U.S. while undocumented since the late-1970s, Panchito had to start over, but in a new city that he says was not as welcoming to newcomers as it is now.

“We had a lot of violence here in Nogales and immigrants pues, they were ignored a lot here for being deportees so I said, ‘I gotta do something about it,’” he told Latino USA. 

So for the past decade, Panchito, now 59, has built up his reputation as a nurse and EMT paramedic who hits the streets of Nogales every weekday. Working as a civil association, “Panchito y Su Cristina” (Cristina being his work vehicle named after his daughter), he serves migrants (often asylum seekers) and many vulnerable populations.

Francisco “Panchito” Olachea Martin drives his van. As a nurse and EMT, Panchito works daily to assist migrants and people living in poverty throughout Nogales. (Photo by Max Herman/Latino USA)

While it took time to get to where he is now —equipped with a functioning ambulance, a nursing degree, and basic EMT certification— Panchito says he has always put people in need first.

“I started to help people since I got here in Nogales and it just took me a few years to graduate and make everything legal,” he says.

Panchito picks up a family of migrants seeking asylum from the port of entry to bring to a shelter. (Photo by Max Herman/Latino USA)

On call 24/7, Panchito lives in the impoverished hills above Nogales in a small rental house near the old city garbage dump. He is not far from the Iglesia en la Calle (Church in the Street), where many of the people he serves also live, including orphans and recovering addicts.

Since all of his medical work is on a volunteer basis, he relies entirely on donations from humanitarian aid groups and churches, which are mostly in the United States.

A spare stretcher is seen stationed in the yard of the house that Panchito rents. (Photo by Max Herman/Latino USA)

The money that he receives covers supplies like diabetes test strips, medications for patients and their doctor’s visits, and fuel. It also helps in covering his working ambulance. Any money he spends for himself comes from his part-time weekend job with the Nogales Police Department, as a security guard for special events.

Panchito stands for a portrait last October in front of his van. This year, he is driving a newer vehicle that’s a working ambulance while the older van serves as a back-up. (Photo by Max Herman/Latino USA)

While Panchito doesn’t seem to mind living on a barebones budget, he does care deeply about having the money to care for others. His initial dilemma was securing funding without having to hold his hand out. “In the first place, I never know how to ask,” Panchito says about receiving donations. “I went through a hard time being an immigrant my own self even at the comedor [Kino Border Initiative] so it did affect me about asking people.”

Panchito joins a march last October in memory of José Antonio Elena Rodríguez, the Mexican teenager who was shot and killed in 2012 by Border Patrol Agent Lonnie Swartz through the U.S.-Mexico border wall. (Photo by Max Herman/Latino USA)

Now with a regular stream of donations, Panchito is able to perform a true patchwork of humanitarian service. When I first joined him in October of 2018, he was collecting adult diapers to distribute to the elderly, checking on Central American asylum seekers at the DeConcini Port of Entry, transporting migrants from the public hospital to sleep at shelters, and attending a vigil for José Antonio Elena Rordríguez, the Nogales teen who was shot and killed by Border Patrol agent Lonnie Swartz in 2012 (Swartz was acquitted).

Panchito administers throat spray to a migrant staying at the La Roca shelter this month. (Photo by Max Herman/Latino USA)

Riding along with him, it’s not uncommon to hear people on the corner holler out “Panchito!” as he passes by in his van with a cracked windshield.

A man on horseback passes by as Panchito drives up the hilly barrio around the city dump (Photo by Max Herman/Latino USA)

Revisiting Panchito this February, I ask if he ever takes on apprentices or assistants to lighten his load, but he has been reluctant to work alongside people who aren’t trained medical professionals. “You have to have passion for this thing,” he says. “Not to think that you are the [only] one. To me, there’s nothing wrong to say my knowledge has limitations.”

Panchito walks down the steep steps of La Roca with migrants whose blood pressure was abnormally high. They were being taken to the public hospital in Nogales. (Photo by Max Herman/Latino USA)

These limitations are seen on the first day I join Panchito in February of this year, when he checks the blood pressure of migrants staying at theLa Roca shelter. There are a few migrants who have alarmingly high blood pressure numbers (one man with a systolic reading over 200). At this stage, a person is in danger of having a stroke or another life-threatening incident at any moment. And because Panchito can usually only administer over-the-counter medications, he will often take migrants and residents to the public hospital to receive the necessary treatment.

Men living at the Church in the Street, many recovering from addiction, gather around Panchito to be evaluated for various medical conditions, ranging from a broken finger to a sore throat. (Photo by Max Herman/Latino USA)

On the next day with Panchito, he is joined by a doctor from Tucson named Peter Brown, who plans to join his check-up runs once a week.

Panchito and Dr. Brown visit an orphanage, checking on the boys who are dealing with respiratory issues and colds. (Photo by Max Herman/Latino USA)

“I try to make a combination as I go along helping the immigrants, the indigents, the people who live in extreme poverty, go to the orphanage and check the children. So this is really more than a blessing to now have a doctor that comes along,” Panchito said. “It avoids for me to have to take them out of their house to go see a doctor.”

Panchito and Dr. Brown visit a homebound patient in Colonia Virreyes whose legs were severely damaged after being hit by a car and who suffers from diabetes and chronically dry skin. Between the two medical professionals, they determine what ointments and medication might help the man’s condition most effectively.(Photo by Max Herman/Latino USA)

Once such stop saw them visiting a family living in extreme poverty in Colonia Virreyes (several people staying in a dark, one-room house), where an elderly man with diabetes and crippled legs from a car accident is unable to easily leave his home. These are the patients Pachito visits regularly. “It was nice that the doctor was there to do an evaluation and whatever he recommends, then my knowledge as a nurse is starting to increase to give better care to these people,” he explains.

Panchito rushes to his van to pick up a migrant family from the hospital to transport them back to a shelter in Nogales in October 2018. (Photo by Max Herman/Latino USA)Max Herman)

Panchito says that he’s in the best position he’s ever been to help the people of Nogales. But that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t sometimes face disruption from gangs and even others who also work with migrants.

“There’s always somebody to knock you down or try to stop you but they don’t want to do what you do,” he says. “Would you like to spend eight hours not knowing if somebody’s going to give you 20 dollars [in donations]? I mean just take a chance? Well, I take a chance every day.”