WEST, Texas — Half a mile from the site of a deadly explosion that splintered her life, Sandra Villalobos is improvising a new one.

WEST, Texas — Half a mile from the site of a deadly explosion that splintered her life, Sandra Villalobos is improvising a new one.

In January, the Mexican native moved into a duplex on North Main Street with her 8-year-old daughter, Mariana, who is disabled. They pieced together a temporary home while Villalobos waited for news on her green card petition.

Those papers had been within reach a year ago, when Villalobos left her family’s apartment in West for an appointment at the American consulate in Ciudad Juarez. But the fertilizer plant blast in April killed her husband, Mariano Saldivar, who as a legal permanent resident was the petitioner for his wife’s green card. His death derailed her application and left her a single mother.

Every day since has been spent in limbo. It ended just recently.

American officials reinstated Villalobos’ petition and mailed her a green card.

"When she realized what it was, you could hear her voice break," her attorney, Karen Crawford, said of the March 17 phone call when she delivered the news. "You could hear she was ready to cry because it was a huge relief."

With a green card, Villalobos can keep her family rooted in Texas, where Mariana was born a U.S. citizen and has easy access to the medical care she needs. Villalobos can also legally bring her 12-year-old daughter Karen, who was born in Mexico, to this country.

Villalobos, who is unemployed and can’t speak English, said she welcomes the news. But thinking of what comes after — building a home for two daughters and raising them alone — keeps her up at night.

"I’m glad that my family will be reunited, but it’s not complete," said Villalobos, 33.

Early last year, Saldivar, along with his wife, was already planning to take his daughter Mariana and stepdaughter Karen trick-or-treating along Reagan Street for Halloween.

Instead, on Oct. 31, Karen remained in Mexico, Mariana lay on an operating table in Fort Worth, and Villalobos sat in a hospital waiting room by herself for the first time since Mariana was born.

Mariana has spina bifida, a birth defect that limits her feeling from the waist down and makes her unable to control her bladder. Scars from 10 surgeries to correct her joints and drain fluid from her brain trace pink lines on her olive skin.

After Saldivar’s death, Villalobos was briefly let into the U.S. for his funeral and then again for Mariana’s medical appointments. She was allowed to stay while officials reviewed her immigration case. Her husband’s relatives offered her a room in their modest West house.

Villalobos’ situation attracted media attention. Many strangers responded with kindness.

"It’s wonderful the way they have helped her," said Josephine Miller, a family friend who often translates for Villalobos.

During the holidays, one family donated a Christmas tree, along with Barbie dolls for Mariana and household gifts for Villalobos.

The landlords of the duplex on North Main Street agreed to dip the rental rate to $500. Local churches have helped with rent and groceries.

The family’s home is a patchwork of gifts and donations from around the community — a dining set and couches from West Long-Term Recovery, a washer and dryer from another family in West, a microwave and plates from staff at Providence Healthcare Network in Waco.

Villalobos said the family’s only source of income right now is Mariana’s disability benefits. She hopes her green card will allow her to collect Social Security payments as the survivor of her husband, a former warehouse worker.

"We have endured this with difficulty, and at the same time, we are grateful toward all the people who helped us," Villalobos said.

Mariana slides in and out of the two-bedroom duplex on her wheelchair using a low, metallic ramp. Sometimes she rolls out onto the yard to watch neighborhood kids ride their bikes. Other times she stays indoors and straps her beloved stuffed cat Vitorino, a present from her dad, onto his own little toy wheelchair.

Early each morning, train horns from the railroad tracks behind the duplex blast through the walls of Villalobos’ bedroom, where Mariana sleeps with her mother. Villalobos then changes Mariana’s catheter and diaper, styles the girl’s cascading brown hair and cooks her fried eggs before a West ISD school bus picks her up.

Dinner is stretched to last two days. On a recent Tuesday, Villalobos boiled spaghetti and made cheese enchiladas, just the way her husband used to like them.

Villalobos is still getting used to his absence.

"Sometimes I think maybe he’ll come back," Villalobos said.

One of Villalobos’ goals after the explosion was to get her own car. An insurance payout allowed her to buy a slightly scuffed silver Ford Taurus.

Now that Villalobos has a green card, she can get a driver’s license as soon as she masters parallel parking.

Mariana is also taking steps toward independence. She has leg braces to improve her mobility. Her therapists are teaching her how to change her own catheters.

"Most children learn it before Mariana’s age, but with all the turmoil in her life, she’s getting around to learning that," said Debbie Haddad, her occupational therapist.

It’s unclear when Karen, who lives with her grandmother in Mexico, will join her mother and sister. The paperwork can take months.

Villalobos said her husband dreamed the family of four would buy a home someday, one with a rose garden. But after everything life has hurled at her family in the past year, Villalobos said she’s wary of making plans.

"Sometimes I say, ‘Live the day as it comes,’" she said.


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