Project Mexico: the homes
April 6, 2006, 10:34 am
Filed under: Mexico

The smell of Mexico is what usually hit’s me first. I catch it as I transition from the 805 freeway to the 905, which runs parallel to the fenceline and takes us to the Otay Mesa border crossing into Mexico. Most people that live in the border communities of Mexico burn their trash, especially in these outskirts of Tijuana, so there is this constant smell of smoke in the air. It’s unmistakable.

Approaching the border through the more popular San Ysidro crossing doesn’t yield so much of the smoky smell, as the city of Tijuana mostly has trash pickup. It does have an interesting view though. As you approach the border, you can see hills covered with homes. They’re far-off though, and it’s hard to tell exactly what they look like. You can tell that they’re packed tightly together. Welcome to the zero lot-line, Tijuana style.

Crossing the border, I no longer see hillsides with homes. Thinking back, I’m not sure it’s because they’re not visible, or because my attention is grabbed by so many other things… the obnoxious signs, the frightening traffic, the vendors, jugglers and fire-breathers, and the other-worldly kitschy veneer that so defines Tijuana in the minds of most of us gabachos.

Driving through Tijuana toward our destination, Colonia de San Bernardo, is a fast-forward, no-holds-barred, sensory bombarding experience. This is true even for me, and I’ve driven these roads countless times. How different this is from my everyday reality, just a mile away, on my side of the border. Every time I drive these streets, its a new, more revealing experience.

We make our way along the edge of “Centro”, the heart of Tijuana. Urban sprawl has pushed the city out, east and south, as people grapple for a piece of dirt, a place to call home. The further we drive, the worse it looks. The roads get worse, the homes and businesses look worse. It takes about 30 minutes of urban driving to reach Colonia de San Bernardo. And it is here, as we slow to drive the deeply rutted dirt paths (you can hardly call them roads) of San Bernardo, that you get an up-close, sobering look at how hundreds of thousands of people in this part of the world live. It’s hard to believe that—as the crow flies—this is less than 10 miles from one of the most affluent spots on earth.

Homes built with whatever can be found. Old wooden garage doors, discarded by American’s who upgrade to a nice aluminum roll-up door, sell here for $25-40 each. For those that can afford it, they make for a decent, sturdy shelter. Decent, compared to the poorest among the poor, who make do with scraps of wood, tarp, plastic, whatever can be found. There is no running water in San Bernardo. It cost $10 U.S. to fill a 55 gallon drum, which most uses to drink, wash, bathe and cook with. The government has recently added power lines to San Bernardo, even installing meters at home homesites. This is a mixed blessing though, as a typical electric bill here in San Bernardo is $40 a month, far beyond affordable to most here. Most people choose instead to get some wire, strip one end bare, make a hook-like shape, and toss the wire over a nearby power-line, running it to their home to power a lightbulb, TV and maybe a small fridge. While this is shocking the first time seen, it more seems in line with the way things work here. You make do with what you’ve got, with what you can afford.

Pictures, even my first-person descriptions, don’t begin to tell the real story of this place. There is so much more here that must be seen with your own eyes, heard with your own eyes, tasted, experienced, lived. An amazing reality exists here that almost seems paradoxical. We, from affluent Orange County, are horrified at the living conditions. So we build homes, which are desperately, desperately needed. As might be expected, the need goes so much further though. Medical and healthcare (there is none). Education. Employment opportunities. The needs are deep and seem almost endless, almost hopeless. And then a couple of kids come running past, laughing, playing. A mother talks of hope and the possibility of a better life. A piece of cardboard in the back of my van serves as an impromptu dance floor, and a group of local boys bust out the break-dancing moves with surprising skill. They are laughing and having a great time. I try a break-dance move and make a fool of myself, nearly breaking my neck. They laugh. We talk. I find out that some go to school, most don’t. When asked what they hope to be when they grow up, most decline to answer. I wonder if that even seems a possibility to them, to hope for something more than this? Two that answer say they hope to be athletes, futbol stars.

I walk away from a weekend in this place changed, again. It is my seventh year of building homes in Mexico, my second year building here in San Bernardo. And I feel I’ve but scratched the surface. Instead of feeling overwhelmed though, I feel embraced, by these people, and by God, whom I sense is zapping my senses with the sights and smells and taste of this place. Instead of feeling hopeless, I feel hope. Hope for these people who despertely need hope. Hope for me and my people, that we might see our opportunity—our responsibility—to take a little of what we’ve been given, and make a huge difference in the life of other people.

And so I am reminded of the words of Jesus in Matthew chapter 5, addressing a crowd during his sermon on the mount…

3″Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
10Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.


1 Comment so far
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Jon, I was waiting for this post about your most recent Mexico trip and this one exceeded my expectations. The writing is so discriptive that I felt kind of along for the journey. You’re correct to point out how big the difference is between what we have and what they have across the border. I’m glad you are filled with hope and not overwhelmed by what remains to be done. You are doing a lot with what you have. Even though you’re not “rolling in the dough” you’ve been very generous. I’m proud to know people like you.–>

Comment by Doah

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