It had been raining for most of our trip Friday from Los Angeles to the Mexican border, but as we drew nearer, a ray of sunshine shot through the clouds and produced a glorious, full rainbow. A double rainbow, in fact.
"A double rainbow!" said my 14-year-old daughter, Natalie, with drama.
"So intense!" laughed her school friend, Caroline.
"It's right over Tijuana," I said, "do you suppose the pot of gold is there?"
Later someone was to remark, "Maybe just the pot?"
Funny -- but not funny. When I told people I was going to Tijuana for the weekend to help build houses, they were afraid for me. Mexico, and the border town of Tijuana, has a problem with drug trafficking. The joke is in thinking the problem is theirs and not ours. (I speak as a U.S. citizen.) Certainly it is the people of Mexico who suffer most from the violence, economic disfunction and isolation of their country.
What if we could be friends? Neighbors? Help each other?
Such were my thoughts after spending a weekend with my daughter, her friend, and some 30 new friends associated with my Unitarian Universalist church, helping families build houses in Tijuana with a group called Esperanza International. Many of these friends have been coming down to Tijuana twice a year to do this, for more than a decade. We were newbies.
On Saturday morning we all met with Eduardo, a Mexican citizen and the powerhouse behind Esperanza in Tijuana. The word "esperanza" means "hope," and as much as we were literally laying concrete for people's homes, we were also there to build connections and hope for better relations.
"Please don't believe everything you hear in the news about my country," Eduardo said, as we sat in a circle and introduced ourselves. "Please tell your friends back home that you were safe here, that it is okay to come here."
A bus took us across precariously high paved roads and over dirt roads made muddy by the rain, to the work site. The residential roads tended not to be graded, so the bus maneuvered in ways I might have thought impossible, at crazy-steep angles, around hairpin turns and over bumps the size of trash cans.
Any driver has to watch for dogs loping along the road, some walking together like old friends. I spotted a good number of dogs standing on roofs -- they just kind of do their own thing. Homes are extremely small, most about the size of a one-car garage. Many are made from a hodgepodge of salvaged materials: pieces of plywood, corrugated metal, a few mismatched grates, rebar sticking out of the roof at odd angles, a random board here, a block of cement there, and a lot of graffiti everywhere.
When families in Tijuana sign up for Esperanza, they join a kind of co-op. They have to put money into a community fund, which goes towards building homes. After a year or more, they may have enough invested that they can start building their own home, a process which happens piece by piece, with help from both foreigners and from those in the co-op. Esperanza's aim is not to provide charity, but to provide a way for families to first build goals and them accomplish them through their own means. The families work side-by-side with the volunteers.
On Saturday, we poured a concrete roof for a house that already had a foundation and four walls. When we arrived, Natalie and Caroline went exploring to kill time as we awaited our orders. Before I could say, "It's a construction site, don't go inside!" they had carefully stepped into the half-built structure. Soon I heard exclamations, "Oh look! Oooohhhh! So cute! Awwwww?" They had discovered, inside the unfinished house, a small dog house. Inside that, a dog was nursing eight newborn puppies.
The doggy family continued their little nativity scene, unperturbed, while we fired up a small cement mixer, much in the same way as an old-fashioned lawnmower. Volunteers shoveled gravel and dirt into buckets which we fed into the mixer along with water and cement. A line of people snaked around the outside of the house, through a little porchway, up a ladder and onto the roof. Through this line of people, we passed many, many, many, many five-gallon buckets of wet concrete, each bucket weighing between five and 10 pounds, depending on who was scooping the concrete. People on the roof emptied the concrete into a prepared space, slowly filling in the roof. Another person would toss each emptied bucket down from the roof, where it went flying from person to person back to the cement mixer to be filled again.
Once this system started running, we fell into a rhythm that went for hours -- sort of mesmerizing, if one can be mesmerized while exerting that much physical energy. I was part of the bucket brigade, passing bucket after bucket. I focused on my technique: gripping the top of the bucket with one hand and holding the bottom with the other; making sure that the next person in line had both hands on before letting go and turning to grab the next bucket, which came quickly. If every person grabs a little early and holds a little late, keeping the bucket moving at a constant speed, the weight feels halved.
Yet it still got heavy, and we didn't always keep the groove. Sometimes a person would drop the bucket, or fail to get a good grip. Sometimes it would dip as our arms tired. A few people tried to measure the weight of each bucket, "Eight pounds. Seven. Five. Nine." Or "Pesado. MUY pesado!"
Still, three dozen people, working in concert, is a beautiful piece of machinery to behold.
We certainly attracted the attention of the neighbors, all living in very close quarters. Children peeked through the windows; people came out on their roofs.
Concrete splattered everywhere, and despite wearing thick work gloves, my hands were wet. The cement has some toxic elements, and I came away from the day with a few smarting sores, simply from my skin making contact with the cement.
When we finally finished the roof, we enjoyed a meal cooked by the family, who had been strictly instructed by Eduardo to use only purified water so as not to make us sick. We sat on the dirt road, eating beans, rice, meat and tortillas, then we gathered in a circle to say goodbye to Claudia, a member of the family.
We wished her all the best, and she said, "Thank you so much, and I hope you don't get sick from our food!" The food was the only way they could thank us, and they had to worry so much that it would make us sick. This struck me as off-balance.
Eduardo directed the buses to a house that had been completed through efforts by Esperanza. It was about 300 square feet, with a very small bedroom, living area and -- what must be a real luxury, a closet-sized bathroom. None of the houses has heat or air conditioning, or fireplaces or any kind of built-in cooking space. "You get cold? Find some wood and burn it," explained Eduardo. "You get hot? Open a window." It gave me a new take on the Spanish word for window, "ventana" -- the only means of ventilation.
I asked, how many people would live in this home? A single mother, her daughter, the mother's sister, her two daughters, and a grandmother. Seven people.
The next day, we drove to another site, this one high on a hill. The road to this neighborhood was lined with garbage -- we even saw a stray horse scavenging in it. For this house, we were building a foundation. Next door to their house was a church -- a slightly larger concrete structure, with no decoration to make it look like a church. We could hear them playing music and singing inside, but we didn't realize until the end of the day that it was a church.
As we worked, the sky clouded over and the air grew cold. We made our lines, and first we passed buckets of dirt for the foundation, followed by concrete. People sang a little, told jokes, played word games. We finished the foundation just minutes before the first raindrops fell, and a steady rain accompanied our dinner.
Again, we formed a circle to say goodbye to the family and wish them well. This time, we had all come in individual cars, so that we could go straight back to the border and home when our work was complete. Unfortunately, the steady rain had turned the dirt roads into the most slippery mud I've ever seen. While going up a steep hill, seven cars got stuck, sliding in the mud. It was like being in a blizzard, with a foot of snow on the ground. Tires spun, people got out and fell in the mud, cars went sideways, and dogs looked at us curiously as they walked past.
At last, Esperanza leader, Eduardo of Tijuana, walked from his car to the back of the line, where a car had made several failed attempts to get up the hill. We watched as he took the keys and got into the car. He stepped on the gas and swerved wildly all over the road -- but he made it all the way up.
And that's how you drive in Tijuana -- you don't leave anything on the table. You use all the power you have, and you get yourself up the hill and out of the mud.
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