Bringing help across the border: Reporter follows a group of Truckee teens who help build houses in Mexico
(Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of four stories chronicling the efforts of a group of students and chaperones who spent their spring break building houses in Mexico.)
Marina Lagunes Aguilar brought out a photo of herself and an American woman. The woman was dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap, similar to our own attire that day.
The woman’s name was Stephanie, and from what I could patch together with my less-than-perfect Spanish, Stephanie had helped build houses in the Altiplano also.
We were neither the first, nor the last, group to travel to Mexico to build houses. Some groups build schools, some churches, others bring medical care. Stephanie and Marina, it appeared, had become friends during Stephanie’s short stay.
Much of the trip to Tijuana, Mexico was spent on the endless pavement of Interstate 5, straight through the center of California.
Six truckloads of teenagers from Truckee were on their was to an impoverished portion of Tijuana called the Altiplano, where the people who live there buy land from the government and only have enough money to put up houses pieced together with garage doors and plywood.
Very few of the 20-or-so Tahoe Truckee High School students on the trip had ever traveled outside of the United States, let alone a place as poor at the Altiplano. But now they had arrived to build two 11-by-22 houses in four days. All of the students had different reasons for going: some just wanted to go to Mexico, others wanted to help someone less fortunate and others admitted they went because their friends went.
“Where’s the bathroom? Is that the bathroom?” one student asked when we first arrived at one of two work sites. She was pointing at a blue and white building, the nicest in the neighborhood, that we later found out was the local school.
Electric wires lay on the dirt roads, trucks drive over the rugged terrain to bring water (purified and otherwise) to homes.
A couple of miles from San Diego, with its shopping centers, palm trees and quaint houses, the people of the Altiplano may as well live on another planet – No sewage system, no running water, no paved roads.
“It’s the complete opposite of San Diego,” said 15-year-old Ian Kasey. “I had no idea it would be this dirty and such poverty.”
“I guess it was just a little shocking to see how different it is just across a line,” said 17-year-old Courtney Brown.
Most noted the stark contrast between the United States and the Mexican border town.
“You think, ‘I can’t wait to get out of this place.’ But the people who live here, they can’t go anywhere. This is their home,” said 17-year-old Brian Ivie.
Laying the foundation
Most agreed that the first day was the hardest. If setting up camp was any indication – raking rocks out of clay filled soil, bending every other tent stake as we pounded them into the packed earth – leveling the property for a foundation wasn’t something anyone was looking forward to.
One site was almost perfectly level. At the other, one-third of the students got out the picks, another group started with shovels and another began sawing 2-by-4s with handsaws.
The work began almost immediately after everyone piled out of the trucks. There was barely enough time for everyone to stretch after the one-hour ride from camp to the work sites.
Rosario De la Vega Gonzalez, the 29-year-old mother of two and owner of the property, greeted us briefly and watched on with her children as wood was stacked and the cement was mixed.
Halfway through the day, an adult chaperone on the trip who was manning one of the cement mixing wheelbarrows with a shovel, leaned over and said, “Some one should invent a machine for this.”
No power tools were allowed and our muscles were beginning to feel it already.
When the rain started, we all forgot our aches and sped up. If we didn’t finish soon, we wouldn’t be able to get back to camp. The dirt roads of the Altiplano become too dangerous to travel on after too much rain – slippery mud, steep hills and ruts created by previous run-offs could defeat even the biggest four-wheel drive trucks.
The weather, though, proved more challenging than the foundation.
As each group finished up for the day, it began to pour, and the caravan hurried back to camp. A couple hours of rain, and downtown Tijuana was flooded. People walking on the streets laughed as they were hit by waves caused by cars zooming through massive puddles.
The view from a warm car was entertaining and interesting – how could a city flood after only two hours of rain? – but camp was another story.
Approximately 1,000 people were staying at the same camp, all there to build houses with an organization called Amor Ministries, and during the rain storm, a good percentage of the meticulously set-up tents had been washed out. Only one tent at our camp fell, but most of the tents were leaking and sleeping bags had been soaked.
A couple of people pulled out shovels and started digging a series of trenches to pull the water away from the tents. Soon more people joined, and though there were no civil engineers in the group, the trenches served their intended purpose.
That night the students ate in shifts – hiding under the kitchen tent with plates of barbecued chicken, rice and salad.
Later, most looked back on that first day as the day they wanted to go home.
“We were out making cement for the foundation of the house and then we got back to camp and we weren’t done working,” 16-year-old Leanna Morgan, a former Truckee resident, recalled later that week.
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Olympic House was empty but for some maintenance workers and all those ghosts.