Seeing similiarities: Truckee teens, Mexico locals bond during home construction project
(Editor’s note: This is the third 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.)
The houses were really taking shape by the third day.
We had been traveling an hour each day to a Tijuana, Mexico neighborhood called the Altiplano, and its makeshift homes, stray dogs and children were becoming familiar.
The roof had to go up that day. Wire and tarpaper had to be wrapped around the frame and, our final task, we had to stretch chicken wire around every inch of the house. That would keep the stucco from sliding off the side of the walls.
It was a strange concept, putting up stucco with no insulation, just tar paper and wire and a mixture of cement and mud would hold up the houses.
The families already seemed excited.
When we arrived Wednesday morning for our third day of work at the lower site, Cinthia, the 9-year-old girl whose house we were building, was sweeping out the dirt that had collected that night. The house was only a foundation and a frame, but she was already taking care of it.
All the neighborhood children within a half-mile radius had passes through our work sites to check things out by Wednesday. Some of them made fun of us, but most wanted to talk to us and play.
“The first day they were so shy and now they’re helping us,” said 17-year-old Lauren Nauman.
Everyone seemed to take turns playing games with the kids, games that, we soon found out, were familiar despite national boundaries.
“They’re so similar,” said Amie Engerbertson, 15. “They play duck, duck, goose. I play duck, duck, goose.”
Or, in Spanish, “pato, pato, ganso.” And instead of chasing the “ganso,” you run in the opposite direction to try to get to the empty space first. It was confusing, but we adapted.
“We played hide and seek with one and chased one for a glove,” 15-year-old Stephanie Wilson said, laughing.
Comments about the differences between home – all the students were from Truckee or had lived in Truckee – and Tijuana were slowly replaced with comments about their similarities.
But no one, no matter how much time we spent in the Altiplano, could ignore the surrounding poverty.
J.C. Martinez, our translator for much of the trip, said he saw a video about the way people in Tijuana lived and he wanted to help out. He said it was a shock to see so many people living in such poverty, but saw another side once he started to get to know the families the houses were being built for.
It was sad but it also looked like they were happy because at least they had some place to stay,” Martinez said. “To think that we have a big nice bed to go to, and we have money to do things and cars to go places.”
A couple of miles from our work site, on the road between camp and the Altiplano, is a huge Hyundai plant. Hundreds of new big-rig trucks sat in a yard next to the plant.
And on our way back from work each day, we would see hundreds of people piling into company vans to get home.
How much money were all those people making? Seventy-five dollars a week like the families we were building houses for? Just enough to buy a small plot of land from the government, but not enough to build a tiny house to shelter their few belongings and themselves?
Or maybe the Hyundai plant, and the Coca-Cola plant across the street, was paying enough to pull people out of poverty. Based on reports of worker strikes and labor unions at that exact plant in the late 1990s, wages ranged between $30 and $60 a week.
The fact sheets given to our group by Amor Ministries, the organization that brings students south of the border to build houses, said that both of our families had moved to Tijuana a few years ago to find work.
It’s been speculated that the U.S.-Mexican border is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. A pre-9/11 story in Business Week said that the border economy is bigger than Poland’s and almost the size of Thailand’s.
“From deep in Mexico’s heartland, hundreds of thousands of job-seekers stream northward toward the border every year to live in tarpaper and cinderblock slums near factory gates,” the 1997 article states.
Were we building a slum? Perhaps.
The teenagers’ decision to go to build these houses was not political, and we were often reminded of why we were in Mexico.
“There’s a value in giving,” said Mike Sampson, pastor of Tahoe Forest Church, the sponsor of the trip. “It doesn’t matter what the givers gave.”
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Olympic House was empty but for some maintenance workers and all those ghosts.