A few weeks ago I went on a service trip down to Tijuana, Mexico with a group from University Ministry here at USD. It was the first time I had been to Mexico and was the first time I had been in an area that was so deep in poverty. Coming away from the day-long trip, I knew I wanted to put together some sort of reflection about what I had seen and experienced but I never felt inspired to write something. It wasn’t until the other day when I was going out with some friends and I thought back to the weekend I had gone to Tijuana.
To start out I want to talk a little about what the activities of the day actually consisted of.
First thing in the morning, at an early 7:30 AM our group gathered up and set out for the border. The few weeks before, building up to this moment, I was pretty nervous and unsure about what it would be like once I got across the border into Mexico. With going to school in San Diego I have heard quite a few rumors and “stories” about Mexico and what it is like. I had the usual perception that everything would be completely different from what we have here in America.
Once we had crossed the border to get into Mexico (which was much faster and less formal than I had expected), we made our way to the area of La Morita, one of the poorest, most impoverished, and fastest growing regions of Tijuana. From there we worked with the San Eugenio Mission, a small community of priests living within the community, with whatever physical labor was needed. This was the point where I was hit with culture shock the most. We walked through the community to get to the Mission and meet the priests and I was torn by the sight of homes that were just thrown together by metal plates, garage doors, and whatever people could find to keep rain, wind and bugs out. I remember at one point while we were still in the van driving through the community noticing that there were no street signs. I asked our group leader how he knew when and where to turn, because I could have sworn we were just driving in circles at one point. But he said that he simply knew based on memory and familiarity of the area. Such simple things like this caught me by surprise all day. Street signs/names are such a base form of structure and organization for just about everywhere here in America. They are what help us get from point A to point B. They are what we use to not get lost in an unfamiliar area. They are what we use so that people know where we live, so people know where to send mail, and so people know where we will be if we need to be contacted in an emergency. There was no such structure or organization like that in La Morita.
For the physical labor project that the mission split us up into 3 groups so that we could get as much done as possible
in the short time that we had. My small group was sent to one of the small chapels in the area to help dig a ditch to build up a wall of tires. It sounds like a pretty easy task, and when presented with it I didn’t see much difficulty in it either. But once we got started working in the blistering 85 degree sun, dry dirt, and gusting wind I had a much different opinion on the work I was doing. We were using pick-axes and shovels to dig a ditch, and I found myself constantly complaining about dust in my eyes from the dirt that was being thrown up by the wind. It was a bit pathetic and it makes me have a lot of respect for the people who are doing this everyday for 3 times as long as we were working each day.
Following our physical labor portion of the day and after a short lunch break we made a 2 mile walk through La Morita to Casa de las Memorias (House of Memories), a HIV/AIDS house on the outskirts of the city. Casa de las Memorias is a residential facility where people with HIV/AIDS and related diseases are welcomed to live. The people who live here are rejected by the community, hence them living on the outskirts of the city. There we simply spend time with the residents there and heard a few stories of their lives and experiences that lead them to be living in Casa de las Memorias. One women in particular that we met was named Jesse. She was in the critical care part of the home and couldn’t leave her bed. Her story was very touching and we were blessed with her honesty and humility in sharing her story. Jesse, with AIDS, was a drug addict who was so addicted to drugs that she needs to be slowly taken off of them, meaning she still needs to take the drugs but at a slowing rate so that she can get to the point where her body can survive without them. Through all her struggles with drug addiction she has always been faithfully seeking God and she praised Him so much for getting her the care she needs to get healthy. She asked us to pray with her and we were on our way forever changed by Jesse’s story.
While at Casa de las Memorias we also got the opportunity to play soccer with some of the men that were residents there. This was a really special time for me because, one, soccer has been a really big part of my life growing up, but most importantly because it broke through a lot of realities for me. The game was all the same as it has been for me when I play with my friends. The only big difference between playing with the men of Casa de las Memorias and playing with my friends is the language that we were communicating in. For me, not knowing and Spanish, it was difficult to speak with them, so most of us playing resorted to simple gestures, high-fives, smiles, and hugs. The experience really helped open my eyes to the fact that although these people live in poverty and a different culture than I do, we are all humans, and as humans we are all the same.
Our next stop was on the western side of Tijuana right on the border, looking at the border fence and the US from the Mexican side. This was the first time I had ever seen the border fence. I had never even seen it from the US side. Along the fence were crosses with the names of those who had died in their attempts to cross the border. The name(s) that stood out to me in this case were Fr. Raya Zamora, as well as the many crosses that had deteriorated so much that no name was legible on the cross any more but were still left up to honor the person whom it originally was put up for. It brought me great joy to see that those people weren’t simply lost when their cross withered away.
Our next stop brought us even further West all the way to the ocean where the border fence extends out into the Pacific Ocean. From here you could look directly through the fence and see the skyline of downtown San Diego in the backdrop. To add-on to this we could see a family maybe a mile past the border fence on the US side playing on the beach with such freedom. At this point we were in a much wealthier part of Tijuana so there was more people on the beach enjoying themselves but I could definitely feel a difference between the US side and the Mexican side of the border. This was our time of reflection and the thing that kept coming to mind for me during this time was how
something as simple as land can be restricted for people. I could help but put myself in the shoes of the people in Tijuana that so badly wanted to get out and move to the US but because of financial and legal reasons couldn’t. Their desires are so close, just mere miles away yet there are not allowed to go there. It amazes me because this past summer I when i got my passport it was so simple. I went into an office, paid the fee to get it, and received it in the mail in a couple of weeks. I personally don’t know the process that someone from Mexico needs to go through to get a passport or the correct legal documents to cross the border, but it simply amazes me the how many restrictions there are. I understand why the US does have these restrictions and why they must be enforced, but I feel there should be a different, more effective, more understanding way to go about it. But I had no real idea of what could be done in this case to improve the system.
I don’t know what I personally can do. I know that I do want to do something productive towards this issue, but at this stage in my life I don’t have the answer to that. But this is just something that I can continually grow on and find my role and most importantly my calling.
To bring it back to my original statement, “It wasn’t until the other day when I was going out with some friends and I thought back to the weekend I had gone to Tijuana.” The thing that motivated me and drove me to write this was that I was going to a mall and needed to know what food they had there. I thought well I can just look online and see. Upon going online I also found that there was an app for the entire mall, to see everything that was there; all the stores, restaurants, entertainment, etc. It all just reminded me of the abundance of luxury that we (or at least I) find ourselves living in. My school, USD, is a mere 25 miles from Tijuana. That is not very far at all. But having seen the two places and the conditions that we both live in sometimes it is sad to see that they are opposite sides of the spectrum. The people of La Morita in Tijuana fight each day to make sure their families have food to eat while in San Diego I find myself and friends sometimes struggling to decide what movie to watch, which video game to play, what luxury to buy, etc. It is a sad true that I find myself fighting to avoid as much as I can and to think back to the people of La Morita and Casa de Las Memorias.
I will continue to pray for the people of La Morita and Casa de las Memorias and hope to go back and visit on another day trip soon.