In the midst of Mexico’s 6 years long drug war and 60,000 dead, I heard that a group of Californians associated with Christian Life Community were heading to Tijuana, Mexico on a humanitarian mission to help the poor residents of that border town. Intrigued as to the conditions of my southern neighbors and the reasons that inspired these young Catholics to venture into a drug-war environment, I signed up with the mission for a first-hand experience.

Father Trí Đinh was the spiritual and secular leader of 23 multiethnic Catholic volunteers on this mission into Tijuana to build houses for the poor. He has developed local contact through “Build A Miracle” which is a non-profit organization that builds homes and provide educational opportunity for needy families in Tijuana, Mexico. Father Trí Đinh organized this humanitarian mission four times a year.

We made our way through La Revolucion, tourist center of Tijuana. We left the modernized downtown area of Tijuana to make our way to the outskirt of town and to the barrios on the hill. We exited the highway and our guide took us down uneven dirt roads. It was like driving in the country except for the fact that houses occupied both sides of the 20-foot wide road. Our caravan of one truck and two passenger vans came to a halt in front of brick wall covered in graffiti. As we disembarked the 12-passenger rental van, our guide gathered us up in a circle. He explained there is an eight year old girl who has cancer and that she is currently going through treatment. Her family lives in this poor working class barrios where there are no paved roads and strayed dogs roam the neighborhoods. As we walked around the corner from where our rental vans were parked, I noticed that all the houses appeared more like shacks. They were all one-story dwelling units with worn out sheets of plywood for fences which would tumble down should a moderate earthquake strike or a strong surge of wind blow through. The wood roofs were covered in a faded grey canvas to protect it from the elements. Most of the houses in the neighborhood did not have paint covering the outside wall, except for the house that our beneficiary resides in, yet the lime green paint was peeling off as if it was painted over a decade ago. There were holes in the front wall signifying the decaying stage that the plywood was going through. The siding on the side walls were falling off, so the house was drafty and cold. On the road right in front of the houses, I saw three little girls playing with a ball because the houses were cramped and there were no back or front yards.

In front of the house of the 8-year-old cancer patient was a three-foot pile of sand and gravel which had been transported there prior to our arrival. Our 24-person group was divided into two teams. The first team, which consisted of all female, painted one of the rooms in the house. The rooms were 12-by-15 feet, so they were constantly bumping into each other. Pretty soon, the volunteers had speck of paints on their hats, faces, hands, and clothing. The rest of us male and female were tasked with mixing sand, gravel, and cement to make concrete to lay the floor foundation. The mixing consisted of three shovels of sands, three shovels of gravels, two shovels of cement mix and a little water. It was a laborious task, but the volunteers/missionaries carried on their task diligently without expressing their weariness. The only voices that one could hear were the call for more sand, gravel, cement, water, and “coming through”. After a number of hours of mixing cement, everyone’s trousers were covered in dirt and cement. The exhaustion was evident on everyone’s face; however, their spirits were high because they know that the little 8-year-old cancer patient now has a cleaner living space as she battles for her life. After all the manual labor work was done, Father Trí gathered us up in front of the house to pray for the family and the little girl.

Before this trip, I knew the living conditions in Tijuana were lower than those in the US; however, I didn’t realize how poor the conditions were, especially for a city that lies on the border with the US. I never expected to see houses that looked more like shacks. Moreover, I did not expect to see that the inside of the houses was dirt floor as opposed to tile, wood, or carpet as we have them over here. However, after being involved with this humanitarian mission, I am confident that the living standards of the poor will rise because of the empathy and generosity of others, especially those that are involved with the Casa Building humanitarian mission.

Nguyễn Hùng Kiệt/Việt Tide

Published on March 23rd, 2013 in the weekly Viet Tide Magazine (