2016-06-30
New York City I pulled my collar close to my neck as a blast of February wind came rolling down 114th street. I was returning from dinner at the dining hall, struggling to get to the safety of my dorm on Amsterdam Avenue. As I passed through the south gates of Columbia University the flapping of a yellow flier caught my eye, "No plans for spring break? Come to Tijuana, Cheap!," read the piece of paper. The thought of Mexico only made my present situation all the more uncomfortable and I stepped out into the street. The promise of the flier stuck with me and brought back memories of my trip to the Dominican Republic. The summer before my senior year of high school I traveled with a group of classmates to the middle of the island nation to rebuild a small chapel and some other buildings that had been destroyed by a hurricane. We worked in a remote mountain village called los Negros and lived in the houses of the resident families. For a month we labored, shoveling sand, pouring concrete, hammering nails, and pick axing the side of a hill for rocks to fill the bottomless foundation of the chapel. Our backs were sore, and the work was done through the biting pain of countless blisters on both our feet and hands. As I sat there in my dorm room, the fond and painful memories came rushing back as I recalled the hardest and most fulfilling month of my life. Tijuana: Day 1 And so I followed up on the offer of work in Tijuana and am now writing to you from the office of Esperanza International, a service organization dedicated to helping the poor of Tijuana obtain housing. The familiar ache of my back and the blisters on my palms serve to remind me once again why I am here.
There are two fellow Columbia classmates on this trip along with five students from Barnard College, Columbia's sister school. Today we began working on the foundation for a house in east Tijuana. We'll be working at the same site for the next few days. Our chaperone -- and the man responsible for that pesky flier, Paul Raushenbush, has managed to keep everything running smoothly and in one piece. Except for the van, but that's another story. The director on this side of the border, Eduardo, told me this morning that he intially couldn't believe that groups of Americans would want to come to Tijuana and pay Esperanza money to labor for weeks building houses for people they didn't even know. But that's the whole point ... once you get into it, it really isn't even work. For me, there's no better way to finally apply the tangled thoughts and theories I've studied so diligently in school. All too often the things learned in the college classroom remain in in the classroom. Working in the sun with a pick-ax in hand, giving of myself for others is the best way to help and connect with people who may never have had the slightest interest in things so academic. This trip will help me focus once again on the realities of this world, while fulfilling the moral obligation of one who has benefited so much from it. Tijuana: Day 2 We have just finished our second day here in Tijuana and the foundation of the house is almost complete. Whereas the first day was spent shoveling
clay and pick-axing through hard soil, today we completed some tangible work on the actual structure of the building. Although I doubt we will be here to see the full structure come into being, we will have some genuine satisfaction by seeing the rest of the foundation and masonry completed. Traveling on the dusty roads in pickup trucks, several people commented on how familiar the scenes were to them. Thousands of tiny houses dot the hillsides, their dull tarnished zinc roofs and plaster walls blend into the greens and browns of the surrounding land. Dogs roam the streets and people can be seen wandering everywhere. My companions compared the scenes with Karachi, Taiwan and parts of rural China. I'm reminded of the streets of Santiago, Chile or the hills of the Dominican Republic. The scenes of Tijuana really are no different than those of any area dominated by poverty -- people struggling to keep lift themselves from poverty, striving to find a better life. Similar tableaus can be found most anywhere in America, which is at the forefront of everyone's mind. On the Road to Rosarito A few weeks ago my friend and I were on the roof of a building at Columbia. It was about 1 a.m. and the lights of the city surrounded us. Looking east, we could see the blue lights that outlined the dips and rises of the Triborough Bridge. To the north, we were dazzled by the illumination coming from every apartment and streetlight in Harlem and Queens. My friend pointed out into the night, sweeping his finger across the skyline, "For every light, there is a person," he said, "and for every person there is a reality that acts and functions in its own way. No one could ever know it all, no one could ever know the reality within each room, within each person's mind."
This scene came back to me while riding in the back of a pickup truck on the highway to Rosarito. I glanced for an instant to my right as a woman hung a sheet out to dry, folding the patterned cloth over a line stretched between two tiny wooden houses. Behind her I could see the ocean through the hazy brown cloud of pollution that hovers over San Diego. Did she ever think about how close she is to the sea? Was she saddened by the brown sickness that covered it? The vision passed as the truck sped on and the road behind was lost in the dust kicked up by the tires. No one could ever know the story behind each of these shacks, no one could ever touch every person that lives in them. I would never know the mind of that woman. I would never be able to establish any personal connection to her. I can only assume that she, like the majority of the people who live on these hills, endures a punishing schedule each day in order to provide food for the next.

Tijuana is one of the fastest growing cities in Mexico. According to the director of Esperanza, it was estimated in the mid-nineties that 15,000 new people relocated to Tijuana every month. The number has surely grown since then. That figure makes me question how the work that our group did would ever affect such an enormous problem, a problem that grows larger with every new arrival.

Tijuana: Day 4 Tonight we had dinner with a director of Esperanza who coordinates the efforts in Tijuana with the center of operations in San Diego. During the course of conversation, the director went so far as to say that the work we were doing, the house we were building, meant nothing. With respect to the picture at large, our efforts really amounted to very little, and the change we were effecting was negligible at best. His intent was not to trivialize our work but rather to help us understand the enormity of the problem.
I reacted to his statement with annoyance. Were not the connections we made and the work we accomplished for this family the very things that mattered most? Admittedly, the physical labor we had done resulted in little more than a humble foundation and the beginnings of some walls. But the impact we had made and felt was something much greater. These thoughts ran through my mind, and I felt a desire to speak out and tell him that what we were doing mattered. But he continued, telling us of the massive number of connections Esperanza possessed, and how each facet of its mission tied into several parts of other organizations, which in turn were connected to other organizations, all seeking to better the lives of the people of Tijuana. I understood then that the work we were doing was an insignificant part of the whole, yet possessed the very quality that was at the soul of Ezperanza and the organizations tied to it. Through those connections, our work is linked to the work of every other person who sought to help another. I could indeed reach the woman I had caught a glimpse of earlier thanks to this network. Only then was I able to reconcile the director's statement with my own hope that I was making a difference. New York City

Back in my dorm room at Columbia, I'm amazed at the experience that has just passed like a dream. On the plane ride home, I read Dorothy Day's autobiography, "The Long Loneliness," and was very much affected by her devotion to humanitarian efforts. The book provided the perfect punctuation to such an amazing trip. It is both reassuring and exciting to know that there are so many people who are changing the world for the better. Service work has played an important role in my life, and I expect it will continue to do so. I plan always to keep my eyes wide open and never cease questioning the way I see things working around me.

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