A Volunteer's Mexican Diary

One week building homes for the poor

My first night in Matamoros, Mexico, was a long one. Sleep wasn't an option, thanks to the incessant barking of three pit bulls guarding the taco stand across the street. Leaving the lights on to fend off the fearless cucarachas didn't help, either. I looked forward to morning when I could stop obsessing about the size and multitude of Mexican bugs and meet the people who had chosen to spend their vacations in one of Mexico's least scenic and least prosperous areas. I was there as a reporter for less than a week; a short time which had a surprisingly deep impact. Still, I wondered how many people had paid almost $700 plus airfare--not to mention the hours of sweat equity--for a week in a $13 roach-infested motel room.

As it turns out, quite a few, and for good reason. While I had witnessed poverty before--here in the U.S. and in places such as Brazil and Bosnia--it was always from a distance. But my up-close visit to a work camp organized by Global Village, Habitat for Humanity International's mission department (800 HABITAT) was one of the most rewarding--and thought-provoking--vacations ever.

Any trip billed as a work camp is not for delicate travelers. With work gloves, water-purification tablets, and toilet paper high on the list of must-bring items, I knew that this was not going to be a relaxing getaway. But that's exactly the point. No matter if they appeal to yuppie guilt or just plain altruism, volunteer vacations give participants a chance to travel and work side-by-side with people from other cultures--not the typical fare of most prepackaged tours.

An ecumenical, Christian housing organization dedicated to eliminating poverty and homelessness, Habitat operates in more than 50 countries, with 1,300 work sites in the U.S. alone. The purpose of the project I joined--a joint venture between General Motors and Habitat for Humanity--was to start construction on the first of a series of homes to be built in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Matamoros, known as Colonia Mexico. GM, which has three plants in the Matamoros area, donated the cost of the first 50 homes, about $5,000 each.

COMMUNAL LIVING. Habitat, in conjunction with local community leaders, handled everything else, including selecting which families would receive housing. The qualification process takes into account an applicant's income, the condition of his or her current home and the number of people living in it. Only 6 of the 38 approved families were employed by GM. Those selected must repay Habitat for the cost of the house within 8 to 10 years, interest-free. That money in turn goes into a fund to build neighboring homes.

One of the underlying goals is cooperation. So communal living was part of the deal. Bunking with strangers--if only for a few days--may be a drawback to some, but nothing encourages bonding like a surplus of cockroaches and a shortage of basic amenities. My roommates were Barbara Ocker, 37, a New Jersey social worker, and Judy Weitzer, 34, an employee of the Milwaukee transportation department. Both had worked on Habitat projects in the U.S. Almost immediately, we were joking around like old friends.

Leading our group were Felix Lozano, 26, the Habitat volunteer coordinator for Mexico, and Paul Burger, 44, a counselor with a homeless ministry in Wichita. Burger was well-versed in housing projects like this one after completing a three-year stint with Habitat in Nogales, Mexico. Gary Sestito, a 43-year-old Dallas fire inspector, had worked with Habitat in Guatemala and Texas. Curt Roberts, a 32-year-old engineer with Corning and his 27-year-old wife, Cathy, an international sales manager at Transonic Systems, left Ithaca, N.Y., for their second Habitat vacation in Mexico. Besides myself, the only other first-time volunteer was 64-year-old retiree John Pendergrass from Birmingham, Ala.

Camp Matamoros, Day 1: We crammed into a van and arrived at the work site via a dirt road littered with trash, the odd chicken or goat, and what appeared to be an army of the meanest, mangiest dogs I'd ever seen. I learned later that the dogs were strictly for security, since none of the homes had doors, much less locks.

Any jokes I may have made about our temporary accommodations were silenced when I saw the permanent living conditions of the people with whom we would work. A fortunate few could call one-room wooden shacks home. But the majority resided in windowless cardboard shanties, with old clothing and newspaper filling gaping holes in the walls and roofs.

A crowd of neighbors had arrived to help build the house, which will have indoor plumbing and two bedrooms--a significant improvement over the existing structure with a water pump out front and a rotting outhouse in the back. Especially impressive was the fact that many of the local volunteers pitched in even though they did not qualify for new housing themselves.

The workday began with a groundbreaking ceremony. We met the future occupants, Alejandra Villegas Rodriguez, 39, and her three sons aged 13, 8, and 7. Rodriguez, who currently lives with her sons in a one-room shack, assembles radio parts at Deltronicos de Matamoros, a GM subsidiary. Most of us wondered whether our temporary help might be resented, but Barbara summed it up best: "I ask people for help everyday and I don't know where I'd be without it."

Although few of us spoke Spanish, language wasn't a barrier because everyone was welcoming. There were no patronizing debates over Mexico's drug problem or the plight of the country's poor. Instead with Felix's translation, we chatted about the importance of national volunteerism in Mexico, where education is free, conditions at the local factories, and what the children study in school. Thanks to the few Spanish phrases I learned growing up watching Sesame Street and an inability to roll my r's, I kept the two younger brothers, Luis and Alberto, giggling.

Our first task was to lay the foundation. Living in Manhattan, I had little experience digging a garden, much less the foundation of a home, but I quickly learned sweat--not skill--was the prime requirement. Tools were a precious commodity. We took turns using a pickax, two shovels, and a sledgehammer. Forget the gym, there's nothing like swinging a sledge to relieve stress.

The work was hard and the progress gradual. Using tools, rotting slats of wood, and our bare hands, we dug down about three to four feet. Working in close proximity with novice builders wielding sharp objects, it was amazing the only injury was the occasional, painful bite of fire ants. By the time the week was over, only part of the home would be complete; local residents would finish the rest.

Shoveling and pickaxing our way through sewage from the nearby outhouse, we resorted to humor amid the stench. The running joke was that this was better--and cheaper--than any spa vacation. Barbara, the most creative among us, proposed bottling the clay-like soil and selling it to tony American resorts as the "Matamoros mud mask."

But the highlight of the trip was the time spent with the people who lived there. Viewing poverty through a tour bus window is one thing, but meeting the people who actually live there is entirely different. We were invited into the homes of local volunteers for midday meals. While preparing tortillas in her kitchen, Blanca Sandoval, 43, a 12 year-resident of the area, said she was one of the few people who had bought her three-room home pre-made. More recent residents weren't as fortunate, she said, since wages in many of the local factories had been steadily declining. Most of the neighborhood's 5,000 residents work at nearby plants, where the average wage ranges from 160 to 300 pesos, or $21 to $48, per week.

At day's end, we were back to the motel, which now seemed luxurious in comparison, to shower and regroup for a communal dinner always preceded by a brief prayer. Following dinner, we'd gather to recap the day's events. Approximately $350 of the total $685 cost (plus transportation) covers room, meals, and mandatory travelers insurance. The remaining $335 goes directly to the Habitat affiliate office in the country where you work to fund the building of other houses in the region.

I saw a part of Mexico that few tour-package visitors ever encounter, met interesting people, and learned Homebuilding 101 in the process. However, I left with mixed feelings: Doing good doesn't always feel good, especially when so much needs to be done. But the alternative is to do nothing. Looking back at my time in Matamoros, I promised myself that I would never complain again about living in my Manhattan studio apartment and that this would be the first of many volunteer vacations.

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