We Built These Clinics with Our Own Hands

— 'The Crisis is deeper now than ever," says Father Jose Luis Mendez, referring to what Mexicans have come to call "La Crisis," the economic misfortune that has swept the country since the 1994 peso devaluation. While every segment of Mexican society has suffered during the crisis, the hardest hit have been the poor.

In 1994 Father Mendez founded Tijuana's St. Vincent de Paul Society, which is organized into groups of poor people. "These are the Conferences of St. Vincent de Paul," explains Father Mendez. "Each is a group of about 15 poor people. They live in the colonias. They are poor, but they know people even more poor. That is how we reach the poorest of the poor."

Residents of these poor colonias go through the St. Vincent de Paul Conference in their neighborhood to receive help. People who belong to their neighborhood conference scout their communities in search of other families in need, then offer assistance from the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Each month, based on orders from the colonias, the society distributes tons of food. In March 1997, the society provided 3,889 families in 54 colonias with what Father Mendez calls "the Big Basket."

"The Big Basket" is distributed once a month. It contains three pounds of chicken quarters, a pound of hot dogs, a liter of cooking oil, two pounds of dried pinto beans, two pounds of rice, tomato sauce, four pounds of potatoes, two pounds of onions, two cans of tuna, two pounds of sugar, a package of pasta, and two pounds of flour. The society distributes a calendar showing the day each month a request for food must be made and the day on which the food will be delivered to the neighborhood. The calendar carries a reminder: "If you don't make your request on the day indicated, it cannot be delivered."

Another food package is also available "all year long, whatever day of the week and whatever hour of the day" for emergencies, says Father Mendez. This emergency packet contains four pounds of dried beans, two pounds of rice, two packages of pasta, one liter of cooking oil, two pounds of flour, and two pounds of sugar.

"Nothing is given away," says Father Mendez. The standard fee for a "Big Basket" is about eight U.S. dollars. The smaller food packets cost half as much. The society buys the food wholesale, then retails it at a price "much, much cheaper" than the same amount of food would cost at any grocery store. Father Mendez says that is one of the ways the St. Vincent de Paul Society finances its work. "Profit" on each basket is about 50 cents, he says, though often families are unable to come up with the full amount. "They must always pay something, even if it is just one peso [about 12 1/2 cents]. We call it a 'cooperation fee.' "

Father Mendez says the "cooperation fee" serves several purposes. It provides dignity to those who are receiving charity. And, he says, even the poor can be wasteful if you give things to them, no strings attached. "It keeps them from throwing things away," says Father Mendez. "Once, when we gave bread away, some people would just throw it away if they did not like the type of bread. Once we implemented the 'cooperation fee,' very little bread was thrown away."

That philosophy of charity extends to other decisions of the society. Father Mendez says the Tijuana Saint Vincent de Paul Society operates no soup kitchens. "Soup kitchens bring in mostly delinquents," he explains. "They encourage delinquency. It is better to go directly to the families, directly to the very, very poor."

Likewise, says Father Mendez, despite a serious aids problem in the city, the Saint Vincent de Paul Society refuses to work with any of Tijuana's aids organizations. "All of the aids projects of Tijuana are bad because they all favor homosexuality," he explains. "It is a very bad situation. We would like to help, but we don't have the money. But the aids programs now in Tijuana, they are not good."

Father Mendez calls in one of the society's workers. She carries with her some paperwork and a small color photo of a family of eight children, ranging in age from 1 to 14. "Each of these children has aids," she says. "All of them got aids from their mother, who died a year and a half ago from the same disease. When she died, not one child was registered- there were no birth certificates."

A government agency was able to track down a half-brother to one of the children. He and his wife, both in their 20s, agreed to take in the entire family and care for them. "Now the children are registered," says the caseworker. "Now all of the children are baptized. This young man is a hard worker, and his wife is a lovely woman for agreeing to take on this responsibility, especially since they have their own newborn." Outside the parish offices at Our Lady of Guadalupe/Zona Rio, where Father Mendez is pastor, another woman waits for him. She has been temporarily caring for a four-year-old boy who had been abused by his parents. The child's mother, after getting into an argument with her husband, took out her anger on the youngster. She burned him three times on the back and once on his stomach with a hot iron. "Now they say they don't want him anymore," the woman explains to Father Mendez. "They just want to abandon him." Father Mendez tells her they need to begin looking for a family to adopt the child. "I am single," she says. "I cannot adopt him." Father Mendez tells her not to worry, to continue caring for the child for the time being. He asks her if there is any help she needs immediately. "No, Father, not right now," she says.

In addition to meeting physical needs, the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Tijuana cultivates the spiritual side of its members. Each conference in each colonia is provided with a spiritual manual, says Father Mendez. Among the requirements are weekly spiritual exercises and a once-a-week community visitation to families that need spiritual help.

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