Tijuana dump now two warring colonias: Panamericano and Trincherazo

A friendship survives time and the southern abyss

Kids are brought to the room, 15 at a time, and they turn over their tickets as they file in. They are free to choose whatever catches their fancy.
  • Kids are brought to the room, 15 at a time, and they turn over their tickets as they file in. They are free to choose whatever catches their fancy.

In Tijuana anything can happen. And if you’re there long enough, anything will happen. Whole neighborhoods appear and disappear seemingly overnight, and people die of exposure in sight of San Diego’s city lights. Santa Claus can bring Christmas in a big black van, and a young man from a street gang, who started his day with nothing but a can of paint thinner to sniff, can later be seen carrying a surfboard, singing a hymn, and wearing new clothes, as, if he were a part of his own hallucination.

14 people have died of the cold in Tijuana. Eight babies died of exposure on Christmas Eve alone.

14 people have died of the cold in Tijuana. Eight babies died of exposure on Christmas Eve alone.

Tijuana’s characteristic buzz can be traced directly to a mixture of dread and expectation. There’s always something coming. When I was a boy, a castle appeared in my grandmother’s neighborhood, La Independencia. Local gossip suggested that a mad general had retreated to our hill in disgrace, there to reside in his tragic castle (painted bright lemon yellow) to brood on his fate. And down the slope from this mysterious tower, a bear once appeared in somebody’s back yard, chained to a tree stump. We’d sit above him on Rampa Independencia and watch him shake his head, his chain rattling musically. In those same days, my cousin and I discovered a wide stone staircase that led ... nowhere. It was tucked into one of the city’s little arroyos. We walked up and down it a couple of times. I’ve never seen it again.

Smiling, Oz is slowly sinking in a pool of yammering children.

Smiling, Oz is slowly sinking in a pool of yammering children.

It was only after I grew up that Tijuana stopped being a land of lights, a land of friendly tortilla ladies and bears. But sometimes, in spite of itself, Tijuana still generates magic. Christmas on the Mexican front this year was full of strange and wonderful events.

Cynthia Jeffery, in the promotion department of radio station 91X, had been reading about the poor people in Tijuana. Somehow, she and Oz, one of the disk jockeys, convinced the station to provide Christmas for these people. The plan was to broadcast from 91X’s parking lot for a day and solicit donations from their listeners. Cynthia called to ask for assistance; could I put them in touch with missionaries in the area, and could I select a likely neighborhood they could visit?

Author and Negra. "Negra’s mother asks me again to take them out of there."

Author and Negra. "Negra’s mother asks me again to take them out of there."

I had worked in Tijuana with Pastor Von of Spectrum Ministries; that part was no problem. But I had just moved back to San Diego after a long absence, so the question of neighborhoods was a little more complicated. I first thought of the colonia that had established itself in Tijuana’s garbage dump. The basureros (trash pickers) never got any kind of Christmas. But I should have remembered this was Tijuana. The dump was gone.

The landowner envisioned making a new fortune by clearing out the garbage and building maquiladoras on the site. Clearly, he could make more money with assembly plants than by renting the space to the city and buying recycled glass, tin, wire, and aluminum from the basureros, even though he resold the junk at a high profit. But the basureros didn’t want to go and, in defiance of him, formed a neighborhood collective that parceled out the land in lots.

The old dump site was now two warring colonias: Panamericano and Trincherazo, filled with tar paper and plywood huts. Rough streets were laid out between the shacks, and each home had a fence, many still fashioned from the coils and springs of burned mattresses. From what I’d been told, it looked for all the world like a little neighborhood.

Though a touch more civilized, life was still not easy on that hill. There was no running water, and electric power had only recently been provided by the city. Power was still largely generated from stolen or scavenged car batteries. The only heat came from dangerous fires inside the houses or more dangerous braziers of coals or even more dangerous kerosene burners. With the dump closed down, there was no ready work, and few of the families could afford transportation to the new dump, six or seven miles away. Many of the basureros who still went there to work got up at four and made small lunches of flour tortillas, then walked.

Some families had discovered that the hillsides in Trincherazo and Panamericano, formed by tractors piling mud and slag over mounds of garbage, could be mined for glass. Incredibly, small trash mines now dot the slopes, where families pry apart the hard gray-black soil to recover bottles. A 50-pound gunnysack of glass from the hill brings them roughly $1.50.

Although the old dump had changed drastically, and though my favorite resident, Negra, had been missing for five years, I still felt connected to the place. Negra was a skinny, dark child who ran barefoot through the trash. She taught me how to pick, how to handle the spiked staff they use to move the mounds and rake out goodies; we used to pull an old red wagon full of trash stacked taller than she was. As we made our way through the mounds, the men — who took cigarette breaks inside wrecked cars — would laugh at us and call out encouragement to me: I was learning a trade, in their opinion. Then one day, she and her family were simply gone. I still carried pictures of them with me, showing them around my various English and writing classes. For all I knew, Negra was dead. On the other hand, she could have simply moved to a neighboring barrio, and I’d never know where she was. She could have gone home to Michoacan; she could have crossed the wire; she could have died on Interstate 5 running across at San Ysidro or in Oceanside. There was absolutely no way to know.

The last time I saw her, Negra was a stringy 15-year-old. She was wearing one of the black rubber cholo bracelets that kids on the border were wearing in those days. She put it on my wrist and told me, “Now you’re mine forever.” “I won’t take it off,” I told her. I didn’t either. A couple of years later, the rubber rotted through and the bracelet fell off.

The next time I talk to Cynthia, we are on: the disk jockeys are already talking about the toy drive on the air. She and Oz would be coming with Spectrum to the colonia I’d select to give out the gifts. But I don’t want either radio people or the folks from the colonia to get in trouble. Anything is possible — from banditry to police raids. If we heap gifts on one group of people to the exclusion of another, there could be retaliations. (One fellow who lived near the new dump was rumored to be hoarding money in his shack. A gang of toughs, after failing to bust in on him, decided to set the shack on fire and burn him out. The fire, unfortunately, killed him.) In many Latin American countries, too much attention can get you killed. It is illustrative to note that in El Salvador, almost every Salvadoran professional wrestler wears a mask. The saddest thing about it is that the safety is entirely up to the momentary whim of those who have the power, which is usually a chopped-down carbine.

With one week to go before the broadcast, I hear about a new neighborhood even more controversial than the old dompe.

I decide to visit it to see if it was a potential site for the Christmas drive. The colonia has been created — apparently quite spontaneously — by paracaidistas (“parachutists,” the witty Mexican nickname for the flocks of squatters that descend on a region as if from the air, transforming it into a barrio before anyone can stop them). It is rumored to be under the control of a gangster who has the entire barrio involved in car thievery. Yet this colorful, so-called gangster takes an interest in the missionaries of the area, and he looks out for their well-being. Often his largesse has to be politely deflected; one drug-treatment program in the area graciously rejects his repeated offers of new cars.

The colonia, being controversial, indeed not officially in existence, lacks any services whatsoever.

Aside from the typical lack of water, there is no electricity.

There is no bus service. There are no telephones, no street lights, no doctor’s offices, stores, schools. And there certainly is no police presence. It’s the Wild West up there. The missionary from the treatment center tells me of his Saturday nights — he and the addicts in their plywood church and dorms, looking into the pitch-black canyons below them, watch the gunfire flash, listen to the yells and shouting. “Everything happens here on Saturday nights,” he says. “Anything you can imagine. Anything.”

Our vans rattle up the hill to the colonia, cut left into a small clear area at the crest. Rows of automobile husks line the rough dirt street. In some places, stripped and burned-out cars are layered on top of each other. Certain arroyos are clogged with car bodies, many of them on their roofs. I wonder how many of the Toyota truck bodies had been in San Diego a few weeks before. Beyond lay the deep black of the unsettled outskirts. There is a lighted basketball court and a small clubhouse built for the barrio kids by the missionaries. A gasoline generator makes a racket. The local criminal element is a street gang of barrio kids called Los Satanicos. They have gathered along the edge of the ball court, arrayed against the retaining wall that keeps the top of the hill from burying the youth center. They’ve been sniffing glue and paint.

Inside, Foosball tables, video games. Scruffy children in various shades of adobe-brown compete noisily. Pastor Von has given them six elaborate ray guns, and they use them to shoot at flashing electrical targets. In a comer, a terrified headbanger in

Metallica Tshirt squats on his haunches. His brown face is blotchy with panic, going an ugly ash gray. Various vatos and cholos gather around him. He had made the terminal mistake of punching the little brother of one of the Sat&nicos, and the gang cornered him in this building. At one point, they, had sent in an expedition that clubbed him over the head with a hunk of cement. Efren, a veterano of these streets and one of Von’s full-time employees, chased them out.

“This is a Christian place,” he had told them. “Fight outside, not in here.”

When spoken to, the headbanger does not respond. Once he gets over the shock of the head blow, he gets up and assumes an air of nonchalance, pushing some smaller boys out of the way at the Foosball table. His eyes dart to the door regularly; he is trapped and he knows it. Spies for the Satanicos filter outside to report on his condition.

Some of the recovering addicts from the treatment center watch the gang nervously. They have a strangely somber mien, quiet men with mournful eyes. “This is no good,” one of them tells me.

“This situation is very bad. They’re going to get him.”

The Satanicos were collecting along the wall of the ball court. One boy sits on the wall, and lying back between his legs, another bearded boy lounges. The top boy wraps his legs around the bottom boy’s abdomen and pulls him close. He rests his chin tenderly on his head, slips his hands across his chest and belly. One of them has brought a pit bull. Another has a small black canister of Mace in his pocket.

They murmur their plans, laughing. The only girls hide at the far end of the gang — two 13-or 14-year-olds, with hard-sprayed chola hairdos rising in black splashes off their heads. A Satanico in a dusty black trench coat pulls a six-inch switchblade from his pocket, flicks it open. They laugh. He cuts the air.

“How do you like it?” he says to his invisible victim. He stabs: “Are you still alive?” The Satanicos are excited. The ball players on the court ignore them. There is a drive to the basket, a hard shoulder block, a lay-up that clatters through the rim. The pit bull sits somberly, waiting.

“They’re going to cut him up,” the addict tells me. “They’re going to make machaca.”

Nobody can figure out how to get the Metallica boy out of the building. Perhaps, one of the missionaries suggests, we can divert the attention of the Satanicos for a minute, and they can drop the boy out the back window. Pastor Von says, “He’s trapped in the building, eh?” We nod. “Well,” he says, “at least he’ll be sure to stick around for the Bible study.”

Then four big old-timers, maybe 19 or 20 years old, swagger in from the alley. They "wear billed caps, long hair. Two of them have nut-brown scars on their faces, and their shoulders rock as they , walk. The Satanicos stow the knife immediately and shuffle nervously. The four veteranos scan the clubhouse. They gesture at the Metallica boy: come.

One of the addicts pulls me aside. “They’re his brothers,” he says.

“An escort!”

“Yes. The Satanicos are bad, but these ones are bad. They came here to kill, not fight."

The veteranos have formed a rough diamond around the headbanger, a flying wedge. He is cocky in their embrace, heavy-lidded and inscrutable. The Satanicos look at their feet. One busies himself innocently with the pit bull.

The veteranos stroll along the top of the wall where the Satanicos sit; they walk up the slope, all four of them staring steadily at the gang, offering them a silent challenge. Nobody takes it. Nobody even looks up. Eye contact will lead to disaster. The only sound on the hill is the squeaking tennis shoes of the ball players rushing the net, the laughter of the children inside. The lead veterano snorts in derision, and the group vanishes into the dark.

The Satanicos are suddenly revealed in the light to be boys and girls, confused and chastened. The one with the knife is a skinny little geek with big ears and sticks for legs. The girls fade away, perhaps avoiding the Satanicos’ wrath. The one boy who holds the other nuzzles his ear, clutches him tight from behind. The one with the Mace suddenly scuttles along the edge of the court, threatening to spray one of the players, but even this threat collapses. These children are not helpless; they have held up missionaries at gunpoint out in the street. But they have made a strange peace with the Christians, for the Christians have given them a place to come to on certain nights. Tonight, their ferocity has collapsed on them, just for an instant, and they seem lost, unable to get it back.

The pit bull, all soulful eyes, nuzzles my knee.

“He’s vicious,” one of the Satanicos warns me.

“A fighter,” I offer.

“Vicious. A killer.”

I bend down to the dog. He puts out his paw to shake hands.

I pull into the 91X parking lot at 7:45 a.m. It is Friday, December 21, a blustery day, with early-morning clouds sailing in from the sea. The radio station crew has been out there since six. Several puffy-eyed suits stand around gawking, blowing on polystyrene coffee cups. There is a tent set up dead-center, where bagels and coffee are being doled out. Cream cheese in white plastic buckets attracts one homeless guy, who is wearing several pairs of glasses at once. He has white cheese in small icicles hanging from his whiskers. He tries hard to look like a station employee.

“We’re broadcasting live from the parking lot,” DJ Bryan Jones says into the mike, “collecting toys for the needy and the homeless, and we’re freezing our butts off!” Later, he would start saying, “Donate to the homely and needless.”

By nine, there are two large piles of goods, and amazing things are happening. David Thomson, guitarist for the L.A. band Tokyo Burlesque, has driven down to help load toys into the vans of Baptist missionaries who wouldn’t be caught dead listening to Tokyo Burlesque. There is a steady flow of rock philanthropists dropping off trash bags full of clothes. Somebody brings a clear plastic Winnie-the-Pooh full of Cracker Jacks. “This is great,” Cynthia says. “But wait till Oz gets here.” The Madison High choral group piles out of a van and begins singing Christmas madrigals.

Their harmonies ring all over the lot. Everyone applauds. Then Steve West takes over the mike, and the Beat Farmers’ Country Dick Montana makes an appearance, staggering in from the parking lot. On the air, he suggests people donate provocative underpants. Then he lurches back into the parking lot and vanishes.

The first van-load of donations pulls out to much hoopla. Another would go out during West’s show. It starts to rain. The Trash Can Sinatras arrive; gorgeous and indecipherable Scottish accents ensue. “Hoot mon,” they say. “Oots a roody hoot tee plee heer!” Kids flock to the parking lot with video cameras and Instamatics, and the Trash Cans (or are they the Sinatras?) give autographs. After they leave, two Asian girls run up to West, begging to see the band. Told the group has left, one of them yells into the microphone,

“I just got screwed!” West, unflappable, says, “Right here in the lot?”

But as soon as Oz goes on the air, things begin to heat up, as promised. What has already been a generous morning kicks into some bizarre overdrive. Victor, Spectrum’s driver, takes off once, twice, three times with van-loads. Skateboards, surfboards, food, clothes. A trucker tears in from the freeway in his 18-wheeler and hands Oz a $10 bill. Four, five, six van-loads.

Seven. It is coming far faster than we can load it. Even when the Marines take away a huge pile for their Toys for Tots program, we are having trouble keeping up. By five o’clock, Vic is speeding in and out, hauling the donations to Pastor Von’s offices, which are nearly filled to the ceiling. And it continues after dark: a ten-speed bike, $140 worth of groceries, neatly boxed. One unemployed woman pulls up in her car. “I got a blanket,” she says. “Wish I could give you more.”

Oz interviews Pastor Von on the air. He tells the story of a group of Tijuana orphanage kids who had decided to give Christmas to children in the garbage dump.

Each child took one of his or her own toys, wrapped it nicely, then went to the dump and selected a child to give it to. Pam Wolf does her show in the dark, in the rain, wrapped in a blanket.

Finally, after 13 hours, we all go inside and collapse on the couch in the lobby. But still people come. They rattle the door. Each time, Cynthia jumps up to open it, and people hand her more toys. The last, sweetest thing finally overwhelms her. A young businessman in a shirt and tie appears at the door with six large coffees. “You’ve been out in the cold all day,” he says. “Take these, and Merry Christmas.” She sits on the arm of the couch and cries.

The next day, we gather again in the 91X parking lot, empty now and unexceptional. Oz, in the studio, is wrapping up his show. We have one van loaded with over 400 toys in bags, boxes, and bundles from Pastor Von’s office. A Volvo pulls up. Three little girls peer out; their dad asks, “You still taking stuff to Mexico?” Into the van go two more large boxes packed with toys.

Dwight Arnold, from 91X’s promotion department, is at the wheel of the black X-van on the way to our rendezvous with Victor, from which point we would go to Trincherazo to distribute toys. We cross the border, cut through town, loop up onto the east-west highway that runs to Playas de Tijuana, and we get lost. We look everywhere for the overpass where Victor would meet us. We drive through the crumbling dirt canyons that all seem to be crowded at one end with new shacks. We stumble on down the road, peering up various artoyos that fail to be our turnoff. By now, we are nearly an hour late. Suddenly I see an offramp marked “Ensenada.” The hills connect with my memory: There is the place where water gushes out of the cliff in storms, there is the little whitewashed bridge, and over there, the army base. On its slopes, white stones mark out the insignia of various army outfits — the Fifth Infantry Battalion and crossed carbines forming an ominous X.

“Make a U-turn,” I yell to Dwight.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, absolutely. Turn around.

That’s the road up to the old dump.”

We turn around and go up the ramp to the overpass.

“Turn right. Up the hill. Trust me.”

I haven’t even seen this road for more than five years, but it is like my own driveway. “Keep going,” I say. A deadly-looking pair of cops hanging at a house with a bunch of dopers waves us on up the hill — “Just follow the road up and over. It’s open all the way down. Just keep going.”

“Thank you!” I call.

One of the dopers comes at us, shouting, “No Christmas? 'Onde ’sta mi Christmas?"

“What’s he want?” Cynthia says.

“Presents,” says Oz. “He’s asking where his presents are.”

Dwight hits it.

It is stunning, coming over that hill. In place of the dump, little houses and shacks and hovels and sheds cram every foot. I say, “There, on the right! That was Pacha’s house.” Cynthia cranes. “Over here used to be the pig village!” It is now a row of some of the better houses. “Negra used to live right there!” We look out the windows at the ruin. We could have been driving through a movie set.

The dirt track bends down sharply, and we begin to pick up followers as we descend. Everyone with a radio listens to 9IX down there; many kids in Tijuana consider it the hippest product Tijuana has ever offered the world. There is great loyalty to any station call letters starting with X. “La radio!” kids chanting in ones and twos. Suddenly, a dementedly cheerful black-and-white dog — part pit bull and part who knows — takes the lead. She places herself directly in front of the van, trotting so close that there are times when her tail brushes the front bumper. She barks madly at everyone in our path and looks back at us regularly and shouts, “Woo!

Woo!” As we make our way through the last lake of cocoa-brown water blocking the road, the crowds come into view. The mongrel barks us into the middle of them, then sits down and begins to scratch at a flea under her front leg.

I’d opened the van’s sliding door on the way down. I crouch in the opening, calling to all the families who had lost heart waiting for us. “Go back! Christmas!” Oz was shouting, “Go back down! To Von!” People were waving, calling at us. One wild little dude trotted beside the van, face nearly black, yelling, “Raite! Raite!” (Ride!) I nab him and pull him in the van.

We stop and I jump out. The gathered lines of people are freezing and restless. Worried missionaries hustle all over the place with no apparent goal in mind. The children, clutching their tickets, yell: “Jugetes!” (Toys) and “Creesmas!"

Three little girls charge into me, yelling, “Luisluisluis!” and kissing me. I don’t know who they are. I look up: Negra’s mother is coming down the hill. And with her is a pretty young woman, very pregnant, and the young woman puts out her fingers and touches me lightly and stares at me. She has the smallest hint of blue eyeliner under her eyes. I look at her mother. “Yes,” she says. “It’s her.”

“I never forgot you, Luis,” she says. “Did you ever forget me?” It is Negra.

The temperature is in the 30s on that hill, with a fierce wind blowing. Negra is in a light sweater, jeans, and shoes. Her hands feel like something pulled out of the refrigerator. We hold each other, wander around the area. Two of the little girls are hers — Elsa and Nayeli (Mixtec for “Flower of the Fields”). The other girl, Marta, is Negra’s niece. Negra and her mother are raising her. Negra’s next baby is due at any time. I put my hands over her distended belly. Negra’s mother says, “Get her out of here, Luis. Get her out.”

I wrap Negra in a blanket. She tucks my hand under her arm to keep my fingers warm. We look out at the perfect view of San Diego; it looks like bronze, the color of wheat fields in spring.

Almost 500 toys are distributed this day. Every child leaves with a gift. Oz finds the dopers and homeboys irresistible — he bravely joins their sulking groups, handing out key chains and buttons, chatting happily in pocho Spanish. Cynthia dives straight in, disappearing into the small building where the gifts are laid out.

The toys are unwrapped so the kids can see what they are. The offerings range from stuffed animals and dolls to soldiers, wristwatches, board games, and sports equipment; there are cars, trucks, Barbies, rubber wrestlers, squirt-gun sets, radios, coloring books. These are spread out on tables and the floor. Gringos are stationed at strategic points around the room to prevent general looting. Another squad of gringos guards the door. Kids are brought to the room, 15 at a time, and they turn over their tickets as they file in. They are free to choose whatever catches their fancy. On the way out, they receive a mark on the back of the hand so they can’t sneak back in for another gift. Around every comer of the small building, you can find kids eagerly lacking their hands and rubbing them desperately on their pants.

Confronted with a group of about 20 women vying for the one extra blanket I carry, I have to choose one. It is a dark luxury. I pick a teen-aged mother whose baby is wrapped in part of a bed sheet. Elsewhere, kids and winos are encrusted with 91X buttons. They want to shake hands with “El Oss.” Smiling, Oz is slowly sinking in a pool of yammering children. An old woman approaches Cynthia and puts her frozen hand on her cheek to say thanks. Cynthia takes off her gloves and puts them in the woman’s hands.

Two new bikes are raffled. Efren, standing on the roof of a van in his black cowboy hat and high-heeled boots, cajoles and flirts with the crowd until even the losers go away happy. Along with the bikes, a bear over three feet tall is raffled, as is a plush orange snake about six feet long.

In the days to come, the missionaries would repeat this scene at the active dump, at Panamericano, at the Satanicos’ barrio, and at other colonias and orphanages around the city. If you go into any of the tar-paper houses scattered over the hillsides of these neighborhoods, you are likely to find new dolls still in their boxes or teddy bears on scavenged beds, going gray with the dust of the canyons.

In the neighborhoods where there were no buildings in which to put the gifts, the vans would be pulled into half-circles, and the kids would be led in. Meanwhile, games of skill were set up all around the periphery, so they could win more things — candy bars, Cokes, paddle-balls. It would look for all the world like the fair had come to town.

But the absence of men is obvious at every site. Time and time again, families appear whose fathers have gone across the wire, not to return. The mothers can be seen, later, hauling the gifts and the food and the candy up the steep cliffsides, their children yelling and laughing.

Negra has a long climb ahead of her — it is dark, and the cold down. She lives back . Victor and I pile her and her kids and her mother in one of the vans. They make us stop to pick up a woman who has recently undergone abdominal surgery, who is also struggling up the hill, clutching her stomach. We bang up, then, noisy and laughing, Negra holding my hand tight in both of hers, the little ones admiring their toys. We are like a family for a minute. Marta tucks her head against me, laying her skinny back across my front.

When we reach her shack, Negra leads me inside. Incredibly, it is in nearly the same spot where she had lived years before. It is dark. The floor is the same mud that slops in the yard. There are three ducks. The apparently ubiquitous pit bull delivers kisses to everyone who comes near. The shack’s one bed has been scrounged out of the trash. We sit on it together, the little ones happy and shiny-eyed.

Negra’s sister has come back from her new life in the U.S. — and she’s brought them a small artificial Christmas tree. It stands on some papers beside the scavenged stove on which two pans of cold fried rice give up their perfume. One small gift for each of them sits under the tree, wrapped in jolly Woolworth’s paper. Negra’s sister had gotten across the wire and managed to marry. She has things like a Christmas tree and a house with a floor, with windows, bathrooms.

Negra’s mother asks me again to take them out of there. Negra says nothing much. She wants a picture of my wife and me together. She tells me she is suffering very much. “We’re getting her tubes tied after this one,” her mother says. “It’s killing her.” Her husband never came home.

Elsa, the littlest girl, steps to the tree and stares at it, transported. She suddenly points at it and cries, as loudly as she can, “We have so many toys!”

Since then, some 14 people have died of the cold in Tijuana. Eight babies died of exposure on Christmas Eve alone. A desperate 24-year-old prostitute, faced with a newborn baby she couldn’t care for, wrapped it up, put it in a box, and stuffed the box in a trash can near the Tijuana bus terminal. Fortunately for the baby, someone heard it crying and lifted the lid of the can. The woman is being sent to prison for three years. A man in a Tijuana hotel room died from breathing the fumes of a brazier of coals he had lit for heat. Workers in the garbage dump have been telling me of the babies they’ve been finding dead in the trash — deaths not reported by the newspapers. Recently, they were startled to find a mayonnaise jar with a human hand sticking out of it. One woman told me it was clearly intended as a message, but nobody can figure out what the message is supposed to mean.

A couple of times a week, I am lucky enough to go to Negra’s shack and sit on the bed with her. She is 20 years old now. I take her food and clothes, slip her small . things. She says, “I dream about how your house must be. It must be big. It has trees. I think they’re fruit trees.” The baby is coming any day now. Negra’s navel, stretched wide by the baby, feels like a soft cup through her sweater. She is terrified that she’ll have to deliver the child in her own bed with no medical help. When I ask her how much it will cost to go down the hill to the clinic, she hides her face and starts to cry, a desperate silent moment of pure terror. She says, “Seven hundred thousand pesos,” and clutches the blankets. Later, at Tacos El Paisano, the taco masters figure it out for me on their adding machine: approximately $237.28.

Negra had her last baby, Elsa, at the Red Cross clinic downtown.

The medical student attending to her attempted to do an episiotomy to facilitate the passage of the baby. But there was an accident, and Negra was torn open. She nearly bled to death on the delivery table, the student trying to stanch the flow of blood with his hand as he called desperately for a doctor. They pumped blood from her family members into her to keep her alive. Although the treatment is free, the prospect of more such care is frightening.

Shortly after the New Year, Negra’s husband left her and moved in with another woman in the active dump. She has nothing left now — no income from his trash-picking, no food, except what she gets from the missionaries’ donations. She has asked my wife and me to be her new child’s godparents — “compadres,” in Spanish. Quite literally, co-parents. “This time,” she says to me, “you and I can finally be related.”

“It’s an honor,” I say.

“Do you think of me as a sister?” she says.


“Your little sister?”


“That’s how you love me,” and there is nothing else to say. It isn’t really a question.

Heartbreak and hope — business as usual in Mexico.

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