Tijuana's St. Vincent de Paul society spreads charity to all the colonias

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.

The colonias served by the society are some of the most crime-ridden of the city. "The Saint Vincent de Paul Society is in communities of Tijuana where no one else will serve," says Father Mendez. "Without us, no other service is available. That is the secret of the conferences." Despite the bad neighborhoods they serve, no one working with the society has ever been the victim of a crime, he says.

The society has helped construct and sponsor three small medical clinics in the Mira Mar, Valle Verde, and Grupo Mexico neighborhoods, as well as a dispensary in San Quentin, the agricultural area south of Ensenada. The Tijuana clinics are staffed by a nursing order, Sisters of the Poor, Servants of the Sacred Heart. "We have a group of doctors who volunteer their time," says Father Mendez. "We built these clinics with our own hands," he says. "We used garage doors and trailers."

One such clinic, Dispensario Medico San Luis Obispo, is located on a high, dusty mesa with a view of the Pacific in a neighborhood called Mira Mar. This clinic serves clients from a half dozen other poor colonias in the valleys and canyons nearby. "We see 20, 25, sometimes 30 patients a day," says Sister Maria Gutierrez Aguilar, who this afternoon is the lone nun on duty, along with one volunteer physician. The other nuns are at other clinics. "We see many youngsters and many pregnant women."

Dispensario Medico San Luis Obispo consists of a 1950s-vintage pink mobile home to which a small wooden waiting room has been attached. The trailer is situated on a deep, narrow lot off a dirt road, is surrounded on three sides by high cement walls, and is gated in the front.

Inside there are three cramped examination rooms, a tiny pharmacy with shelves crammed with medicines, many of them sample packets of over-the-counter drugs sold in the U.S., and the waiting room, which on the day of our visit held four women, two infants, two toddlers, and a teenage boy awaiting the attention of the single physician on duty.

"Many of our patients will not go to the Hospital General [Tijuana's large public hospital] because of bad experiences there," says Sister Maria. "They need basic things like injections, laboratory work, diabetes checks, sutures. When they need x-rays or lab tests we cannot perform, we have made arrangements to have these services provided at a big discount to our patients at private clinics."

Sister Maria says that prenatal care and childbirth represent the biggest demand, but she notes there are other cases. "Many of the homes are poorly constructed, so there are many accidents," she says. "And, of course, there are unsanitary conditions. Many of the children we see have parasitic infections. We have a big need for antiparasitic drugs and antibiotics."

At the top of Sister Maria's wish list for the clinic is better medical equipment, particularly sterilization equipment, examination tables and lighting, and maternity room equipment, especially what she calls "expulsion tables" for childbirth. Father Mendez, on the other hand, has grander ambitions. He notes with a sweep of his hand that the land and location for the clinic are ideal, with plenty of room to build a two- or three-story medical center. "All it would take," he says matter-of-factly, "is about $80,000."

In the last several years, the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Tijuana has also provided housing to about 50 families. "All we require is that they own the land, and we will help them build a little house," says Father Mendez. The "little houses" are constructed of garage doors, he says. "Like this" - he makes a motion with his hands to show each side of a square - "one here, one here, one here, and one here."

The society finances its operations from the "cooperation fees," private donations, and the sale of secondhand items at a thrift shop located next door to the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe. "We need everything," says Father Mendez. "Clothing, furniture, household items, even cars. Anything." He says he has an arrangement with Mexican Customs that allows the society to pass donations across the border without having to pay any duty.

But Father Mendez asks that any donations consist of items of value or usefulness. He says they have stacks and stacks of old medical equipment that doesn't work and cannot be repaired. And contributions of food items have proved problematic in the past, he says. "We received many items that could not be used by the poor in Tijuana," he explains. "For example, items that require a microwave to heat. It is better to donate money for food so that we can buy items we know will be used." Father Mendez said he is aware of the work of Father Joe Carroll at the St. Vincent de Paul Society in San Diego. "He [Father Carroll] has received a lot of money, but he has never given us a penny," says Father Mendez.

Father Mendez claims the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Tijuana has never received a large donation of any kind from anyone. "We used small donations to build the three dispensaries, but now we need medicine and equipment. We need to find a large company that can help provide us with surplus food. We need money for building. We will accept anything - everything - that anyone wants to give."

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