Juarez- Trip #1

Juarez Travel Blog

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(Photography credit: Dan Klooster)

The Friday before MLK weekend I left- with a group of 20 other people- on a 5-day “mission” trip to build a home for a family in one of the more poor neighborhoods of Juarez, which is right over the U.S. border from El Paso, Texas (about a five hour drive from Santa Fe). I got connected with the group by meeting one of the organizers at a Habitat for Humanity build a few months ago.

I almost didn’t go because I have a lot going on with my teaching program and needed to do a lot of preplanning before the trip (which didn’t quite happen) and thought I would probably get behind after the trip (which has happened)…But, I am so glad I went.
It was a really good experience that will stay with me for a long time.

Unfortunately it was nighttime when we got to El Paso. I was told it is interesting to see Juarez from El Paso- to see the distinct contrast of the United States and Mexico. We left our vehicles in El Paso and were transported across the border in vans belonging to the organization that plans the house building, Gateway Mission Training Center. Our group brought so much stuff to donate (clothes, house supplies, etc.) that quite a bit of it had to be left behind (which we donated to a church in El Paso on the way back).

We stayed at a church in Juarez in a building with bunk beds and bathrooms, and a separate building where we were served Mexican food (except breakfast, which was cereal, toast, and bananas).
For lunch we had different kinds of yummy burritos. One day at the worksite I was in the process of sitting down to eat and before my butt hit the ground one of the dogs had put a quick move on me and snagged a bite of my burrito! (I guess it is survival of the fittest for many of the dogs there). For dinner we had different kinds of things like meat flattened thin as tortillas and fried- yum.

The family we were building for was somewhat ambiguous in the exact number of people that constituted the “family”. I know there are two parents, Maria and Nieve (which means ‘snow’ in Spanish) and five children, ages 6-17. We met all the family members except for the oldest, who I was told lives somewhere else with his wife or girlfriend or something.
The house we built is right next to the house they appeared to be staying in while we were building their new one- whether that house was there home or not was unclear. There were other people coming and going and a young child that may also be staying with them. Also their grandmother was going to come live with them when the new house was built.

The first day we built the frame of the house. The foundation is the only thing that was already done before we got there. The program will use the same plan for each house that they build, and I believe that this house was the first one built with their newest house plan revision. (The families that receive new homes are selected by the priests in the neighborhood parishes which partner with Gateway).

The second day was spent putting on the roof (tar paper and rolled roofing), putting chicken wire on the side of the house, and putting insulation in the inside of the house.
The chicken wire is nailed onto the outside walls of the house. It is used to hold the stucco in place.

The stucco (a mixture of cement, sand, and I forget what else) is slathered on to the sides of the house and spread out over the chicken wire. We were supposed to put enough on so that you couldn’t see the chicken wire. After the stucco has started to harden a little, we went back and smoothed it out more with wet sponges. It was pretty hard to get used to putting the stucco on the wall without most of it ending up on the ground, but by the end I was pretty good at it! The third day I also got to do some electric work. This was exciting because I had just finished teaching a few lessons about electricity to my 4th grade students. Now I have a better clue of what I was teaching them but it’s still kind of confusing to me.
People who were not stuccoing or wiring were putting up drywall on the inside walls and ceilings of the house. The thing I did not realize until we were on our way back to Santa Fe was that they did not have any kitchen in the house! I knew there would not be a bathroom but for some reason didn’t think about the kitchen. I guess there is not much of a system set up in the neighborhood for plumbing (although the house they were staying in next door did have a flush toilet). As for the cooking, I think they will do their cooking outside.

We finished the house in three days! On the fourth day we went back to the house in the morning to dedicate it. Anyone who wanted to say anything to the family could, and the family said a few things to us. The family’s priest was there and he gave a blessing and sprinkled water on everyone.
Then we gave the family all the donated things we had brought. The night before I helped sort some of the stuff. We had a bag of clothes for everyone, stuffed animals for the kids in the family and in the neighborhood, and lots of other miscellaneous things. One of the volunteers in our group bought a lot of school supplies. These were intended to be distributed between the family and neighborhood children, but instead we ended up giving them to one of the private schools that Gateway sponsors. One of the long term volunteers for the program told me that there are 5,000 kids in the neighborhood we worked in and only three schools- an elementary, middle, and high school! They do split the day in half so that there are two shifts, but that is still an awful lot of kids and so few schools.
After giving out the gifts we had a delicious meal that was prepared by the mother of the family. They really went out of their way to cook for so many of us!

After the dedication we went to the tourist market. That was ok. I ended up buying a soccer ball and one of the people in our group helped me bargain for it. I’ve never felt very comfortable when it comes to bargaining. The day before we went to the big grocery store in town. It was pretty much like grocery stores in the U.S., but with some different foods. I bought hibiscus leaves to make juice out of, pineapple Nutri-Grain bars, and a Spanish pocket dictionary. Outside of the store they were selling some kind of corn soup or something.

What else?? Driving through Juarez was interesting.
The place where we stayed was kind of far from the worksite. You could see that people reused things like tires and the tops of buses to make walls and shelters. One street we drove down had an outdoor market where people were selling all kinds of things. Where we stayed the roads were paved, but the neighborhood we were in was not. The road by the house was really sandy. I played soccer in the street a few times. There were public buses that passed by regularly. One day a truck came through the neighborhood with a loudspeaker to announce that it was selling food. There was a pretty big mountain near the house, and a hill next to it that the neighborhood kids played on. One kid had a little car that they rode down the hill on. It looked fun, like sledding.

I was glad I could speak Spanish because it made the trip all that much better.
I spoke with one of the paid workers (there were two) quite a bit. He (Daniel) is 18 and his father was the other supervisor. They live in the same neighborhood we were working in. Every day we would meet them at the shed where the tools and materials were kept to load up the vans. One day Daniel was riding on top of the van behind us. The roads were kind of bumpy and we were going kind of fast so I kept looking back to see how he was doing. When we went over a pretty big bump I looked back and Daniel’s hat went flying off. Right away a kid ran over and took it. Soon after we arrived at the worksite and I thought Daniel would go back for his hat but he didn’t.

Well, this is getting a bit long so I will wrap things up. Again, I had a great time on this trip.
I love seeing new places, especially economically poorer countries than the U.S. because it is very enlightening to see how people make do with what they have. It is easy to romanticize the life of people living in poverty because that is not my reality. I am certainly grateful for the luxuries I have, but seeing the stark differences in ways of life only a short drive away, I can’t help being disgusted with the way I and others carelessly use resources. Maybe if we didn’t all have cars and perfectly paved roads we would know more of our neighbors, get more exercise, and make less of an impact on the earth. Ok, enough of my complaining. Thanks for reading this. Whenever you have a chance to go somewhere new, go for it! I !Hasta luego!
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photo by: ahtibat17