By Daniel Zarchy

Carmen Castro is not a lazy woman. She works tirelessly in maquiladoras to support her family, attend school, and build a home in Valle de las Palmas, Mexico. I had the opportunity to speak with her and two of her fellow community members in similar situations, Amparo de Leon and Griselda Fragoza, during my Alternative Spring Break.

Alternative Spring Break (ASB), a College 9/College 10 program, has been sending groups of students to Valle de las Palmas (“Valle”) for the last four years. Guy Oron, a second-year computer science major, went to Valle last year with another UC Santa Cruz group and led this year’s ASB trip.

“ASB does a number of different things for different people,” Guy said. “There are people who have never been to Mexico, and haven’t given thought to life on the other side of the border. For those people, I feel that it’s a really important experience to go there and work with the people who live there, talk to the people who live there, and live there with them.”

Guy decided to take the ASB group back to Valle in order to help build a relationship between the community and UCSC.

“I think that it has the effect of humanizing [the people of Valle] in our eyes, in a way that would be hard to do without living there, without working with them,” he said.

Valle de las Palmas, a small village in the Mexican state of Tecate on the Baja peninsula, is a quintessential example of modern small-town Mexico: high prices, low wages, and backbreaking labor that sends most workers running or seeking jobs in the United States. Carmen, Amparo and Griselda are no exception; they work 48 hours a week at American, Chinese, and Japanese factories on the Mexican/American border for a fraction of the California minimum wage.

However, these women have stepped up to the plate by volunteering their time, labor and passion to improve their situations and the community around them. Carmen is the president of the local chapter of Corazón, a non-profit organization that began in Orange County, CA, dedicated to organizing community projects and “serving the poor within our reach.” According to its website, Corazón is responsible for over 800 construction projects in Mexico facilitated by American volunteers, and well over 820 local projects by community members.

The Alternative

On March 23, 2007, 30 students and two staff members from UC Santa Cruz, including myself, began the 14-hour drive to Valle de las Palmas for our six-day trip, a stark contrast from the drinking and partying usually associated with spring break.

Having never been to Mexico, and worried that my years of high school Spanish had left me, I did not know what to expect.	

We had no trouble crossing the border into Mexico, and after braving Tijuana rush hour we settled into Valle. After a satisfying snack of something in a box labeled “Choco Krispis de Melvin” (Melvin was an elephant piloting a spaceship), we searched for where we were to sleep. The community rooms in the Corazón-built Valle community center, our home for the week, were made up of two rooms each smaller than the average dorm room, packed to the gills with 32 big and boisterous Americans. The bathrooms did not have hot water, and the local septic system gave new meaning to the term “wastebasket.”

Still, we were so tired each night that we were more ready to see the insides of our eyelids than to gripe about our rooms. As we brushed our teeth with bottled water for fear of incurring the wrath of an ancient Aztecan king, we were happy to absorb the culture and tough it out, even if it meant hypothermic showers and the absence of personal space.

Building is Not a Democracy

The following morning, we rose at five a.m. to face a day of labor. We tumbled out of our vans to meet our bosses for the day, who spoke to us in front of a concrete slab in the center of the plot of land that belonged to the Mexican family that would soon have a home. Our “Blue Shirts,” the name for experienced American Corazón volunteers, laid out the day’s plan for us. They explained to us, more than once, that the closest medical facility was across the border, over 90 minutes away, and that it was not in our best interest to take chances with our safety; we should remain hydrated throughout the day.

Throughout the morning, our crew built frames out of two-by-fours, laid plywood, and raised the four walls of the house onto the concrete foundation, all with the guidance of Geof and Ryan, the Blue Shirts building with us. They demonstrated how to hammer a nail many times, and would knock the nail all the way in with two quick strikes, only to watch as we helplessly bashed away at an unfortunate piece of wood for the better part of an hour. Despite our struggles, we finished the walls by lunchtime and stood back to see a tangible wooden skeleton affixed to the foundation.

Lunch was rice, beans, lamb and tortillas, prepared by the family we were building for, which we enjoyed seated around the build site while those with the energy joked and exchanged anecdotes ranging from pre-meal traditions, to language studies, to the high number of dogs in the area. We went back to work with full stomachs and quenched thirsts, and continued to work late into the setting sun.

Globalization from the other side

On my last night in Valle, I had the opportunity to sit down with Carmen, Amparo and Griselda to discuss everything from Corazón to Mexican politics. Through a translator, they explained that many of the economic problems in Valle, as in much of Mexico, came from cheap goods from America and China flooding the local markets and eliminating domestic industries.

Carmen explained that this importation also led to a general degradation of the quality of goods, as many poor Mexicans were forced to buy low-quality American corn instead of the better Mexican corn because they could not afford to pay more.

Amparo, a mother of seven, heavily blamed past Mexican governments for putting many citizens in the situations in which they currently find themselves. She explained that Carlos Salinas de Gortari, president of Mexico from 1988-1994, dug much of Mexico into an economic grave, and although Mexican President Vicente Fox (2000-2006) was “excellent,” he could not fully solve the problems.

“Salinas was a rat,” Amparo said. “Fox tried to fix it, but there was only so much he could do. He lowered the prices of food and gas, gave educational scholarships and health insurance for the poor, and paid off half the debt that Salinas made.”

Salinas, after winning the presidency in a hotly disputed and controversial election, drove the country deep into debt through excessive spending to make himself more popular with his political party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI in Spanish). He also championed Mexico’s entrance into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which Amparo believes contributed to the decimation of Mexico’s middle class and negatively affected areas like Valle.

In addition to a number of political murders and scandals associated with the Salinas family (Carlos’ brother Raul was arrested for the murder of a political rival in 1995, though he was acquitted in 2005), the last year of Salinas’ presidency saw the beginning of a sharp devaluation of the Mexican peso that dramatically lowered Mexican wages in the world market.

Fox, the first non-PRI president of Mexico, representing the National Action Party (PAN) was responsible for opening up much of Mexico diplomatically and bringing Mexico to participate much more prominently in international functions. He also championed a number of campaigns to open up immigration between Mexico and the United States, and publicly recognized the importance to the economy of remittances from Mexican workers in America (over $25 million in 2006, according to La Jornada).

OSHA Regulations be Damned

As the sun dropped below the western hills, and with the Blue Shirts’ repeatedly urging us to finish so they could cross the border before it got too late, we stopped to admire our work. Where just hours before there had been only a concrete slab, we now had a house, not luxurious by our standards, but solid and fully functional. After a quick but meaningful ceremony, we presented the house to the family and hopped back into the vans, satisfied with a hard day’s work.

Oscar Guillen, a member of our ASB group and senior supervisor of UC Santa Cruz Senior Building Maintenance Workers, ended up assuming a leadership role in our construction. Oscar, a Mexican citizen and frequent visitor to Mexico, felt that his leadership position allowed him to demand a level of excellence from our group that he believed the community deserved.

“As somebody who has lifted himself out of poverty, I try to avoid the mindset that there’s nothing I can do, and every time I come to Mexico I try to leave something behind to help better the community that I visited,” Oscar said. “Even if it’s just improving the quality of what we were building, I couldn’t shortchange the people we were building for.”

Earned, not Given

Crossing the border on our way back home to school and academia, I found myself reflecting on the people of Valle and the effort those three ladies exert in order to better their situations.

The ladies told me that the benefits they receive from working with Corazón far exceed what they could get from the government.

Griselda, who received a house from Corazón, spoke about a similar government organization called Pie de Casa that had much longer waits and requirements.

“I applied for a house from Pie de Casa, but they have ridiculous requirements, including no income,” she explained. “While I was waiting for a house, I wasn’t allowed to work, and if they found out that I was working I wouldn’t get anything.”

Amparo added that another advantage of Corazón was that they address the high cost of land, which is a rampant problem in Mexico. She explained that after buying a plot of land, many families can not afford to build a house and are therefore forced to rent cheap houses in order to survive. Corazón helped Amparo build a house three years ago with the help of a similar group from UC Santa Cruz.

Carmen agreed that this was a common problem, citing her own observations of the rising cost of land.

“I bought my plot of land for $70, and now that much land costs $10,000,” she said. “If the land is so expensive, how can you afford to build the house?”

In Corazón, Carmen went on, everything is earned; nothing is given. In order to even be considered for a house, members of Corazón must log over 100 hours of service work for the community.

“Nothing is free in life,” she said. “If you don’t work for it, you’re not going to value it. It’s a heavy load.” She went on to describe her work with Corazón in addition to a full workweek, supporting a family, and attending school at night, “It takes a lot of determination. But it’s very gratifying, because you get to live a better life.”

_Special thanks to Saira Aguilar for translating._