e-mail us


Mission goes south of The Wall to experience life at Tijuana’s dump

Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, Calif.

Poverty is never quite what it seems. Especially around a dump where families survive by scavenging through the stinking, disease-ridden filth to find something, anything, recyclable.

Don’t knock the system. For the industrious, who sometimes make $20 a day, trolling the dump pays far more than working in the foreign-owned maquiladora at 50 to 60 cents an hour.

The mountainous landfill is the topographical feature that dominates lives in the Fausto Gonzalez and Santa Julia colonias. They are two of a half moon of dozens of colonias that, perched precariously on hillsides, mark Tijuana’s southern rim.

The colonias have no roads, just tracks that wash away. The people’s shacks are built with dump-scavenged materials. “Most Americans wouldn’t park their cars in these places,” said Dick Bureson.

“The entrance to Fausto Gonzalez,” said Nancy Bureson, “is right past the crematorium and the cemetery. There are gases seeping from the landfill.”

In the homes there’s no running water. No sewage system. Don’t ask. In such small houses, where do all the people sleep? Again don’t ask. The poor, too, are entitled to their privacy.

More than three decades ago, Dick and Nancy Bureson met at the University of Montana Newman House. After they wed, Dick began a 30-year corporate career that ran him quickly up the ladder and into the executive suite, and took the family from Missoula, Mont. to Spokane, Wash., to Phoenix to La Jolla, Calif., a tony San Diego enclave.

By the 1990s, executive Dick Bureson said, “This globalization stuff started happening. Fifteen and 25 years ago, I felt at least the companies I worked for cared about their clients and their customers and the places they lived.

“With globalization,” he said, “it got to the point all that just disappeared and pretty soon it was bottom line, bottom line, bottom line. You know, ‘We don’t care what we have to do’ and pretty soon people are cutting corners.”

‘I had to get the hell out’

“It got to the point,” he said, “where I had people working for me coming in saying they couldn’t live my ethics, that they had to have the latitude to shave this number and shave that because they’d got kids in college and a mortgage and all that. They’d say, ‘It’s wonderful you’re so moral but I can’t live with it.’ And that’s when I knew I had to get the hell out.”

The Buresons were in their early 50s. They went down the list of what they might do: start a business, work for a nongovernment organization, join the Peace Corps. Hearing the latter, an old college roommate told Dick, “Talk to Steve about that.” Steve Judd was another former roommate.

“Last I’d heard of Steve,” said Dick, “he was a captain in the Air Force running a missile silo in Massachusetts. It turned out that Steve is a Maryknoll priest. We’d lost track of him.”

Judd explained that Maryknoll had been taking lay missionaries for 25 years and had started a new organization in 1994 specifically for lay people. The Buresons were interested, but Nancy said she wasn’t quite done with being a mom and they waited a couple of years until their youngest son -- they have three children -- was a college junior.

By 1995 they’d applied to Maryknoll, were soon in Cochabamba, Bolivia, living with a family to learn Spanish before their El Salvador posting. A couple of years later Dick told his brother, “We’re really happy in mission. Best thing we’ve ever done in our entire lives.” But by their third year they had family reasons -- aging parents -- for needing to be closer to home.

In San Diego in 1999 for their son’s college graduation, they stopped by the diocesan mission office, with which they’d stayed in contact, and chatted with School Sister of Notre Dame Kathy Smittgens, who’d spent five years in Africa. Before they headed back to El Salvador, Msgr. Ray Kirk, mission office and Propagation of the Faith director -- who spent five years in Ecuador -- telephoned them and said, “Stop by before you leave.”

Kirk explained he’d been taking people back to Ecuador every year to give them a sense of mission but had lately attended a 25-diocese Ecclesia in America meeting in Tucson, which included a one-day trip to Nogales, Mexico.

Few had seen such poverty

Kirk told the Buresons, “I couldn’t believe the response of the people who went across on that trip. It was just amazing how few of them had ever seen such poverty. The effect that it seemed to have on them. I came back to the diocese and talked to Sister Kathy about it. You know, we sit 15 miles from the border. We don’t need to take people to Africa or Ecuador. Would you guys be interested? Think about it.”

They did.

The upshot, in 2000, was Church Without Borders.

Maryknoll agreed to the project and assigned the Buresons to it as lay missioners; the diocese came up with the support. All pastoral center staff, followed by permanent deacons and their wives, then school principals, and seminarians, and parish social justice and mission directors, then volunteer parishioners, would experience it.

“Two years later we’ve still not started with the parishioners,” said Nancy. “But we’re hoping to get there.” The Buresons are constantly in parishes talking about their work.

A minimum of once a month, sometimes twice or three times, a 12-seat mission van heads to San Ysidro -- the main daily legal crossing-point between Tijuana and San Diego.

The Bureson troop walk up the ramps and through the New York-subway style, tall, gated exit turnstiles to walk, un-checked, south across the border. There, it’s into another van, driven by Scalabrini lay missioner Gilberto Martinez from Casa del Migrante in Tijuana, and the tour is on.

South of the Gatekeeper

Separating the United States and Mexico is “The Wall” -- 66-miles of intermittent doubled fenced barrier to keep would-be northbound immigrants out. It starts in the bed of the Pacific Ocean off the beach in Tijuana.

This is where a Bureson Church Without Borders trip actually begins. At this point, The Wall, with the euphemism “Alto Guardian” (“Operation Gatekeeper”) painted in Spanish, is constructed from the interlocking perforated steel sheets used as desert roadways in the first Gulf War.

The steel is painted with the skulls and names of people who have died trying to cross the border. On each Bureson trip there is a prayer service here. The reading for the reflection is always Lazarus and the rich man. After that, there’s a discussion.

Said Dick Bureson, “We say there’s nothing in the scriptures about this rich man having gotten his wealth illegally or immorally. Just that he lived this comfortable life and it didn’t dawn on him that Lazarus had any call on him or his wealth. And we basically say,” continued Bureson, “you know, industrial societies like ours have trouble with this.”

From The Wall, the Buresons take the visitors to the Fausto Gonzalez colonia where Medical Mission Sr. Theresa Jaramillo has her compound. The cooperative began by providing hot showers for community people after their day’s work at the dump was done.

There’s a day care for dump-workers’ children. Jaramillo successfully started a beautician training school; the first dozen graduates now earn their living as hairdressers. One day a month, the nun explained, these Fausto Gonzalez beauticians give their services free to people, who the beauticians say, “are really poor.” There’s also a fledgling bakery -- another self-help training program.

This is also a key rest stop on the trip. There’s a regular toilet -- one of two on the North Americans’ Tijuana circuit -- even if, at present, it doesn’t flush.

Sacred space of sorrows

At the dump’s periphery one feature that could open any filmed documentary on poverty is the cemetery. It is a dusty world, crowded with sorrows. Little plots with photographs -- of children and parents. Plastic rosaries, wilted flowers in plastic bases, plastic bouquets wired to little fences. Despite the trash blown in, there’s evidence everywhere that families try to keep sacred the little space commemorated to lost ones.

Such a documentary could close with shots from 300 yards away -- of smiling, happy faces in the dump’s other immediate neighbor -- the preschool.

Several years ago, the Buresons explained, a young American teacher, David Lynch, came to Tijuana to work as a volunteer. He was appalled by what he saw. Still teaching at a U.S. community college, he was soon the driving force behind getting the preschool built. Run by Responsibility, the organization Lynch founded, is private, but to all intents and purposes free. Ninety preschoolers, get a literate -- and computer literate -- start in life. One preschool teacher is a young man from the colonias. Lynch helped him acquire the necessary education.

Because of the preschool, the state built a regular school nearby.

The preschool’s computer lab of donated used equipment on planks supported by cinder blocks, is borrowed for half of each day by the children in the state school who don’t have anything quite as grand.

Not far from the dump, too, there’s the catechetical center run by Franciscan Missionary sisters under the laughing care of Sr. Martina. She talks about the work -- the Franciscans also operate Casa de los Pobres in central Tijuana -- and the people. Two families have invited the visitors to their homes for lunch.

Within walking distance site of the dump, in one home Franciscan Sr. Angela helps prepare the quesadillas, rice and beans; Sr. Martina helps out in the other. Lunch is prayers, food, questions, laughter -- and some serious tears at times when life around the dump is frankly discussed.

The colonias’ shacks are home to people who miraculously turn out their children in clean shirts with clean faces and send them off early to school.

Mexican education for the vast majority ends at sixth grade.

With no jobs, these parents know they’ll eventually send their kids off to the dump or the maquiladora to poverty like their own -- if drugs, or gangs or death at The Wall doesn’t get them first.

In the last stop of the day, at the Scalabrini migrant center, director Martinez and the Buresons explain that from the U.S. viewpoint, The Wall works -- in two ways.

Martinez said that at its Tijuana-San Diego end, The Wall does keep migrants’ numbers down. The 220-bed Scallabrini Center, once filled with migrants waiting their turn to try to get into El Norte, is down most nights to about 40 men.

They’re elsewhere along the border -- at the breaks in The Wall.

Said Dick, The Wall also works because it lets through only those people the United States wants -- the able-bodied young men. “The only way around The Wall now,” said Dick, “is across the mountains or the deserts. The sick can’t make it, the women and children can’t make it, the elderly can’t make it.” The strong young men, today’s braceros, do.

To peonage on U.S. soil. In the San Diego-Los Angeles corridor alone there are more than a million off-the-books underpaid, overworked, undocumented immigrants with no protections, no recourse before the law, no chance of a stable life. Los Angeles County alone has a further 2 million workers and their families living below the poverty line -- no need to guess where most of them came from.

The ebb-and-flow is officially condoned, said Bureson. Farmers in America’s irrigated agricultural valleys that most of the entire U.S. population depends on for much of its food often get three days notice before their farms are raided by “La Migra,” the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

On the journey back to San Ysidro, to stand in the INS lines to return to the northern normalcy, Dick explained, “We orient people before we bring them on the trip -- because if you don’t they’re just lost. It’s when we finally get them down there we talk a lot about U.S. government policy, NAFTA, border issues.”

“We don’t take sides one way or the other,” said Nancy, “we just give them the information. We lay it out in terms of Catholic social teaching.”

A couple of weeks after the trip, for the diocesan visitors -- San Diego Bishop Robert Brom was one of the first -- there’s a Church Without Borders reflection on their Tijuana experience.

What happens to the individuals is always the great unknown in missionary work.

But Nancy Bureson treasures the words of one man who traveled south with them. At the colonias he looked carefully and listened intently. Later he confided to Nancy, “Now I can’t tell God I didn’t know.”

Arthur Jones is NCR editor-at-large.

National Catholic Reporter, January 17, 2003