continued 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."