"Dance, Malvo, dance," Rodríguez commanded the parrot.
The parrot complied.
Rodríguez told me that of his five children, four were married and worked as attorneys. The remaining child was in his last year of high school. I asked Rodríguez what his garden meant to him.
"Tranquility," he said.
Before I said good-bye to Rodríguez, he told me that one person in particular, Lolita, or Señora Dolores, had organized Los Arenales to petition the government for electricity, water, sewage, and paved streets.
"She lives on the other side of the seminary, of the church where the brothers are. She lives in what we call Los Arenales Two."
At the end of Rodríguez's street, adolescent boys had put their stereo's speakers out on the second-floor patio of their family's brick home. While they roughhoused in drizzly rain, a remix of a Nirvana song blared so loudly that I could hear it for several blocks as I walked away.
Come as you are,
as you were,
As I want you to be...
Come dowsed in mud, soaked in bleach
As I want you to be...
The Arenales I encountered on Christmas morning 15 years ago still existed at the neighborhood's southern edge, down near where the women fetched water from the murky lagoon. Around a smoldering trash heap, two mud-spattered pigs rooted in mud. Skinny speckled chickens ran about in an aimless way.
Not far from the skinny chickens and mud-spattered pigs sat a wooden house hidden behind white buckets filled with ferns. Some thought had been given to the arrangement. The many fern-filled white buckets sat atop two tiers of long shelves built with cinder blocks and wood planks. It looked almost like a primordial nursery.
I couldn't identify the ferns. I don't like ferns. They all looked like the same variety. I guessed they might have been maidenhair ferns, a kind kept on many Californian patios. But the sheer number of fern-filled buckets distracted me from the elderly man who sat on a low metal stool beside them. He wore a white shirt, blue jeans, and white straw hat. He seemed surprised to see a gringo in his neighborhood.
"Are these your plants?" I asked.
"What did you say?" he yelled.
"These plants," I yelled. "Are they yours?"
"What did you say?" He squinted at me.
"What are these plants called in Spanish?" I asked.
"I like to sit here," he yelled. "The plants are very beautiful."
A red-and-white shop sits on Baile de México, Dance of Mexico, the main street connecting Los Arenales One and Los Arenales Two. On its window the shop announces that it rents tuxedos. Plastic roses, teddy bears, ceramic figurines -- the hopeful stuff of quinceañeras, engagement parties, weddings -- fill the window. When I entered the shop, Dolores Dimas stood behind its glass counter.
"It was the floods of 1987 that brought us to Los Arenales," she said. "We were living down in Zona Rio, near the river. There were about 400 families. We had no place else to go."
Dimas, a petite woman with shoulder-length black hair, is direct and self-confident but doesn't toot her own horn. We talked for quite a while before she mentioned in an offhand way, "I spent six months in jail for my activities on behalf of Los Arenales."
"When we got here there was absolutely nothing. Everything that you now see, all the public services, all the public transport, I'm the one who started lobbying for it. About 350 families came here to Los Arenales. We started to organize as groups. For a while we were associated with a political party, the Socialist Workers Party, but it doesn't exist anymore.
"We were so successful because as a group we were very organized. Everyone participated."
I asked if Dimas came from a political family.
"No. No one was political except me. Why? Because I liked politics."
Did many people in Los Arenales come from a certain state? Did a common regional identity help them band together?
"No. It was necessity. Necessity and wanting a better way of life."
At the time Dimas and her neighbors began to organize, she said, Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari came several times to Tijuana. Dimas said she had the good fortune to speak with President Salinas about her neighborhood's problems and give him petitions.
"Three months after I met with the president, Los Arenales got electricity. That was in January 1989. The rest came after that. Water. Sewers. And in 1993, 1994, we began paving the streets. We did it all as an organized group, with help from government programs."
I asked Dimas about the trees I saw along the streets and in family gardens of Los Arenales One and Two. Where had the trees come from?
"The federal government gave them to us. We divided them up, three or four to each family. That must have been in 1990. I don't remember all the kinds of trees they gave us, but the idea was that we needed trees so that we could have a little bit of shade."
I said I wanted to see the trees from the Mexican government that Dimas had in her garden. She told me that I had to go outside the store, around the corner to the house in back. I hadn't realized that the store and the purple house with white trim behind the store were connected.
Dimas's garden consisted of a four-foot-wide plot of land on the east and south sides of her home. A few red geraniums and some maidenhair ferns grew in Dimas's garden, and ten mature trees. California peppers. A pine. What I guessed were two California fan palms, Washingtonia filifera, a native variety, had reached almost 20 feet tall.
Dimas told me that her five children were all married and gone. As she considered her garden, she said, "There was nothing when we got here.
"We built the elementary school and the kindergarten ourselves.
"Some people have forgotten what it was like."