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American Lutheran Church’s Third World Mini Tour stops at Tijuana jail

Misery gets company

I had signed up for an experience designed to “sensitize me to hunger..." - Image by Craig Carlson
I had signed up for an experience designed to “sensitize me to hunger..."

If you don’t live near a border town, and don’t go as casually and as frequently into Mexico as San Diegans do, just the word “Tijuana” opens a sepulchre at the end of the mind: dirty jokes about women who perform with donkeys; stories of lost weekends drinking the worm with an infected whore, who just before dawn and hangover’s first undulations emptied out gringo pockets.

M. Laurel Gray: ‘‘consciousness-raising — for us'"

As a country of the imagination, Mexico invades WASP consciousness with a rush of dark catastrophes, a flood of horrors: worn-out strippers in sleazy cantinas; dangerous leafy vegetables, more dangerous water; loose bowels and a tongue chalky with Kaopectate; cockfights, bullfights; rabid dogs, rabid bats; flies, fleas, rats; roadside murder; bribes passed to avoid being tossed, incommunicado, into jail for traffic violations one did not understand. Perhaps at the bottom of this swirling pit is the Tijuana jail — dank, dark, stinking of vomit and excrement, it has been described as ‘ ‘the lowest rung of Dante’s ‘Inferno.’ ”

Paul Weiss: It is “a great vacation bargain

I was going to that jail, not as a criminal but in the company of a group of people bearing food and clothing for the inmates. I had signed up for a consciousness-raising experience designed to “sensitize me to hunger and poverty.” On the Friday morning before I left, I said to myself, ‘ ‘I feel as if I’m going off to a Golden Door that specializes in spiritual diet and exercise, in shaking off fat and numbness of spirit. Or, to a spiritual punk rock slamdance, trying to beat my life against hardship, bruise it in order to find it.”

Casa de Cuna was built with funds provided by a group of Los Angeles Roman Catholic women. The women grew older, died, and Casa de Cuna was left with a gorgeous physical facility and little money.

I felt embarrassed and self-conscious at people’s knowing I was going “to have my consciousness raised.” I also dreaded the Friday-night-to-Sunday-noon ‘"experience," as brochures called it. Perhaps because I was an only child, I have felt a lifelong aversion to group-living and group process. I was afraid, too, that our visit to Tijuana poverty hot spots would add to my list of bad memories that come back late in the afternoon when I am tired, when my confidence is shot, when I am coming down with flu, when I can’t sleep. So, like a dieter getting in the last licks before a 500-calorie-a-day siege, I played the music loud, drank beer, walked the beach. I took Friday like a last meal.

Casa de Cuna. The room smelled of talcum powder and warm milk.

"Some of the people you will meet this weekend eat dirt," a Lutheran pastor told fifty of us gathered in a Chula Vista church. This opened Friday night’s orientation to the American Lutheran Church’s Third World Mini Tour. A Lutheran layman addressed the group: “I am a contractor. I believe in free enterprise. But I also believe we have a duty to be responsible for the poor. Ninety-three percent of Americans believe God exists. There’s a difference between believers and disciples.”

The church’s Hunger Action Enabler Program had arranged our tour. We would take food, clothing, and blankets to Tijuana orphanages, the Tijuana dump, and the Tijuana jail. According to that program’s director, M. Laurel Gray, the weekend is not a time set aside for affluent North Americans to perform charitable acts. Its principal purpose, he said, ‘‘is consciousness-raising — for us.'"

Half the group in the Chula Vista church would go to a Lutheran mission in Tijuana. Gray had contracted for the rest of us to go to Los Ninos. Los Ninos is an interfaith nonprofit group begun in 1974 by Paul Weiss. Los Ninos rents two barracks at Brown Field on Otay Mesa where they maintain a facility they call Rancho Justicia.

From their Rancho Justicia quarters Los Ninos took almost 2000 North Americans across the border to Tijuana in 1982 and exposed them to poverty. Many churches, college and university organizations, and monasteries and convents do as Gray’s American Lutheran Church had done. They use Los Ninos’ consciousness-raising weekends to augment their own programs. Individuals and families not associated with any special group also attend these weekends.

Gray’s Hunger Action program and Weiss’s Los Ninos are not affiliated with one another, but they do work toward similar goals and affirm similar beliefs. The principle of these goals is motivated by their belief that problems of poor people are not solved when the affluent give food. Problems are not solved when North American technology, theology, and middle-class values are imported into countries like Mexico. An estimated 41,000 children die, around the world, every day, of hunger and hunger-related diseases. This dire statistic will begin to change, both groups say, only when the affluent begin to change themselves. The goal of the Los Ninos weekend and the Lutheran Third World Mini Tour is to initiate that change.

I had met Gray in his twelve-by-eighteen-foot office at College Lutheran Church near San Diego State. Gray, a fifty-five-year-old Lutheran pastor, directed a church service group in San Diego for seven years, then in 1981 he took on the directorship of the Hunger Action Enabler Program. The position pays half-time. The work, Gray knew, would be full-time and more. ‘‘But I’d been talking simpler lifestyle, so I decided I would try to live it,” he said.

The Hunger Action Enabler Program, a two-year pilot program (1982-84), grew out of the church’s committee on hunger, of which Gray had been a part. The committee had met little success in engaging its essentially middle-class congregations in problems of world hunger and poverty . The pilot program’s function is to discover what the church can do to get its members past what Gray described as “numbness, indifference, frustration, a feeling of powerlessness.’’ Gray told me of the concepts behind the Mini Tours. “We feel the first step must be to sensitize people to hunger and poverty,’’ he said. “In Southern California we are taking advantage of our geography. The border is a great resource, a place where First and Third World touch, where dramatic differences exist between affluence and misery. For generations, the poor of Latin America have been victimized by colonial attitudes and actions of multinational corporations and large trade-greedy nations. Well-meaning missionaries have contributed to this oppression. The Mini Tour allows North Americans to see the world through the eyes of the poor and oppressed.’’

I asked if we could not see this misery as easily in the United States. “Of course," Gray said. "But it helps to go out of your own country in order to come back and recognize what a mess is in your own backyard.’’

Gray had tacked a poster onto his office wall: Sometimes I Think My Mission Is To Bring Faith To The Faithless And Doubt To The Faithful. What he said about his work and his background showed me that his enthusiasm was directed more toward ‘‘doubt to the faithful.’’ He had grown up in a small South Dakota town where almost everyone was a Norwegian Lutheran. He described the town as a “Lutheran ghetto.’’ He had grown up poor. “When my father lost his job driving a truck during the Depression, we went on relief," Gray said. "I felt, then, that something was wrong with me, for being poor. Which is a feeling many poor people carry, and with which many affluent people agree. That it is the fault of the poor, for being poor.

"The bottom line for our program is this — that at the very least we tell people, we show them. No one can say, after a Mini Tour, for instance, that they did not know poverty and injustice exist. They can’t claim ignorance. Only indifference.’’

When I met Paul Weiss at Los Ninos’ Santa Barbara headquarters, I asked him what he believed groups like Gray’s get from these visits across the border. “A Los Ninos weekend,” Weiss said, “is a place where many people are touched by real poverty for the first time in their lives. It is also a place where the educational journey about justice begins in earnest for some. And it is a place where a person can experience his own impact or her power to effect change. It is also,” he laughed, “a great vacation bargain. Where else in Southern California can you get three meals, two nights, and travel to a foreign country for twenty-five dollars?”

Los Ninos, Weiss explained, “works two ways. To paraphrase Mother Teresa, the poor live on both sides of the tracks, both sides of the border. The affluent are imprisoned in materialism and the poor are marginalized by it. Los Ninos speaks to both sides.’’

Weiss described Los Ninos’ Saturday in Tijuana as “getting in touch with our society’s victims, putting names and faces to the term: poverty. We’ve seen the poor on the seven o’clock news, and then, on Saturday, ' all of a sudden they are the little children we play with, a woman whose roof we help to fix. On Saturdays Los Ninos gives middle-class people the opportunity to finally touch, in flesh, all those abstract terms: the poor, the starving, the undernourished, the marginalized. It’s not high-class slumming, not a liberal’s conscience-pricking Gray line Tour of Misery. We do —’not go to look at the poor. We go to be present with them.' Mother Teresa points out that the poor feel tremendous isolation. When we shake hands, talk, ask questions, listen, we breach that isolation. We say, by being there, we are members of the same family.

"There is a great myth in our country that our government is helping the poor and hungry. When we analyze the giving policies of the U.S. government, we find it doesn’t give much humanitarian aid, and that it is in sixteenth or seventeenth place among donor nations providing help to underdeveloped countries. So that ‘the government’s doing it’ is one myth that holds some church people back from involvement. Another myth many church people are gripped by is that they can’t, as individuals or groups, make that much difference anyway.

“We take food because they [the poor] are hungry,’’ Weiss continued. ‘ ‘We are not going to be the rich person handing out our leftovers to the poor. In the very act of our giving this food to people, we are asking them to forgive our being the people who have all the food to give. When we give a hungry person food, we must, as St. Vincent de Paul says, ‘beg the forgiveness of our gift. ’ The food we take is also a crutch — for us. The real gift we carry into Tijuana on Saturdays is the gift of ourselves — willing to be changed, transformed.’’

Friday night at nine o’clock our orientation for the Mini Tour ended. Four of us headed to Los Ninos’ Rancho Justicia packed into a small car with our sleeping bags, packs, and raingear. We had exchanged names only two hours earlier, and drove south along 1-5 without conversation. Soon we parked on the rutted lot next to Rancho Justicia. Border Patrol helicopters (the Mexicans call these la mosca, or “the fly”) whirred and clattered overhead. The copters hovered. Their broad searchlights streamed down across tall grass. We hauled packs and bags up the steps of the World War II barracks. I stopped to read the quotation from Albert Camus hand-lettered over the wide double doors: It Is Possible To Create A World In Which Fewer Innocent Children Suffer. Boxes of Washington apples, crates of oranges and huge-headed green cabbages were stacked inside the entryway. We would take these, on Saturday, to Tijuana. “It’s like walking into a produce room,” one of my driving companions said.

Mary Halloran, a blonde, thirtyish woman, introduced herself and told us to choose beds down the hall and then to re-group in the large room at the building’s west end. Halloran, like all those who work at Los Ninos’ Rancho Justicia, is an unpaid volunteer, committed to spending two years with Los Ninos. These volunteers support themselves through sponsorships created out of personal savings or by friends, family, church, and secular institutions.

The furniture in the meeting room is shabby. The patchwork curtains made by women in Tijuana brighten the room. Halloran asked us to introduce ourselves and to put on name tags. I counted more than thirty persons in the room, and during the next hour another twenty came in. Patrick (Pat) and Sally Morris, a youthful-looking middle-age couple, chaperoned one dozen teen-agers from First Presbyterian Church in San Bernardino. Pat, a judge appointed to the superior court in San Bernardino in 1976, is active in the Sierra Club. Sally hikes, does church and volunteer work. Their daughter Katy, a senior in high school, has been to Los Ninos three times. Their fourteen-year-old son, Jim, had come for the first time. There were twelve college students from Christ College, Irvine, another dozen teen-age boys and girls and their chaperones from a Torrance Lutheran church, and those of us whom Gray had sent.

"One day may not change much in Tijuana. You may feel you haven’t done anything to help. But the day may change you,” Halloran told us. She counted us into sets of four, to discuss our expectations of the upcoming day in Tijuana.

Brows wrinkled. Talk ran at a low volume. Two women, one a Syracuse, New York, physician who had been to Los Ninos many times, contributed, “We are always surprised how happy the people are in Tijuana.” This raised eyebrows and produced quizzical expressions on many faces.

I went to sleep, wrapped in my sleeping bag on a bunk bed in a room on Rancho Justicia’s ground floor. Upstairs the Presbyterians chorded guitars and sang. Outside the helicopters whirred, clattered, rose, and hovered. I awoke early on Saturday morning and watched the sun rise past the fog. Finches fluttered in trees. Border Patrol cars pulled into the lot across the street.

Back in the meeting room we ate cornflakes, apples, and bananas, drank instant coffee. Los Ninos wants visitors to eat in a Spartan fashion, in order, Weiss has said, “to try to bridge the gap between rich and poor. For instance, we use cold water in the showers, do without meat and desserts. We try, for a couple of days at least, to put ourselves more closely in the place of the poor. Our bellies are still full when we go to Tijuana, of course, but it is one way to be more present to their realities. ’ ’

After breakfast Halloran helped each of us to choose where we would go for the day. Some would go to the dump to hand out groceries, others to one of three orphanages Los Ninos helps support. Adults and college-age men and women were to go to the Tijuana jail, at Constitucion and Eighth Street in downtown Tijuana.

Ten of us arranged ourselves in a Dodge van: Pat and Sally, Mary Worthington from San Diego, five college students, and our guide, a thirty-two-year-old attorney from New York named John Doscher. Doscher worked for Legal Aid in New York before he came to Los Ninos in 1981. Around our feet and behind the back seat we had arranged a pot of cooked beans, apple boxes, water bottles, boxes of paper cups, oranges and cabbages, shirts and trousers and blankets. By just before 9:00 a.m. we idled the Dodge in one of the lanes heading into Tijuana. Doscher directed our driver, John, a student from Cal State University, Long Beach, to a Calimax, where we bought ten kilos of tortillas and seven dozen rolls (bolillos). Since none of us spoke Spanish, we asked Doscher to translate billboards, store signs, graffiti.

We scooted in and out of traffic, eating warm tortillas from one of the kilo stacks that Doscher unwrapped and passed around. He told us, “In effect, the prisoners are not fed. Once a day they are given a soup made from spoiled vegetables, which causes all who eat it to become ill. This situation first came to our attention in 1980, when we began helping nuns from La Casa de los Pobres to bring food to the jail once a week. Since then both the nuns and Los Ninos have been able to go on Tuesdays, Wednesdays,

Thursdays, and Fridays. Los Ninos goes on Mondays and Saturdays.’’ Asked why the Mexican government did not feed the prisoners better, Doscher answered, “Quite arguably, the Mexican government has primary responsibility of feeding the prisoners. However, there is little we can do to affect what the Mexican government does. And meanwhile the prisoners are still hungry.

“Most of the prisoners,’’ Doscher went on, “are in jail for fifteen to twenty-five days, because of relatively minor infractions — public intoxication, disorderly conduct.’’ As we neared the jail, we became quiet.

We unpacked our apples, water bottles, bolillos, blankets, and clothing onto the sidewalk fronting the jail. Doscher divided up the workload, asked us to watch for people who were ill or wounded. “Point them out to me,’’ he said. We carried our bottles and boxes past the uniformed guards at the jail’s gate, into the jail’s kitchen and commissary. From this commissary those prisoners with money can buy simple meals. A cook was heating refried beans in a foot-wide iron skillet set on the six-burner stove. Lisa and I had been assigned to pass out tortillas; while we unpackaged the paper-wrapped stacks, the cook spooned the beans into a plastic milk carton from which the top had been cut, and then placed the carton on a brown tray. A guard took the tray and handed the cook a roll of bills.

In the kitchen, we were watched by guards and prisoners alike, and two women who work in the jail office. Doscher, who teaches Spanish to Los Ninos’ volunteers, talked with Tony, the commissary manager.

The Tijuana jail is a fortress-style building with an interior roofed courtyard. Along the east side, four tiers of cells rise. Cells measure eleven-by-eight feet. Each holds two bunk beds with three bunks each, and as many as twenty-four men can be squeezed into one cell. The top tier, D, was empty. No one seemed to know why. On C tier some of Tijuana’s mentally ill population are kept. These people, Doscher had told us, were not criminals; they were either homeless or without family to care for them. On B tier are men convicted of minor crimes. To B tier’s far right, south-side, is an area for women. The bottom tier, A, is a drunk tank on the right-hand side. To the left are cells that house men, either two to a cell, or alone. These men are usually longer-term prisoners who have access to money.

“Watch out for water running down the steps from C tier,” Doscher warned. “I almost fell last week, walking down.” The metal steps were slimy with water and rotting food. They are set into a free-standing staircase, beginning on D, and winding down through the other levels. “On C-8, that man can be violent. Let me feed him,” Doscher said.

Sunlight shone through south windows set high into the courtyard’s fortress walls and angled downward in broad bands onto wet, pock-marked concrete. The courtyard was absolutely still when we entered. A sour rot rose off the gray concrete. Orange rinds, banana peels, bits of hamburger bun, vomit, white noodles in spirals, and white, styrofoam take-out boxes, like those from McDonald’s, had been tossed onto the floors.

Lisa and I climbed the slippery steps to C tier. The smell hit. I began to breathe through my mouth. As we walked up the stairs past B tier, men began to yell. They stuck their hands through the bars, reaching out for food.

On C tier the smells grew ranker: body odor, vomit, and fresh excrement. We peeled back, five tortillas, and then stuck the tortillas between the bars, as Doscher had instructed. A brown hand reached, pulled. Piles of excrement coiled on his cell floor.

The open toilet against the cell’s back wall buzzed with flies. I could hear the hatch of flies, then the man’s chewing, gulping, his forced, dry swallowing. “I take you two to Hollywood,” he said in Spanish-accented English, and laughed in a high-pitched cackle. In C-3 a child-size, emaciated woman curled on the flexor wrapped in decaying rags. She raised her eyes. Her chapped lips formed a round, noiseless O. Stooping, I held out the tortillas in between the bars. She did not move. Her unwrinkled skin, her unfocused eyes, and her lips in that O — she could have been twenty, she could have been forty. ‘‘What should I do?” I asked Lisa. She did not know. I laid the five tortillas on the cell floor.

We walked down the wet steps to B tier. Alone in a cell at one end, a young man, clean-faced except for a hairline-wide moustache, sat on an upper bunk. He held open a copy of a book by Regis Debray, the Frenchman captured with Che Guevara in the Bolivian mountains. Lisa stuck five tortillas through the bars. He shook his head in the negative.

Perhaps fifteen men were packed together in the next cell: whites of eyes, less-white teeth, dark facial hair trimmed into curlicues and traceries in black around brown mouths, bronze skin. Grunts, argumentatively spoken Spanish, shoving against the bars. Five or six men lay on bunks. Others sat, backs to the wall, on bunks. Drying urine and new sweat were the principal odors. Hands reached out from between the bars: work-hard, scarred; one hand with the index finger gone after the first joint, and the second finger a stub, skin gathered like an elasticized waistband and drawn together over the bone. The index knuckle and stub, wriggling, reached out, pulled in the five tortillas, reached out again. ‘‘More, lady, more,” a voice pleaded. ‘‘More. ” Lisa and I had begun to peel off tortillas as rapidly as we could. The thin, warm tortillas tended to stick together, and with my shaking hands, with those voices crying out for food, I became incapable of the precise movements that pulled five tortillas neatly free of the stack. I began to rip off the tortillas, six of them, seven, eight.

The wriggling finger stub stuck out again between the bars. It wiggled insinuatingly. The voice continued, “More, lady, more,” I was afraid to look up into the eyes. I felt giddy and dizzy, completely turned around, lost.

Three women, all in their twenties, leaned into the bars. All refused the tortillas. “More apple,” one asked. Across her nose, freckles were sprinkled like nutmeg across browned custard. Her long fingernails had been polished pale pink, and she wore narrow gold rings on her fingers and in her ears. Lisa had left on her name tag. The smallest of the women, not five feet tall, and barefoot, said softly, “Leesa?” Lisa nodded, smiling. Her broad face reddened.

On A tier, the apples, beans, and bolillos had been handed into cells. The water cups had been passed through bars. Pat and John were already refilling the four-ounce cups. Perhaps twenty men were packed into one cell, writhing like earthworms packed into a quart jar. They chewed with a rhythm as steady, as loud as a herd of dairy cattle at troughs in a closed barn.

Once the tortillas were handed out, I stood back against the west wall and looked eastward and upward toward the banks of cells. I looked to my left where blankets curtained the individual cells. Music and TV dialogue hummed out from behind the blankets. An altar had been arranged on a six-foot-long chest of drawers and decorated with paper red roses and plastic yellow dahlias; once a week a priest celebrates Mass here. A sleek man, almost seal-sleek, wearing black, sharply creased trousers, walked toward me. He was combing his damp hair. His cheeks were freshly shaved. Lime aftershave wafted off him: sharp and citrusy. He told me his name. We shook hands. “I am in for only another three weeks until my lawyer will have me out,” he said in barely accented English. I asked what it was like for him in there. He shrugged and said, ‘‘Not bad. But for them. . . .” He paused and raised a hand toward the cells to our right. Arms and legs bulged out from the bars. Loud talk and cries, catcalls, had started. ‘‘For them, it is very bad.”

Doscher walked from cell to cell, talking with men and women, writing rapidly on his notepad. Los Ninos’ volunteers take messages to prisoners’ family and friends. In many cases no one knows that these men and women have been incarcerated. Los Ninos also occasionally pays the fines of prisoners who are ill, or who, because of their youth, appear to be particularly vulnerable. The payment of the fines (usually about $3.50 in American dollars) will generally satisfy the debt for men and women arrested for public intoxication or for disorderly conduct.

Pat, Sally, and John have passed out shirts and trousers. Pat went from cell to cell on B tier, trying to gauge the size of the men and the condition of their clothing and to match that state and size to the clothing we had brought from Rancho Justicia. Hands reached from between bars. Voices called out from the cells, ‘‘Shirt, shirt, pants, here.” As Pat passed a cell, the voices in that cell grew louder, then died down as he walked on to the next, where again cries would increase in number and volume. ‘‘Here, here, mister. Pants. Shirt.”

Several of the college students continued to pour water into the paper cups and pass the cups through into cells. Pat, Sally, John, and some among the students attempted to talk with prisoners who spoke and understood some English. I felt ineffectual, and was frightened by my inability even to think of anything useful I could be doing. I felt sick from the smell, woozy in the airless heat and addled by the increasingly persistent screaming out to catch Doscher’s attention, the constant yelling of “Pants, shirts. Here, mister. Here, missus.’’

When Doscher visits the jail, he takes his accordion, and before he leaves he plays four or five songs. This day he stood under the light streaming in from the high south windows and took the accordion from its black case. The jail noise stopped. He played a series of melancholy, dark-toned songs. His features were pinched and pained and his eyes appeared to look far, far off. Up on B tier a woman wearing a white skirt and white jacket held on to the bars of her cell. She swayed from the waist up in time to the music and looked down toward Doscher.

The prisoners were still clapping when we walked back into the commissary and gathered up our empty boxes and water bottles. We said goodbye to Tony and the cook.

Eighth Street, paralleling the jail entrance, had jammed up with honking cars stopped by a stalled rusty pickup stacked with chicken crates and chirping chicks. Shoppers laughed, shouted, bumped into one another, snapped fingers. Transistor radios, aerials pulled out full-length, gave off North American rock and roll.

We had been in the jail for only ninety minutes. My anticipation of the visit to Tijuana jail had been filled with apprehension and fear, like the hours before a wisdom tooth must be extracted or a difficult, important examination passed. My sense of relief at leaving the jail was similar to my feeling once the tooth has been successfully removed, once the examination is successfully written. I also felt ashamed at having done no more than pass out tortillas, at being so embarrassed by my own freedom, so frightened by what seemed to me the prisoners’ “foreignness’’ that I had not even tried to visit with them, as Pat, Sally, and John had done.

Doscher joined us in the parking lot. He told us he had paid the fines for the woman in the white suit, for a North American picked up in a bar scrape, and that he had taken messages from two dozen men. He directed our driver to our next stop, the Casa de Cuna (Cradle House) Orphanage.

Case de Cuna was built before World War II with funds provided by a group of Los Angeles Roman Catholic women. The women grew older, died, and Casa de Cuna was left, Weiss said, with a gorgeous physical facility and little money. Los Ninos "provides a lot of touching, holding, financial support, food. Kids,’’ Weiss said, in what is one of his constant themes, “can simply die if they are not touched. With 110 kids and a staff of twelve or thirteen, there isn’t enough time to pick up all the infants and to play games with older children. ’’ The Presbyterian teen-agers had been at Casa de Cuna since early morning, playing with children and helping the madres. Mary and I walked upstairs. Forty infants, each in a separate crib, were awakening from naps and taking bottles. Suckling, gurgling, cooing, burping, baby laughter resonated across the one-hundred-foot-long room. The madres, dressed in ankle-length gray-and-white cotton habits, walked quietly. They nodded to us and smiled. The room smelled of talcum powder and warm milk. Mary lifted out a baby who had emptied his bottle and begun to fuss. She leaned back into one of the four rocking chairs, the baby against her sweatshirt, and raised a burp from him. They both smiled. “You forget how small they are,’’ she told me, and lifted his snail-size wriggling hand.

The sunny, square courtyard was planted with red geraniums, flowering shrubs, petunias whose petals riffled in the breeze. Pat threw a football across the courtyard with two boys and three girls. His arm came far back for the toss, and the children were jumping up to catch. Later Pat will say that coming into Casa de Cuna from Tijuana jail was “like walking into paradise.’’

Doscher sat nearby on the chapel steps, talking with a woman from the Los Angeles Catholic Worker. She was spending the weekend helping out at the orphanage. The two compared notes on volunteer work, laughed about the five dollars per week she earns. “I have to pay to be where I am,’’ Doscher said.

Doscher wanted to avoid the long weekend lines at the border, so we left early. By 4:00 p.m. few cars were crossing into the U.S. Few in our line were stopped, and fewer searched. We were talking conversationally and comfortably. Pat told me he grew up in Needles, that his father worked on the Santa Fe, that he also worked for the railroad between semesters at the University of Redlands, and again while he was at Stanford Law School. He talked enthusiastically about his involvement with the Sierra Club. ‘‘I see Los Ninos,’’ he said, “as another of these grassroot movements that are really going to change some people. I’ve watched it happen in the environmental movement which, without much leadership in the halls of power, has managed to make believers out of people. ’’ Sally told me their daughter, Katy, was so "fired up" by Los Ninos ’ program that on most Sundays she set up a card table on the church patio and gathered money, groceries, and art supplies for Los Ninos.

Ours was the first group back at the barracks at Brown Field. Pat, Sally, Mary, and I sat in the meeting room and talked — but not about the jail. Pat would say, weeks later, that he felt anguished during that late afternoon, and physically ill from having been in the jail. The visit, he would say, “affected my life powerfully. I’ve told the story of that jail now, in the past six weeks, maybe one hundred times, told it to friends and to strangers. It was like being instantly moved back to medieval prisons, to all the horror of castle dungeons. I can still smell it, that stale mix of urine, excrement, rotting food, vomit.’’

At 8:00 p.m., after a dinner of tortillas, refried beans, and salad, we met again in the large room. Doscher was passing around a warm applesauce sheetcake. People were slicing out squares. Rich, a tall, big-boned blond with flushed cheeks, a senior in high school in San Bernardino who had said Friday night that he wanted to become a minister, told about his day at the dump. He described the dump as a place "where they make a living from what the world throws out.’’ His eyes filled with tears as he talked about people reaching out for the bags of groceries his group had handed out, of three-year-old children sifting through ashes for aluminum cans and glass beer bottles. The group responded quietly. John, the twenty-two-year-old from Long Beach, our driver that day, said, “I was afraid to look at the prisoners. I'm one of those persons who’s very good at blocking out unpleasantness. But after I passed out the cups of water, I made myself look. I wanted to go throw up. Then I calmed down.’’ “I felt,’’ one teen-ager said, “that when I was at the dump I was in another world, and a spectacle was going on. It was like watching another world in a movie.’’

We made arrangements for Sunday morning’s breakfast. The atmosphere in the room, which had held a thickly penitential calm, filled suddenly with giggling, with laughter. A wild game of tag began in the first-floor hallway.

After breakfast Halloran showed a slide show entitled "In Pursuit of Refuge.” The opening statement read, "Hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans and Guatemalans are fleeing their war-torn countries.” Bludgeoned bodies irradiated off the old home movie screen in bright, bloody-red technicolor. Peasants and workers explained on the tape-recorded narration that they fled their countries because they feared for their lives. They came to Mexico and to the United States hoping to find work. A taped voice explains the Sanctuary movement. ‘‘More than one hundred churches in the U.S.,” the voice read, ‘‘have taken steps to prohibit U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service agents from entering church property in search of undocumented immigrants. The U.S. Refugee Act of 1980 states that anyone with a well-founded fear of persecution due to their political organization should be granted political asylum.” But, Halloran told us when she flipped back on the lights, ‘‘most of these people are unable to defend themselves properly in I.N.S. hearings. So many are deported.”

We were asked to form groups of three and four and discuss responses to the slide show. We asked ourselves how our affluence affects the people in El Salvador and Guatemala. Our group, all adults, agreed that multinational megabusinesses force one-crop economies on lush soils in small nations, keep their citizens from subsistence farming and trapped into importing food. We concluded, rather uncertainly, that we might have to give up inexpensive bananas, cheap coffee.

At 11:00 a.m., after cleaning the barracks, we gathered for a worship service planned during the weekend by six people from our various groups. Texts from Old and New Testament that reflected upon God’s advocacy of the poor and oppressed were read. We sang songs.

When I am asked, now, what I think Gray’s Hunger Action Enabler Program and Weiss’s Los Ninos are doing, I have two answers. One answer is for other people. One answer is for myself. To other people I say that both of these groups provide opportunities for conversion experience. Not the tent-revival calling up of souls for Jesus. Gray and Weiss’s programs hope to produce a conversion to the neighbor, a belief in and concern for one’s fellow man and his earthly suffering. Since World War II both Protestant and Roman Catholic churches have begun increasingly to reject neutrality in social and political action, to equate salvation with liberation and commitment to create a just, fraternal society. This new perspective, called the ‘‘theology of liberation,” demands that Christians become converted — that they give their own selves over — not only to Christ but also to the neighbor.

To people who say to me that they believe the church should edge away from anything that smacks of politics, I repeat what Gray told me in his office: ‘‘I don’t see how anyone can read the Book of Exodus and not hear the message, ‘Let my people go,’ or can hear the Gospel of Luke, which might better be titled ‘Good News to the Poor,’ and not recognize God’s advocacy of the poor and oppressed, not recognize that solidarity with the poor is a necessary consequence of authentic faith.”

Both Gray and Weiss told me that they neither expect nor want ‘‘instant conversions,” initial bursts of enthusiasm during which people will pledge themselves to ambitious political action and resolve to perform myriad good works. Their hope is that exposure to conditions of poverty, combined with education in hunger and poverty issues, will induce what educator Paulo Freire calls the ‘‘con-scientization process.” This process begins with a critical awareness, a rejection of an oppressive consciousness, and an acceptance of a conscious awareness. Its goal is to have individuals and groups recognize that they do have the power to act effectively to make social and political changes.

People respond quite differently to this process. I came back from my visit to Tijuana’s jail and wrote myself this note: We have fed upon the body of the poor. We are ravens exciting ourselves with their twitches and sores. What we see in their lives — the hunger and the impossibility — is what we sense too often within ourselves. We look back now to the Holocaust. That event is for most of us a luxurious horror of the imagination only, that we finger in the dark and with which we scare ourselves. We ask, ‘‘How did they — the ‘Good Germans’ — let it happen?” Children in warm beds and safe rooms like scary stories. They flirt with monsters. Adults for whom the next meal is not any longer a life-or-death struggle can afford a little psychic bloodsport. Perhaps safe children and bellyful adults need terror. Since my day in the Tijuana jail I have mused cynically about my having tried to walk a few miles in poor people’s sandals, my eating their tortillas and beans, crowding into their jail. I’ve told myself, ‘‘First it was blacks, then women, now the Third World — a race, a gender, now the whole damned globe. What scope!"

But then I back off and recognize that we have learned not to say "Boy" to a black, or ‘‘Girl” to a woman. Perhaps we can learn not to say ‘‘Them” to the poor, to the Third World. Perhaps we can learn to say and feel ‘‘Us.” I have taunted myself and my class of upper-educated, upscale, post-Acid Sierra Club, Eugene McCarthy-era, beat blue jeans consciousness types, have disgusted myself on me, on us: our group-process skills, our psychological/spiritual voguishness, our addiction to angst, our psyche as hobby. I suspect that in my poverty tour I picked up a worm of terror that wriggles up the spine of my fat life, and I feel myself edging out onto a tender new leaf of consciousness. The odors of the Tijuana jail are the smell of a new imperative. On Saturday morning, in Los Ninos ’ meeting room, Mary Halloran asked, ‘‘Where is your own poverty?” Perhaps in that question there lies an answer for all of us.

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I had signed up for an experience designed to “sensitize me to hunger..." - Image by Craig Carlson
I had signed up for an experience designed to “sensitize me to hunger..."

If you don’t live near a border town, and don’t go as casually and as frequently into Mexico as San Diegans do, just the word “Tijuana” opens a sepulchre at the end of the mind: dirty jokes about women who perform with donkeys; stories of lost weekends drinking the worm with an infected whore, who just before dawn and hangover’s first undulations emptied out gringo pockets.

M. Laurel Gray: ‘‘consciousness-raising — for us'"

As a country of the imagination, Mexico invades WASP consciousness with a rush of dark catastrophes, a flood of horrors: worn-out strippers in sleazy cantinas; dangerous leafy vegetables, more dangerous water; loose bowels and a tongue chalky with Kaopectate; cockfights, bullfights; rabid dogs, rabid bats; flies, fleas, rats; roadside murder; bribes passed to avoid being tossed, incommunicado, into jail for traffic violations one did not understand. Perhaps at the bottom of this swirling pit is the Tijuana jail — dank, dark, stinking of vomit and excrement, it has been described as ‘ ‘the lowest rung of Dante’s ‘Inferno.’ ”

Paul Weiss: It is “a great vacation bargain

I was going to that jail, not as a criminal but in the company of a group of people bearing food and clothing for the inmates. I had signed up for a consciousness-raising experience designed to “sensitize me to hunger and poverty.” On the Friday morning before I left, I said to myself, ‘ ‘I feel as if I’m going off to a Golden Door that specializes in spiritual diet and exercise, in shaking off fat and numbness of spirit. Or, to a spiritual punk rock slamdance, trying to beat my life against hardship, bruise it in order to find it.”

Casa de Cuna was built with funds provided by a group of Los Angeles Roman Catholic women. The women grew older, died, and Casa de Cuna was left with a gorgeous physical facility and little money.

I felt embarrassed and self-conscious at people’s knowing I was going “to have my consciousness raised.” I also dreaded the Friday-night-to-Sunday-noon ‘"experience," as brochures called it. Perhaps because I was an only child, I have felt a lifelong aversion to group-living and group process. I was afraid, too, that our visit to Tijuana poverty hot spots would add to my list of bad memories that come back late in the afternoon when I am tired, when my confidence is shot, when I am coming down with flu, when I can’t sleep. So, like a dieter getting in the last licks before a 500-calorie-a-day siege, I played the music loud, drank beer, walked the beach. I took Friday like a last meal.

Casa de Cuna. The room smelled of talcum powder and warm milk.

"Some of the people you will meet this weekend eat dirt," a Lutheran pastor told fifty of us gathered in a Chula Vista church. This opened Friday night’s orientation to the American Lutheran Church’s Third World Mini Tour. A Lutheran layman addressed the group: “I am a contractor. I believe in free enterprise. But I also believe we have a duty to be responsible for the poor. Ninety-three percent of Americans believe God exists. There’s a difference between believers and disciples.”

The church’s Hunger Action Enabler Program had arranged our tour. We would take food, clothing, and blankets to Tijuana orphanages, the Tijuana dump, and the Tijuana jail. According to that program’s director, M. Laurel Gray, the weekend is not a time set aside for affluent North Americans to perform charitable acts. Its principal purpose, he said, ‘‘is consciousness-raising — for us.'"

Half the group in the Chula Vista church would go to a Lutheran mission in Tijuana. Gray had contracted for the rest of us to go to Los Ninos. Los Ninos is an interfaith nonprofit group begun in 1974 by Paul Weiss. Los Ninos rents two barracks at Brown Field on Otay Mesa where they maintain a facility they call Rancho Justicia.

From their Rancho Justicia quarters Los Ninos took almost 2000 North Americans across the border to Tijuana in 1982 and exposed them to poverty. Many churches, college and university organizations, and monasteries and convents do as Gray’s American Lutheran Church had done. They use Los Ninos’ consciousness-raising weekends to augment their own programs. Individuals and families not associated with any special group also attend these weekends.

Gray’s Hunger Action program and Weiss’s Los Ninos are not affiliated with one another, but they do work toward similar goals and affirm similar beliefs. The principle of these goals is motivated by their belief that problems of poor people are not solved when the affluent give food. Problems are not solved when North American technology, theology, and middle-class values are imported into countries like Mexico. An estimated 41,000 children die, around the world, every day, of hunger and hunger-related diseases. This dire statistic will begin to change, both groups say, only when the affluent begin to change themselves. The goal of the Los Ninos weekend and the Lutheran Third World Mini Tour is to initiate that change.

I had met Gray in his twelve-by-eighteen-foot office at College Lutheran Church near San Diego State. Gray, a fifty-five-year-old Lutheran pastor, directed a church service group in San Diego for seven years, then in 1981 he took on the directorship of the Hunger Action Enabler Program. The position pays half-time. The work, Gray knew, would be full-time and more. ‘‘But I’d been talking simpler lifestyle, so I decided I would try to live it,” he said.

The Hunger Action Enabler Program, a two-year pilot program (1982-84), grew out of the church’s committee on hunger, of which Gray had been a part. The committee had met little success in engaging its essentially middle-class congregations in problems of world hunger and poverty . The pilot program’s function is to discover what the church can do to get its members past what Gray described as “numbness, indifference, frustration, a feeling of powerlessness.’’ Gray told me of the concepts behind the Mini Tours. “We feel the first step must be to sensitize people to hunger and poverty,’’ he said. “In Southern California we are taking advantage of our geography. The border is a great resource, a place where First and Third World touch, where dramatic differences exist between affluence and misery. For generations, the poor of Latin America have been victimized by colonial attitudes and actions of multinational corporations and large trade-greedy nations. Well-meaning missionaries have contributed to this oppression. The Mini Tour allows North Americans to see the world through the eyes of the poor and oppressed.’’

I asked if we could not see this misery as easily in the United States. “Of course," Gray said. "But it helps to go out of your own country in order to come back and recognize what a mess is in your own backyard.’’

Gray had tacked a poster onto his office wall: Sometimes I Think My Mission Is To Bring Faith To The Faithless And Doubt To The Faithful. What he said about his work and his background showed me that his enthusiasm was directed more toward ‘‘doubt to the faithful.’’ He had grown up in a small South Dakota town where almost everyone was a Norwegian Lutheran. He described the town as a “Lutheran ghetto.’’ He had grown up poor. “When my father lost his job driving a truck during the Depression, we went on relief," Gray said. "I felt, then, that something was wrong with me, for being poor. Which is a feeling many poor people carry, and with which many affluent people agree. That it is the fault of the poor, for being poor.

"The bottom line for our program is this — that at the very least we tell people, we show them. No one can say, after a Mini Tour, for instance, that they did not know poverty and injustice exist. They can’t claim ignorance. Only indifference.’’

When I met Paul Weiss at Los Ninos’ Santa Barbara headquarters, I asked him what he believed groups like Gray’s get from these visits across the border. “A Los Ninos weekend,” Weiss said, “is a place where many people are touched by real poverty for the first time in their lives. It is also a place where the educational journey about justice begins in earnest for some. And it is a place where a person can experience his own impact or her power to effect change. It is also,” he laughed, “a great vacation bargain. Where else in Southern California can you get three meals, two nights, and travel to a foreign country for twenty-five dollars?”

Los Ninos, Weiss explained, “works two ways. To paraphrase Mother Teresa, the poor live on both sides of the tracks, both sides of the border. The affluent are imprisoned in materialism and the poor are marginalized by it. Los Ninos speaks to both sides.’’

Weiss described Los Ninos’ Saturday in Tijuana as “getting in touch with our society’s victims, putting names and faces to the term: poverty. We’ve seen the poor on the seven o’clock news, and then, on Saturday, ' all of a sudden they are the little children we play with, a woman whose roof we help to fix. On Saturdays Los Ninos gives middle-class people the opportunity to finally touch, in flesh, all those abstract terms: the poor, the starving, the undernourished, the marginalized. It’s not high-class slumming, not a liberal’s conscience-pricking Gray line Tour of Misery. We do —’not go to look at the poor. We go to be present with them.' Mother Teresa points out that the poor feel tremendous isolation. When we shake hands, talk, ask questions, listen, we breach that isolation. We say, by being there, we are members of the same family.

"There is a great myth in our country that our government is helping the poor and hungry. When we analyze the giving policies of the U.S. government, we find it doesn’t give much humanitarian aid, and that it is in sixteenth or seventeenth place among donor nations providing help to underdeveloped countries. So that ‘the government’s doing it’ is one myth that holds some church people back from involvement. Another myth many church people are gripped by is that they can’t, as individuals or groups, make that much difference anyway.

“We take food because they [the poor] are hungry,’’ Weiss continued. ‘ ‘We are not going to be the rich person handing out our leftovers to the poor. In the very act of our giving this food to people, we are asking them to forgive our being the people who have all the food to give. When we give a hungry person food, we must, as St. Vincent de Paul says, ‘beg the forgiveness of our gift. ’ The food we take is also a crutch — for us. The real gift we carry into Tijuana on Saturdays is the gift of ourselves — willing to be changed, transformed.’’

Friday night at nine o’clock our orientation for the Mini Tour ended. Four of us headed to Los Ninos’ Rancho Justicia packed into a small car with our sleeping bags, packs, and raingear. We had exchanged names only two hours earlier, and drove south along 1-5 without conversation. Soon we parked on the rutted lot next to Rancho Justicia. Border Patrol helicopters (the Mexicans call these la mosca, or “the fly”) whirred and clattered overhead. The copters hovered. Their broad searchlights streamed down across tall grass. We hauled packs and bags up the steps of the World War II barracks. I stopped to read the quotation from Albert Camus hand-lettered over the wide double doors: It Is Possible To Create A World In Which Fewer Innocent Children Suffer. Boxes of Washington apples, crates of oranges and huge-headed green cabbages were stacked inside the entryway. We would take these, on Saturday, to Tijuana. “It’s like walking into a produce room,” one of my driving companions said.

Mary Halloran, a blonde, thirtyish woman, introduced herself and told us to choose beds down the hall and then to re-group in the large room at the building’s west end. Halloran, like all those who work at Los Ninos’ Rancho Justicia, is an unpaid volunteer, committed to spending two years with Los Ninos. These volunteers support themselves through sponsorships created out of personal savings or by friends, family, church, and secular institutions.

The furniture in the meeting room is shabby. The patchwork curtains made by women in Tijuana brighten the room. Halloran asked us to introduce ourselves and to put on name tags. I counted more than thirty persons in the room, and during the next hour another twenty came in. Patrick (Pat) and Sally Morris, a youthful-looking middle-age couple, chaperoned one dozen teen-agers from First Presbyterian Church in San Bernardino. Pat, a judge appointed to the superior court in San Bernardino in 1976, is active in the Sierra Club. Sally hikes, does church and volunteer work. Their daughter Katy, a senior in high school, has been to Los Ninos three times. Their fourteen-year-old son, Jim, had come for the first time. There were twelve college students from Christ College, Irvine, another dozen teen-age boys and girls and their chaperones from a Torrance Lutheran church, and those of us whom Gray had sent.

"One day may not change much in Tijuana. You may feel you haven’t done anything to help. But the day may change you,” Halloran told us. She counted us into sets of four, to discuss our expectations of the upcoming day in Tijuana.

Brows wrinkled. Talk ran at a low volume. Two women, one a Syracuse, New York, physician who had been to Los Ninos many times, contributed, “We are always surprised how happy the people are in Tijuana.” This raised eyebrows and produced quizzical expressions on many faces.

I went to sleep, wrapped in my sleeping bag on a bunk bed in a room on Rancho Justicia’s ground floor. Upstairs the Presbyterians chorded guitars and sang. Outside the helicopters whirred, clattered, rose, and hovered. I awoke early on Saturday morning and watched the sun rise past the fog. Finches fluttered in trees. Border Patrol cars pulled into the lot across the street.

Back in the meeting room we ate cornflakes, apples, and bananas, drank instant coffee. Los Ninos wants visitors to eat in a Spartan fashion, in order, Weiss has said, “to try to bridge the gap between rich and poor. For instance, we use cold water in the showers, do without meat and desserts. We try, for a couple of days at least, to put ourselves more closely in the place of the poor. Our bellies are still full when we go to Tijuana, of course, but it is one way to be more present to their realities. ’ ’

After breakfast Halloran helped each of us to choose where we would go for the day. Some would go to the dump to hand out groceries, others to one of three orphanages Los Ninos helps support. Adults and college-age men and women were to go to the Tijuana jail, at Constitucion and Eighth Street in downtown Tijuana.

Ten of us arranged ourselves in a Dodge van: Pat and Sally, Mary Worthington from San Diego, five college students, and our guide, a thirty-two-year-old attorney from New York named John Doscher. Doscher worked for Legal Aid in New York before he came to Los Ninos in 1981. Around our feet and behind the back seat we had arranged a pot of cooked beans, apple boxes, water bottles, boxes of paper cups, oranges and cabbages, shirts and trousers and blankets. By just before 9:00 a.m. we idled the Dodge in one of the lanes heading into Tijuana. Doscher directed our driver, John, a student from Cal State University, Long Beach, to a Calimax, where we bought ten kilos of tortillas and seven dozen rolls (bolillos). Since none of us spoke Spanish, we asked Doscher to translate billboards, store signs, graffiti.

We scooted in and out of traffic, eating warm tortillas from one of the kilo stacks that Doscher unwrapped and passed around. He told us, “In effect, the prisoners are not fed. Once a day they are given a soup made from spoiled vegetables, which causes all who eat it to become ill. This situation first came to our attention in 1980, when we began helping nuns from La Casa de los Pobres to bring food to the jail once a week. Since then both the nuns and Los Ninos have been able to go on Tuesdays, Wednesdays,

Thursdays, and Fridays. Los Ninos goes on Mondays and Saturdays.’’ Asked why the Mexican government did not feed the prisoners better, Doscher answered, “Quite arguably, the Mexican government has primary responsibility of feeding the prisoners. However, there is little we can do to affect what the Mexican government does. And meanwhile the prisoners are still hungry.

“Most of the prisoners,’’ Doscher went on, “are in jail for fifteen to twenty-five days, because of relatively minor infractions — public intoxication, disorderly conduct.’’ As we neared the jail, we became quiet.

We unpacked our apples, water bottles, bolillos, blankets, and clothing onto the sidewalk fronting the jail. Doscher divided up the workload, asked us to watch for people who were ill or wounded. “Point them out to me,’’ he said. We carried our bottles and boxes past the uniformed guards at the jail’s gate, into the jail’s kitchen and commissary. From this commissary those prisoners with money can buy simple meals. A cook was heating refried beans in a foot-wide iron skillet set on the six-burner stove. Lisa and I had been assigned to pass out tortillas; while we unpackaged the paper-wrapped stacks, the cook spooned the beans into a plastic milk carton from which the top had been cut, and then placed the carton on a brown tray. A guard took the tray and handed the cook a roll of bills.

In the kitchen, we were watched by guards and prisoners alike, and two women who work in the jail office. Doscher, who teaches Spanish to Los Ninos’ volunteers, talked with Tony, the commissary manager.

The Tijuana jail is a fortress-style building with an interior roofed courtyard. Along the east side, four tiers of cells rise. Cells measure eleven-by-eight feet. Each holds two bunk beds with three bunks each, and as many as twenty-four men can be squeezed into one cell. The top tier, D, was empty. No one seemed to know why. On C tier some of Tijuana’s mentally ill population are kept. These people, Doscher had told us, were not criminals; they were either homeless or without family to care for them. On B tier are men convicted of minor crimes. To B tier’s far right, south-side, is an area for women. The bottom tier, A, is a drunk tank on the right-hand side. To the left are cells that house men, either two to a cell, or alone. These men are usually longer-term prisoners who have access to money.

“Watch out for water running down the steps from C tier,” Doscher warned. “I almost fell last week, walking down.” The metal steps were slimy with water and rotting food. They are set into a free-standing staircase, beginning on D, and winding down through the other levels. “On C-8, that man can be violent. Let me feed him,” Doscher said.

Sunlight shone through south windows set high into the courtyard’s fortress walls and angled downward in broad bands onto wet, pock-marked concrete. The courtyard was absolutely still when we entered. A sour rot rose off the gray concrete. Orange rinds, banana peels, bits of hamburger bun, vomit, white noodles in spirals, and white, styrofoam take-out boxes, like those from McDonald’s, had been tossed onto the floors.

Lisa and I climbed the slippery steps to C tier. The smell hit. I began to breathe through my mouth. As we walked up the stairs past B tier, men began to yell. They stuck their hands through the bars, reaching out for food.

On C tier the smells grew ranker: body odor, vomit, and fresh excrement. We peeled back, five tortillas, and then stuck the tortillas between the bars, as Doscher had instructed. A brown hand reached, pulled. Piles of excrement coiled on his cell floor.

The open toilet against the cell’s back wall buzzed with flies. I could hear the hatch of flies, then the man’s chewing, gulping, his forced, dry swallowing. “I take you two to Hollywood,” he said in Spanish-accented English, and laughed in a high-pitched cackle. In C-3 a child-size, emaciated woman curled on the flexor wrapped in decaying rags. She raised her eyes. Her chapped lips formed a round, noiseless O. Stooping, I held out the tortillas in between the bars. She did not move. Her unwrinkled skin, her unfocused eyes, and her lips in that O — she could have been twenty, she could have been forty. ‘‘What should I do?” I asked Lisa. She did not know. I laid the five tortillas on the cell floor.

We walked down the wet steps to B tier. Alone in a cell at one end, a young man, clean-faced except for a hairline-wide moustache, sat on an upper bunk. He held open a copy of a book by Regis Debray, the Frenchman captured with Che Guevara in the Bolivian mountains. Lisa stuck five tortillas through the bars. He shook his head in the negative.

Perhaps fifteen men were packed together in the next cell: whites of eyes, less-white teeth, dark facial hair trimmed into curlicues and traceries in black around brown mouths, bronze skin. Grunts, argumentatively spoken Spanish, shoving against the bars. Five or six men lay on bunks. Others sat, backs to the wall, on bunks. Drying urine and new sweat were the principal odors. Hands reached out from between the bars: work-hard, scarred; one hand with the index finger gone after the first joint, and the second finger a stub, skin gathered like an elasticized waistband and drawn together over the bone. The index knuckle and stub, wriggling, reached out, pulled in the five tortillas, reached out again. ‘‘More, lady, more,” a voice pleaded. ‘‘More. ” Lisa and I had begun to peel off tortillas as rapidly as we could. The thin, warm tortillas tended to stick together, and with my shaking hands, with those voices crying out for food, I became incapable of the precise movements that pulled five tortillas neatly free of the stack. I began to rip off the tortillas, six of them, seven, eight.

The wriggling finger stub stuck out again between the bars. It wiggled insinuatingly. The voice continued, “More, lady, more,” I was afraid to look up into the eyes. I felt giddy and dizzy, completely turned around, lost.

Three women, all in their twenties, leaned into the bars. All refused the tortillas. “More apple,” one asked. Across her nose, freckles were sprinkled like nutmeg across browned custard. Her long fingernails had been polished pale pink, and she wore narrow gold rings on her fingers and in her ears. Lisa had left on her name tag. The smallest of the women, not five feet tall, and barefoot, said softly, “Leesa?” Lisa nodded, smiling. Her broad face reddened.

On A tier, the apples, beans, and bolillos had been handed into cells. The water cups had been passed through bars. Pat and John were already refilling the four-ounce cups. Perhaps twenty men were packed into one cell, writhing like earthworms packed into a quart jar. They chewed with a rhythm as steady, as loud as a herd of dairy cattle at troughs in a closed barn.

Once the tortillas were handed out, I stood back against the west wall and looked eastward and upward toward the banks of cells. I looked to my left where blankets curtained the individual cells. Music and TV dialogue hummed out from behind the blankets. An altar had been arranged on a six-foot-long chest of drawers and decorated with paper red roses and plastic yellow dahlias; once a week a priest celebrates Mass here. A sleek man, almost seal-sleek, wearing black, sharply creased trousers, walked toward me. He was combing his damp hair. His cheeks were freshly shaved. Lime aftershave wafted off him: sharp and citrusy. He told me his name. We shook hands. “I am in for only another three weeks until my lawyer will have me out,” he said in barely accented English. I asked what it was like for him in there. He shrugged and said, ‘‘Not bad. But for them. . . .” He paused and raised a hand toward the cells to our right. Arms and legs bulged out from the bars. Loud talk and cries, catcalls, had started. ‘‘For them, it is very bad.”

Doscher walked from cell to cell, talking with men and women, writing rapidly on his notepad. Los Ninos’ volunteers take messages to prisoners’ family and friends. In many cases no one knows that these men and women have been incarcerated. Los Ninos also occasionally pays the fines of prisoners who are ill, or who, because of their youth, appear to be particularly vulnerable. The payment of the fines (usually about $3.50 in American dollars) will generally satisfy the debt for men and women arrested for public intoxication or for disorderly conduct.

Pat, Sally, and John have passed out shirts and trousers. Pat went from cell to cell on B tier, trying to gauge the size of the men and the condition of their clothing and to match that state and size to the clothing we had brought from Rancho Justicia. Hands reached from between bars. Voices called out from the cells, ‘‘Shirt, shirt, pants, here.” As Pat passed a cell, the voices in that cell grew louder, then died down as he walked on to the next, where again cries would increase in number and volume. ‘‘Here, here, mister. Pants. Shirt.”

Several of the college students continued to pour water into the paper cups and pass the cups through into cells. Pat, Sally, John, and some among the students attempted to talk with prisoners who spoke and understood some English. I felt ineffectual, and was frightened by my inability even to think of anything useful I could be doing. I felt sick from the smell, woozy in the airless heat and addled by the increasingly persistent screaming out to catch Doscher’s attention, the constant yelling of “Pants, shirts. Here, mister. Here, missus.’’

When Doscher visits the jail, he takes his accordion, and before he leaves he plays four or five songs. This day he stood under the light streaming in from the high south windows and took the accordion from its black case. The jail noise stopped. He played a series of melancholy, dark-toned songs. His features were pinched and pained and his eyes appeared to look far, far off. Up on B tier a woman wearing a white skirt and white jacket held on to the bars of her cell. She swayed from the waist up in time to the music and looked down toward Doscher.

The prisoners were still clapping when we walked back into the commissary and gathered up our empty boxes and water bottles. We said goodbye to Tony and the cook.

Eighth Street, paralleling the jail entrance, had jammed up with honking cars stopped by a stalled rusty pickup stacked with chicken crates and chirping chicks. Shoppers laughed, shouted, bumped into one another, snapped fingers. Transistor radios, aerials pulled out full-length, gave off North American rock and roll.

We had been in the jail for only ninety minutes. My anticipation of the visit to Tijuana jail had been filled with apprehension and fear, like the hours before a wisdom tooth must be extracted or a difficult, important examination passed. My sense of relief at leaving the jail was similar to my feeling once the tooth has been successfully removed, once the examination is successfully written. I also felt ashamed at having done no more than pass out tortillas, at being so embarrassed by my own freedom, so frightened by what seemed to me the prisoners’ “foreignness’’ that I had not even tried to visit with them, as Pat, Sally, and John had done.

Doscher joined us in the parking lot. He told us he had paid the fines for the woman in the white suit, for a North American picked up in a bar scrape, and that he had taken messages from two dozen men. He directed our driver to our next stop, the Casa de Cuna (Cradle House) Orphanage.

Case de Cuna was built before World War II with funds provided by a group of Los Angeles Roman Catholic women. The women grew older, died, and Casa de Cuna was left, Weiss said, with a gorgeous physical facility and little money. Los Ninos "provides a lot of touching, holding, financial support, food. Kids,’’ Weiss said, in what is one of his constant themes, “can simply die if they are not touched. With 110 kids and a staff of twelve or thirteen, there isn’t enough time to pick up all the infants and to play games with older children. ’’ The Presbyterian teen-agers had been at Casa de Cuna since early morning, playing with children and helping the madres. Mary and I walked upstairs. Forty infants, each in a separate crib, were awakening from naps and taking bottles. Suckling, gurgling, cooing, burping, baby laughter resonated across the one-hundred-foot-long room. The madres, dressed in ankle-length gray-and-white cotton habits, walked quietly. They nodded to us and smiled. The room smelled of talcum powder and warm milk. Mary lifted out a baby who had emptied his bottle and begun to fuss. She leaned back into one of the four rocking chairs, the baby against her sweatshirt, and raised a burp from him. They both smiled. “You forget how small they are,’’ she told me, and lifted his snail-size wriggling hand.

The sunny, square courtyard was planted with red geraniums, flowering shrubs, petunias whose petals riffled in the breeze. Pat threw a football across the courtyard with two boys and three girls. His arm came far back for the toss, and the children were jumping up to catch. Later Pat will say that coming into Casa de Cuna from Tijuana jail was “like walking into paradise.’’

Doscher sat nearby on the chapel steps, talking with a woman from the Los Angeles Catholic Worker. She was spending the weekend helping out at the orphanage. The two compared notes on volunteer work, laughed about the five dollars per week she earns. “I have to pay to be where I am,’’ Doscher said.

Doscher wanted to avoid the long weekend lines at the border, so we left early. By 4:00 p.m. few cars were crossing into the U.S. Few in our line were stopped, and fewer searched. We were talking conversationally and comfortably. Pat told me he grew up in Needles, that his father worked on the Santa Fe, that he also worked for the railroad between semesters at the University of Redlands, and again while he was at Stanford Law School. He talked enthusiastically about his involvement with the Sierra Club. ‘‘I see Los Ninos,’’ he said, “as another of these grassroot movements that are really going to change some people. I’ve watched it happen in the environmental movement which, without much leadership in the halls of power, has managed to make believers out of people. ’’ Sally told me their daughter, Katy, was so "fired up" by Los Ninos ’ program that on most Sundays she set up a card table on the church patio and gathered money, groceries, and art supplies for Los Ninos.

Ours was the first group back at the barracks at Brown Field. Pat, Sally, Mary, and I sat in the meeting room and talked — but not about the jail. Pat would say, weeks later, that he felt anguished during that late afternoon, and physically ill from having been in the jail. The visit, he would say, “affected my life powerfully. I’ve told the story of that jail now, in the past six weeks, maybe one hundred times, told it to friends and to strangers. It was like being instantly moved back to medieval prisons, to all the horror of castle dungeons. I can still smell it, that stale mix of urine, excrement, rotting food, vomit.’’

At 8:00 p.m., after a dinner of tortillas, refried beans, and salad, we met again in the large room. Doscher was passing around a warm applesauce sheetcake. People were slicing out squares. Rich, a tall, big-boned blond with flushed cheeks, a senior in high school in San Bernardino who had said Friday night that he wanted to become a minister, told about his day at the dump. He described the dump as a place "where they make a living from what the world throws out.’’ His eyes filled with tears as he talked about people reaching out for the bags of groceries his group had handed out, of three-year-old children sifting through ashes for aluminum cans and glass beer bottles. The group responded quietly. John, the twenty-two-year-old from Long Beach, our driver that day, said, “I was afraid to look at the prisoners. I'm one of those persons who’s very good at blocking out unpleasantness. But after I passed out the cups of water, I made myself look. I wanted to go throw up. Then I calmed down.’’ “I felt,’’ one teen-ager said, “that when I was at the dump I was in another world, and a spectacle was going on. It was like watching another world in a movie.’’

We made arrangements for Sunday morning’s breakfast. The atmosphere in the room, which had held a thickly penitential calm, filled suddenly with giggling, with laughter. A wild game of tag began in the first-floor hallway.

After breakfast Halloran showed a slide show entitled "In Pursuit of Refuge.” The opening statement read, "Hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans and Guatemalans are fleeing their war-torn countries.” Bludgeoned bodies irradiated off the old home movie screen in bright, bloody-red technicolor. Peasants and workers explained on the tape-recorded narration that they fled their countries because they feared for their lives. They came to Mexico and to the United States hoping to find work. A taped voice explains the Sanctuary movement. ‘‘More than one hundred churches in the U.S.,” the voice read, ‘‘have taken steps to prohibit U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service agents from entering church property in search of undocumented immigrants. The U.S. Refugee Act of 1980 states that anyone with a well-founded fear of persecution due to their political organization should be granted political asylum.” But, Halloran told us when she flipped back on the lights, ‘‘most of these people are unable to defend themselves properly in I.N.S. hearings. So many are deported.”

We were asked to form groups of three and four and discuss responses to the slide show. We asked ourselves how our affluence affects the people in El Salvador and Guatemala. Our group, all adults, agreed that multinational megabusinesses force one-crop economies on lush soils in small nations, keep their citizens from subsistence farming and trapped into importing food. We concluded, rather uncertainly, that we might have to give up inexpensive bananas, cheap coffee.

At 11:00 a.m., after cleaning the barracks, we gathered for a worship service planned during the weekend by six people from our various groups. Texts from Old and New Testament that reflected upon God’s advocacy of the poor and oppressed were read. We sang songs.

When I am asked, now, what I think Gray’s Hunger Action Enabler Program and Weiss’s Los Ninos are doing, I have two answers. One answer is for other people. One answer is for myself. To other people I say that both of these groups provide opportunities for conversion experience. Not the tent-revival calling up of souls for Jesus. Gray and Weiss’s programs hope to produce a conversion to the neighbor, a belief in and concern for one’s fellow man and his earthly suffering. Since World War II both Protestant and Roman Catholic churches have begun increasingly to reject neutrality in social and political action, to equate salvation with liberation and commitment to create a just, fraternal society. This new perspective, called the ‘‘theology of liberation,” demands that Christians become converted — that they give their own selves over — not only to Christ but also to the neighbor.

To people who say to me that they believe the church should edge away from anything that smacks of politics, I repeat what Gray told me in his office: ‘‘I don’t see how anyone can read the Book of Exodus and not hear the message, ‘Let my people go,’ or can hear the Gospel of Luke, which might better be titled ‘Good News to the Poor,’ and not recognize God’s advocacy of the poor and oppressed, not recognize that solidarity with the poor is a necessary consequence of authentic faith.”

Both Gray and Weiss told me that they neither expect nor want ‘‘instant conversions,” initial bursts of enthusiasm during which people will pledge themselves to ambitious political action and resolve to perform myriad good works. Their hope is that exposure to conditions of poverty, combined with education in hunger and poverty issues, will induce what educator Paulo Freire calls the ‘‘con-scientization process.” This process begins with a critical awareness, a rejection of an oppressive consciousness, and an acceptance of a conscious awareness. Its goal is to have individuals and groups recognize that they do have the power to act effectively to make social and political changes.

People respond quite differently to this process. I came back from my visit to Tijuana’s jail and wrote myself this note: We have fed upon the body of the poor. We are ravens exciting ourselves with their twitches and sores. What we see in their lives — the hunger and the impossibility — is what we sense too often within ourselves. We look back now to the Holocaust. That event is for most of us a luxurious horror of the imagination only, that we finger in the dark and with which we scare ourselves. We ask, ‘‘How did they — the ‘Good Germans’ — let it happen?” Children in warm beds and safe rooms like scary stories. They flirt with monsters. Adults for whom the next meal is not any longer a life-or-death struggle can afford a little psychic bloodsport. Perhaps safe children and bellyful adults need terror. Since my day in the Tijuana jail I have mused cynically about my having tried to walk a few miles in poor people’s sandals, my eating their tortillas and beans, crowding into their jail. I’ve told myself, ‘‘First it was blacks, then women, now the Third World — a race, a gender, now the whole damned globe. What scope!"

But then I back off and recognize that we have learned not to say "Boy" to a black, or ‘‘Girl” to a woman. Perhaps we can learn not to say ‘‘Them” to the poor, to the Third World. Perhaps we can learn to say and feel ‘‘Us.” I have taunted myself and my class of upper-educated, upscale, post-Acid Sierra Club, Eugene McCarthy-era, beat blue jeans consciousness types, have disgusted myself on me, on us: our group-process skills, our psychological/spiritual voguishness, our addiction to angst, our psyche as hobby. I suspect that in my poverty tour I picked up a worm of terror that wriggles up the spine of my fat life, and I feel myself edging out onto a tender new leaf of consciousness. The odors of the Tijuana jail are the smell of a new imperative. On Saturday morning, in Los Ninos ’ meeting room, Mary Halloran asked, ‘‘Where is your own poverty?” Perhaps in that question there lies an answer for all of us.

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