Christmas morning. East of downtown Tijuana, along a swamp behind the Otay central bus station. An hour past first light. Roosters crow. Dogs bark. Rain, an inch of which fell last night, still falls, falls now into deep, churning mud. Two men, ankle deep in that mud, ragged clothes colored by mud, look up at the sky and then down. Shoulders bent, they go back to deepening the trench they hope will divert black water, sewage, sulfurous swamp, from their packing-box homes beside the crèche.
Reynaldo Martinez Cruz, 32, came from Oaxaca to Tijuana three years ago. Bearded, heavyset, dressed in layer upon layer of threadbare clothing, Cruz stretches out his arms toward the crèche. Cruz calls it “el nacimiento” — “the birth.” About el nacimiento, he says, open mouth pink in the black beard, “We all made it. We improvised. We made it for the Baby, for our God, because we love God.”
The crèche is displayed in a structure not unlike a puppet theater. Carpentered together from scrap lumber and box panels, this structure rises six feet high and stretches five feet wide. A flowered curtain, flapping in the wind, forms the roof. On what would be a puppet theater’s stage, Cruz and his neighbors arranged a Nativity scene. At the scene’s center is a peaked hut. A cross has been nailed at the peak, and silver swags and glass Christmas tree balls festoon the roofline. Wind whips the silver swags; the glass balls clatter. The hut’s interior shelters three plaster figurines. In attitudes of prayer, the figurines bow toward baby Jesus. The baby is a gringo doll scraped and worn by time and children’s play. His expressionless blue eyes rolled back, the infant is swaddled in white plastic, nestled in wood shavings. His feet stick out. The pink toes are stubbed.
“We have been only two months here from another colonia. It’s only our first Christmas here,” Cruz says, looking away from the crèche. His eyes follow smoke rising from breakfast fires, smoke spiraling above the blue plastic secured to roofs by rocks, smoke drifting toward the hills that surround Tijuana, hills that are still green.
At Cruz’s feet, icy rain strikes pools collected in tire tracks and in hollows left by shoes and dogs’ paws. Farther on, a rooster and two hens peck at a water-bloated tortilla. Wind frets at the rooster’s bright tail. A rangy dog — a black, scabrous sack of bones — barks and chases a calico cat. The cat is a mother. Her pink dugs sway from side to side; she pirouettes, turns, faces the dog, raises a paw, unleashes her claws, hisses. The dog bares sharp teeth.
“It’s here that we’re going to build our homes,” says Cruz softly. There are, he says, some 200 families living here. The name of this colonia is Arenales.
Above Arenales, to the north, a hill bears ten-foot-high white letters: PARQUE INDUSTRIAL CALIFORNIA. Arenales’s residents are marginales — individuals “marginally” incorporated into Mexico’s economy. Many of those living in Arenales who are employed work in the border factories, the maquiladoras. These factories import, duty free, raw materials and export their finished products. U.S. tariffs are paid only on the value added by the work.
Cruz runs blunt, callous fingers across the plaster-of-Paris turkeys, the lambs who surround the manger. “Next year, we are probably going to make el nacimiento a little bigger and a little better”
Cruz’s neighbor leans in the doorway of his house. The house, like other houses nearby, has no windows, no running water, no plumbing, and has been crafted from wood and cardboard packing boxes, weathered billboard, tar paper, scrap lumber, and plastic on which “Made in Taiwan” is stamped. The floor is dirt.
The neighbor drinks from a beer can, listens to Cruz. Three barefoot children chew on tortillas and cling to the neighbor’s knees. Behind Cruz’s neighbor, in the darkness of his windowless house, over an open fire, a woman stoops. Above a flame, she jitters a smoking skillet, its handle wrapped in rags.
The neighbor shakes off his children and lurches through rain across the rutted mud — mud splattering his trousers and his split shoes — and comes to stand by Cruz, who opens his eyes wide as he notes, philosophically, “You have to start somewhere.”
The neighbor, from Michoacan, has been in Tijuana, he says, since 1973. His mother, father, brothers, and sisters still live in their home village. For many years, no, no, he hasn’t seen them. His children, chewing the last of their tortillas, have tumbled out the door. Their bare feet make sucking noises in the ooze. They wrap themselves again, circling like vines, around their father’s knee. Their faces match his face. Same eyes, nose, mouth. Mud.
For Christmas, he says, sighing as he crumples his empty Tecate can, “los padres" (the Missionaries of Charity Fathers, a male branch of Mother Teresa’s Order of Sisters of Charity) up the hill gave food to his family and candy to his children. When Cruz’s neighbor says, “up the hill,” he points the crushed Tecate can toward a muddy rise on which a cluster of buildings stand out, new and raw and white.
Downhill from Cruz’s home, past the crèche, past creased and rusted Plymouths and Chevys and Fords dug wheel-deep in the malodorous bog, past houses in which people talk, sleepily and murmurously, the small store has opened. Like the houses, the store is built from scrap and surrounded by, splattered with mud. The storefront is a rectangle cut out at waist height. At the rectangle’s bottom edge is a ledge.
“We just got wet,” shrugs the woman who runs the store. She is talking about the Christmas Eve downpour. From behind her on the wooden shelves — stacked with rice, com chips, tortillas, pop, candy bars, cigarettes — she hands a man a pack of Delicados, takes his wrinkled pesos, smoothes the pesos, stacks them in a metal box.
The store’s owner came from Mexico City. “Actually,” she says, “I am from a town five hours out of Mexico City.” She has been in Tijuana a little more than a year. “The land on which we’re building these houses apparently belonged to a former governor of the state of Baja, and he recently turned it over to the people here.”
For ten years the cigarette-buyer has lived in Tijuana. He is here with his wife and three children. He has two more children in the south, in Michoacan, where his father and the rest of his family also live. He has been only a few weeks in Arenales. “We moved from over there,” he points south, where rain clouds clot the horizon, “to here.”
He scoots under the store’s wooden canopy, out of the rain, which is turning to fine drizzle. He lights a cigarette. Exhales. “There are a lot of people here from Michoacan.” He doesn’t know if people from Honduras, from Nicaragua, Salvador, Guatemala are living in the houses around him. “I hardly know any of the people here yet.”
The store’s owner leans over her ledge “It seems to me there’s nothing but Mexicans here. A lot of people from Mexico City. Everyone,” she smiles, “says they come from Mexico City.”
Following behind a family of mother, father, and five children, pink-faced, stocky Brother David picks his way through mud. His feet are in sandals. Mud coats his socks, sticks to the soles of his sandals. As do most of the Missionary of Charity priests and seminarians, Brother David wears gray trousers, gray shirt, gray sweater, a crucifix pinned above his heart. Brother David, 27, is Canadian. The order’s members are from countries as far away as England, Poland, and India.
Brother David carries a cardboard box heaped up with Christmas gifts for the family behind whom he walks. The box contains oil, flour, cornmeal, rice, red beans, and packages of pretzels and candy canes donated by a man from the States. Brother David has offered to tote the gifts along the treacherous half-mile up-and-downhill climb to the family’s house. The mother, Josefina, 26, is one month from delivering her sixth child, and her husband, Carlos, a wizened 30-year-old, must carry their 18-month-old son, who can’t yet walk.
Even as he struggles to find firm footholds in the mud and shifts the box in his arms, back and forth, Brother David smiles and puffs out his cheeks. His cheeks are rosy. Good health and exertion. “I spent last Christmas in the South Bronx,” he says. “This one has been totally different. So different.”
The order of which Brother David is a member is composed of some 25 seminarians and 6 priests. They moved this fall from their mission in the South Bronx to Tijuana. Explaining the move, Brother David says, “We’re such a new community, so young, only four or five years old, that our superiors want us all to build and have the same vision, the same charisma, to build that spirit that searches out the poorest of the poor, to bring them the good news.” Brother David says “good news” artlessly, unaffectedly.
“From the States, people come here to help alleviate the material poverty, and when they help, they find that they are spiritually fed.” Certainly, he adds, that is true for him, too. He is spiritually fed by the people.
“Those living in Arenales, even those who are able to work, they make very little money. Carlos, Josefina’s husband, for instance, he makes what’s called here a minimum wage, $25 in U.S. currency. For working all week.
“What we’re trying to do in Tijuana is to meet people’s needs for food and clothing and shelter. Right now, since we don’t have any wood, we are trying to make do with plastic coverings. But plastic lasts only a few weeks, and the wind rips and tears at it. That,” concludes Brother David, “is really difficult.”
As he treads through the mud, past houses, he praises the ingenuity with which Arenales’s residents use discarded materials. Skidding on the slippery, stinking mud, he rights himself.
“The longer we are here, with the people, the more we see it is not just material poverty that must be addressed. The United States is spiritually poor. But here, it is not only material poverty, but a spiritual poverty too. What we try to do, after we meet that immediate need of lifting up the dignity of the person who is materially poor, we try... ”
He’s not able to finish his thought. Two young girls and a boy, the boy a toddler, have followed behind him, running in circles. The little girls, in dresses and barelegged, have stopped, every few feet, to whisper with one another, then erupt in giggles. The trio has come closer and closer. Now they are upon Brother David, standing on tiptoe in worn mismatched shoes, stretching their grubby necks, to look into the box of gifts.
Mud covers their faces, their thick, black hair, dresses, the boy’s pants, the boy’s T-shirt (on which is printed: “SURF’s UP”), their legs, arms, hands. They smell sour, smoky. Battered by rain and wind, they shiver in their thin clothes. Under mud on their arms, goose bumps have risen.
The three sets of dark eyes study the box’s contents. “Para por famille,” Brother David, his Spanish awkward, pleads with the children, “para por famille.”
Brother David hoists the box onto his hip, leaving his right hand free. He reaches out, touches the elder of the girls. “Your little brother needs a sweater.”
“Mande?” she says, not understanding.
“Tell them, ‘Hermano David says to give him, your little brother, a sweater’ ” Brother David cannot make the trio understand. The girls shake their heads, “Que dijo?” — they don’t understand. The boy’s hand reaches into the box. He watches Brother David while his hand plunges into the box.
From his pocket, Brother David pulls a white rosary and hands it to the older girl. “Rosario from Hermano David.” He points toward his order’s buildings. “Go there. Give to the hermanos, los padres, and they will give you a coat, a sweater” He plucks at his own gray cardigan. “For your brother. Tell them,” he pleads, “that Hermano David wishes you to give your little brother a sweater. A coat. Anything to keep warm.”
He takes a deep breath, smiles, touches each child’s head. From the boy’s forehead, Brother David draws back the lank bangs.
“Gracias,” he says to them, “gracias.”
Running toward the buildings on the hill, the trio takes off. From the elder girl’s hand, Brother David’s rosary swings.
Clouds have parted, revealing blue sky. Brother David picks up the box. His effort of communication with the children has drawn perspiration. For a moment he appears daunted.
On the rutted path ahead, Carlos, Josefina, and their children no longer can be seen. Brother David brightens as he trudges. It is good, he believes, that the brothers and the people touch one another. “It’s good, because Jesus, he always touched. He took up mud from the earth and touched the blind man and healed him.
“You watch little children, their hands are always on their mothers. There is a sweetness to touch. Sweetness lives in everybody’s heart. I think that’s what loneliness is, is the sweetness and beauty of each person that has been buried. The goodness living in everyone’s heart has died and been buried. It can be resurrected, brought back.”
Puffing, Brother David reaches the top of the incline toward which he has been struggling. He points out the glittering expanse, the water rippling under wind, almost a lake, which has filled with rainwater. At its edges, people dip buckets. “This is where the people wash their clothes.” He notes that Josefina, several times a day, must carry her wash water from this pond, must load the water uphill, for several blocks, to her house.
Some steps on, at the waterside, he introduces a sad-faced, subdued woman and her two daughters. The three are on their way uphill to the store and then to Mass, which will begin in an hour. After the mother and her children pass out of earshot, Brother David says, “She’s having a lot of trouble with her husband. He’s beating her”
Seconds later, Brother David stops to examine a packing-box home near the water’s edge. “The woman we just met, she and her husband and children were living here on this spot. They were living between those two trees, on bare ground, under a tarpaulin. Their children suffered with bronchitis.
“I came here one day and it was raining, and I said to the husband, ‘Let me get you some wood to build for your family a house.’ He agreed. I got the wood. We felt it would give him hope, to build his family a house. He did build the house, but he still beats his wife.” Brother David sighs, then brightens. “But the family does now have a house, which before they did not have.”
Brother David seems, then, almost to be talking to himself, instructing himself, urging himself on. “We’ve got to build families, too, as well as houses. We have many spiritually poor fathers of families.”
Engrossed with his story, burdened by the box, the necessity of carefully picking his way through slick mud, Brother David fails to notice, between two houses, the black dog. The dog is stretched out. Between his front paws are the muddied head and front feet of the calico cat.
A few days earlier, says Brother David, a man living in Arenales “got killed on the other side,” in the U.S. The man was rumored to have supported his family by going across the border and robbing houses and bringing the money back. “But he had unfortunately left his first wife and children and was living with another woman who lived two blocks away. He would supply the first wife with food and then would return to the second woman. Now that he has been killed, we must look after the mother and four kids so they will have food coming in”
Brother David’s own family is far away. “In the northern part of Canada, it’s very cold there. My father works in the mines in Yellowneck. He writes enough letters. He never wrote to me before I went to the seminary. I get three letters a month now. My family prays for me. That’s what keeps me going.”
Topping the rise on which Carlos and Josefina’s home stands, surrounded on all sides by other homes like it— packing boxes, a hodgepodge of wood scraps, battered metal signs, grayed and gouged lumber roofed in blue plastic — Brother David says, “This is the poorest section of the community. The woman who lives next door to Carlos’s family is mentally deficient. She shows herself to people, and she becomes very angry, throws things at them. Her husband is also somewhat mentally deficient. The people here want her moved out.”
He feels concerned about Josefina, fears she is on the edge of some emotional, spiritual disaster. “We need to give her some hope. Some poor people have that hope,” he strikes his breast, “that guts, inside them. They just keep going. She, Josefina, has lost it.”
The children in nearby houses, hearing Brother David, rush out through the canvas flaps that cover their doors. They hang on his arms, pull at his legs.
Clouds sail north. Skies clear. Brother Francis, from India, had also helped the family make its way back from the order’s offices. His own journey to Arenales began in Calcutta, where he spent two years at the Home for the Dying Destitute. There is, he explains, standing outside Carlos and Josefina’s home, a spectrum of poverty. “These people,” he says, “would be almost middle class in Calcutta. They have walls, you see. A place to live. Walls are very important.”
Josefina stands framed in her door. Scarcely five feet tall, no more than 100 pounds, even eight months pregnant, Josefina’s belly protrudes only slightly beneath the cardigan falling to her knees. She smiles timidly, extends a dirty hand.
Yesterday, several brothers brought Christmas decorations and hung them in Josefina and Carlos’s home. “Es bonita” says Brother David, touching silver swags hung with red, blue, green glass balls.
Josefina agrees. “Si, es bonita.”
Her home is divided into two rooms: a dark, windowless kitchen and a darker, windowless bedroom. The door leads directly into the kitchen. A rusted barrel is Josefina’s cook stove. Brother David explains: “You put wood in under the barrel’s top, and then on the top, you put the cooking pots.”
Cardboard panels make kitchen carpeting At the kitchen’s far end, blanket rolls - the children’s beds — are stacked against the wall.
A double bed mattress, heaped with blankets, takes up one-quarter of the bedroom. Boxes form the remainder of the furnishings. Through the walls, wind blows. The room is cold, damp. For Christmas, Josefina has been given a kerosene lamp. She scrapes a match, carefully inserts its flame into the lamp. Flickering light creates a brown gloom in the darkness, picks out the figure of the family’s next-to-youngest son, on his knees in dirt, pushing a red Ford truck. Josefina lifts the lamp, holds it aloft. To Brother David, she says, “Feliz Navidad!”
All across Arenales for the past hour, the bells announcing Mass have been ringing and ringing. From their homes in the muddy valley, families have been making their way uphill to the chapel.
The sign on the gate leading into the chapel reads:
SEMINARIO de Los PADRES
MISIONEROS de La CARIDAD
Only two hours before Christmas Eve Mass, the community of brothers and fathers banged in the last nails here, says the community’s superior, Father Joseph. The chapel, a wall-less shed structure covered over by corrugated fiberglass panels arching steeply upward to the roofs peak, smells sweetly of new lumber. The floor is raked sand. Concrete blocks with boards placed across them form rows of pews. Concrete block buildings, housing the community’s offices, library, and dormitories, are at the chapel’s north and south sides. A house trailer has been pulled along the chapel’s east end. The altar stands several feet in front of the trailer doors. Last night, says Father Joseph, 400 people from the area packed in here. “Imagine, 400 people, all dressed in their best. For each family, we had food packages, but for the children, until the last minute, we had nothing. Then, late yesterday evening, a man drove in with enough candy for everyone.”
Father Joseph, 37, a broad-shouldered, ruddy San Diego native, knew when he was six that he wanted to be a priest. He laughs, confessing that as a boy he was wont to read, in Catholic magazines, the advertisements for vocations — not, he says, gently mocking himself, that as a teen-ager he remained steadfast, rock-sure of his vocation. He considered becoming a ballplayer, then a psychiatrist, getting rich and having a vacation home in Acapulco.
Stiff wind buffeting their ankle-length white habits trimmed in blue, the Missionaries of Charity sisters step into the chapel. “This is poverty? It’s a palace, no?” a beaming sister says to Father Joseph, who nods happy agreement.
The sisters, nuns associated with Mother Teresa, have worked now for less than one year in Tijuana. The nuns are divided into two orders, one active and one contemplative.
Some 20 women — identically garbed in spotless white habits, navy blue sweaters, blue-trimmed white veils, sandals — file in. One hands to Father Joseph a wicker basket packed with sweets.
The sisters unroll the lace altar cloth, array the altar with Mass book opened to the liturgy appointed for the Feast of the Nativity, set out gleaming chalice, cruets, paten. Brothers and priests, skin tones and hair color exhibiting genes of a dozen different nationalities, stand at entryways and hand out service bulletins to the families, who have now begun to arrive. Exuberantly, the people greet the brothers. “Feliz Navidad!” Father Joseph remains at the back of the chapel, gazing proudly at the results of the order’s handiwork. Some among the worshippers seek him out and, heads bowed slightly, faces rapt with adoration, kiss his hand.
Like the houses they’ve left behind, houses assembled from a jumble of discards, the people’s dress is a motley rummage of garments given away by the well-to-do. Men’s shoulders stretch ill-fitting madras jackets or disappear into dark shapeless suits. They wear faded polo shirts with Izod’s crocodile, Ralph Lauren’s polo player. Some men, some women have muffled themselves into moldering blankets. On children, T-shirts offer “PORSCHE,” “SAN DIEGO ZOO,” “MIAMI VICE.” Holes and stains riddle the youngsters’ jackets. Some among the women have made the long uphill walk from houses to chapel in high heels and stockings. Mud clings to the heels, splotches hosiery. Everyone bears the smell of acrid woodsmoke, of sewage. Almost everyone sneezes, coughs. The coughs struggle up from deep in chests.
At several minutes before 11, as clouds again mass across sky, with rain drumming against the fiberglass roof, a trio of brothers, one strumming a guitar, sing out the processional hymn’s first strains. The crucifer leads to the altar the train of priests, brothers, servers, the two men bearing the six-foot-high portrait of Mexico’s patroness, the Virgin of Guadalupe, her frame stuck with brilliant paper flowers.
The epistle for the day is read, hymns and responses sung. Then Father Joseph, the white chasuble’s deeply cut sleeves flowing from his wrists, leans forward over the pulpit. He stretches out his hands, palms upraised. He speaks Spanish easily, his tone alternately confidential, impassioned. “If Christ had not come, there wouldn’t be a single church in all the world, not baptisms, not Communions, nor anyone to forgive us for our sins.
“The Nativity was a moment of great poetry. The birth is not only an opportunity for celebrating, for exchanging gifts, it is a time for us to think about what the world would have been like without the Nativity.
“What sadness!” Father Joseph searches out the congregations’ eyes, eyes that are all on him. “What desperation! How heavy life would be.”
In the next to last pew, a brother from Poland, made extraordinarily handsome by an aquiline nose and the bluest eyes, sits between two young girls, the elder no more than six. While Father Joseph preaches, the Polish brother keeps his arms around the two youngsters. With one hand he rubs the smallest child’s filthy cheek. With the other hand he cups her sister’s chin. The younger wriggles to her feet, stands up in the raw lumber pew, puts an arm around the brother’s pale neck. Her hand is coated with mud dried to a color lighter than her brown skin. Her fingernails have grown and curled over her fingertips.
“It’s easy for us to go to Mass year after year celebrating the birth superficially. But the birth is not a superficial event. Thank God, he came, he became a man, to save us, to give us hope. We have hope, we are a people of hope, of happiness.”
Cold wind buffets the roof. Rain strikes at a slant, hitting shoulders of worshippers on the pews farthest back. The Polish brother picks up off the sand floor the blanket that served the younger child as a coat. Wordlessly, he urges her to sit back down. Around her shoulders, he wraps the blanket. She looks up toward him, he smiles down at her.
“Before Jesus’ birth, before he came, the world was closed in hatred. After his birth, with his birth, I am given, I have the ability to love — if I want to love, I can. Because of him, I don’t have to live a life absorbed in myself, in my own selfishness — I can change myself. Because of him, I can change, it all depends on me. I can open myself to God, I can hope. This is a very powerful thing, this possibility, the ability to know God, to love God. Thanks to his birth, I can be reborn!”
The bread is consecrated then, the wine is consecrated. Father Joseph elevates the paten, on which rests the consecrated host. The bread, for Roman Catholics, has now, past the shadow of any doubt, become the Body of Christ.
In Spanish the celebrants and congregation recite the Agnus Dei. “0 Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.”
The congregation kneels on the chapel’s sand floor. At every pew, from the chapel’s rear to the altar, everyone is kneeling. The soles of all shoes are turned up, facing skyward. The soles are thin and worn and show many holes. Mud coats every shoe.
In response to Father Joseph’s proffering of the Body of Christ, the congregation says, “ - Speak the word only, and my soul shall be healed.”
Pew by pew, while wind blows and rain strikes a din against the chapel’s roof, the congregation comes forward to receive the living flesh of its savior. Father Joseph proclaims, “Body of Christ.”
In this light, on this day, the possibilities seem particularly dramatic, particularly ripe, for the making of bread into Jesus, for the feeding of multitudes by salvation, through faith.
Mass over, Brother David and Brother Francis walk their two guests from across the border to the central bus station. The guests are tired, nauseated from the omnipresent odor of raw sewage, unwashed bodies. The soles of their sturdy boots heavy with mud, the guests slog up slippery inclines, down hillsides. Brothers David and Francis walk slowly, accommodate their guests’ weariness.
Nearing the station, Brother David discovers, hunkered on the ground against the station’s back wall, what appears, from a distance, to be a human figure. The brothers quicken their steps. Leached of color by clouds clotting the sky, a lurid sunbeam discloses a plaid blanket beneath which a woman’s body writhes. Brother David introduces himself, “Hermano David.” He pulls back a comer of the blanket. The brown face is puffy, teeth are missing. She is a mother of four children, she cannot go home to her husband, her children. She is too frightened. Something is wrong with her mind. She might hurt her children. Brother David sits on his heels, brushes back tangled hair from her face. “The mission over there” — he points out the far-off buildings — “invites you to come with us, to get warm clothing, perhaps a place to sleep? Food?”