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Reader writer befriends family at the Tijuana dump and they are killed.

Sifting through the trash

Each dump has its pecking order. There are people who are “in” — some dompes even have “mayors"; some have hired goons. - Image by Alfred Pagano
Each dump has its pecking order. There are people who are “in” — some dompes even have “mayors"; some have hired goons.

One of the most beautiful views of San Diego is from the summit of a small hill in Tijuana's municipal garbage dump. People live on that hill, picking through the trash with long poles that end in hooks made with bent nails. They scavenge for bottles, tin, aluminum, cloth; for cast-out beds, wood, furniture. Sometimes they find meat that is not too rotten to be cooked.

Mexicans are shamed by accepting help of any kind. When embarrassed or ashamed, they can often overcompensate.

This is where the city drops off its dead animals — dogs, cats, sometimes horses, goats. They are piled in heaps six feet high and torched. In that stinking blue haze, amid nightmare sculptures of charred ribs and carbonized tails, you can watch the buildings of San Diego gleam gold on the blue coastline. The city looks cool in the summer, when heat cracks the ground and flies drill into the garbage-pickers’ noses. And in the winter, when wind chill drops night temperatures into the 30s, when the cold makes their lips bleed, and rain turns the hill into a gray pudding of ash and mud. and babies are wrapped in plastic trash bags for warmth, San Diego glows like a big electric dream. And every night on that burnt hill, these people are watching. .

A new family — a couple, several children, including toddlers, and one daughter with an infant — had no house to stay in. They were very poor and in dire need of help.

In or near every Mexican border town, you will find trash dumps. Some of the bigger cities have several “official” dumps, and there are countless small, unlicensed places where the garbage is thrown. Some of the official dumps are quite large, and some, like the one outside Tecate, are small and well hidden. Almost all of them are inhabited.

There was the family recently arrived from near Guadalajara. They had no clothes except what they were wearing, and the children were so infected with scabies that their skin looked like chewing gum.

Each dompe has its own culture, as distinct as the people living there. And each one has its pecking order. There are people who are “in” — some dompes even have “mayors"; some have hired goons, paid off by shady syndicates, to keep the trash-pickers in line, a kind of illegal serfdom, where the poor must pay a ransom to the rich to pick trash to survive. And there may be a family that is especially friendly with the missionaries in the area, and this family can become an advocate for the rest.

The nurse took the infant and dunked it in a tub of icy water. It had a heart attack and died. It was a girl.

Then there are those who are so far "out” that the mind reels. In the Tijuana dompe where a group of us worked as poverty-relief volunteers, the outcasts were located along the western edge, in the shacks and lean-tos in and around the area called the pig village. This was where the untouchables of the society of untouchables slept. Like the Serrano family, the Cheese Lady, Jose and Pacha, Jesusita.

To refuse their hospitality would have been the ultimate insult, yet to eat and drink put us at risk.

A WOMAN NAMED "LITTLE JESUS"

It was raining It had been raining for weeks, and the weather was unremittingly cold. The early-morning van loadings were glum; all spring and summer and even into the fall, more volunteers than we'd known what to do with had joined us for the weekly trips into Mexico. One day we'd had over a hundred eager American kids loaded into busses, ready to change the world. Now. though, when the wet had come, the group had dwindled. Sometimes we were reduced to a small core of old-timers, six to ten at most.

Jesusita and the boy ran. The child hid himself. The gunmen went after her. She was not fast.

When we pulled into the dump, the vans slid almost sideways in the viscous, slick mud. The air felt icy; there was no smoke to speak of that day, and the dogs were mostly hiding Women waited in line for food, their heads covered with plastic sheets. Even in this wind and wet, they joked and laughed. This feature of the Mexican personality is often the cause of much misunderstanding; if Mexicans are so cheerful, then they certainly can’t be hungry or ill. which leads to the myth of the quaint and jovial peasant with a lusty, Zorba-like love affair with life. It’s a lie.

Perhaps the women were simply relieved to be getting food. Perhaps they were embarrassed; Mexicans are shamed by accepting help of any kind. When embarrassed or ashamed, they can often overcompensate, becoming boisterous, seemingly carefree. Or maybe the poor don’t feel compelled to play the humble and quiet role we assign them in our hearts.

As I climbed out of the van. Dona Araceli, the Cheese Lady, bustled over to me. We called her the Cheese Lady because she had taken to coming to the dump with globs of drippy white goat cheese wrapped in cloth. She sold it to the locals, and she always pressed a lump of it into my hands as a gift. Nobody in the crew had the guts to taste it. We'd pass the cheese around for a couple of hours, then unload it at an orphanage or a barrio in Tijuana.

This day. Dona Araceli was extremely agitated. A new family — a couple, several children, including toddlers, and one daughter with an infant — had no house to stay in. They were very poor and in dire need of help.

One of our projects over the years was to build homes and churches for the poor. Aubrey, a volunteer, had come up with an ingeniously simple construction plan. He began collecting garage doors from houses being tom down or renovated; these doors, hammered to a simple wooden frame, made handy walls. Depending on how many doors were available, the new house could be as long or as wide as the builders chose. With saws and donated windows, Aubrey could modify the place and make it quite fancy. The roofs were either more garage doors or two-by-six planks covered with plastic sheeting that was stapled into place. Old carpets and plastic made a quick floor.

Once a month, we would have a dump workday; truckloads of youths armed with tools would come in and begin hammering. In a matter of hours, they could have a new building up. Aubrey often brought a little tractor with him and hooked a line of wagons to it, forming a train. He would fill the wagons with kids and drive around. It was a happy, preposterous sight, this train, chugging along at half a mile an hour, kids screaming. Aubrey steering with great seriousness and dignity.

So Dona Araceli, the Cheese Lady, wanted us to build this new family a house right away. She said the mother was waiting to meet me. She was called Jesusita. Little Jesus.

Jesusita shook my hand and called me Hermano. Brother. This is not a common Mexican greeting. It is used among Protestants as a shorthand for “fellow Christian.” A “real” Mexican would never resort to such fanaticism. (Though it is a habit for Mexicans to call each other “mono," which is short for “brother.” but which actually takes the place of "pal” or “dude ”) The poor, however, deal with missionaries and soon learn to use the more religious terms freely. It is often a manipulative thing; they are hoping you will assume they are “Hallelujahs” too and give them more goods than the rest. So Jesusita's "Hermano" didn’t move me. I paid it no heed.

What caught my eye instead was Jesusita's face. She was small, a round woman with gray hair and the kind of face that retains a hint of young beauty under layers of pain and comfortless years. Her eyes were nestled in laughlines and were a light, nut-brown color. She smiled easily. Her hair was wound in twin braids and pinned to the top of her head, framing her face. She made me feel happy, absurdly pleased, as though she were a long-lost aunt who had appeared with a plate of cookies.

Over the next year, as we got to be friends, she would lavish me with bear-hugs. Her head fit easily beneath my chin. On the day I met her. though, she cried.

“Hermano," she said. “venimos desde el sur, y no tenemos casa." (We came from the south, and we don’t have a house.) "Somos muchos, todos mis hijos, un nietito, y mi senor." (There are many of us. all my children, a little grandson. and my husband.)

“Help her. Luis!” said Araceli.

Jesusita's full name was Maria de Jesus. Mary of Jesus. I told her we'd be down there when we could. She began to cry again and put her arms around me. saying, "Gracias, Luis. Gracias. Hermano Luis''

That Jesusita needed assistance didn't make her special, but something about her involved me immediately. I suppose it is the thing we conveniently call “chemistry.” Still. Jesusita was one face in a river of hundreds.

SOCORRO

In the dompe, requests for help were a constant; they were the rule. Everyone needed help. For example, there was the family recently arrived from near Guadalajara. They had no clothes except what they were wearing, and the children were so infected with scabies that their skin looked like chewing gum. Scabies is a burrowing mite, a louse, and it tunnels through your flesh, leaving eggs under your skin. You scratch and scratch but can never quite get to the itch. They move in you at night. They like crotches and armpits. Scabies victims claw themselves raw.

The kids didn’t understand what was wrong with them. They all slept together, and the mites could easily move from body to body. The beds were full of the insects; clothes and underwear were also infested. When we tried to explain what was causing their itch, they looked at us with disbelief and laughed.

This family was living.in a shack on a hillside that could only be reached after a long and confusing drive through crooked alleys and ridge-top dirt paths. Their shack was surrounded by lean-tos thrown together by junkies and winos. You could smell the booze and urine through the slats. The men’s voices were thick; they cursed and broke glass in the dark. In the shack hid Socorro, the family's 13-year-old daughter. The men wanted her. They’d come out after dark and storm the house, trying to break through the doors and walls to get to her. When I went up there in the evening, waving my flashlight in the dust clouds. I could hear them outside Socorro’s door, howling.

FEAR

This is a record of a small event that happened on a typical day in the pig village.

I was unloading one of the vans, and some of my friends were with me — Araceli. Juanita and her kids. Negra. I noticed a woman in the distance, among the trash piles. I didn't recognize her. None of the dump people seemed to know her, either. We watched her lurch back and forth, spitting and waving her arms. She would occasionally glare at me. start toward me. then stop after a few steps and curse. Her face looked like a rubber mask: white creases and a red slash mouth.

“She's drunk,’’ said Juanita. I said something, no doubt a joke, and leaned into the van. I shoved aside one of the heavy bags of beans and worked free the box I was looking for. When I turned around, the woman was standing right beside me, staring into my face. She snarled.

I stumbled back from her. Her hair stood straight off her scalp as though she were taking a heavy charge of electricity through her feet. She was wheezing.

One of the women said, “She’s crazy, Hermano.’’

“Fuck you,” she snapped. Her voice was deep, like a man’s voice. “Vete a la chingada."

She leaned toward me. "We know you,” she said. “We know who you are. We know what you’re doing.”

I laughed nervously. “What?"

“You’ll pay for this."

I put my box down. “I don’t understand.”

She began to rasp obscenities in her man's voice. “We know you. We ll get you.”

She spun around and jerked away from us, very fast. She stumbled over rocks in the road but kept moving, shouting all the time. “You’ll see!” (Vas a ver.) “We’ll get you. We’ll stop you.”

She paused in front of Pacha’s house at the top of the hill, gesturing at me and yelling her strange threats. The hair at the back of my neck began to rise. (It really does stand up.) "Is she drunk?” Juanita asked. The woman threw her head back and screamed.

PACHA

Pacha has startling eyes. They have a kind of gold-green edge; they have yellow flecks, like the eyes of a cat. They slant the slightest bit. If she lived anywhere but the Tijuana garbage dump, she would have the eyes of a movie star.

She lives with a thin, dark man named Josl. He calls himself her husband, though he is not the father of her children. His face is craggy and his teeth are long, hidden by a thick, black moustache. When he talks to you, he bobs his head and grins. When either of them laughs, they cover their mouths with their hands. They were pagans when they came north; real Indian stock. When Jose moved into her bed, he became her mate, and he remains faithful to her. It is a simple marriage agreement, as firm as a wolfs.

They cannot read, which would render the certificates useless to them, anyway. They also can’t afford to have a wedding; to begin with, Patcha has no dress. They made their own stand: they mated. It is as significant to them as any sanctifying ceremony they can imagine. He is her man; she is his woman.

Jose likes Jesus very much. When Pastor Von and his missionaries come by his house, Jose always asks Von to pray for him. We put our arms around each other, Von prays, and I translate. Jos£ keeps saying, “Thank you, Jesus, for listening to me." He cries.

Pacha won’t come to the vans to get food. She says it embarrasses her to be begging and fighting with all those other women. I made it a habit to save her out a box of goods, and after the crowds dissipated a bit, I would take it up to her.

Pacha's home is on a slope that sweeps down into the dump; it is a long, meandering shack with a low roof and uneven walls. The entire house is at an angle. Jose designed it this way so that the rain, when it came, would flow through the house, under their bed. and down the hill. He is very proud of this: his is one of the dump's most well-engineered houses. Those who built below him. on flatland Or in hollows, find themselves in puddles of mud all winter.

Their floor is a conglomeration of carpet pieces and stray linoleum squares. Jose and Pacha pressed them into wet soil. The exterior walls are board. The interior walls are cardboard, with an occasional bit of wood — fruit crates, barrel slats — and plastic sheeting.

They do have one luxury: beds. It is quite odd to look through a door and see a big bed with an iron bedstand. Often, a bed is the only thing the dump people own that is worth anything. Except for televisions.

Light glows from little black and white TV sets scattered through the dump. There is no electricity, but people do have the wrecked cars in the yonkes in the valleys. The men take the car batteries and hook the TVs to them. Sometimes, the television is balanced on huge, rusted oil barrels, which, when filled with paper and dung or twigs, also serve as stoves.

Pacha doesn’t have a television, but she does have oil barrels. She cooks in one of them. The other she uses to store water. It is full of mosquito larvae wiggling like tiny fish. Its water is the color of blood.

Pacha's oldest daughter offered to pay me to smuggle her across the border. She was pregnant — her husband had gone across the wire and never come back. She watched for him on a neighbor's television. I told her I couldn’t do it.

On New Year’s morning, she had the baby in a free clinic in Tijuana. The nurse took the infant and dunked it in a tub of icy water. It had a heart attack and died. It was a girl.

Pacha got pregnant next. Her belly stuck out far and hard, like a basketball, from her small body.

When we arrived at the dump, she’d stand in front of her house with Jose, point at me and laugh. They laughed a lot. She would be furious with me if I didn’t come up the hill right away to see her kids.

Jose had hurt his back. He could barely stand, much less work, and the days were hard for Pacha and her kids. They all had to take the trash-picking poles and work the mounds, supporting Jos<, who would give out after a few hours.

When I took them the food. I’d pat that huge stomach and shout. “What are you doing in there?" They would laugh, and she would scold me for waking him up It was Jose’s first child with her, the seal of their marriage.

One day, when we drove over the hill, a crowd was there, milling. I glanced at Pacha’s house — nobody in front. Then I saw an old pickup truck coming up the hill. Jose was in the back with a group of men. They held cloudy bottles by the necks.

I waved at him, but he just looked at me as the truck went by, no emotion at all on his face.

As we were unloading the vans, one of Pacha* girls came to me and put her hand on my arm. "Luis," she said, quietly. "Mama’s baby died.”

I stared at her.

“Don Jose just took him away in the truck. His head was too big. He was all black.”

I asked her if it had been born here; she shook her head. “Free clinic,” she said.

She stood calmly, watching me. “Mama needs you.” she said. I didn't want to go up there.

It was a terrible charade. Pacha was blushing and overly polite, as though caught in an embarrassment. I was pleasant, as though we were having tea at the Ritz. Everything felt brittle, ready to shatter.

She was wearing baggy green stretch pants, standing and holding on to a salvaged aluminum kitchen chair.

“Poor Jose.” she said, looking off. It was very

dark in the house, and it smelled of smoke. “Poor Jose. It hurt him so much.”

That look as he drove past, drunk: where was Jesus now?

“The baby wouldn't come out," she said. She looked at her feet. “The doctor got up under my chi-chis and pushed on him after I tried for a few hours.”

“What! He sat on your abdomen?”

She nodded. “Si! They got up on my chest and shoved on me. And then the doctor had to get down there and pull me way open because the baby was black, and we were both dying.” She swayed. I jumped up and took her arm, trying to get her into the chair. “It hurts," she said. She smiled. “It’s hard to sit.” I got her down. “They stuck iron inside me. They pulled him out with tools, and I’m scared because I’m fat down there. I’m still all fat " She couldn't look at me; she bowed her head. "It’s hard and swollen, and I can’t touch it.”

I told her not to move and ran down the hill for Dave, our medical student. He grabbed a flashlight and followed me up.

Pacha repeated her story; I translated. He said. “Tell her to pull the pants tight against her crotch so I can see the swelling "

She did. He bent close. It looked like she had grown a set of testicles. He whistled.

“Think it’s a hernia?” he asked.

"I don't know Could be." Many of the women in the dump have hernias that are never treated. One woman had one for 15 years before she asked someone to look at it.

Dave said, "Tell her I have to feel it.”

I told Pacha. She just looked at me. Brown flecked with gold. "Anything you say,” she nodded.

“Is she all right?" Dave asked.

"Yeah.”

He handled her very tenderly, she winced, sucked air. “Feels bad," he said.

She kept her eyes on my face.

“We have to get her pants off, buddy."

“Wonderful, Dave."

“Culturally?" he asked.

“A disaster.”

One of my aunts, when she was pregnant, was attended by a male obstetrician. He had to stand outside a closed door; his nurse examined my aunt and called out the details to him My uncle hovered nearby to make sure there would be no outrage.

Dave stood there a moment. “Too bad. We have to look.”

“Pacha." I said. “The, ah. doctor needs to see it."

She nodded. She took her children outside and told them not to come back for a while. I held her hand and helped her into the bed.

Jose had designed a little paper alcove for the bed. Pictures of musicians, movie stars, and saints were pasted to the walls. A ragged curtain hung beside the bed for privacy.

“He was too big,” she said, stretching out "Too fat"

She worked the pants down past her hips There was a strip of dirty clastic — perhaps tom out of an old girdle — wrapped around her fallen belly to hold it up She unwrapped herself. Her navel hung out like a fat thumb.

She undid some safety pins that hetd her underpants together They were blue lightly stained. There was a smell of warm bread and vinegar Dave sat beside her Pacha stared into my eyes.

I looked away. I was embarrassed and nervous.

Dave handed me the flashlight and said. "Here. Illuminate it for me ”

Her right side was thick and grotesque The labium was red. Bits of lint were stuck to her Every time he touched her Pacha gasped.

“Blood," he said. “Tell her it's blood. No hernia.” He smiled at her.

I translated.

She smiled a little bit. more with her eyes than her lips

We put her to bed for several days — no more trash-picking She needed to let the blood reabsorb. Dave gave her vitamins, aspirin, put her on lots of fluids

“Ay. Luis," she said.

Outside, the sky was black and brown — they were burning dogs at the end of the dump. It smelled like Hell. I took a deep breath and walked away.

COFFEE WITH JESUSITA

Pastor Von, Steve, and I climbed into the tour-wheel-drive Blazer and headed down the slippery hill to meet Jesusita. There was a dirt road, but it was already so deep in mud that the truck couldn't make it. We had to abandon it and slog down. In places, the mud went higher than my knees.

Jesusita and some of her brood were waiting for us. They led us to what seemed — for the dump, anyway — an especially luxurious house. It was a small American-style place, with stucco walls and what appeared to be a real roof. It even had a porch. Remembering the pleadings of the Cheese Lady. we were a little suspicious, until we got inside Half of the house had fallen in. with the walls sagging and open to the wind The floor was raw uncovered cement, and the whole house was awash in one or two inches of water. There were only two areas recognizable as rooms In what had clearly been a living room, on a sheet of plastic, were piled all of Jesusita's possessions — clothes, jackets, bundles — forming a small dry island. The family slept on this pile. The other room was a kitchen.

They had dragged the empty shell of a stove from the dump. There was a linoleum and aluminum table in the kitchen, too. with four unmatched chairs. On the counter were a few coffee cups, a pan. and the meager food supplies we had given Jesusita

Her husband arrived, took off his straw vaquero hat. shook our hands, and very formally and graciously invited us to sit and have a cup of coffee with him He was an iron-backed man. not tall, but erect and strong; his hands were thick and solid as oak burls. He wore old cowboy boots, faded jeans, and a white, pearl-snap shirt. We learned that he was a horse-breaker from the interior of Mexico, a real cowboy who took pride in his talents.

Jesusita said. “He is the best horse-tamer in. our region ” He shushed her — he never liked too much talk of home. His tightly curled hair was tinged gray and white He had a small, peppery moustache sketched across his upper lip. He referred to us as “Usted," the formal “you." and it was clear that he expected the same respect. The most lasting impression he gave was one of dignity and pride.

Their children were remarkably attractive — several girls and two little boys. One of the girls, perhaps 15. had a baby. They all had shiny black hair, which the girls wore pulled back in loose ponytails.

Jesusita put wads of newspaper in the stove and lit them. She heated water in the battered pan and made Nescafe instant coffee. It was clearly the last of their coffee, and she served it in four cups. We men sat at the table. Jesusita and the kids stood around us. watching us drink the coffee.

It was a terrible and lovely moment. The weak coffee, the formal and serious cowboy, the children, and Jesusita hovering over us. She broke a small loaf of sweet bread into pieces and made us eat.

It was also a fearsome moment — the water was surely polluted, run-off from the miasma above There was a great deal of disease in the area from the constant flooding and the scattered bodies of dead animals. To refuse their hospitality would have been the ultimate insult, yet to eat and drink put us at risk. Von had the grim set in his lips that said, Here we go again. and with a glance at us. he took a sip. We drank. “Ah! we exulted. “Delicioso!" Jesusita beamed. The cowboy nodded gravely, dipped his bit of sweet bread in his cup. and toasted us with it. Outside, the cold rain hammered down. Inside, we were all shivering There was no way to get warm.

A DUMP WORK-DAY

Steve and I were going to shacks in the pig village, visiting the families there. The crew was in the lower dump, hammering new houses together. We were alone.

Since we weren’t expected, we were free of the usual crowds of hungry people. We were able to lake in cartons of food to each family. The Serranos were at the end. and as we walked out there, we heard a commotion. Mr. Serrano was hollering and laughing, running in circles with a broom His boys were charging around his feet, whooping, and his young daughter was shrieking and clapping her hands.

“What’s this?" Steve said.

“Get him! Get him!" the girl was shouting.

It was a big dump rat. trapped between all of them, running in panicked circles. Everywhere it turned, there was a Serrano. Mr. Serrano repeatedly smashed the broom across its back. He finally cracked the rat across the spine, and it fell over, scrabbling in the dust. They all laughed The oldest boy knelt behind the rat. They crowded in.

Mr. Serrano said, “Good boy. Do it!"

The kid reached into his back pocket and withdrew a pair of wire cutters. He held the rat down with one hand and fitted the cutters over its snout. He began to cut its head off. centimeter by centimeter.

Steve and I backed away. Before we knew it. we were running.

THE SERRANOS

I first met the Serrano family on a Thursday. Several women had told me there was a very dirty new family living out at the far end of the pig village. The children were sick, they said, and the mother — who was about to have a baby — was dying.

I walked out past the pigpens to where the Serranos had thrown together a small compound of stray boards and bedsprings. The roof was low — about three feet high — and I had to bend over to get inside. The only room of the house was a combination bedroom and kitchen. The floor was dirt, and the room was dark and smoky. The smoke came from a little cook fire in the far corner, dangerously near the wooden wall. Some papers and a couple of pots rested on a cardboard mat in the dirt next to the fire. In the other three comers, there were pallets of rag and paper: the beds.

Two boys and a little girl squatted in the dark. When they saw me. they started laughing. I said. “Come out here.”

The little girl had a strange name — Cervella (Ser-vey-yah).

“Where’s your father?" I asked.

The oldest boy shrugged.

They all giggled

"Where’s your mother?"

Cagando.” (Shitting.) “She does it all the tune."

They all nodded.

“All day." Cervella said.

Her face was covered with smudges, but under the dirt were dense scabs, dark as steak. I couldn’t figure out what they were; they looked like a combination of scabies and impetigo.

“What is this?" I asked, putting my finger on her cheek. She shrugged. I took her arm. turned the elbow out; there they were again. When I touched the edge of a scab, pale orange blood leaked out. “Does it hurt?”

Shrug. ‘"Itches.” Giggle.

They all looked past me. I turned around. Mrs. Serrano had appeared in a patch of tall weeds. She scared me to death.

She was a zombie, right out of an old Karloff movie. Her skin was sallow and had the texture of hide, all criss-crossed with tiny Xs in the thick flesh. Her eyes were black, overlaid with a dullness that looked like a layer of dust — I wanted to wipe them off with my fingertips. Her mood was so flattened that she seemed agreeable and mindless; on her mouth, a loose-lipped grin and a constant exhalation of dank air. When she stood next to me. I could feel her fever radiating.

She was very pregnant.

“Are you Mrs. Serrano?" I managed

"Serrano?" she said.

Pause.

“Where is your husband, Mrs. Serrano?"

Pause.

She moved a hand in the direction of the dump.

"What's wrong with your daughter?"

She smiled slowly, looking at the ground. “My daughter? There is something wrong with her.” She laughed in slow motion.

I was baffled.

I put my hand on her forehead; it was dry as a skull, burning.

“I have dysentery," she said

Someone behind me coughed. Senor Serrano had arrived to see who was bothering his family. He was a hearty man. with a hat and a drooping moustache He gripped my hand and pumped it.

“Good to meet you!"

I told him his wife was seriously ill.

“I know it,” he said "Watch this.” He grabbed her arm and pinched up a section of her skin. When he let it go. it stayed elevated, like clay or a pinch of Silly Putty. A sign of severe dehydration.

Esta toda seca," he said. (She’s all dry.)

“The baby?" I asked her

She laughed

“Touch it,” Mr Serrano said.

I put my hand on her stomach. It was hard.

I brought supplies from the van: water, milk, rice, beans, a large can of tuna, a large can of peaches, fruit cocktail, tortillas, com, a can of mixed vegetables, bread, a fresh chicken, and doughnuts for the kids. I told Mr. Serrano to keep her in bed and to pour fluids down her; we’d be back the next day with a doctor.

They both laughed. He kept rubbing his hand over his face, up to the hat, down over the chin.

When we returned with the doctor. Mrs. Serrano was sitting in the sun on a broken kitchen chair.

“I’m back," I said. “Remember I told you I’d come back?"

She didn't respond.

The doctor crouched before her and felt her stomach. He pulled up her lids, felt her brow, and took her pulse. He shook out his thermometer and put it in her mouth. She submitted to everything.

"Tell her I need a stool sample. Tell her I need to see some stool .”

I told her. She got up and motioned for us to follow her She led us to the south wall of the shack — the outside of the kitchen wall. The single sheet of plywood was also the wall of the pigpen. And she had been leaning against it to go; bloody ropes and spatters of feces were all over the wall. Our can of tuna was simmering about six inches away from this mess.

“Doesn’t she know anything about hygiene?" the doctor asked.

“What is it?" she replied The doctor handed me a paper cup. “Sample.” he said.

He gave her Lomotil to stop the diarrhea. We gave her several jugs of Gatorade. more water, and some clothes.

Whatever Mrs. Serrano had. it was cured within a week or so because of a small bit of donated time and some pale capsules the doctor had prescribed. Within days her eyes were bright, her skin turned tender, and her fever vanished. They moved the pigs away from the wall and went out into the weeds beside the dump to relieve themselves. In time, she had a healthy baby.

LA CURANDERA

On each visit to the Serranos' house, we had tried to treat Cervella’s skin, but nothing worked. There would be a short period of remission. when the skin would clear, then the lumps would return.

“You know. Hermano." Mr. Serrano said one day. “you won’t cure Cervella."

“Why not?"

“It’s black magic.”

In Serrano’s homeland, near Yucatan, there was a witch named Erlinda. She was a curandera (healer woman), working her spells to help those who paid for medical attention.

Erlinda was embroiled in an unexplained feud with one of Serrano’s kin. He did not know what had started the fight, but he was not involved. One day Erlinda appeared at his door, demanding money — 568 pesos. Serrano didn’t have it, and he told her so. She would not leave and became abusive, threatening him and his family. He physically ejected her from his plot of land, and she stood outside his little wood fence and put a curse on him.

That week Cervella’s aunt — Mrs. Serrano's sister — went into a swoon and died. They took her to a clinic in her last hours, but she never revived.

The Serranos were terrified, unwilling to leave their compound.

Then Cervella fell ill. It began with a fever, and it rose until she became delirious. She was soon in a coma. Serrano bundled her up and carried her to the Red Cross station, but they couldn't break her fever. They kept her overnight.

Serrano, not knowing what else to do, went out to his land to work. In one corner, he found a small pyramid of stones. He took it apart and found a bundle of Cervella’s clothes knotted up inside it.

He rushed to the clinic, carried Cervella out, and took her to a missionary' house in the jungle. There, he told me. they prayed over her, and she awoke.

It is possible that Serrano was telling me a whopper. However, he was crying as he told it.

*‘I swear to you. Luis," he said, "she woke up. And the fever?" He brushed his hands before his chest, as though flicking dust into the wind. "Gone."

The Serranos so feared Erlinda that they fled north, until they ran out of country to run through. The last I saw of her, Cervella’s arms were still lumpy, scabbed over, oozing blood.

THREATS

Spring finally came, and the drive to Jesusita’s house became easier as the hills dried out. Her husband had not been able to find work, she said, but they had been able to cover the biggest gaps in the walls, and they had settled into the house with a certain amount of comfort.

Jesusita’s husband was seldom there. "He’s looking for a place with horses." she would say.

Her husband was the topic of gossip. Some people said he was a horse-thief. This wasn't any big deal, especially in the dump. One of the boys who lived in the pig village had a pony that he’d stolen from one of the small ranches on the outskirts of Tijuana. He used the pony to rustle cattle from the same ranches. He fed his three brothers this way — their parents had disappeared on the trek north — and he was quite proud of his outlaw status. He was 13 when he started.

There was something else about Jesusita’s husband that made people talk. Crime wasn’t it — crime would make him something of a celebrity.

Perhaps it was that stoic silence of his. His self-possession seemed arrogant, perhaps, and Mexicans hate an arrogant man.

They said he’d been involved in a major crime down south and had turned evidence against his accomplices. He’d had to flee north with his family to escape reprisals — both from the criminals and the cops. Once he was known to the police in the region, he'd be hounded continually. forced to set people up for arrest or worse ... even innocent people.

Jesusita, on the other hand, seemed genuinely popular. She took part in the dump's church services. attended every event and Bible study. She was good friends with Dona Araceli. the Cheese Lady, and every time we came over the hill into the dump, she and Araceli would barrel into me and lift me off the ground. The little boys would charge out of the house and play tag with me. One of them delighted in being captured and held upside-down. They had gotten some pigs, and I was always ready to heap lavish praise on such fine hogs.

But one day. Jesusita told me she had to leave the house. They'd been fixing it up. planting some corn and expanding the little pigpen in the back. She insisted someone was making threats. We didn’t believe her.

The next week, she directed us to the house of an old woman in the valley across from her house. Jesusita told me the woman owned their house and had threatened to harm her family if they didn’t leave. We went to the woman and talked to her; there was no problem, she insisted. They could stay. I was confused. Was Jesusita lying?

As we left. Jesusita held me hard and cried. I would never see her again.

CORPSES

From the condition and location of the bodies, police pieced together this scenario: Jesusita and her husband were led up a canyon several miles from the dump (or taken by car to an abandoned stretch of road — I couldn't get clear details). There were at least two men with them, and a small boy. possibly Jesusita's son — the same one who loved to be chased around the yard. The boy escaped. According to the testimony of the children, the men had appeared at the door and had seemed friendly. They told the family that there was a great deal of free lumber at a certain site. They said they knew of the family’s troubles, and they wanted to offer help. Jesusita and her husband both went with the men. taking the boy for extra help.

Jesusita's husband was held by the arms, and a sawed-off shotgun was notched under his nose and fired. It blew his head to pieces, leaving the back of his skull and the attached ears.

This must have happened very quickly. Apparently, the shooter had his shotgun under a coat.

Jesusita and the boy ran. The child hid himself. The gunmen went after her. She was not fast — her legs were short, too short to carry her out of range. They shot her in the spine, knocking her face-down in the dirt. They must have taken their time reloading, because she managed to crawl a short distance, bleeding heavily. The shooter walked up to her, put the shotgun to the back of her head, and fired.

The next day, there was a note stuck to the door of Jesusita’s house. It said: IF YOU ARE NOT GONE BY TOMORROW WE WILL COME AND KILL EACH ONE OF YOU.

The children have scattered; I never saw any of them again.

Through the grapevine. I was told that if I was really interested in the shooting, one of the men would sell me the shotgun. It was going for $40.

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Tacos Lily: good enough for Anthony Bourdain!

I raise my Tecate to the Master.
Each dump has its pecking order. There are people who are “in” — some dompes even have “mayors"; some have hired goons. - Image by Alfred Pagano
Each dump has its pecking order. There are people who are “in” — some dompes even have “mayors"; some have hired goons.

One of the most beautiful views of San Diego is from the summit of a small hill in Tijuana's municipal garbage dump. People live on that hill, picking through the trash with long poles that end in hooks made with bent nails. They scavenge for bottles, tin, aluminum, cloth; for cast-out beds, wood, furniture. Sometimes they find meat that is not too rotten to be cooked.

Mexicans are shamed by accepting help of any kind. When embarrassed or ashamed, they can often overcompensate.

This is where the city drops off its dead animals — dogs, cats, sometimes horses, goats. They are piled in heaps six feet high and torched. In that stinking blue haze, amid nightmare sculptures of charred ribs and carbonized tails, you can watch the buildings of San Diego gleam gold on the blue coastline. The city looks cool in the summer, when heat cracks the ground and flies drill into the garbage-pickers’ noses. And in the winter, when wind chill drops night temperatures into the 30s, when the cold makes their lips bleed, and rain turns the hill into a gray pudding of ash and mud. and babies are wrapped in plastic trash bags for warmth, San Diego glows like a big electric dream. And every night on that burnt hill, these people are watching. .

A new family — a couple, several children, including toddlers, and one daughter with an infant — had no house to stay in. They were very poor and in dire need of help.

In or near every Mexican border town, you will find trash dumps. Some of the bigger cities have several “official” dumps, and there are countless small, unlicensed places where the garbage is thrown. Some of the official dumps are quite large, and some, like the one outside Tecate, are small and well hidden. Almost all of them are inhabited.

There was the family recently arrived from near Guadalajara. They had no clothes except what they were wearing, and the children were so infected with scabies that their skin looked like chewing gum.

Each dompe has its own culture, as distinct as the people living there. And each one has its pecking order. There are people who are “in” — some dompes even have “mayors"; some have hired goons, paid off by shady syndicates, to keep the trash-pickers in line, a kind of illegal serfdom, where the poor must pay a ransom to the rich to pick trash to survive. And there may be a family that is especially friendly with the missionaries in the area, and this family can become an advocate for the rest.

The nurse took the infant and dunked it in a tub of icy water. It had a heart attack and died. It was a girl.

Then there are those who are so far "out” that the mind reels. In the Tijuana dompe where a group of us worked as poverty-relief volunteers, the outcasts were located along the western edge, in the shacks and lean-tos in and around the area called the pig village. This was where the untouchables of the society of untouchables slept. Like the Serrano family, the Cheese Lady, Jose and Pacha, Jesusita.

To refuse their hospitality would have been the ultimate insult, yet to eat and drink put us at risk.

A WOMAN NAMED "LITTLE JESUS"

It was raining It had been raining for weeks, and the weather was unremittingly cold. The early-morning van loadings were glum; all spring and summer and even into the fall, more volunteers than we'd known what to do with had joined us for the weekly trips into Mexico. One day we'd had over a hundred eager American kids loaded into busses, ready to change the world. Now. though, when the wet had come, the group had dwindled. Sometimes we were reduced to a small core of old-timers, six to ten at most.

Jesusita and the boy ran. The child hid himself. The gunmen went after her. She was not fast.

When we pulled into the dump, the vans slid almost sideways in the viscous, slick mud. The air felt icy; there was no smoke to speak of that day, and the dogs were mostly hiding Women waited in line for food, their heads covered with plastic sheets. Even in this wind and wet, they joked and laughed. This feature of the Mexican personality is often the cause of much misunderstanding; if Mexicans are so cheerful, then they certainly can’t be hungry or ill. which leads to the myth of the quaint and jovial peasant with a lusty, Zorba-like love affair with life. It’s a lie.

Perhaps the women were simply relieved to be getting food. Perhaps they were embarrassed; Mexicans are shamed by accepting help of any kind. When embarrassed or ashamed, they can often overcompensate, becoming boisterous, seemingly carefree. Or maybe the poor don’t feel compelled to play the humble and quiet role we assign them in our hearts.

As I climbed out of the van. Dona Araceli, the Cheese Lady, bustled over to me. We called her the Cheese Lady because she had taken to coming to the dump with globs of drippy white goat cheese wrapped in cloth. She sold it to the locals, and she always pressed a lump of it into my hands as a gift. Nobody in the crew had the guts to taste it. We'd pass the cheese around for a couple of hours, then unload it at an orphanage or a barrio in Tijuana.

This day. Dona Araceli was extremely agitated. A new family — a couple, several children, including toddlers, and one daughter with an infant — had no house to stay in. They were very poor and in dire need of help.

One of our projects over the years was to build homes and churches for the poor. Aubrey, a volunteer, had come up with an ingeniously simple construction plan. He began collecting garage doors from houses being tom down or renovated; these doors, hammered to a simple wooden frame, made handy walls. Depending on how many doors were available, the new house could be as long or as wide as the builders chose. With saws and donated windows, Aubrey could modify the place and make it quite fancy. The roofs were either more garage doors or two-by-six planks covered with plastic sheeting that was stapled into place. Old carpets and plastic made a quick floor.

Once a month, we would have a dump workday; truckloads of youths armed with tools would come in and begin hammering. In a matter of hours, they could have a new building up. Aubrey often brought a little tractor with him and hooked a line of wagons to it, forming a train. He would fill the wagons with kids and drive around. It was a happy, preposterous sight, this train, chugging along at half a mile an hour, kids screaming. Aubrey steering with great seriousness and dignity.

So Dona Araceli, the Cheese Lady, wanted us to build this new family a house right away. She said the mother was waiting to meet me. She was called Jesusita. Little Jesus.

Jesusita shook my hand and called me Hermano. Brother. This is not a common Mexican greeting. It is used among Protestants as a shorthand for “fellow Christian.” A “real” Mexican would never resort to such fanaticism. (Though it is a habit for Mexicans to call each other “mono," which is short for “brother.” but which actually takes the place of "pal” or “dude ”) The poor, however, deal with missionaries and soon learn to use the more religious terms freely. It is often a manipulative thing; they are hoping you will assume they are “Hallelujahs” too and give them more goods than the rest. So Jesusita's "Hermano" didn’t move me. I paid it no heed.

What caught my eye instead was Jesusita's face. She was small, a round woman with gray hair and the kind of face that retains a hint of young beauty under layers of pain and comfortless years. Her eyes were nestled in laughlines and were a light, nut-brown color. She smiled easily. Her hair was wound in twin braids and pinned to the top of her head, framing her face. She made me feel happy, absurdly pleased, as though she were a long-lost aunt who had appeared with a plate of cookies.

Over the next year, as we got to be friends, she would lavish me with bear-hugs. Her head fit easily beneath my chin. On the day I met her. though, she cried.

“Hermano," she said. “venimos desde el sur, y no tenemos casa." (We came from the south, and we don’t have a house.) "Somos muchos, todos mis hijos, un nietito, y mi senor." (There are many of us. all my children, a little grandson. and my husband.)

“Help her. Luis!” said Araceli.

Jesusita's full name was Maria de Jesus. Mary of Jesus. I told her we'd be down there when we could. She began to cry again and put her arms around me. saying, "Gracias, Luis. Gracias. Hermano Luis''

That Jesusita needed assistance didn't make her special, but something about her involved me immediately. I suppose it is the thing we conveniently call “chemistry.” Still. Jesusita was one face in a river of hundreds.

SOCORRO

In the dompe, requests for help were a constant; they were the rule. Everyone needed help. For example, there was the family recently arrived from near Guadalajara. They had no clothes except what they were wearing, and the children were so infected with scabies that their skin looked like chewing gum. Scabies is a burrowing mite, a louse, and it tunnels through your flesh, leaving eggs under your skin. You scratch and scratch but can never quite get to the itch. They move in you at night. They like crotches and armpits. Scabies victims claw themselves raw.

The kids didn’t understand what was wrong with them. They all slept together, and the mites could easily move from body to body. The beds were full of the insects; clothes and underwear were also infested. When we tried to explain what was causing their itch, they looked at us with disbelief and laughed.

This family was living.in a shack on a hillside that could only be reached after a long and confusing drive through crooked alleys and ridge-top dirt paths. Their shack was surrounded by lean-tos thrown together by junkies and winos. You could smell the booze and urine through the slats. The men’s voices were thick; they cursed and broke glass in the dark. In the shack hid Socorro, the family's 13-year-old daughter. The men wanted her. They’d come out after dark and storm the house, trying to break through the doors and walls to get to her. When I went up there in the evening, waving my flashlight in the dust clouds. I could hear them outside Socorro’s door, howling.

FEAR

This is a record of a small event that happened on a typical day in the pig village.

I was unloading one of the vans, and some of my friends were with me — Araceli. Juanita and her kids. Negra. I noticed a woman in the distance, among the trash piles. I didn't recognize her. None of the dump people seemed to know her, either. We watched her lurch back and forth, spitting and waving her arms. She would occasionally glare at me. start toward me. then stop after a few steps and curse. Her face looked like a rubber mask: white creases and a red slash mouth.

“She's drunk,’’ said Juanita. I said something, no doubt a joke, and leaned into the van. I shoved aside one of the heavy bags of beans and worked free the box I was looking for. When I turned around, the woman was standing right beside me, staring into my face. She snarled.

I stumbled back from her. Her hair stood straight off her scalp as though she were taking a heavy charge of electricity through her feet. She was wheezing.

One of the women said, “She’s crazy, Hermano.’’

“Fuck you,” she snapped. Her voice was deep, like a man’s voice. “Vete a la chingada."

She leaned toward me. "We know you,” she said. “We know who you are. We know what you’re doing.”

I laughed nervously. “What?"

“You’ll pay for this."

I put my box down. “I don’t understand.”

She began to rasp obscenities in her man's voice. “We know you. We ll get you.”

She spun around and jerked away from us, very fast. She stumbled over rocks in the road but kept moving, shouting all the time. “You’ll see!” (Vas a ver.) “We’ll get you. We’ll stop you.”

She paused in front of Pacha’s house at the top of the hill, gesturing at me and yelling her strange threats. The hair at the back of my neck began to rise. (It really does stand up.) "Is she drunk?” Juanita asked. The woman threw her head back and screamed.

PACHA

Pacha has startling eyes. They have a kind of gold-green edge; they have yellow flecks, like the eyes of a cat. They slant the slightest bit. If she lived anywhere but the Tijuana garbage dump, she would have the eyes of a movie star.

She lives with a thin, dark man named Josl. He calls himself her husband, though he is not the father of her children. His face is craggy and his teeth are long, hidden by a thick, black moustache. When he talks to you, he bobs his head and grins. When either of them laughs, they cover their mouths with their hands. They were pagans when they came north; real Indian stock. When Jose moved into her bed, he became her mate, and he remains faithful to her. It is a simple marriage agreement, as firm as a wolfs.

They cannot read, which would render the certificates useless to them, anyway. They also can’t afford to have a wedding; to begin with, Patcha has no dress. They made their own stand: they mated. It is as significant to them as any sanctifying ceremony they can imagine. He is her man; she is his woman.

Jose likes Jesus very much. When Pastor Von and his missionaries come by his house, Jose always asks Von to pray for him. We put our arms around each other, Von prays, and I translate. Jos£ keeps saying, “Thank you, Jesus, for listening to me." He cries.

Pacha won’t come to the vans to get food. She says it embarrasses her to be begging and fighting with all those other women. I made it a habit to save her out a box of goods, and after the crowds dissipated a bit, I would take it up to her.

Pacha's home is on a slope that sweeps down into the dump; it is a long, meandering shack with a low roof and uneven walls. The entire house is at an angle. Jose designed it this way so that the rain, when it came, would flow through the house, under their bed. and down the hill. He is very proud of this: his is one of the dump's most well-engineered houses. Those who built below him. on flatland Or in hollows, find themselves in puddles of mud all winter.

Their floor is a conglomeration of carpet pieces and stray linoleum squares. Jose and Pacha pressed them into wet soil. The exterior walls are board. The interior walls are cardboard, with an occasional bit of wood — fruit crates, barrel slats — and plastic sheeting.

They do have one luxury: beds. It is quite odd to look through a door and see a big bed with an iron bedstand. Often, a bed is the only thing the dump people own that is worth anything. Except for televisions.

Light glows from little black and white TV sets scattered through the dump. There is no electricity, but people do have the wrecked cars in the yonkes in the valleys. The men take the car batteries and hook the TVs to them. Sometimes, the television is balanced on huge, rusted oil barrels, which, when filled with paper and dung or twigs, also serve as stoves.

Pacha doesn’t have a television, but she does have oil barrels. She cooks in one of them. The other she uses to store water. It is full of mosquito larvae wiggling like tiny fish. Its water is the color of blood.

Pacha's oldest daughter offered to pay me to smuggle her across the border. She was pregnant — her husband had gone across the wire and never come back. She watched for him on a neighbor's television. I told her I couldn’t do it.

On New Year’s morning, she had the baby in a free clinic in Tijuana. The nurse took the infant and dunked it in a tub of icy water. It had a heart attack and died. It was a girl.

Pacha got pregnant next. Her belly stuck out far and hard, like a basketball, from her small body.

When we arrived at the dump, she’d stand in front of her house with Jose, point at me and laugh. They laughed a lot. She would be furious with me if I didn’t come up the hill right away to see her kids.

Jose had hurt his back. He could barely stand, much less work, and the days were hard for Pacha and her kids. They all had to take the trash-picking poles and work the mounds, supporting Jos<, who would give out after a few hours.

When I took them the food. I’d pat that huge stomach and shout. “What are you doing in there?" They would laugh, and she would scold me for waking him up It was Jose’s first child with her, the seal of their marriage.

One day, when we drove over the hill, a crowd was there, milling. I glanced at Pacha’s house — nobody in front. Then I saw an old pickup truck coming up the hill. Jose was in the back with a group of men. They held cloudy bottles by the necks.

I waved at him, but he just looked at me as the truck went by, no emotion at all on his face.

As we were unloading the vans, one of Pacha* girls came to me and put her hand on my arm. "Luis," she said, quietly. "Mama’s baby died.”

I stared at her.

“Don Jose just took him away in the truck. His head was too big. He was all black.”

I asked her if it had been born here; she shook her head. “Free clinic,” she said.

She stood calmly, watching me. “Mama needs you.” she said. I didn't want to go up there.

It was a terrible charade. Pacha was blushing and overly polite, as though caught in an embarrassment. I was pleasant, as though we were having tea at the Ritz. Everything felt brittle, ready to shatter.

She was wearing baggy green stretch pants, standing and holding on to a salvaged aluminum kitchen chair.

“Poor Jose.” she said, looking off. It was very

dark in the house, and it smelled of smoke. “Poor Jose. It hurt him so much.”

That look as he drove past, drunk: where was Jesus now?

“The baby wouldn't come out," she said. She looked at her feet. “The doctor got up under my chi-chis and pushed on him after I tried for a few hours.”

“What! He sat on your abdomen?”

She nodded. “Si! They got up on my chest and shoved on me. And then the doctor had to get down there and pull me way open because the baby was black, and we were both dying.” She swayed. I jumped up and took her arm, trying to get her into the chair. “It hurts," she said. She smiled. “It’s hard to sit.” I got her down. “They stuck iron inside me. They pulled him out with tools, and I’m scared because I’m fat down there. I’m still all fat " She couldn't look at me; she bowed her head. "It’s hard and swollen, and I can’t touch it.”

I told her not to move and ran down the hill for Dave, our medical student. He grabbed a flashlight and followed me up.

Pacha repeated her story; I translated. He said. “Tell her to pull the pants tight against her crotch so I can see the swelling "

She did. He bent close. It looked like she had grown a set of testicles. He whistled.

“Think it’s a hernia?” he asked.

"I don't know Could be." Many of the women in the dump have hernias that are never treated. One woman had one for 15 years before she asked someone to look at it.

Dave said, "Tell her I have to feel it.”

I told Pacha. She just looked at me. Brown flecked with gold. "Anything you say,” she nodded.

“Is she all right?" Dave asked.

"Yeah.”

He handled her very tenderly, she winced, sucked air. “Feels bad," he said.

She kept her eyes on my face.

“We have to get her pants off, buddy."

“Wonderful, Dave."

“Culturally?" he asked.

“A disaster.”

One of my aunts, when she was pregnant, was attended by a male obstetrician. He had to stand outside a closed door; his nurse examined my aunt and called out the details to him My uncle hovered nearby to make sure there would be no outrage.

Dave stood there a moment. “Too bad. We have to look.”

“Pacha." I said. “The, ah. doctor needs to see it."

She nodded. She took her children outside and told them not to come back for a while. I held her hand and helped her into the bed.

Jose had designed a little paper alcove for the bed. Pictures of musicians, movie stars, and saints were pasted to the walls. A ragged curtain hung beside the bed for privacy.

“He was too big,” she said, stretching out "Too fat"

She worked the pants down past her hips There was a strip of dirty clastic — perhaps tom out of an old girdle — wrapped around her fallen belly to hold it up She unwrapped herself. Her navel hung out like a fat thumb.

She undid some safety pins that hetd her underpants together They were blue lightly stained. There was a smell of warm bread and vinegar Dave sat beside her Pacha stared into my eyes.

I looked away. I was embarrassed and nervous.

Dave handed me the flashlight and said. "Here. Illuminate it for me ”

Her right side was thick and grotesque The labium was red. Bits of lint were stuck to her Every time he touched her Pacha gasped.

“Blood," he said. “Tell her it's blood. No hernia.” He smiled at her.

I translated.

She smiled a little bit. more with her eyes than her lips

We put her to bed for several days — no more trash-picking She needed to let the blood reabsorb. Dave gave her vitamins, aspirin, put her on lots of fluids

“Ay. Luis," she said.

Outside, the sky was black and brown — they were burning dogs at the end of the dump. It smelled like Hell. I took a deep breath and walked away.

COFFEE WITH JESUSITA

Pastor Von, Steve, and I climbed into the tour-wheel-drive Blazer and headed down the slippery hill to meet Jesusita. There was a dirt road, but it was already so deep in mud that the truck couldn't make it. We had to abandon it and slog down. In places, the mud went higher than my knees.

Jesusita and some of her brood were waiting for us. They led us to what seemed — for the dump, anyway — an especially luxurious house. It was a small American-style place, with stucco walls and what appeared to be a real roof. It even had a porch. Remembering the pleadings of the Cheese Lady. we were a little suspicious, until we got inside Half of the house had fallen in. with the walls sagging and open to the wind The floor was raw uncovered cement, and the whole house was awash in one or two inches of water. There were only two areas recognizable as rooms In what had clearly been a living room, on a sheet of plastic, were piled all of Jesusita's possessions — clothes, jackets, bundles — forming a small dry island. The family slept on this pile. The other room was a kitchen.

They had dragged the empty shell of a stove from the dump. There was a linoleum and aluminum table in the kitchen, too. with four unmatched chairs. On the counter were a few coffee cups, a pan. and the meager food supplies we had given Jesusita

Her husband arrived, took off his straw vaquero hat. shook our hands, and very formally and graciously invited us to sit and have a cup of coffee with him He was an iron-backed man. not tall, but erect and strong; his hands were thick and solid as oak burls. He wore old cowboy boots, faded jeans, and a white, pearl-snap shirt. We learned that he was a horse-breaker from the interior of Mexico, a real cowboy who took pride in his talents.

Jesusita said. “He is the best horse-tamer in. our region ” He shushed her — he never liked too much talk of home. His tightly curled hair was tinged gray and white He had a small, peppery moustache sketched across his upper lip. He referred to us as “Usted," the formal “you." and it was clear that he expected the same respect. The most lasting impression he gave was one of dignity and pride.

Their children were remarkably attractive — several girls and two little boys. One of the girls, perhaps 15. had a baby. They all had shiny black hair, which the girls wore pulled back in loose ponytails.

Jesusita put wads of newspaper in the stove and lit them. She heated water in the battered pan and made Nescafe instant coffee. It was clearly the last of their coffee, and she served it in four cups. We men sat at the table. Jesusita and the kids stood around us. watching us drink the coffee.

It was a terrible and lovely moment. The weak coffee, the formal and serious cowboy, the children, and Jesusita hovering over us. She broke a small loaf of sweet bread into pieces and made us eat.

It was also a fearsome moment — the water was surely polluted, run-off from the miasma above There was a great deal of disease in the area from the constant flooding and the scattered bodies of dead animals. To refuse their hospitality would have been the ultimate insult, yet to eat and drink put us at risk. Von had the grim set in his lips that said, Here we go again. and with a glance at us. he took a sip. We drank. “Ah! we exulted. “Delicioso!" Jesusita beamed. The cowboy nodded gravely, dipped his bit of sweet bread in his cup. and toasted us with it. Outside, the cold rain hammered down. Inside, we were all shivering There was no way to get warm.

A DUMP WORK-DAY

Steve and I were going to shacks in the pig village, visiting the families there. The crew was in the lower dump, hammering new houses together. We were alone.

Since we weren’t expected, we were free of the usual crowds of hungry people. We were able to lake in cartons of food to each family. The Serranos were at the end. and as we walked out there, we heard a commotion. Mr. Serrano was hollering and laughing, running in circles with a broom His boys were charging around his feet, whooping, and his young daughter was shrieking and clapping her hands.

“What’s this?" Steve said.

“Get him! Get him!" the girl was shouting.

It was a big dump rat. trapped between all of them, running in panicked circles. Everywhere it turned, there was a Serrano. Mr. Serrano repeatedly smashed the broom across its back. He finally cracked the rat across the spine, and it fell over, scrabbling in the dust. They all laughed The oldest boy knelt behind the rat. They crowded in.

Mr. Serrano said, “Good boy. Do it!"

The kid reached into his back pocket and withdrew a pair of wire cutters. He held the rat down with one hand and fitted the cutters over its snout. He began to cut its head off. centimeter by centimeter.

Steve and I backed away. Before we knew it. we were running.

THE SERRANOS

I first met the Serrano family on a Thursday. Several women had told me there was a very dirty new family living out at the far end of the pig village. The children were sick, they said, and the mother — who was about to have a baby — was dying.

I walked out past the pigpens to where the Serranos had thrown together a small compound of stray boards and bedsprings. The roof was low — about three feet high — and I had to bend over to get inside. The only room of the house was a combination bedroom and kitchen. The floor was dirt, and the room was dark and smoky. The smoke came from a little cook fire in the far corner, dangerously near the wooden wall. Some papers and a couple of pots rested on a cardboard mat in the dirt next to the fire. In the other three comers, there were pallets of rag and paper: the beds.

Two boys and a little girl squatted in the dark. When they saw me. they started laughing. I said. “Come out here.”

The little girl had a strange name — Cervella (Ser-vey-yah).

“Where’s your father?" I asked.

The oldest boy shrugged.

They all giggled

"Where’s your mother?"

Cagando.” (Shitting.) “She does it all the tune."

They all nodded.

“All day." Cervella said.

Her face was covered with smudges, but under the dirt were dense scabs, dark as steak. I couldn’t figure out what they were; they looked like a combination of scabies and impetigo.

“What is this?" I asked, putting my finger on her cheek. She shrugged. I took her arm. turned the elbow out; there they were again. When I touched the edge of a scab, pale orange blood leaked out. “Does it hurt?”

Shrug. ‘"Itches.” Giggle.

They all looked past me. I turned around. Mrs. Serrano had appeared in a patch of tall weeds. She scared me to death.

She was a zombie, right out of an old Karloff movie. Her skin was sallow and had the texture of hide, all criss-crossed with tiny Xs in the thick flesh. Her eyes were black, overlaid with a dullness that looked like a layer of dust — I wanted to wipe them off with my fingertips. Her mood was so flattened that she seemed agreeable and mindless; on her mouth, a loose-lipped grin and a constant exhalation of dank air. When she stood next to me. I could feel her fever radiating.

She was very pregnant.

“Are you Mrs. Serrano?" I managed

"Serrano?" she said.

Pause.

“Where is your husband, Mrs. Serrano?"

Pause.

She moved a hand in the direction of the dump.

"What's wrong with your daughter?"

She smiled slowly, looking at the ground. “My daughter? There is something wrong with her.” She laughed in slow motion.

I was baffled.

I put my hand on her forehead; it was dry as a skull, burning.

“I have dysentery," she said

Someone behind me coughed. Senor Serrano had arrived to see who was bothering his family. He was a hearty man. with a hat and a drooping moustache He gripped my hand and pumped it.

“Good to meet you!"

I told him his wife was seriously ill.

“I know it,” he said "Watch this.” He grabbed her arm and pinched up a section of her skin. When he let it go. it stayed elevated, like clay or a pinch of Silly Putty. A sign of severe dehydration.

Esta toda seca," he said. (She’s all dry.)

“The baby?" I asked her

She laughed

“Touch it,” Mr Serrano said.

I put my hand on her stomach. It was hard.

I brought supplies from the van: water, milk, rice, beans, a large can of tuna, a large can of peaches, fruit cocktail, tortillas, com, a can of mixed vegetables, bread, a fresh chicken, and doughnuts for the kids. I told Mr. Serrano to keep her in bed and to pour fluids down her; we’d be back the next day with a doctor.

They both laughed. He kept rubbing his hand over his face, up to the hat, down over the chin.

When we returned with the doctor. Mrs. Serrano was sitting in the sun on a broken kitchen chair.

“I’m back," I said. “Remember I told you I’d come back?"

She didn't respond.

The doctor crouched before her and felt her stomach. He pulled up her lids, felt her brow, and took her pulse. He shook out his thermometer and put it in her mouth. She submitted to everything.

"Tell her I need a stool sample. Tell her I need to see some stool .”

I told her. She got up and motioned for us to follow her She led us to the south wall of the shack — the outside of the kitchen wall. The single sheet of plywood was also the wall of the pigpen. And she had been leaning against it to go; bloody ropes and spatters of feces were all over the wall. Our can of tuna was simmering about six inches away from this mess.

“Doesn’t she know anything about hygiene?" the doctor asked.

“What is it?" she replied The doctor handed me a paper cup. “Sample.” he said.

He gave her Lomotil to stop the diarrhea. We gave her several jugs of Gatorade. more water, and some clothes.

Whatever Mrs. Serrano had. it was cured within a week or so because of a small bit of donated time and some pale capsules the doctor had prescribed. Within days her eyes were bright, her skin turned tender, and her fever vanished. They moved the pigs away from the wall and went out into the weeds beside the dump to relieve themselves. In time, she had a healthy baby.

LA CURANDERA

On each visit to the Serranos' house, we had tried to treat Cervella’s skin, but nothing worked. There would be a short period of remission. when the skin would clear, then the lumps would return.

“You know. Hermano." Mr. Serrano said one day. “you won’t cure Cervella."

“Why not?"

“It’s black magic.”

In Serrano’s homeland, near Yucatan, there was a witch named Erlinda. She was a curandera (healer woman), working her spells to help those who paid for medical attention.

Erlinda was embroiled in an unexplained feud with one of Serrano’s kin. He did not know what had started the fight, but he was not involved. One day Erlinda appeared at his door, demanding money — 568 pesos. Serrano didn’t have it, and he told her so. She would not leave and became abusive, threatening him and his family. He physically ejected her from his plot of land, and she stood outside his little wood fence and put a curse on him.

That week Cervella’s aunt — Mrs. Serrano's sister — went into a swoon and died. They took her to a clinic in her last hours, but she never revived.

The Serranos were terrified, unwilling to leave their compound.

Then Cervella fell ill. It began with a fever, and it rose until she became delirious. She was soon in a coma. Serrano bundled her up and carried her to the Red Cross station, but they couldn't break her fever. They kept her overnight.

Serrano, not knowing what else to do, went out to his land to work. In one corner, he found a small pyramid of stones. He took it apart and found a bundle of Cervella’s clothes knotted up inside it.

He rushed to the clinic, carried Cervella out, and took her to a missionary' house in the jungle. There, he told me. they prayed over her, and she awoke.

It is possible that Serrano was telling me a whopper. However, he was crying as he told it.

*‘I swear to you. Luis," he said, "she woke up. And the fever?" He brushed his hands before his chest, as though flicking dust into the wind. "Gone."

The Serranos so feared Erlinda that they fled north, until they ran out of country to run through. The last I saw of her, Cervella’s arms were still lumpy, scabbed over, oozing blood.

THREATS

Spring finally came, and the drive to Jesusita’s house became easier as the hills dried out. Her husband had not been able to find work, she said, but they had been able to cover the biggest gaps in the walls, and they had settled into the house with a certain amount of comfort.

Jesusita’s husband was seldom there. "He’s looking for a place with horses." she would say.

Her husband was the topic of gossip. Some people said he was a horse-thief. This wasn't any big deal, especially in the dump. One of the boys who lived in the pig village had a pony that he’d stolen from one of the small ranches on the outskirts of Tijuana. He used the pony to rustle cattle from the same ranches. He fed his three brothers this way — their parents had disappeared on the trek north — and he was quite proud of his outlaw status. He was 13 when he started.

There was something else about Jesusita’s husband that made people talk. Crime wasn’t it — crime would make him something of a celebrity.

Perhaps it was that stoic silence of his. His self-possession seemed arrogant, perhaps, and Mexicans hate an arrogant man.

They said he’d been involved in a major crime down south and had turned evidence against his accomplices. He’d had to flee north with his family to escape reprisals — both from the criminals and the cops. Once he was known to the police in the region, he'd be hounded continually. forced to set people up for arrest or worse ... even innocent people.

Jesusita, on the other hand, seemed genuinely popular. She took part in the dump's church services. attended every event and Bible study. She was good friends with Dona Araceli. the Cheese Lady, and every time we came over the hill into the dump, she and Araceli would barrel into me and lift me off the ground. The little boys would charge out of the house and play tag with me. One of them delighted in being captured and held upside-down. They had gotten some pigs, and I was always ready to heap lavish praise on such fine hogs.

But one day. Jesusita told me she had to leave the house. They'd been fixing it up. planting some corn and expanding the little pigpen in the back. She insisted someone was making threats. We didn’t believe her.

The next week, she directed us to the house of an old woman in the valley across from her house. Jesusita told me the woman owned their house and had threatened to harm her family if they didn’t leave. We went to the woman and talked to her; there was no problem, she insisted. They could stay. I was confused. Was Jesusita lying?

As we left. Jesusita held me hard and cried. I would never see her again.

CORPSES

From the condition and location of the bodies, police pieced together this scenario: Jesusita and her husband were led up a canyon several miles from the dump (or taken by car to an abandoned stretch of road — I couldn't get clear details). There were at least two men with them, and a small boy. possibly Jesusita's son — the same one who loved to be chased around the yard. The boy escaped. According to the testimony of the children, the men had appeared at the door and had seemed friendly. They told the family that there was a great deal of free lumber at a certain site. They said they knew of the family’s troubles, and they wanted to offer help. Jesusita and her husband both went with the men. taking the boy for extra help.

Jesusita's husband was held by the arms, and a sawed-off shotgun was notched under his nose and fired. It blew his head to pieces, leaving the back of his skull and the attached ears.

This must have happened very quickly. Apparently, the shooter had his shotgun under a coat.

Jesusita and the boy ran. The child hid himself. The gunmen went after her. She was not fast — her legs were short, too short to carry her out of range. They shot her in the spine, knocking her face-down in the dirt. They must have taken their time reloading, because she managed to crawl a short distance, bleeding heavily. The shooter walked up to her, put the shotgun to the back of her head, and fired.

The next day, there was a note stuck to the door of Jesusita’s house. It said: IF YOU ARE NOT GONE BY TOMORROW WE WILL COME AND KILL EACH ONE OF YOU.

The children have scattered; I never saw any of them again.

Through the grapevine. I was told that if I was really interested in the shooting, one of the men would sell me the shotgun. It was going for $40.

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