Tijuana is becoming a destination for European youth looking to spend long-term stints in a new culture. But they're not coming to the border city for great weather, nightlife, or proximity to San Diego. Five Austrian, one French, and two Spanish volunteers are doing mission work under the direction of seven Mexican priests of the Salesian order. They work in Tijuana within a system of seven oratorios -- oratories -- each of which combines the roles of traditional parish church, trade school for adults, elementary school for children, and athletic leagues for both children and adults. Spread around Tijuana, the oratories are collectively known as proyecto salesiano, the Salesian Project.
Erwin Hintirholzer, 26, grew up in the "very small village" of Ertl between the cities of Vienna and Salzburg in Austria. When he was done with his university studies, a choice confronted him. "In Austria," he explains in careful, school-learned English, "you are required to do 8 months of military service. But you can choose to do 12 months of social service instead. For me, social service was a more -- how do you say it? -- sensible choice. So I was intending to do a year of social service in Austria when I found out you could also choose to do 14 months of social service outside of Austria."
Deciding on the foreign service option, Hintirholzer made contact with the Salesian order in Austria. "They gave me three choices of countries I could go to: Ghana in Africa, Ecuador, and Mexico. The most sensible choice for me was Mexico."
Asked what made Mexico the best choice, Hintirholzer replies, "Well, in Ghana, I would have been working strictly in trade schools the Salesians have there. In Ecuador I would have been working with street kids. Mexico offered a variety of things: teaching, sports, and physical labor. And here we work with both children and adults."
For Monika Spitaler, 20, also from Austria, mission work ran in the family. While she was a teenager living in suburban Vienna, her older sister worked a year in a Salesian mission in Africa. "She told me that this experience was the best time of her life," Spitaler recalls, "and she encouraged me to try it, so I did. But I didn't want to stay a whole year. I intended to stay for only one summer. I came the second of July this year planning to be back in Austria by now. But I was so impressed with how they attend to the children who are out of the educational system here. Kids who have fallen out of the public school system can come here and go to school and learn, and they have a chance to improve. So I decided to stay for a year."
Spitaler works in an oratory in an eastern Tijuana colonia known as El Florido. But there's nothing florid about this neighborhood, just a kilometer or two north of the foreign maquiladoras. Though it's on Tijuana's electrical grid -- a claim that can't be made by some of the eastern colonias -- only the major boulevard that runs through El Florido is paved. All of the side streets are unpaved, and tires have beaten the white sandstone into a fine powder, which the breeze blows around the neighborhood. Vacant lots and the middle of some streets are piled high with refuse. Occupying five hillside acres above this semi-chaos is the oratory where Spitaler works. It consists of a school, soccer fields, basketball courts, workshops, and a church under construction.
Spitaler -- blonde, round-faced, and soft-spoken -- teaches in school before noon and, in the afternoon, monitors the fields and playgrounds, "Playing with the kids and getting them to watch their language. And then I give a short presentation of spiritual reflections at the end of the afternoon."
Spitaler adds, "I love it here. The kids are great, and there are so many activities."
She says the worst part of the job, aside from missing home, is "when the kids won't accept me because their Spanish is better than mine and because I'm not Mexican." She laughs, "Sometimes, they get up out of their desks and run outside. It's getting better, but we're still working on it."
Things may be getting easier for Spitaler soon, if she picks up Spanish the way Hintirholzer did. "Mi nombre es Erwin is about all I could say when I came," he recalls with a laugh. "But after about three months I found I could keep up with all the conversations. And now, after ten months, I'm actually thinking in Spanish. But I could use to study the language formally to learn the grammar a bit better."
Hintirholzer works at an oratory in an area of southeast Tijuana called Canyon del Sainz. "To get there," he says, "you have to travel about ten kilometers on dirt roads after the paved roads end. You go past what seems like an endless graveyard of cars, thousands of them. There are no services out there, no sewer, no streets. It's like a lost corner of the city."
Both the El Florido and Canyon del Sainz oratories sit in areas populated almost exclusively by migrants. Serving the migrant community presents a challenge to the oratories. "Particularly from a church standpoint," says Father Raul Curiel, who runs the El Florido oratory, "because of the migration of people, there are a lot of indigents and people who don't follow any order. There's less sense of family. It's a lot of disorder and chaos. Our mission is also difficult here because of the many Protestant sects that have grown up in the region, the New Age movement that exists in the area. And people seem to have put religion to the side. They don't see a need for it. The border region is very different from central Mexico, where people are much more traditional and more spiritual."
Another difference Father Curiel has noticed between the border area and central Mexico is in the level of interest in the trade education the Salesians offer. "We've been kind of a failure with our workshops," he admits. "Even though we have pretty well set up workshops, we haven't been very successful at all in attracting students. The sewing shop has had a maximum of 10 people. That's the most we've ever had in a class. The most we've had in the wood shop was five people. The hairstyling class had 15 at one time. And I wanted to set up a machine shop -- someone donated all of the equipment -- and I even hired a teacher. But nobody showed up. There's such a high demand for low-qualification labor in Tijuana that nobody wants to pay to get skills for a skilled-labor job. That's peculiar to the border area. If these classes were offered in southern Mexico, they would be full."
But the lack of success of the adult-education programs in Proyecto Salesiano isn't stopping Spitaler and Hintirholzer from enjoying themselves. "I really like having the opportunity to work with the kids," Hintirholzer says. "It's great when they come running up to me shouting, 'Erwin! Erwin!' It kind of makes me feel like a hero. Also, I've found the Mexican people to be very warm and very giving. I've dined in many families' homes because they're always inviting me. The people are so open, unlike in Austria, where people are closed. You'll know people for years there and never be invited into their homes. In Mexico, there's a lot more emphasis placed on human relationships."
"I love the mentality of the Mexican people," Spitaler adds. "They have more passion, more feeling. It's a very, very warm people."