I didn't recognize where I was. "Things have changed a lot," said Jorge Rodríguez, leading me out of the rain, into his two-story cinder-block house. "I came to Los Arenales looking for new horizons," he said. He offered me a seat on one of two couches tucked into his living room's corner. A bay window at my back filled the room with gray light. Directly across from me, in the dining room, Rodríguez's wife ate a bowl of soup resting on a yellow plastic place mat. Beyond her, in what appeared to be the family room, a computer sat on a large wooden desk.
Beyond the family room, through an open door, I glimpsed a patio and garden where rain pattered across blue tiles and dripped from ferns. From the garden, several kinds of birdsong and twittering drifted to where I sat.At the bay window, Rodríguez had watched me stare at his house. I was standing in the middle of the street, not on the raised sidewalk. Rain washing down the pavement lapped at the toes of my shoes. I must have seemed a demented middle-aged gringo who somehow wandered into this neighborhood behind the central bus station in southeast Tijuana.
"I came to Los Arenales when I was 41 years old," Rodríguez said. "I was an attorney in Mazatlán, Sinaloa. It wasn't easy starting a new life at 41 years old. I came here looking for new opportunities. For my children."
Rodríguez became pensive. He lifted a guitar from the coffee table between us. He strummed it while he talked.
"I came here with my family in 1991," he said. "There was nothing here but a big dump and a lagoon. My mother-in-law was living here. It was what every bus coming to and leaving from Tijuana saw. A big mess. I figured that they'd have to do something with the land eventually."
Why hadn't he gone to look for new horizons in Mexico City?
"Personally, I never liked it because of all the problems there. Juvenile delinquency. Traffic. That all causes stress. Large cities are dehumanizing. When I got here to Tijuana, it was a little more provincial. But there were a lot of sources of work here and a lot of cultural and economic opportunities for my children.
"When we got here, there were probably about 250 houses. Little rooms, really, made out of cardboard. Many didn't even have a roof. There was no electricity. No water. The people lacked the basic necessities."
While Rodríguez spoke, I remembered the first visit a friend and I made to Los Arenales on Christmas morning 15 years ago. On Christmas Eve, one inch of rain fell. Hundreds of cardboard shacks sank in stinky mud. The rain caused outhouses, pits dug behind each shack, to overflow. Men scrambled to dig trenches to divert the sulphurous water from these shacks. Two men scrambled to dig a trench to divert the black water from a large crèche they built. In the crèche, swaddled in white plastic, baby Jesus, a gringo doll, lay nestled in wood shavings. One of the men said of the crèche, "We made it for the Baby. For our God. We love God."
Everywhere we walked that morning, we sank in ankle-deep mud. Roosters, prissy about their feet, perched on old tires and upturned buckets. Pigs rooted in filth. Women trudged through mud, down to the odorous lagoon, where they dipped their buckets and hauled water back to their cardboard shacks.
Missionaries of Charity Fathers, a male branch of Mother Teresa's Order of the Missionaries of Charity, had settled in Los Arenales. One of the brothers whom we met that morning, a young man who came to Los Arenales from India, told us, "These people would be almost middle-class in Calcutta. They have walls, you see. A place to live."
Fifteen years later, Jorge Rodríguez's home looked, by Mexican standards, middle-class. Los Arenales looked, by Mexican standards, middle-class. Cars lined paved streets. At the corners of these paved streets stood pay phones. Satellite dishes perched on rooftops of two- and three-story homes. Through the windows of these homes, I saw computers, televisions, stereos.
Almost every house had a garden in front. When Rodríguez saw me staring at his home, I was admiring a rampant thatch of bougainvillea blooming over his driveway. Some vines were as thick as my wrist. They supported heavy clusters of pink blossoms. Pots of philodendron and red geraniums lined the front of the home. Pine trees and a banana tree grew beside the driveway. Two doors down, a lemon tree was so heavy with fruit that the lemons obscured the leaves. Along the streets of Los Arenales, eucalyptus, California pepper, and jacaranda trees swayed in the wind and rain. All around Los Arenales, acacias sent up dense clusters of acid yellow flowers, incandescent against the dark sky.
"Things began to change in 1993, 1994," Rodríguez told me as we sat in his living room. "When we paved the streets, the government paid for two-thirds [of the materials]; we paid for the rest.
"The changes came very rapidly. Electricity. Water. Sewage. There are older neighborhoods in Tijuana that don't have what we have."
Did the Missionaries of Charity brothers play a role in the development of Los Arenales?
"The most important thing they did, the most important thing they taught us, was to accept the will of God."
A while later Rodríguez amended that.
"They also encouraged many of the men here to stop drinking. You know, that's the way of Mexican men. To drink beer and tequila. But when the men stopped drinking, they were able to start saving a little money."
Rodríguez offered to show me the garden in back of his home. Surrounded by high walls in the Moorish, or Spanish, fashion, the garden was invisible from the street.
Rain glistened on asparagus ferns, chiles de árbol, and avocado and peach trees. In a cement tank, a tilapia swam in circles. In a large cage to one side of the garden, a dozen parakeets and finches sang and twittered. In a larger cage to the right, a blue-and-green parrot hopped from side to side and squawked.