Life truly begins at the edge of one’s comfort zone.
In the summer of 2008, my mom and I traveled precisely there–the edge of our comfort zones. A border town in Mexico. My mom hoped the week long mission trip would help give me some (much needed) perspective at the age of 16. I don’t think either one of us ever imagined the incredible effect it would have on our relationship, as well as the trajectory it would set me on.
The homes in Piedras Negras had dirt floors, and more people than space. Younger children slept in car seats, and few families had pictures of their loved ones. There were mothers who had no pictures of their children or even of their weddings. But, I had a camera and it is through that lens that I share this story of my trip and my faith.
The organization we traveled with worked to build relationships in impoverished Mexican communities and improve living conditions. On this particular trip, I was with grouped with 20 volunteers from all over the country. Our goal was to finish constructing a 10’ x 10’ cinder block room that would double the size of a family’s home and facilitate arts and crafts for neighborhood children at a retreat center.
The retreat center was located in a poor neighborhood. When we entered our room, there was a 73-year old woman working in a corner – laying bricks and cement to create a wall where there was a small square opening. She had been working ten hours to repair the wall and install an air conditioning unit for us! I could hardly believe that this woman, who was older than my grandmother, had volunteered and worked tirelessly to improve and prepare living conditions for people she had never met. On my first day in Mexico, I had seen my first glimpse of the country’s poverty, and in the midst of it all… a glimpse of the country’s hospitality.
Our group was assigned to work at a house on Juan Alvarez Street for a family of seven. The house was made of plywood and was about ten feet by ten feet – a typical size of a small bedroom in an American home. Inside was a queen and twin-sized bed, along with a small gas stove. The house had dirt floors and only a few pictures on the walls. Behind the house, was an outhouse and a clothesline. After seeing the condition and size of their current house, I realized how helpful a sturdy cement room would be.
The air temperature in August in Mexico often exceeded 100 degrees. Due to the heat and cramped conditions of the room we were building, we worked four hours every morning – mixing and laying cement. There, of course, was no air conditioning … and you could forget about there being an electric.
When our group first met the family, they were very quiet. I got especially bashful and curious looks from the children. I’m sure they were nervous. So was I! But, I wanted to connect with the children so I had learned the Spanish word for candy (“dulce”) – which I also had with me. I went over to a little girl and asked her, “dulce?” She grinned and said, “gracias.” Soon all the kids were smiling and giggling and wanting candy. As the kids began to comfortably play with our group, you could see the parents begin to relax, too.
Our work team really started to bond with the children. In the street we played soccer and had piggyback races. Later in the week, it seemed as if all the kids on that street had come out to play. I asked one little boy if all these kids were his friends. He said, “No, mis primos. Tengo vientiuno.” Translation: “No, they are my cousins. I have twenty one.” The boy told me they all lived on his street. There were eight or nine houses on that street, and he was related to all of them! It gave me an incredible sense of their community. They shared everything they had! Whenever the workers needed something, like a pen, a child would immediately run down the street and find it. Sometimes the entire community only had one pen, but they all shared it and knew exactly where it was.
One other thing my mom and I noticed during the week was that none of the people on Juan Alvarez Street had pictures of their loved ones. The mothers didn’t have pictures of their children or even of their wedding. Since, I had a camera I decided to get the family together and take a picture. I printed it out that night at the retreat center and brought it back to them the next day. The mother of the house we worked in was very thankful that she now had a picture of her family.
Then, everyone wanted pictures. Mothers wanted pictures with their babies… brothers and sisters wanted pictures of their families…friends wanted pictures with their friends… and some children just wanted a picture of themselves. So, every night I would print off more pictures. At the end of the week, we had completed the cinder block addition (including a roof!) and gathered all 21 grandkids at the end of the street to give the grandmother the gift of a family picture. And it was through my camera that I began to see my life… the things I have… the things I take for granted… through a completely different lens. I also learned that no matter what communication barriers may exist among people, there is a universal symbol everyone can understand–a smile.
The Retreat Center
Every afternoon, neighborhood children came to the retreat center where we facilitated different activities. One day, I noticed a little boy named Luis who introduced me to his siblings. The minute I met them I felt a unique connection.
Luis drew me a picture, then excitedly tried to tell me something. He repeated the word “abuelita,” but I couldn’t understand. So, Luis motioned me to follow him to an older lady he identified as “Abuelita,” who was his grandmother. Because of the quickness of her speech, communication was difficult. From what I understood at the time, the children stayed at their grandmother’s house during the day, while their mother worked.
Toward the end of the week, Luis’ family invited me to their home. They shared what few family pictures they had. Knowing how much family means in Mexican culture, I was honored they wanted to share such special memories. Margarita, the oldest girl, even brought out a picture of her First Communion. I could tell by the way she carried the picture how much it meant to her. Their Catholic faith was strong. They showered me with gifts of homemade rosaries and cross bracelets made of string. As the evening wound down, I helped with bedtime. With only three rooms in the house, there wasn’t much room to sleep. The two younger children slept in their car seats. The older ones shared a room.
Two days before I was to leave, Luis and his grandma gave me a beautiful cross. It looked hand painted and had a little girl praying with a guardian angel watching over her. Tears streamed down my cheeks and I glanced down at Luis, only to see a puzzled look. I suddenly realized Luis thought I was upset. I quickly explained I was, “muy feliz” or “very happy”. As soon as he understood, he broke into a smile. It was that moment when I realized God must have intended for me to meet Luis and his family. The Almonza’s taught me to love the simple things in life and I had shown the Almonza’s how quickly a stranger can sincerely care.
On the last day of our trip, Catholic Heart took us to a local market and I wanted to find something to show the Almonza’s how much they meant to me. I bought fun, festive dresses for the girls and soccer jerseys for the boys. I bought a beautiful lace tablecloth with dark burgundy flowers, and a large, hand-painted pot for the grandmother. It was an amazing feeling to give them things they would not otherwise have.
On our last night of the trip, we had devotional time where there was “open mic” for anyone who wanted to share how they had seen God that week. I took all the Almonza children to the front of the chapel, to show how I’d seen God all week. I had an immeasurable amount of joy in my heart because of this family.
Shortly after I returned from this trip, Luis’ mother (whom I had never met) sent me a letter asking me to be Luis’ godmother. Obviously, I was flattered and today—five years later, I’m still able to communicate with them.
As you read my stories on this blog, you will be able to see that a lot of key moments in my life can be directly traced back to what I believe was my catalyst—this trip to Mexico.