[Mason Alford is an eighth-grader at Viewpoint School in California. The Baja building project was sponsored by Malibu Presbyterian Church, which lost its building to fire five weeks ago, on October 21, 2007. More than two dozen photos of the construction are available here.]
It was November 10, 2007, and a dirty little car rumbled over a dirt road. It was hot, and the sun seemed to fry everyone and heat the air to the point that it was frustrating. As the car drove by, old, wrinkled women missing most of their teeth walked up to the windows of the car and advertised dirty, plastic bottles filled with old juice for money to support their families. The vehicle continued to slowly stroll through the market, dodging stray, mangy dogs lying about the street and ignoring people shouting about their products from all sides. Finally, the car drove into what was supposed to be the neighborhood. Ten people stepped out of the car and greeted twenty others standing on a square establishment of cement. We were in Mexico, and we were here to build houses for the less fortunate.
I, among the ten in the car, greeted a poor Mexican family with the Spanish I knew and walked to the top of a hill to get a better view of the neighborhood. At the top I looked out into a valley to see thousands of shacks, poorly built and made from planks of wood inefficiently nailed together. Most lacked roofs, and the walls that were there had no nails but simply leaned against each other. The children walked barefoot and wore clothes they had worn for months at a time. I realized how fortunate I was; how many things I took for granted. I looked at the family we were building a house for and saw tears rolling from their eyes. They had nothing, their previous “house” had no roof or nails.
The building began. The pounding of nails echoed through the valley. Men shouted orders to each other and asked for a tool or piece of wood. Dust rose and filled the air, making breathing difficult. Being thirteen, I was permitted to assist the adults in construction, and for awhile I did. What I really liked, though, was being with the kids. Aging from six to fifteen, the kids would sit in the dirt and talk under the burning sun for their Saturday fun. A few would burn a pile of trash or beg from us for water, but that was all. The only exception to this was that the children would often go down to their soccer field, which was a dirt lot with two sticks on each side that served as goals. All the kids, no matter what age, scrambled onto the soccer field and joined the game for awhile. This was all that the kids had, a dirt lot, and they made the best of it, playing for up to three hours each day. I believe this game was especially heated because it was “Mexico vs. United States.” I realized that no one in California would ever play on this excuse for an athletic facility.
As I explored the poor village I picked out the nicest wooden shack I could find and imagined it on a street in America. It really was incredible, because by the second day, the worst, most run-down houses began to seem like quite an appealing place to live in. All of those thoughts went away when I compared it to any house in the United States. These houses had been built by the fathers of the families from spare wood they found on the ground as well as nails (if any) that they could find. I never realized how well-constructed houses and other buildings in America were. Also, being around the Mexicans and discussing their financial situation with them made me stop thinking it was normal to own the land you live on.
The smell of dust and dirt was in the air, a beautiful sunset was beginning, and a nice house had been built. I conversed with the poor Mexican family, and we left for home. Home. That was something I would always have. As we crossed the border, it began to rain. A man who had helped build the house but still hadn’t left the build site called and said it was raining back in the valley where we had constructed the home. I thought of the Mexican family, and it came to me that they would have a roof for the first time to keep them from getting wet in the rain. After the trip I thought differently, finding it satisfying to know when I would have my next meal and sleep in a bed under a roof in a real house. The trip to Mexico challenged me to thank God for every shoe I wore and every meal I ate.