Dirt roads jolted the rental van like dusty rugs snapping madly to shake off a clump of debris. Houses of varying sizes lined the streets providing pools of shadow for stray dogs to lounge in. From within the van, me and my friends from our Oregon church pored over the unfamiliar Mexican landscape. Smiling strangers waved Buenos dias! at our vehicle as it ambled by. After a thirty-minute drive the van halted in a puff of wispy dust. Eagerly, I jumped down from it, crossing a dirt road to a makeshift shelter serving as someone’s home. Walls of salvaged plywood, black tarps, and corrugated tin slouched together to form this edifice that rested on the steep incline of a hill. To the left, shacks, trailers, and houses littered the grassy land while to the right I caught a glimmer of the Pacific laid out under the pure, blue sky.
For the next four days, my friends and I would collaborate with a local organization to build a sturdy home for the family who lived in this makeshift one: a woman in her thirties, Guadalupe, and her five-year-old twin girls, Evan and Evette. Guadalupe wore a nylon jacket over her petite frame, bright with geometric patterns. Black hair brushed into a low ponytail swept over the jacket’s yoke while dark eyebrows crowned a face cracking into a warm smile at the sight of our group. Her little girls stood near her in matching cotton shorts and t-shirts. Like their mother, fine black hair dangled halfway down their spines, framing faces inlaid with glistening brown eyes. Behind the family stretched a small piece of hard, brown earth where a new house would spring up in just four days.
For the remainder of the morning our nineteen-person work crew dented the stubborn ground with pickaxes and hoes, leveling it in preparation for a wooden frame. As I scooped grainy piles of dust away from the site, I noticed Evan out of the corner of my eye. Putting one year of formal Spanish instruction to good use, I introduced myself. Evan answered with a grin full of delicate, glossy teeth. Taking me by the hand, she pulled me to her swing set, resting on an incline slanted away from her house. Someone later explained that the site of Evan’s home used to serve as an American garbage dump, hence the bumpy terrain. For all I knew, my broken plastic toys and bubblegum wrappers formed a sedimentary layer below the fill dirt crust.
By the end of the week, the prospect of leaving Guadalupe, Evan, and Evette behind forever seemed even more difficult than the work of building them a house. While attempting to speak with the twins, I managed to ask what school they would be attending next year. They weren’t. Por que? I asked, confused. Later, I learned that school simply cost too much. The education was free, but the textbooks and supplies were not. I tried to imagine a future in which poverty played no part in the lives of Evan and Evette. But, without an education, I couldn’t envision much. On the first day, constructing a house for the family seemed like a huge blessing for them. Only upon the completion of the house did I realize the limits of even this effort. Rubber tubs of stucco and rolls of chicken wire could build a sturdy shelter, but they could not mend the deep gashes of poverty.
The last afternoon, our group said adios to the neighbor children. One girl pulled a gift out of her pocket and handed it to me. A pair of fake diamond earrings glittered in my stucco-coated palm. I thanked the little girl with a hug, wondering if I would even consider giving someone a goodbye gift, no less a four-day-old acquaintance. After buckling up in the van for the last time, the rutted road resumed tossing me against windows and the sweat-drenched torsos of other passengers. I looked back at the brand new house standing proudly beside the salvaged materials of the old one. Rays of warm sun pounded the new roof shingles and ricocheted off the waves of the nearby sea as the dirt road rippled over the contours of the hill. Perhaps this simple scene contained enough future for anyone.
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