The first time I went to Mexico was 50 years ago. As a 15-year-old tourist, I was shocked by the poverty I saw there. On the trip home to Los Angeles, I remember listening to the radio in the car as Apollo 11 was landing on the moon. Neil Armstrong’s famous words sounded universal in intent. “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” Many U.S. citizens felt a possessive pride as our flag was planted there. However, conquering the moon had nothing to do with taking care of humanitarian needs back on earth. My visit south of the border had made that clear to me. Now, half a century after first setting foot in Mexico, I was heading back, but this time for a different reason.
I had signed up with Border Angels, a nonprofit based in San Diego, who facilitates the “Caravan of Love” each Saturday. Volunteers drive donated supplies to migrant shelters in Tijuana. I was told I could bring art supplies and work with children in the shelters. Although my truck had over 300,000 miles on it, I was determined to go.
Along with my friend, Cindy Kuttner, a retired teacher in Arcata, we loaded up our vehicles with donations from the community that had been collected at Arcata City Hall. People donated money to pay for expenses for the trip which added up to $1,500.
On Thursday, July 25, we began our two-and-a-half-day journey from Arcata to Tijuana. My brother, Jim, a high school teacher who lives in Pacifica, drove my truck from San Francisco, and Cindy and I followed in her car. As I watched my truck driving down the highway, filled with supplies, and with the suspension maxed out, I worried that it might not make it to Tijuana. I had to have faith.
Arriving at the Border Angels office in San Diego Saturday morning, we met up with board member, Hugo Castro, and leader of the caravan. More volunteers arrived and supplies were divided out to each vehicle. There was still room in my truck, so we added a few more things. Setting aside gas money for our return trip, we presented the remaining $700 in donations to Hugo. He told us it would pay for food and utility costs at one of the shelters for two weeks.
Finally, all the cars lined up behind Hugo’s car with a small Mexican flag was attached to his roof. As we drove across the border, memories of Tijuana came back to me. The buildings in this very old part of this border town looked ready to fall apart. All lines and angles were askew. The poverty is not hidden.
Arriving at the shelter and stepping through the door of a corrugated metal building about the size of a small barn, I was struck by the thick, muggy air inside. The large room was dark, sheltered from the midday sun, and filled with people. About 20 feet from the door were rows of small tents pitched on a concrete floor, lined up next to each other, with barely room to walk between them.
Volunteers carried in supplies and piled them on the ground by the door. I asked a volunteer, through a translator, if we could set up to do art with the kids. After a flurry of words and gestures, I found myself standing in the middle of about 30 to 40 children. We were all quickly herded into a room off the kitchen with tables and chairs. All the children sat down, and immediately started pounding their hands on the plastic tables, chanting loudly. I rushed back outside to get the supplies. I had prepared several sheets of watercolor paper taped onto cardboard. As caravan volunteers helped pass out materials, and sat down with the children, the mood became calm.
At one point, I went back to the truck to look for something and passed by a row of women who were sitting on folding chairs in front of the tents. I wanted to take a photo of them, but the look on their faces was so overwhelmingly sad, tired, and hopeless, I could not ask. I did not want to rob them of any last shred of dignity they had. If anything, I think we simply gave them relief from the restlessness of the children in the hot and crowded tin can that is their temporary home. Of all the images in my mind from that day, that scene was the most haunting, and one I will never forget.
Although chaotic, it felt like the children enjoyed the art activity. When we got back into our cars to go to the next shelter, we saw that the door to the shelter was suddenly shut, and realized that all inside were waiting in the heat, without a home or a country, to find out what was going to happen to them next.
We caravanned to another shelter that was primarily for men. The migrants leave during the day and come back at night to eat and sleep. However, we were told there were two little girls with their mom inside, so we pulled out some of the donated toys. The little girls seemed pleased to receive them.
Just a few blocks away, we arrived at the home of Perla, a kind and generous soul who has converted her very small domain into a shelter that sleeps 12 people. Through narrow hallways, she has a network of small rooms with bunk beds. After volunteers unloaded supplies and returned to their vehicles to go to the last shelter, Perla stood in the street holding an American flag as we all drove past. We were a group of Americans helping those in need, but like that flag on the moon, I had mixed feelings.
Driving a few cars ahead of us, Jim suddenly pulled my truck into a parking space, out of the caravan. He ran back and said the needle on the temperature gauge had shot up. I jumped out of Cindy’s car and hurried to my truck and opened the hood. Everything was very hot. There were also some warnings lights lit up on the dashboard.
A car with Border Angel volunteers pulled in near us, as did Cindy in her car. It had been an extremely hot day, the air conditioning had been used intermittently, and we had all been doing a lot of idling while waiting in the caravan.
This was the moment of truth for me. After 14 years and many miles, it was time to say goodbye to my little green truck. I asked the Border Angel volunteers if they could use it. Surprised at my offer, they said “Yes.” I watched as my injured vehicle was hoisted onto a flatbed tow truck, and carted away. I had a strong feeling I would see that truck again someday, helping those in need in this complicated border town.
Jim, Cindy, and I felt very grateful to our “Angels” who gave us directions on how to get to the border, and drove ahead of us to guide us. Most of the regular Border Angel volunteers work other jobs during the week, then give their time on the weekends to help others. Their generosity and dedication definitely earn them the title, “Angels.” These people are protectors, and are extraordinary people.
Over the next two days, we made our way back to SF. On the final leg of my trip, my brother drove me to the Oakland Amtrak station. As I relaxed into my train ride, I caught a glimpse of the moon, just a sliver in the sky, about to duck behind the horizon as the sun rose behind me. I remembered a quote by astronaut Michael Collins of the Apollo 11 flight. “I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of, let’s say 100,000 miles, their outlook would be fundamentally changed. The all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument suddenly silenced.”
Maureen McGarry resides in Arcata.