Christmas is four months away and as I wonder how American families will celebrate one of the most sacred of Christian holidays in the midst of a still struggling economy, I can’t help but think about 3-year-old Bianca Ruby and her family, who don’t have the means to buy a Christmas tree or the toys to put under it. Bianca and her family, along with two dozen other families, live in a municipal dump just across the Arizona border in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. Imagine living in a landfill where a quarter of a million people dump their trash.
Bianca’s father, Jose Valenzuela, is the dump village leader and minister. The village homes clustered together near burning piles of trash are made of scrap material, have dirt floors and there’s no plumbing or electricity. Those who live here rely every year on the generosity of U.S. families for food and a few stuffed animals so they can enjoy a holiday they wouldn’t otherwise celebrate, at least not as most Americans do. Valenzuela’s wife, Brenda, said Christmas day is just like any other day. “We don’t do anything special.”
The special day happens the weekend before Christmas. That’s when members of two Phoenix churches make their way to the dump to distribute food and stuffed animals. Last December, for the second year in a row, my family and I joined the group. Marion Widger, a man with a big heart, and his We Are Family ministry coordinate the event.
In 2007, we delivered the items to a dirt lot next to the shanty homes. In 2008, thanks to donations, a brick church was erected in the middle of the dump. Aside from the church services, the new building serves as a community center.
The dump looks similar to any landfill you might see in the U.S., except scavengers could be seen sifting through the trash and there were small fires. Apparently, insulation is burned off of scrap copper wire so the copper can be sold. All around the dump are communities known as shantytowns. Many of the shack homes in these shantytowns have electricity.
Millions of people live along the U.S. border in shantytowns and dumps. Most are drawn by employment opportunities in border towns. Those who live in the dump like the Valenzuelas have been there an average of four to five years. Jose Valenzuela, also lured to available jobs in Nogales, said he will stay the rest of his life in the dump village because he believes this is where God wants him to be.
Before we headed to the landfill that day, Widger introduced the group to Pastor Hector Lopez, a former Nogales attorney and judge. Inside his small church, Rivers of Living Waters, not too far from the municipal dump, Lopez told the amazing story of his childhood. Orphaned at 8-years-old, Lopez described how he once “lived in the garbage” in an abandoned car. A tearful Lopez described how he, as a child, scavenged for food in the dump. He made a decision to overcome poverty by continuing his education. While he earned a law degree and eventually became a judge, Lopez felt God calling him into ministry. Part of his ministry includes the families who live in the dump. As he speaks, it’s evident he is a man of great faith.
For seven years the We Are Family ministry and the Rivers of Living Waters Church have teamed up to deliver flour, rice, beans and other staples along with toys to as many as 5,000 families who live in Nogales, Sonora. Over the last two years the dump families received special attention. Widger, who looks a lot like St. Nick without the red suit and beard, struggles to contain his composure after we arrive at the landfill. It’s tough not to have a lump in your throat as you see two to three dozen children begin to line up for the only gifts they may receive for Christmas – a stuffed animal and a candy cane.
As we waited for the volunteers to unload boxes of clothes, food and toys, I asked Brenda what she could use the most. It seemed such an odd question as she and her family obviously could use all the comforts we take for granted in the U.S., like a hot shower and carpeted floors.
In Spanish she explained that her youngest daughter suffers from asthma and the bad air at the dump affects her breathing. “She needs a breathing machine.” It was the type of answer a mother would give.
For most of my adult life I’ve raised money to help Indian children not only in my community on the San Carlos Apache Reservation but around the country. Why do I care about the kids in Mexico? Aside from simply wanting to reach out to our Mexican neighbors who really need a helping hand, I can’t help but think about the bloodline of some of the recipients of these donated goods. There is a historical relationship that existed between the Apaches, Spaniards, and later Mexicans going back to the 1600s.
Recently, a man from Mexico, upon learning I was Apache, shared proudly that he is part Apache. He’s one of a handful of Mexicans I’ve met over the years who claimed Apache heritage. Most Mexicans are a mix of Indian and Spanish blood.
I’m reading a good book recently published by the University of Oklahoma Press, called “Big Sycamore Stands Alone,” by Ian Record. The book documents Western Apache history specifically as it relates to Aravaipa Canyon in southeastern Arizona as the Apaches’ sacred homeland. The Apaches and Spaniards once had an amicable but short-lived trading relationship. Record writes, “Initially, Apaches typically confined their hostilities to retaliatory attacks against Spanish slave raids. The first documented Apache attack on Spaniards occurred in 1629, decades after the two groups first met.”
I imagine the people I’m meeting now, who claim to be part Apache, are descendents of the victims of those Spanish slave raids.
Aside from our tribe’s ties to Mexico, when I visit this southern border town every winter I see the faces of people who look a lot like Indian people. In fact, if time travel truly existed, this would be it for me.
When I first visited the shanty dump community in 2007 I experienced flashbacks to my childhood. The home I lived in during my toddler years, which actually belonged to my paternal grandparents, was a two-room house with no plumbing or electricity. We had a wood-burning stove. Fortunately, we did have a wood floor.
My uncle lived behind my grandparent’s home in a one room shack with a dirt floor. The materials for his small shanty home were similar to the materials Jose and Brenda Valenzuela used to build their home in the Nogales dump – corrugated metal sheets and scrap wood. Their home and their old tiny one room church had dirt floors. Thanks to the building of the new church, the Valenzuela’s now live in a small two-room parsonage with concrete floors which was added to the back of the new church. There is still no plumbing or electricity, but for the Valenzuela’s it is a palace.
Seeing the smiles on the faces of those receiving food, clothing, stuffed animals and candy canes made our 16-hour, one-day trip worthwhile.
As we prepared to leave the dump village on this cold, windy day last December, I looked for Bianca Ruby, the little girl I befriended. I had set aside a special stuffed animal for her. She and the other children are the reason I will be back.
Mary Kim Titla is a journalist living in Arizona. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.