Monday, December 21, 2009

how is it possible?

Saturday morning, I woke up at 6:27 AM.

This caused an immediate rush of adrenalin since I was due to leave our house at 6:30 AM. But because my little alarm clock that "Never-Sleeps-A-Minute-Past-6:00-AM" didn't wake up, neither did I. Thankfully, I had packed my bag of supplies the night before so once my eyes fluttered open and I looked at the clock and quickly processed that I was supposed to depart in THREE MINUTES, I flew out of bed, threw on some clothes, raced a toothbrush across my teeth and bolted out the door.


The purpose of our trip was to drive down to a village just south of Ensenada, Mexico and have a Christmas Fiesta with approximately 5,000 local people. All told, there would be a caravan of ten vehicles crossing over the border packed full of volunteers, supplies and individually wrapped Christmas presents for each of the children that were expected.


The people that I traveled down with have an organization through which they send shipments of food and clothing to Mexico several times a week. One of the recipients of that food is a place called, "Village of Hope" (VOH), which is a camp located in the foothills of Ensenada that is funded by a consortium of California-based churches.


The primary mission of the VOH is to serve the Mixtec people.


What I didn't know - but learned on this trip - is that Mixtecos are indigenous to Mexico, predating the Spaniards by several hundred years. Mixtecs do not speak Spanish, but their own language, Mixteca. Infact, the Mixtec language and culture are as different from Spanish as Navajo is from English. Because they cannot communicate with people beyond their own community, they are culturally and linguistically isolated and disadvantaged. They typically live in extreme poverty and lack basic provisions such as clothing, food and housing.


The VOH, or as it is known locally, "En Campo De Esperanza", was our first stop and is where the Christmas Fiesta was set to be held. I'd like to add that this place is so close to our house in San Diego, it actually takes me longer to drive to Los Angeles than it takes to drive to this camp. And I don't know how to describe this place except to say that it is an absolute oasis for the Mixteco people who live and work in the farm land, nearby.


From what I could see, all of the people who work on the farms live in shacks.


Although I doubt some of these 'homes' even meet the definition of shack.


This is where the Mixteco people live.


This is where their children live.


This is the stagnant water that they use to clean, bathe and drink.


This is their restroom (the small white structure in the foreground) that might service 100 or more people.


This is how they wash their clothes.


This is where they cook their food which typically consists of nothing more than corn tortillas and perhaps some beans.


The farmers who own the land, pay the workers approximately $8.00 a day and if the workers are lucky, they are provided housing which might consist of corrugated metal walls and a roof. When I looked inside, all I could see were some blankets on the ground. No mattresses. No pillows. NO NOTHING. As if that wasn't bad enough, the cost for living on "the property" is taken from their meager pay.


After we unloaded all of our gifts at the VOH, we drove around the countryside and made a stop at a place called ... Jon and Arlene's house.


Jon and Arlene once lived in northern California. But several years ago, they traveled to Mexico to buy a boat. A 45-foot catamaran to be exact. But on that trip they met a woman who was running a children's program and they almost immediately felt their hearts pulled in to an entirely new direction. It took three months for them to decide that they needed to sell off everything and move to Mexico. Now they live south of the border full time and run what is considered a daycare. Arlene said numerous times that the sole purpose of their operation is to keep families together.

They recognize that people need to work - but what do they do with their children?


One option is to take the children in to the fields with them. The babies are strapped on to their mother's backs and will spend hours upon hours in the field under the hot sun. Sadly, some babies spend so much time strapped on to their mother's backs that their muscle strength and development are severely delayed.


Babies are placed on the ground where they will remain all day. And sometimes, babies are left alone in the shacks, frequently under the care of a three or four year old sibling.

(The women and small children in the photo below were picking carrots which are shipped to the United States where they will undoubtedly be refused by my children. The notion of throwing food out bothers me even more now than it ever did before.)


Children any older than that are usually put to work. We saw this sweet boy who was no more than seven-years-old herding a flock of goats. In the background, the Christmas Fiesta was going on at the VOH. But he couldn't attend because he had a job to do.


Quite often, people make so little money working in the fields, that they decide to migrate north. But it isn't quite so easy to cross international lines when you don't have a visa or work permit. Out of sheer desperation, people will leave their children behind. Sometimes with a smuggler, who might promise that they will eventually reunite the illegal immigrant with their child. Many of these children that are left behind either end up dead, in the rampant child sex trade, or if they are lucky, an orphanage.

That's what Jon and Arlene are trying to prevent.


Jon and Arlene provide a true safe haven while the parents are off working. Currently, they have 10 children living at their home and watch 11 children every day. Surrounding their home are several shacks for the Mixtecan families that were built by a California church group that sponsors all of their activities. According to the people that I traveled with - this is a huge improvement over what was here. Up until very recently, the people that congregated around Jon and Arlene's lived on the property in 'homes' constructed of nothing more than shredded tarps and plastic trash bags.

In addition to providing free daycare services, they have a small school on their property and are able to provide basic food to the people who live nearby.

Food that it turns out, is also provided by the Hilarious Givers.


After we visited with Jon and Arlene for a few hours, we returned to the VOH and helped to serve food and hand out Christmas presents to the more than 5,000 people that had gathered. There were games, music, a church service, and an opportunity for people to get a haircut.


The VOH had posted fliers all around town inviting people to the Fiesta and they came in droves by stroller, bicycle, foot horse and bus.


We left the celebration after the sun had set and took about three hours to drive home. We stopped along the way at a Mexican Costco for some supplies that cannot be purchased in the States. Then we stopped for gas. And then we stopped for fish tacos. I was extremely hesitant to eat the Mexican tacos, seeing as I had packed several Uncrustables and I have a digestive system more temperamental than a ... I dunno ... wet cat?


But I ate them and oh they were so delicious.

And then, while we were stopped in line waiting to cross the border, we bought several bags of churros. And they too were oh so delicious. (At least for a few minutes.)

For the first time in the 15-years we have lived in San Diego, I have never before been so thankful that we live so close to the border. Because no less than 10 minutes after arriving home, the entire contents of my stomach were ferociously catapulted up and out of my body.

I cannot remember the last time I was as sick as I was Saturday night. The words "Death and Dying" crossed my mind no less than one hundred times as my body rejected every molecule I had consumed over the past six hours. And while I desperately held on to the toilet bowl with my feverish head resting on the nice cool seat, I kept thinking, "Why God, WHY ME?"

Why is it that I am so lucky to have been born in to such an abundantly prosperous country?

Why is it that I am so lucky to live in a wonderful house that although I might sometimes think is too small and lacks sufficient closet space, it keeps my family dry, warm and safe?


Although I was violently chucking up my churros cookies, I could not stop counting my blessings about how lucky I am to have a house with a bathroom and indoor plumbing.

It is estimated that more than 1 billion people around the world live in shacks similar to what I saw during my recent trip to Mexico. So I'm going to go out on a limb here and draw the conclusion that despite whatever issues you might have going on in your own life ...


If you are simply reading this blog - you're pretty dang lucky, too.


  1. I think you'll be on Santa's "nice" list this year, my friend! Miss you guys!

  2. Oh my goodness. That post brought me to tears. How would one across the nation help with this?

    What an eye opening trip for you... and for your readers.

    Thank you.

  3. Thanks I needed that reminder. It's been a rough couple of months but I still have amazing friends and family, a job, and a great place to live.

  4. You are so right. We are blessed beyond our comprehension. Thanks for bringing that to our attention so we can be grateful and maybe do something to help others.
    Hope your stomach is doing better.

  5. As soon as you said you were going to do this trip, I knew it would be a deeply affecting experience. And I knew you'd be posting about it, and that I too would be moved. I absolutely am. It hurts, even, and I wasn't even there in person.

    My family of five---including our preschool-aged triplets---just spent a year in England. We lived in a two-bedroom house that could fit, almost entirely, in my current living room/kitchen area. The only furniture we had was our mattresses on the floor plus a couch, armchair, and table-with-chairs that the landlord left for us. We lived out of our suitcases all year, using them as bureaus and rotating through maybe three outfits, and we brought only three toy trucks---one for each of our sons---supplementing those toys with whatever little toys we fell in love with at the charity shops. Brooms, shovels, Matchbox cars. We learned to live with very little, and it turns out we didn't miss any material stuff in San Diego but our beds. It made me realize how extremely fortunate we are with our 1500-square-foot home stuffed to the gills with toys here in San Diego. I always knew I could be happy with far less than I have, but to live that way and confirm it firsthand was, in many ways, a privilege. Even with our 'meager' daily life in England, our existence was like living in a palace compared to the folks you describe: We had running water and indoor toilets, furnaces on the walls, and indoor washer, dryer, and stove. My husband had a well-paying job, we had access to doctors and public transportation. We could go out and adventure rather than toil in fields, and on school breaks we popped all over Europe. Hardly a hard-scrabble existence.

    Now that I'm back at our home in San Diego, which compared to many of my peers is considered small, I really do appreciate, consciously and every single day, how lucky I am. I was changed by a year in such different circumstances. One thing I’ve been working toward is purging this mass of toys we've collected for three boys; the immense pleasure I've had planning the boys' Christmas bonanza is not helping that. I considered donating their old toys to Toys for Tots, but that organization only want NEW toys. And I've wanted to send these well-treated toys someplace different than a San Diego charity shop like AmVets or the like. Somehow, although these are very important organizations that I've supported for years, I've become disenamored with putting a bag of goods on my privileged front porch with a sign and then seeing the stuff in the local shops a few days later. There certainly are people locally who are in need of low-priced toys, etc., and I will continue to donate to these places, but still I've wanted this load of toys to land in the hands of kids like the ones in this blog post, kids who have NOTHING. Now I have some links and feel like I have a personal connection to specific organizations. I will be checking out the groups you mention to see what they need...

  6. Yes, very lucky.
    Thank you for going and bringing it into my home.
    I need to have a good think.

    And I hope you feel better soon.

  7. Wow. Thanks for sharing your journey and the powerful photos. Sorry the tacos didn't stay with you a bit longer -they did look yummy :o(

    Powerful images especially during this time of year. Hopefully as we venture out doing our last minute shopping we'll keep those less fortunate in our thoughts and prayers, reign in our frivolous spending and give generously to others without.

  8. Beautiful blog Jen and I am so glad that you got to go and help those less fortunate. It really makes you think about what is important in this world. These people working hard, just to help raise their families.
    I am proud of you for going.

  9. Thank you for your blog post. My husband and I work for a mission organization in Honduras ( and see many people in the same kinds of circumstances that you saw in Mexico. However, I still need to be reminded daily that I am so fortunate and do not need to complain about having a house that's too small, toys for my kids that aren't the latest rage, the right kind of food for dinner. There's so many in this world that have so little. Thanks for reminding us once again of that. And that organization looks awesome.

  10. Oh, Jen. I am crying. That is SO sad and horrible. Yet, part of the reason those people live in such horrendous conditions is because we want to pay $1 for a bag of carrots. Then we curse these poor souls for coming here to America to make a better life for their children, when that better life is to continue working in OUR fields and OUR meat packing industry for slave wages with no benefits, so GOD FORBID, we don't have to pay more than a $1 for a McDouble. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

    I will seriously go with you next time. I never get sick eating at roadside stands in Mexico. I'll go apply for a passport next week.

  11. That was an eye-opening post, Jen. I appreciate the time you put into describing your trip and the desperate conditions of the Mixtec people. There is so much sadness in this world... so close to home.

  12. I feel lucky...and thank you for bringing more information to us all!


  13. Wow. Beautifully written post Jen. I, for one, really needed a reminder of how lucky and am and how much I have. Thank you. As always you continue to inspire.

  14. Thank You, Thank You, Thank You for sharing your experience so eloquently. How you were able to portray your experience and bring it to life with pictures, well, what can I say… this blog was amazing.
    However, I will admit that I’m glad you left the picture out with your head resting on the nice cool seat, the visual in my head was enough for me ;o) But, to read what you experienced dropped me to my knees. I am very grateful for all I have.
    Thank You for having the courage to venture into Mexico and your blog!

  15. Wow. I'm not sure what to say.

    I've been deeply convicted the last several years that our Christmas needs to have a different focus. My two SIL and I have convinced their parents to just do Christmas for the grandkids from now on. There's only 7 of them with a $25/person limit, so Christmas is FINALLY affordable. But I'm ready to do more. I just don't know what that means.

    Your pictures...your story...convinces me even more than I need to teach my children early that they are so very blessed. That if they never get another Christmas present ever again, that it's okay...they have an abundance. I'm struggling with how to teach them that up close and personal. What am I saying? I'm struggling with how to teach ME that up close and personal.


    Your sad...very humbling. I feel so selfish on so many levels. Don't know what to do with this knowledge now, yanno?

  16. Everyone needs a reminder of how fortunate we are. We all have something to be thankful for, even if it's for just life itself. What a great experience for you (minus the foodborne illness, of course!).

    --Laura in Indiana

  17. Jenna,
    It was such a blessing to have you join us for this trip! And reading your blog gives us a perspective we don't get ourselves.
    We don't get jaded, but sometimes we take what used to horrify us for granted. The challenge now is to keep the enthusiasm at a high pitch for the remainder of the year. Sometimes we get to share first-hand with the joy and actually hold one or two of those precious children in our laps and get a hug. But mostly, it's on the phone arranging for a delivery, or finding volunteers to help load cars and trucks headed south, or doing 'thank you's' to donors. Keeping a steady effort, year 'round, week after week, depends upon our donors and volunteers.
    We have been so blessed by folks like you who feel the hand of God on their hearts and reach out to help 'the least among us'.
    All God's blessings to you and your beautiful family!
    Judd and Debra.

  18. To your fellow reader -- Deborah Halverson. . . Our organization accepts donations of used toys. We take them to Honduras and hand them out to children that do not have any toys. I've given boys 1 matchbox car before and they enjoy it for hours/days and I'm sure more. It's their treaured gift. So, if you're looking for an organization to donate your used toys to, please check out our organization ( Thanks, again, for this wonderful post, Jen!

  19. Jen, despite the bad "cookies: you are a super star!!!

    We'd love to contribute but this had been a REALLY tough year for us. Hopefully we'll be able to send some funds to you for this amazing work. I do presume that you will continue this wonderful tradition. And when the gang is big enough to be independant you will include them.

    What a gift you received in your trip over the border!

  20. You are 1000% right. I recently was sitting with a friend of mine in her kitchen in her beautiful house and we were both whining about the various things that we can't afford. Mid-conversation, I stopped us and just said "you know what...we are acting like spoiled brats. We are complaining that we can't go on vacation whenever we want, but look around...we live in an amazing place, have roofs over our heads, our kids have clothes and toys and food, etc etc." It is so easy to lose track of how great we really do have it. I guess this is the time of year to take stock and be thankful. And reach out to help those who are so much less fortunate. Good for you for doing just that!!