Landfill Families

As often as I visit Landfill sites, it never ceases to amaze me how determined human beings can be when they have absolutely nothing to lose, except their lives.

Over the past twenty years I have made many treks across the Mexican Border from Brownsville, Texas (My Hometown), to Matamoros, Mexico to visit these “shanty towns” to see for myself what we all know exists but do not see.

I live next to the actual Rio Grande River, and at times I smell the burning trash coming from the landfills. The stench permeates the air that is barely breathable for us, much less with the added acrid smoke.

Reality kicks in very quickly when you drive across any border from Deep South Texas to the border town of San Diego and its sister city, Tijuana. The bright lights and food that allude to excitement and great bargains for the Tourist, become beacons of salvation to the people that just want to sell enough to be able to buy food, clean water and maybe some treats, like milk and bread on their way home.

It’s amazing how a winding river can divide such a lush and rich country from a burdened one. It is a disparity that is very visual to us that live on the lush and prosperous side. So many heads turn down when the subject of poverty and the poor in Mexico comes up. It’s Mexico’s problem, not ours. True, but a corrupted government can only buy so many lush homes and guns to fill them with. What happens to the rest of the money? No one knows. What we do know is poverty and apathy. Apathy that can be reversed and conquered through education and knowledge.

Most economically advances border towns have what is called “Maquiladoras” or Processing and Assembly Plants all along the border. Those companies hire local line work (manual labor folk) to do all the actual assembly or processing. Before you can work at these plants, there must be certain paperwork submitted and some education is required. There are many people living along the roads leading to these very Maquiladoras as well as adjacent to them, and it makes you wonder, why those people are living in pallet houses, why aren’t they working at the Maquiladora? It’s a cruel blow dealt to these people that want but cannot make a better life for themselves.

As I mentioned before, education is key. And truthfully, when you stand outside a Maquila, at any given shift, you’ll see young people streaming by. They aren’t wealthy by any stretch of the imagination but they have more than many of the people living in their pallet homes, and that includes decent clothing, which is one of the things they search for when digging through the landfills.

There are different shifts where waste disposal is delivered, unless the roads to the landfill are muddy then the trucks can’t make it there, thus, the pepenadores or the foragers, have to continue searching amongst the older trash, which at many times, holds medical waste, septic sewage debris, restaurant debris (the most common and useful of all trash dumped) and then there’s the trash delivery from the Markets, which may contain a variety of items, from food, to clothes and at times curios , which serve as a way to make money from the actual people driving across the bridge, as they hold man made panhandling sticks with an opened plastic milk carton at the end so money can fall in and stay put.Unbelievably so, the bridge was covered almost completely up to the dividing point of the river to discourage commuters and tourists alike from giving them money. They say it’s an eyesore and their only purpose is to scare tourists from coming back.

Some food is raw and other food is contaminated, but they eat it. They are hungry, this perpetuating an illness cycle that affects many. Those that can make it to a clinic get shots against tuberculosis but others suffer. Dysentery is prevalent and above all normal.There are many people, both young and old, that have become sick there, amongst the trash and filth.

For those that can’t afford to go look and find wooden pallets, they use Heavy Cardboard or discarded plywood to make their homes. at times losing what they have to the fires that start up.They themselves at times start the fires to keep the trash at bay from surrounding their homes and not having to move further and further away.

I have met many of these Landfill Families as they are called and the searching in their eyes is easy to see. They search for an answer that may not come. I try to combine the supplies I take to involve families as a whole. Things we take for granted like toilet tissue and matches and sweaters and clean water.

I do something special for the women and girls though. I make separate baskets with feminine products and bath soaps and perfumes, talcum, nail polish, alcohol, cotton balls, q-tips. Sounds so mundane to us, but those items will last them more than a year believe it or not. For those that are truly desperate, they will sell what I give them on the street.

For the men and boys, bath toiletries, shaving supplies and LOTS of disposable washcloths.

I did find out about the Sierra Club’s Bi-national Effort Organization funded through a Grant from the US Federal Government in 2004 that provided training for families living in and around the landfills on ways to make money from old discarded tires and make sandals and soles for shoes. It’s a baby step to progress, but a step nonetheless. Any experience gained through this effort is resounding years later, as the youngsters living in the area at the time learned skills through association.

Annual treks there to deliver food, clothes are normal and common. It takes more than just American Churches of all affiliations to give. Many private companies give as well. Somehow it’s never enough. For every family you help, there are ten others with young children and younger children having more babies. It’s a vicious cycle that nears no end.

I will continue my treks as often as I can and am limited by how much I can take, because for every five trips I take with supplies for them, three have to take extra money to pay off Federales to let us keep driving on the highway towards the landfills. The other two requires us to pay for “permits” at their bridge office before we are allowed to go our way. Amazing how life is. How some people won’t help their own.

The young kids that should be in school or playing outdoor sports are instead destined for a future digging for Aluminum and Glass to sell at market value for some much needed money. Their scars are visible both on their hands and legs. They breathe in the stale, acrid odor of the trash that does burn and while many a time it would make him sick, his body adjusted and he breathes it normally now.Many continue digging through trash that contains the discarded and used bandages that contain bodily fluids as well as the glass that is as precious as gold from Africa.

I concentrate on those next to me, my neighbors, even if we are separated by lush country and a winding river. Their diseases and illnesses become our diseases and illnesses.

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