Good Deed Travel: House building in Mexico vs drug cartels

As the news stories about the drug cartels in Mexico have increased, I’ve been struck by the contrast between the violence I’ve heard about in cities like Tijuana and what I experienced one year ago–just an hour over the Mexican border past the outskirts of that city and its urban sprawl.

High up a craggy hill, up winding, steep roads, where shacks of pieced together boards and metals served as ramshackle houses, I was hopefully helping to make the life of one family better. The other 160 people I was with–ranging in ages from fourteen to early sixties, were also building houses nearby. For a week we worked in groups to build twelve simple, two-room adobe structures with concrete floors and solid, leak-proof roofs.


Last year, I wrote a post about what prompted me to do such a trip. This is a follow-up.

Although I didn’t go to Mexico this year, the trip did happen. A little over two weeks ago, more Mexican families were handed the keys to their new front doors. Afterward, the bus loads of do-gooders, mostly adolescents, waited to go through customs to cross back into the U.S. for lunch at an In-N-Out Burger in San Diego, a hot shower and a night at a hotel.

If their trip was at all like ours, the stories they told each other as they waited were not about drug trafficking, but about the families they got to know and what they accomplished in five days. They will have mentioned the pleasure they found from mixing cement, measuring and cutting boards, pounding nails, and laying out the roofing. More importantly, they will have talked about the connections they made with the Mexican families. What will have struck them the most is how the families were so generous, kind and, in general, happy.

These are the stories I heard last year. From what the people who go on this trip every year have told me, these stories are typical. I think it would be great if these stories ended up on the news once in awhile.

One of the criticisms that I have heard about the recent news stories about Mexico is that there is so much focus on drug trafficking and the brutality of the cartels that people are getting a lopsided, and not totally accurate view of the country.

It’s not that I think that by building one humble house at a time, people can change the world, but it’s a different version of the world. Mexico is also filled with people who are focused on having a quiet, decent life where their kids are safe.

Still, as we were driving from where we were based to the border, the closer we got to Tijuana, the more graffiti I noticed. The simple, calm beauty of the countryside gradually shifted to what I perceived as anger, particularly since most of the graffiti was on the outside walls that surrounded housing developments of the people who worked in factories.

The contrast between the scattered clusters of houses where we had spent our time, and these walls was striking. I was happy that we passed on through.

A year later, the images of Maria, her grandsons and her son who live in the house I helped to build are much stronger than that graffiti.