What follows is a letter I received from Scott Nicholson, a community organizer who has been working on the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona. It is posted here in full with his permission.
Maria and Jesus showed me where they want to build their house in the Tirabichi dump of Nogales when I visited there on January 17. They used to work sweeping the streets but that job ended and they’ve been working in the dump for two years. Maria told me they sort through the refuse for plastic, glass, tin, aluminum and other recyclable materials. They store what they’ve found and sell it once a week to the buyers that drive up to the dump. They earn four to five dollars a day. Jesus’ parents built a house in the dump a year ago and his father has worked there for ten years.
The Diario de Sonora newspaper featured a front-page article on January 12 about the families that live at the dump. The headline read “We feel more forgotten than cold.” Tirabichi is less than a mile from the Hogar de Esperanza y Paz (HEPAC) community center and I walked up there the next day. The high temperature that afternoon was 45 degrees and it dropped to 14 the following morning.
Arturo and the Molina brothers showed me the shelters they had built and I can’t imagine what it would have been like there that night. Arturo lived in Des Moines, Iowa and his children are still in the U.S.
Manuel is 40 years old and he grew up in the dump. He lived in Tucson for six years, but the rest of his life has been there at Tirabichi.
The conversations and images from that day stayed with me. I talked with Sandra and Larry of the Tucson Samaritans, and Liz and Tricia who were visiting from Montana, and I returned to Tirabichi with them on January 17. The intense cold had ended the day before and the odor was more evident as we walked up the hill.
“We’re content because we’re able to work here,” Teresa told me. “I only finished elementary school and that’s why I’m here.” She has four children between six and seventeen years old, and she’s been working at the dump for six months.
The Clinton administration built a border wall to separate Nogales, Sonora from Nogales, Arizona in 1994 (the same year that the North America Free Trade Agreement was implemented). The Obama administration replaced it with a larger wall in 2011 at a cost of four million dollars per mile. The people at Tirabichi live less than four miles from where all that money was spent to keep them in poverty.
The HEPAC community center represents a grassroots alternative to the policies of inequality and exclusion. A team from HEPAC was at Tirabichi when we arrived there. They were inviting people to send their children to the lunch program and to participate in the adult education classes. Teresa had the flyer and we talked about the opportunity to get her high school education at HEPAC.
With love and solidarity,
Photos of people unloading a truck, and Jesus and Maria on the site of their future home: