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Third World Comes Alive for American Teen-Agers

Times Staff Writer

On a recent morning, three young women were repairing the door of an outhouse in a hillside community here known as Cerro Azul , or Blue Hill. The outhouse is the only bathroom for about 250 students at the community’s elementary school, itself a makeshift structure of well-worn plywood and battered boards crowned by a sagging roof.

The three young women hammered nails to reattach the outhouse door, which was hanging like a severed limb. The girls were not students at the school and their presence engendered some curiosity, especially considering the contrast of their fair skin against the many shades of brown here.

The American teen-agers, solidly middle-class and admittedly sheltered, were among 15 brought to Mexico recently by Los Ninos (The Children), a group which for 12 years has sponsored a program designed to expose young Americans to the harsh, poverty-lined life of the Third World.

In recent years, the San Diego-based group, funded principally through donations, has drawn hundreds of Americans from areas as diverse as Buffalo, N.Y., St. Louis and Los Angeles to the barrios and colonias of Mexico’s swelling border cities--not far from downtown San Diego. The idea is to promote understanding on both sides of the international line; some volunteers pay their way just for the experience.

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At a time when pragmatism dominates college campuses and cultural observers talk about a “me generation,” the Los Ninos concept seems almost a throwback to another era of social involvement and international concern. It is a kind of private, mini-Peace Corps that operates on weekends and during holidays.

“We’re seeing the other side of the world and how people live here, just a few miles from home,” said Julie Fuhrer, a 16-year-old from San Diego, one of the girls working to repair the outhouse at Cerro Azul .

Because most of the American teen-agers who participate in Los Ninos live in southern California, they did not have to travel thousands of miles to experience the harsh realities of the Third World. Their transport was provided by two Los Ninos vans, the Esperanza (Hope) and the Dorothy Day, named for the late Catholic social activist.

Their destination provided a stark contrast to a life of shopping malls and video arcades.

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There is no running water in Cerro Azul , no electricity.

Residents eke out a living in the laborious hand-construction of bricks and tiles crafted painstakingly from the region’s superior clay. But despite its poverty, Cerro Azul is also a place possessing a certain hard, sun-baked beauty, where a hump of land dotted by gigantic, primeval boulders rises gently upwards toward a peak called Cuchuman.

“You’ve got more than a million people living in San Diego County, most of who don’t have the vaguest idea what’s going on just south of the border,” said Brother Bob Hergenroeder, a Roman Catholic brother and president of Los Ninos. “It’s an eye-opening experience.”

“They need to give,” added the Rev. Ginny Wheeler, a minister at Saint Mark’s United Methodist Church in San Diego who accompanied the teen-agers. “Californians tend to get so rooted; they don’t go overseas that often. We need to shake them out of that self-centeredness . . . out of that ‘us and them’ mentality that can create prejudice.”

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For the young students on this trip, the idea seemed to work.

“Most (American) kids never think about things like life in the Third World,” said Beth Bertke, an 18-year-old from Cincinnati who has been working as a Los Ninos volunteer for two months. “I feel like I’ve grown up a lot real fast here. I’ve learned a lot about people. It will help me when I get home.”

The community chosen for this project is a cluttered neighborhood of about 600 families situated in the hills 10 miles south of downtown Tecate. Most residents of Cerro Azul earn their living as ladrilleros-- brick-makers.

The occupation is a common one in Mexican cities along the border, where large volumes of bricks and other clay products are produced and sold to the United States.

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In Mexico, the ladrilleros are close to the bottom of the social scale. Often they live in isolated communities, their simple dwellings clustered along pits and gashes in the earth from which the clay is extracted for brick-making. Scattered around are stacks of multicolored bricks and tiles and numerous beehive-shaped kilns--like prehistoric dwellings--where thousands of bricks are fired.

Although brick-making has long been a largely automated process in the United States, it is still done mostly by hand in Mexico, where labor is abundant. In Cerro Azul, brick-makers are said to earn between $20 and $30 a week for six 12-hour days of back-bending toil, which begins with the digging of clay and ends with the firing of bricks in the often-hazardous kilns.

“It’s a hard life,” said Manuel Salazar, 50, who was stacking thousands of wet bricks in molds along with an 11-year-old helper. Using a wheelbarrow, Salazar said, it would take him three days just to move the large volume of fresh bricks to a kiln about 25 yards away.

The previous week, unseasonable rain had ruined hundreds of Salazar’s bricks, which had been laid out to dry in the sunshine. The sun never came.

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“I tried to cover them with plastic, but it rained so much the water came through,” said Salazar, showing a visitor his crumbling bricks. Then, regaining his natural good cheer: “I am fortunate though. I like working as a ladrillero. I enjoy working outside. I’m lucky. I’ve never had a serious injury.”

Salazar and other area residents said they appreciated the assistance of the young American volunteers.

“The community is very thankful,” said Apolinar Quezada, a neighborhood leader. “This is one of the poorest areas in Baja California and we can use their help.”

On the other side of a hill from Manuel Salazar’s brick-making operation, the volunteers from Los Ninos were attempting to fix the battered schoolhouse, which was clearly in need of a new roof, among other things. Such repairs usually must be financed by area residents, explained Jaime Castro Gonzalez, the school director.

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The American volunteers, untrained but enthusiastic, were busy patching holes, nailing together benches and removing debris from the roof and surrounding area. A festive atmosphere prevailed, but the young people seemed committed to their toil.

“I feel like we’re really accomplishing something,” said Patrick Johnson, a 16-year-old from San Diego. “It’s changed my whole outlook on Mexico. Before, I’d just come down as a tourist to Tijuana. This is totally different. The people are a lot nicer than I expected.”

The willingness to work and learn from life here reflects the successful approach employed by Los Ninos, which attempts to make strong community contacts even before sending volunteers into Mexican communities.

In the past, Hergenroeder said, U.S. organizations doing such work in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin American have at times alienated community residents by failing to consult community leaders and occasionally displaying open condescension for area residents. Officials of Los Ninos pointedly avoid the use of the word “charity.”

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“The idea here is to work with the people, not for the people,” said Rigo Reyes, a lifelong border resident and bilingual organizer for Los Ninos. “We don’t want to create a dependency. . . . Realistically, these people have to find answers for their own problems. The Americans are not going to be here forever.”

And representatives of Los Ninos, though supported by various church groups, say they stay clear of religious proselytizing. Such activities have often engendered mistrust throughout the Third World.

During their trip to Cerro Azul , most of the American teen-agers expressed surprise at the poverty, the lack of amenities such as running water and electricity, that are everyday realities outside the Third World. The American youths said it was easier to comprehend such commonplace deprivations after witnessing them first hand.

“It’s made me appreciate what we have at home,” said one teen-age girl, whose soiled work gloves attested to her labor.

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Added another: “What I (would) miss most here is my room.”

As the piercing sun began to set over the high desert, the two white vans took the American volunteers back to San Diego. They were, after all, visitors in Cerro Azul; their reality was clearly much different from that of Manuel Salazar and the other ladrilleros.

Yet for this one day, there was a brief intersection of the two worlds and, watching the volunteers repair the outhouse, there was the feeling that both sides would be the better for it.

“It makes you feel good,” said Beth Bertke, who had hammered in the final nails needed to reattach the outhouse door. “You really feel like you’re making a difference, even if it is just putting up a door.”

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