A dozen single-engine planes from Van Nuys Airport braved thorny cacti and federales worried about drug smugglers to land during the Thanksgiving weekend at this town's tiny airstrip.
"What's going on in Santa Rosalia--a convention?" asked a baffled customs official at the border in Mexicali as one plane after another filed plans Friday to journey 350 miles south down the Baja peninsula.
After all, this impoverished little mining town with its rocky beaches is hardly a mecca for tourists. Officials said the only group that uses the local airstrip is drug smugglers, who occasionally manage to refuel here despite attempts by federal police to stop them.
But it is exactly this lack of cachet that makes the village an ideal recipient of the clothing, medical supplies and toys the pilots have delivered every Thanksgiving weekend for the past eight years.
"We're lucky we have a harbor here with plenty of fish, otherwise, the poor would starve," said Jose Luis Nuno, as he helped the pilots and their families unload plastic bags full of cargo Friday evening at the airstrip.
Nuno said the local Rotary Club will sell the hundreds of pounds of clothing to the poor for a nominal fee and use the proceeds to assemble baskets filled with enough groceries to feed 70 local families for two weeks.
"Without doubt, your efforts will be good for the lower classes here," said Dr. Miguel A. Montano, Rotary Club president and a hospital administrator.
The annual pilgrimage from Van Nuys Airport is something of an occasion in this town of 20,000. At the end of journey, a five-hour trip that requires skill to avoid overshooting the one paved runway and landing in the cacti, the 30 Americans were welcomed with cold beer and pots of fresh ceviche, an appetizer of raw yellowtail caught earlier in the day and marinated with spices and lime.
"It's a neat feeling to help out directly instead of just giving money to a charity," said Ron de Moraes, 43, a television director who lives in Simi Valley. "And the Mexican people are so generous to us."
Although most of the pilots are volunteer members of a Van Nuys-based squadron of the Civil Air Patrol, Moraes and several others joined the entourage after seeing signs advertising "Operation Thanksgiving" on bulletin boards at Van Nuys Airport. The participants gather donations of clothing, toys and medical supplies during the year from friends and fellow workers.
Ann Hagen, a retired medical technician from Malibu, spent much of her spare time this past year washing and repairing hundreds of used teddy bears and other stuffed animals in preparation for the trip. "I feel like Santa Claus," Hagen said Friday as she handed out toys to children at the airport.
The relief effort was started in the early 1980s by the Huntington Park Rotary Club and adopted by the Van Nuys group a few years later, said Lou Milligan, 66, a Van Nuys car dealer and the organizer of the trip. The pilots spend about $150 per plane for fuel, and most take advantage of the trip south to visit nearby resort towns on Sunday, Milligan said.
The only snag the operation has hit was in 1985 when border guards confiscated the group's entire cargo, claiming they were more capable of equitably distributing it than the Americans, Milligan said. Since then, the group had not been explicit about its purpose when crossing the border, he said.
On Friday night, the visitors attended a buffet dinner the Santa Rosalia Rotary Club gives every year in their honor. After sampling more than 20 local specialties, including fresh tuna salad and marinated giant squid, the guests were given small gifts, such as abalone shells and black coral necklaces carved from a nearby reef.
The youngest person in the group this year was 11-year-old Heather Loring of Burbank, whose parents brought her to "teach that not everyone lives in the same way, but we are all people" said her mother, Carol Loring, a financial analyst.
"Every day in Los Angeles, you come across people in need," Carol Loring said. "We try to give at home through our church, but we believe in taking every opportunity to help out."
Heather Loring had a chance to observe daily life in Santa Rosalia during a brief tour Nuno conducted Saturday for the visitors. Much of the village, which is tucked between a group of arid hills, has dirt roads lined with wooden buildings built by the French when they discovered copper here in the 1880s. The town's pride and joy is a prefabricated galvanized-iron church designed by A. G. Eiffel, who also designed the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
But even at the church, where children met for a catechism class Saturday, the town's poverty was evident in the figure of a old man with a cane who approached the Americans for money. Later, as the bus left the center of town, the visitors could see on the hillsides tin and plywood shacks that Nuno said lacked running water.
The town's fortunes, which declined in the early 1980s when the copper ran out, have improved lately with the discovery of gypsum, which is exported throughout the world for drywall, Nuno said. But at least 10% of the town's residents are unemployed, Nuno said, and many of those who work earn only about $3.50 a day, enough just to survive in an area where a carton of eggs costs $1, he said.
Heather Loring may be too young to understand the economics of Santa Rosalia, but the trip clearly piqued her interest in Mexican culture, her mother said. On the way back to the hotel, the girl was practicing the Spanish alphabet with one of the pilots.