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Local volunteers serving Mexico’s poor

At the end of this month, I’ll head to Ensenada with a group of volunteers, including several local members of the 49er Rotary Club, to work at a dental clinic serving that area’s poor.

People from 49er Rotary have been going to this northern Mexican city on the Pacific Coast for four years. They formed the NorCal Dental Clinic to solidify their operation there and make it a regular service in 2005.

The group needs two more dentists and a hygienist to really serve the 70 or so people they expect to visit the clinic, trip coordinator Ann Hendricks tells me. If you are interested in volunteering for two days of life-altering service to your fellow humans, call Ann at 263-8172.



I’m excited about going – I’ll help translate – and about writing of what I see for readers of The Union. The trip also makes me reflect anew on my own experiences in Mexico.

I lived in different areas of the country for eight years, from early 1991 to early 1999. For most of that time, I was a reporter for the Associated Press or the San Antonio Express-News (and the now-defunct San Antonio Light). I spent five years in Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico, set between the Pacific Ocean and Guatemala. (Read Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory” to get a sense of the place; it hasn’t changed much).




During that time, I met many groups of Americans and other foreigners who had gone to that country to volunteer their time and talent. In addition to doctors and dentists who provided much-needed care, I met people who built schools, electrical turbines, houses, latrines, clinics and other infrastructure. Americans can be so generous.

For those who have never been in the Third World, conditions there can be a shock.

In the remote villages where I spent a lot of my time, taking a bath means going down to the river that flows through the village. (Men go at certain times; women usually bathe after washing the family laundry.) Or, if there’s no river, you haul water; I knew girls as young as 8 years who fetched water for their families in twin buckets from a spring a mile away from home.

If you want the water to be hot, you walk up into the woods and chop something down. Machete-wielding women and girls haul back the household firewood on their backs, balanced by straps held around their foreheads.

If you want to eat, you start out by planting beans and corn, then pray the rains come at the right time and there isn’t a plague of locusts. Where I was, many villages had planted all their land with coffee bushes, so they also pray for good coffee prices. When coffee is cheap and corn is expensive, they don’t eat so well.

Children rarely see a dentist or a doctor in these places unless they are gravely sick. But the old trucks operated by village cooperatives or enterprising merchants bring a fair amount of candy into the little wood-plank stores. I met many kids who had never used a toothbrush – didn’t know what they were. Adults sometimes had mouths full of caries, and they were in constant pain alleviated by home remedies such as a garlic clove set into the cavity.

Dental clinics set up by charitable foreigners sometimes often were in a special room at the village school, in a cement room with a low-tech dental chair that didn’t require power. Nothing else in that little room, except what volunteers like the 49er Rotarians might bring.

Where I was, villagers would hear about volunteer dental clinics coming into their regions by radio or word brought by neighbors in from town. Some people walked for a day or two to get to these clinics; the women and children often were barefoot.

The people coming to these clinics often were indigenous Mexicans and small-scale farmers to boot – people at the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder. Their fear of the pain they might encounter with the dentist – I could see it in their faces – was overcome only by their longing to end their daily dental misery.

These experiences also made me wonder why the Mexican federal and state governments couldn’t do what the volunteers were doing. Mexico is rich with oil, timber, minerals, agriculture, fisheries and manufacturing.

In Ensenada, trip coordinator Ann Hendricks tells me there will be a mix of adults and children, of residents of the city and indigenous people from villages in the arid and scenic hills nearby.

City people in Mexico usually are country people who hoped they could eat better than they were eating in the countryside. When they get to the city, though, it’s often a mixed bag.

The most noticeable difference is that children I saw in the country seemed so happy. They didn’t seem to notice how poor they were. City children I met weren’t unhappy; maybe it was just their dreary surroundings of cement and asphalt that took the brightness off their smiles, though it made housekeeping easier for mama.

In the country, people often have more fruits and greens because they can grow or gather them, and usually raise or hunt animals or gather freshwater shellfish. In season, anyway. With families big, the soil poor and farming practices that deplete, the corn and beans don’t often stretch to the next year’s harvest.

New arrivals to the city bring their chickens, but in their early years they live in the most squalid squatter camps without even the latrines they had before, or at least the cornfield or coffee grove. But they find work, of which there isn’t any in the village, and so they can buy tortillas, beans, cooking oil and charcoal to cook on their tin braziers cut out of big square cans.

(The Mexican government subsidizes the price of tortillas, but even tortillas are getting expensive, relatively speaking. Corn farmers are selling their crop to ethanol producers at a higher price because of the rising demand for bio-fuels.)

Ann tells me that Ensenada has grown tremendously just in the five years since I was last there. Urban centers are growing like topsy all over Latin America as rural populations grow, coffee and other farm prices remain low and people flee the countryside.

Houses and houses and houses stretching away from old downtown Ensenada – I can imagine the gray cinderblock boxes people build for themselves, with rebar jutting out from the top, so the homeowners can continue with the second story when they scrape together a little more money.

Mexicans work so hard. They hope and strive for a future for their children with as much anguish as we do. Having a working set of teeth for their kids’ little mouths is so basic and so profound. I am deeply honored to be a part of this effort to help make that happen for even a few people.

Trina Kleist is city editor of The Union. She can be reached at trinak@theunion.com or 477-4230.


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