May 3, 2006 - It's easy to spot Mexico when driving on Interstate 19 from Tucson, because it's the part of the landscape with the shanty-covered hills.
Many of those hills, so close to the border that people walk there and back regularly, have deep-rutted dirt roads with no running water, no sewage systems and no amenities for heating homes. So many people have flocked there in a dozen years that the Sonoran city of Nogales can't provide their utilities.
Many visitors of the borderland spend their time below the hills, looking at the Spanish words on buildings and bargaining with merchants, and never get to see inside any homes.
But when members of the Northwest congregation of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church cross the border, they walk straight past the shops, up a hill and into the homes of the friends they have in the closest of Nogales' 80-or-so shantytowns.
About once a month they show up to deliver supplies, catch up on news and, maybe most importantly, acquire a first-hand look at life just south of the United States so they can tell others what it's like. About 20 go, though not all at the same time, and others raise money for the community.
"The colonia is close to the border so we can walk to it, yet it's a microcosm of a huge problem," said Teresita Scully, the member of the Catholic church who set up the cross-border relationship.
It started four years ago, a year after Scully moved to the Northwest to be youth director at the Catholic church. She'd participated in borderland work in New Mexico, and she wanted her new charge to see what she had discovered.
In thousands of shantytowns along the Mexico border, people were erecting homes made of scraps so they would have places to live while working in U.S.-owned factories. They'd lost their agricultural livelihoods back home.
Scully had a religious mentor who had lived in Nogales for a portion of his seminary years. That mentor knew a priest at a Catholic church in the city, Sanctuario de Guadalupe. It was an easy walk from the border.
In 2002, the priest invited Scully and members of her church to Nogales to learn about his city's needs from the League of Young Missionaries, a group of young Mexican adults who had taken a few years off for mission work before pursuing careers.
The league members described the projects they were doing and invited the United States crowd to get involved.
"They were teaching us to be missionaries," said Brian Zelinski, a participant from north of the border.
One project involved building a chapel for a colonia not far from the Nogales church.
Residents of the colonia had been meeting regularly for worship services, gathering within a line of concrete blocks that marked their chapel perimeters. They sat in chairs dragged from their homes.
"They meet on the ground out there in the dirt," Scully said. "They're already a community."
The Sanctuario de Guadalupe owned the plot of land where they sat but lacked financial resources for building a chapel. As Scully's group of visitors to Nogales listened to the young missionaries talk, they recognized they had the deeper pockets and saw a way to plug in.
The Northwest group went back to its church and started thinking about ways to raise money for a chapel. It decided to form a nonprofit organization, Bridges Across the Border in 2003 to do just that. Before long, a developer, Garrett Cunningham of G&J Development, volunteered to create a blueprint for the chapel for free.
As the United States teenagers and adults traveled to and from Mexico to help create a chapel, they began to learn about the community it was for.
The colonia they frequented served as home mostly to Mexican citizens who had moved to the border to work in maquiladoras, or foreign-owned factories, which began popping up in the 1960s but exploded in growth in the 1990s.
The rise of maquiladoras is widely attributed to the North American Free Trade Agreement passed in 1994, which removed tariff barriers and made Mexico a more appealing place for foreign companies to put their factories. Others say the explosion occurred because the United States increased its industrial production in the late 1990s at the same time Mexican wages were falling, making Mexican workers more appealing.
Another factor in the overcrowding in Nogales is that Texas and California tightened their borders, and those intending to cross illegally began congregating closer to Arizona.
According to the Mexican National Institute for Statistical and Geographical Information, 30,400 maquiladora jobs existed in Nogales in August. Unofficial estimates put the city's population at 250,000, according to the U.S. American Consulate there.
Pay at the maquiladoras beats Mexico's minimum wage - $7 a day is common pay - but most of the new Nogales residents have to live with no utility infrastructure. Raw sewage rolls down the hillside from their bathrooms.
A 1997 article in the Arizona Republic told of a maquiladora starting a collaboration with the Mexican government to provide housing for low-income workers, but companies don't have to pay taxes to provide good housing, and makeshift dwellings prevail.
Many people in the Nogales colonia moved from the interior because they could no longer make a living as family farmers due to mechanization and changing economic trends.
The Northwest group enjoyed working on a chapel in the colonia but wished for another way to help its new friends there. When a member of the League of Young Missionaries gave Scully a bracelet, she got an idea for a little free trade project of her own.
The women in the colonia could make bracelets, she thought. Not just any bracelets, but special ones that would, in rosary fashion, illustrate a Christian credo as its owner fingered the beads. A heart bead would mean "love," a cross bead would mean "Jesus Christ."
It was a creative thought, but the real beauty of the idea was that she and her group could sell the bracelets in the United States for far-reaching dollars and funnel 100 percent of the profits to their creators.
People who bought them would learn about the hard lives of shantytown residents in Nogales.
The women of the colonia liked the idea, and teenagers from Scully's church made 100 bracelets for promotion. The bracelet project gave the Northwest residents an added excuse to visit the colonia regularly: bead drop-off and bracelet collection.
In June of last year, another opportunity for border work came along. A family in the colonia had a makeshift structure's equivalent of a back porch that was so flimsy it seemed on its way to falling down the steep hill below it any day.
The League of Young Missionaries and the youth of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church decided to build a safer deck for members of the Hurtaro family: three adults and four children. Two of the adults worked at U.S.-owned factories, making $7 and $8 a day.
"We played games, sang songs, got to know each other, and got very pumped up for the hard work of the next morning," Briana Zelinski wrote for a presentation about the work trip. "We woke up ready to go and walked up the hill to find the house and family that needed our help. From then on, we worked, hauling and nailing and sweating. It was hard labor, yes, but it was a labor of love."
The home consisted of scraps of board covered with tin and paper. It was 20 by 24 square feet including the porch area. It had no windows and sat on what had been a community dumping ground.
Despite modest building materials, the teenagers discovered order inside the home during the course of their one-day deck-building project.
"I learned that because the people there are poor, their houses look beat-up and trashy on the outside but when I saw inside I was amazed by how hard they work to keep them clean," wrote Oscar Salcido, a work team member.
The Hurtaros have a safer porch area that their children play on without risk of harm, and the Northwest group continues to work on its other projects.
Bridges Across the Border bought a piece of land next to the one owned by Sanctuario de Guadalupe for a more spacious chapel. In March, the group delivered a blueprint for a three-story chapel with a supply center for food and clothing downstairs, a daycare center on the middle floor and a worship space at top. About $2,500 has been raised so far toward the chapel and property.
The Mexico youth and the Northwest youth continue to get together, and even had a retreat together in the Northwest. They shared food, but some youth feasted at tables while others ate very little on the floor. The purpose of the exercise was to illustrate the wealth gap.
"It was like, 'Wake up and use your eyes and see there is a lot to do,'" said Maralf Jimenez, the volunteer leader of the Young League of Missionaries.
About eight women in the colonia are making bracelets, which are offered at wholesale price on consignment for two weeks at a time to Christian non-profit organizations in the United States that can then sell them for a retail price of $5 and return any unsold bracelets. For each bracelet sold, $3 is paid leaving a profit of $2 for the group.
Bridges Across the Border also has identified families in the colonia that are most in need of financial help. It is connecting those families with sponsors who send $25 a month, all of which goes directly to the families. Two families have sponsors and three are looking for sponsors.
The financial resources have helped in the colonia - one deaf child, for example, has two hearing aids because a sponsor's money paid for a doctor's appointment - and the one-on-one contact has helped a group of people in the Northwest understand some of their neighbors to the south better.
"What we need to do is to raise consciousness about this situation," wrote Triza Brion a young member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church, who is taking a class in government. "Governments need to know about these things - how these people are living. We all have to find ways of getting everyone to understand what is happening. You can see why they want to come to America when they have to live like this."