It’s a hot afternoon in early August 2009. The sun beats down, heating up the gravel paper on the roof, freshly hammered with small roofing nails, the kind of nails that tap tap bang go in. It’s a sturdy roof, a good roof, with two-by-four rafters, metal braces, long nails wedged in, topped with plywood, then a layer of tar paper and a layer of gravel paper. It’s a good roof, a good enough roof, and good enough is more than enough here.
This is Tijuana, Mexico. There is not a paved road in sight. Mangy dogs lie under trucks that haven’t moved for years, and the only way I know that the canines are alive is when they twitch as a fly lands on them. In the distance, a chicken clucks and flaps its wings, stirring up dust and feathers. The dust is everywhere—on the roads, in the houses, kicked up in the air, in my socks, between my toes, under my fingernails, and in my hair. It makes me drowsy, but there is life in the streets. Little kids congregate in groups, often shoeless, their little white teeth bright against their dark skin. They chat happily, too excited about a gringa knowing Spanish. Others are quiet and look at me with big, wide, kind eyes, and so I pick them up and carry them on my hip, feeding them a sandwich until they fall asleep on my shoulder. From there, big sister takes over and carries the little one up the hill to the house with the austerity of a thirty-year-old woman, the only exception being the girlish braid that bounces as she walks.
The children, with their chocolate-colored skin, wide eyes, and dirty faces, come flocking over to the work sites, curious about the foreigners. Little sandals are strapped to their feet. The boys wear a mismatched shirt and shorts while the girls prance around in little dresses. By now, their hair is conspicuously styled the same as mine, pulled back into tight, no-nonsense braided pigtails. They kick nearly flat soccer balls around, booting up dirt without a care in the world. I bring out crayons and paper, and they feast on the multitude of colors with hungry eyes before devouring them with excited hands. They draw pictures of things they want, like Barbies and fútbol jerseys before running away to show mamá y papa. They inevitably return, their little legs hopping over potholes in the road to ask for another sheet of paper for their little brother.
Up on the roof I can see down the hill to the winding dirt roads and the colorful houses that look like a box of Skittles, only more faded and dustier. There is a dirt fútbol field with painted white pieces of scrap wood marking the goals. A broken old swing creaks in the wind. It’s quiet, but there is a pleasant hum of mothers beckoning their children to come back, men chatting outside the local convenience store, children passing around a bottle of Fanta soda, and playful dogs barking and bounding down the road. From the little white church, with its small windows and wooden door, the sound of guitars strumming creeps up the hill.
The air is heavy with dust, burned tires, dust, burned trash, dust, and burned God-knows-what, but there is some sweetness in the air: there is woodsy, warm sawdust, fresh paint, metallic nails, and salty sweat. Up on the roof, I can see the next hill over before the sky turns into a dusty, dark grey-blue-brown and the horizon fades into a vast dirty nothingness. At least there is a breeze on the roof. But below, the kids are begging me to come down because they saved me the last sip of Fanta and they found my hammer (little Carlito was trying to build a tree house with it), and the gravel paper is rough anyway, and the solitude is too much, and I find what I am looking for anyway: through the smog, the sun shines down, and this place is hardly God-forsaken at all.