Actípan A personal story about an international student project with the poor in Mexico By Mario Carota
Prologue There is a great and vital need in our time for all of us to work on the tremendous problems facing the poor as they live within our overdeveloped and super-organized societies. Besides huge governmental and institutional programs there is a complementary need for the small, personal do-it-ourselves, grassroots efforts of dedicated individuals and communities of interested people.
The world needs men who will write, print, publish and distribute their own books. The world needs small groups of people who will produce, direct, film, edit and screen their own movies. But most of all the world needs teams of volunteers who will personally go out and serve the poor by helping them to work together to develop their own skills, abilities and resources and achieve their own objectives.
This short story is my own effort to demonstrate the kind of personal do-it-yourself action that is needed. I, personally, took the initiative to organize and coordinate the project described in this story. I have personally written, edited, mimeographed and distributed the story. I shall try and take the proceeds from this story to complete the production of a movie based on the story. And then I will try and use the proceeds to train and support teams of volunteers who will go out and serve the poor and help them to work together to do their own things.
One week after my fifth wedding anniversary I drove my wife, children, and house trailer through the redwoods to the fifteen acre ranch we had just bought with a fifty dollar down payment. And I was greatly relieved when the tenants moved out of the old three room farmhouse. It was far roomier than our tiny trailer and outhouse – even though they took the commode with them. The differences between the old tenant farm workers and the new “farmers” from the city were that they had but one child and zero college degrees and that we had four children and two college degrees. The similarities were that both he and I were broke and unemployed.
I somehow managed to keep supporting the growing, in size and number, family through a combination of sources of revenue: the sale of our property in Monterey, the G.I. Bill, part-time teaching and carpentry work and store-to-store peddling of apples grown on our farm. After our first four boys, Emmanuel, Michael, John and Joseph, new responsibilities called Mary, Peter, Paul, Benedict, Martha, and Charles kept coming both by adoption and by natural means.
My wife, Estelle, and I worked hard to feed, clothe, house and personally educate our children. Estelle was trained as a teacher so we chose to teach our children at home instead of sending them off to school.
I did receive help with my duties as a father as an increasing number of friends brought food and clothing with them on their visits to see my family. Friends even helped me to build a now 16 by 32 foot redwood cabin to give us more room. But I failed in an idealistic attempt to get a Christian back-to-the-land community started with some of our friends. I also failed to finish a more practical foundation for an apple cider mill before ending up with a huge load of bills and debts on my back.
So, to solve the problem, I reluctantly headed up to the city with my engineering degree and found a job at the new atomic energy research laboratory the University of California was building at Livermore. It took me about six months to get the special PQV security clearance and learn that I would be helping to build bigger and better H bombs. I refused to work on nuclear weapons despite the high wages and good future and the University was kind enough to transfer me to basic physics research work in Berkeley.
It took more than seven good young years out of my life to get out of debt and make the break back to our old way of life on the farm in Aptos. A better way of living where we could raise our sixteen children in the country and where we could somehow all work together towards the ideal of serving the poor of the world.
During those seven years, however, I led an unbelievable life as a husband, father, provider, community and church worker, engineer, house builder, commuter and as an overnight guest in the homes of my many generous friends. The moving of my family back to the ranch eighty miles away and before I was able to quit my job made me the world’s greatest commuter and my friends’ most frequent house guest.
The help that my fellow workers gave me to build our next set of living quarters on the old cider mill foundation was the beginning of a series of events that led to the Yale student Actípan project in Mexico City four years later. On one weekend alone I was personally given one of those good old-fashioned building bees by eight engineers and ten technicians from Berkeley and Livermore, two visiting professors from Italy and four farm worker braceros from Mexico.
The four braceros were there because I happened to stop one rainy day to bring one of them home for dinner. His name was Enrique Barrera Munoz from Zinapecauro, Michoacan. Inviting them and others to my house and visiting them in their awful labor camp led to an international friendship that helped to point us in the direction of Mexico with our desire to serve the poor.
The terrazzo floor of the house “made with love” was a brute to grind and polish. It was worth it, though, as I watched my children’s feet dance across it with the furniture from the old cabin. But two weeks later, before I had any of my own things put away, I was moving things out of the house and into our old army surplus bus for a vacation trip to a work project in Mexico City. There I led a team made up of our family, two other California families and a priest for four weeks to help a group of Jesuits establish a center for industrial workers living in a very poor area called Tacuba. More well-to-do Mexican families gave my team hospitality while we set up the carpentry shop and made fifty classroom chairs. It was then that my wife and I caught the bug. The experience of working with the poor in another country was such a tremendous one that we resolved to return as soon as possible.
By the summer of 1960, just after our seventeenth child, Louise, joined our family, we were in the clear with a deed to the ranch and had all the building materials paid off. So in August I picked up my last paycheck, cashed in my retirement fund for a lump sum of over four thousand dollars, turned in my security badge and thanked my fellow workers for all that they had done. Then I commuted down the freeway to Aptos for one last time. I figured that we had enough money to give us about a year to get something going to take the place of the wonderful job I was leaving behind. Little did I realize that we would have no definite source of income or get anything going for six whole years. Yet not only did we survive but actually carried out four international projects in Mexico, California, and Malta.
Christmas gifts paid for my trip to the meeting of the Christian Family Movement at Notre Dame University as a representative from our diocese. We really could not afford it but the movement needed a conscience and a critic to keep it from being just another middle class organization. There I proposed the idea of another project in Mexico and invited some of the families to join me and my family. None of them could see themselves quitting their jobs but they said that they would try and interest their teenage boys in the idea. At the same time I heard about a group of college students at Yale who had been inspired by a speaker to do something more worthwhile with their summer vacations than play around in Europe. After an exchange of letters and considering other possibilities they decided to try and work something out with us.
When the Gomez and Ibanez families wrote and told us that they had found a house for us in Mexico City we really began to prepare for the trip. While Estelle packed, I worked on the bus, bought sacks of rice and powdered milk and picked up an old washing machine. Everywhere I went I explained what, where and why with all kinds of enthusiasm. Some of the people, and especially the more conservative clergymen, thought I was out of my mind to even think of taking seventeen children to help the poor in Mexico. They thought I ought to be working at a job to support them so that they could go to school and get a good education. But others thought it was a great idea. Dr. Holbert, though crippled with polio and supporting his family from a wheelchair and iron lung, helped us by paying to have the bus tired recapped.
Through all of this the children kept expressing their feelings to Estelle and me about going to Mexico again. Louise, Marie, Mark, David, Vincent, Gregory, Lawrence, Charles and Martha were too young to understand what was involved. Paul, 12, though, wanted to stay and take care of the farm and the apple trees. Benedict, 11, wanted to get some animals like cows, chickens and horses. Michael, 16, wondered why we were going to help others when our own house was still very much unfinished. John, 16, felt that they would lose out in school if we pulled out in March as we were planning. Since the boys were now enrolled in Mora Central High School this was a real concern to them. Mary, 13, only worried about what we would use for money. Joseph, 15, and Emmanuel, our oldest at 17, felt that we should go and not worry about all the problems. Just at this time Estelle received her share of her mother’s estate and all of our problems did not seem quite so important.
Dr. Greer, our wonderful family doctor, finalized it all by coming to the house and vaccinating the whole family with his needles and serum, free of charge. Then, on March 13, 1961, I finally rounded up the whole family into our bus and headed for Mexico via Mexicali. We stopped first in Fresno and received a blessing from Uncle Harold, a priest. The next day we received a burden in the form of a traffic citation. I really lost my cool with the young highway patrolman who gave it to us just as we were leaving the country. Our migrant farm worker looks with the washing machine tied up on the roof to the luggage rack helped to victimize us along with the rest of the poor that travel the highways. Then after crossing the border we were robbed by a pickpocket in Guaymas as the nineteen of us slept in our home on wheels parked alongside the church and town plaza. After a weary week of driving and sleeping on the floor on the bus we arrived in Mexico City. The house at Guanajuato 166 was much better than we ever expected even though it was without furniture or utilities.
The middle class Mexican families, however, brought over some furniture from their homes. The poor industrial workers of Tacuba were the first to welcome us with a picnic the very next Sunday. It was a real joy to be back with our friends again and we expressed it by our now traditional exchange of songs to one another.
Young Joaquin Benet, an architectural student, and three of his friends took us to a monastery in Cuernavaca for Holy Week services. They agreed to help us with our project after I explained why we had come to Mexico.
The Bay of Pigs incident in Cuba happened just after we were settled and as I began the process of organizing the project. The invasion really surfaced and brought out the communist elements in Mexico. Anti-American signs were painted all over the walls and monuments of the city. About ten thousand students and people marched down to the Zocolo to hear pro-Castro speeches. Many young Mexicans volunteered to go to Cuba to fight against the Yankees. The typical Catholic reaction was to organize rallies and speeches again communism. The Mexican Christian Family Movement became heavily involved in these demonstrations. Our little plan for a project with the poor seemed rather insignificant to them in the great struggle against communism. Still they were patient and understanding with our requests for cooperation and participation. Nevertheless, I felt certain that we had to work on the problem of poverty if we were really going to get at the root cause of communism. I knew that somehow we were on the right track and kept at the task of putting together a good Mexican-American project.
I was determined to keep this project from being another American project imposed upon the Mexicans. We just had to come up with a joint Mexican-American project that would really serve the needs and desires of the poor. So I held a meeting of Mexican people, students, businessmen, and priests to determine what and how we should carry our project. They agreed that the best thing our American students could do was to do something about the lack of schools for the poor. And they all promised to help in one way or another.
When some rich young friends of Joaquin Benet heard about my search for a good project they came and took me to the area they were interested in – the poor people living in a slum area called Actípan. They invited me to join them and together we could build a little school for the children. It was just what I was looking for.
Of course we did not have the funds to build a school, no matter how small, so this meant that I, a stranger in a foreign country, had to find free land, building materials, and food for the coming students. While Estelle taught school to the children at the house, I ran around the city trying to beg and borrow the means to carry out our plans. I was never worried, really, because I had enough faith in the providence of God to know that somehow we would make it. I also learned that the words “international student project” were a marvelous help in obtaining that providence.
The first good sign was that Joaquin and his fellow architectural students began using their precious spare time to design the little school that the Yale students would build during the fast approaching summer. Then our friend Roberto Ibanez took me to the cement factory where he worked and introduced me to the plant manager – an Englishman who believed in international student projects. I left with a firm promise of five tons of cement. My approach to food companies through American employees and advertising agencies brought forth commitments of breakfast, cheese, jam, jello and soda pop. And Pat and Patty Crowley, national secretaries of the movement back in the states, finally responded to my repeated requests for their participation with a five hundred dollar check.
But getting the land was another matter. Mexico City prices were as inflated as those of New York City. I kept eyeing a vacant lot in Actípan that belonged to one of the parishioners. After some unfruitful efforts for a couple of other possibilities the parish priest and I zeroed in on Señor Velasco’s vacant lot.
I was just beginning to become confident and even proud of the progress I was making when I was reminded of my failings as a father. One of my teenagers had done some shameful and complete un-Christian things. I was so humiliated and depressed that I felt we had to give up the whole project and go back home. How could I possibly help others as a Christian when I could not even raise good sons? My critics were right. I was neglecting my children by spending too much time helping others. However, Fr. Kessler kept us from returning home by advising us not to make too much over the incident nor too little. So I continued working on getting ready for the students. But whenever someone who didn’t know began to sing praises about me I had to wince with pain about the real truth.
It took officials of the Mexican family movement a long time to formally approve our project and proposal that we had submitted in writing. Meanwhile the grass roots members were enthusiastically supporting our venture with all kinds of help and contributions. We showed our gratitude at the many parties and picnics by having our children sing our songs to the Mexican families and their children. And then in turn we listened to their beautiful Mexican folksongs.
My repeated visits to Sr. Velasco in Actípan managed to get a very tentative approval for the use of his lot as the site of building the school. In the process, I began to learn about the people who lived in the barrio that was such a ghetto of misery in the midst of plenty.
In Actípan there were three thousand people living in four square blocks of huts and shacks made from scraps of cardboard, tin, wood and bricks. One and two room hovels for families of six to ten children. Some of them rented at the rate of 18 to 20 dollars a month to factory workers making only two and a half dollars a day. In the center of the community was a clearing that we called “garbage plaza.” There the residents dumped their refuse for the pigs, chickens and children to grovel in. No running water, electricity taken by throwing a wire over the passing power lines and but two outhouses for the entire neighborhood. And yet, once we arrived the people began to clean up the garbage plaza.
There were about a thousand children without schools, idle teenage rebels without causes and with criminal records, mothers trying to raise them without fathers and a few faithful fathers working at jobs without decent wages. All of the families with nothing to eat but the same old beans, tortillas and chili without meat every day of the year. All of this existed side by side with mansions with servants, stores with furs and jewels, boulevards with limousines and a cost of living as high as the states.
And soon to be thrust directly and personally into all of this were our unknowing students from the U.S. with lily white hands and middle class backgrounds. Twenty boys and two girls coming from California to Connecticut majoring in business, history and political science. Young men with fathers in business, in law, in Wall Street and in the government. And one poor radical on a scholarship. They were self-centered and academically oriented students who had never worked for the common good let alone the poor. Some were coming for a joy ride but the majority were coming with enthusiasm and good will to make their first effort to help someone besides themselves. All were coming at their own expense and expecting no return for the labor they were about to give.
I asked the Mexican students to give our group a welcoming party following a day of prayer and discussions about the nature of their work with the poor. The party was the greatest and most spontaneous occasion of joy I had ever witnessed. Following a warm-up meal our students first sang American folk songs including the beautiful Yale songs. Then the Mexican boys and girls and parents responded with their lovely songs. Then both came together with a lively and happy snake dance to the tune of La Cucaracha. It was a wonderful beginning for a great adventure in international cooperation.
Early the next morning the students and I put on our jeans, climbed into our old bus and drove down Avenida Insurgentes Sur to Actípan to begin construction. But I still had made no final arrangements about the land. The poor stared at the students waiting in the bus while the parish priest and I talked to Sr. Velasco. At literally the eleventh hour on June 19, 1961 we came to an agreement. He said we could use the land rent free for two years and then we could negotiate at the end of that period. He also said that as long as we kept a school going we would not have to worry. I knew it was a very imprudent arrangement but we just did not have any more time to search for land while the students were waiting to dig in. When I gave the O.K. signal they jumped out and tore down the old brick walls surrounding the lot as the people of Actípan watched and wondered what the Gringos were up to.
My students never worked harder than they did that first week. My faith in the youth of America was restored as they dug into the dirt and the garbage with their soft white hands. In order to put in good eight hour work days I had to get the boys up early each morning. I used to go through their bedrooms yelling, “Vamanos.” If the breakfast, dishwashing, floor wiping and lunch packing committees did their jobs we were able to get in the eight hours. By the time we returned to Guanajuato St the students were so exhausted they could care less about the cold showers, hard bunk beds and the buzzing mosquitos.
During the first week they all started getting sick with Montezuma’s revenge. By Thursday five of them had to stay at home in bed and close to the bathroom. That Sunday we were all invited to a picnic with the families of the movement at a new institute in Cuernavaca for the training of Americans going into Latin America. Everyone was full of praise about our project except the Monsignor in charge – perhaps because we had not been trained first by his institute. He went over to the students and lashed out with some criticisms. He told them that they were a bunch of rich playboys who were just down to use the poor of Mexico to work out their hang-ups. I tried to reassure them that he was wrong and did not understand what we were trying to do.
The poor also wondered what we were up to because they had never seen rich Americans digging into their dirt personally before. They had only seen tourists getting drunk in nightclubs, feasting on costly meals in restaurants, and having their shoes shined by them for a peso. Oh, the little kids didn’t wonder, they helped right from the very beginning and enjoyed getting the new attention. But it took a week and some extra coaxing before the teenage rebels came around. When they did, though, we rejoiced because we knew then that it would be their school as well as ours.
As we continued the hard work of digging for the foundations and pouring concrete the word began spreading around and as a result more and more people became involved in the project. Mexican families began taking turns to bring hot delicious lunches to the project to take the place of our sandwiches. American couples working in Mexico added their bit by bringing dinners to our headquarters on Guanajuato St. And, best of all for the boys, pretty Mexican girls came to see the project and meet those good American students who were working to help the poor. We wound up going to so many parties that it became difficult for me to get the boys up the next morning and go to work.
Some of the students were even invited to live with the Mexican families who felt sorry for the students living in our temporary and uncomfortable headquarters. Shef Bunker moved into the home of a wealthy friend of his father. Every morning Shef would be driven to work in a chauffeured car. Most important of all the students and I began to get invited to meals in the homes of the poor. Jesus and his family prepared a fancy meal for Ted and me one day that must have been a great sacrifice for them. But being invited behind those closed doors meant that we were accomplishing something our one thousand American embassy employees, our five thousand American businessmen or countless tourists had rarely if ever experienced.
On an occasion when I had to go over to the Mexican student university I noticed a small crowd gathered around a sick old man lying on a sidewalk. When I saw that no one was doing anything to help him I picked him up in my arms and put him in the back of my Volvo station wagon. Then I headed for the sisters’ hospital where the year before our parish family group had sent a gift of an X-ray machine. Upon my arrival I boldly marched through the entrance and carried my patient to a bed and asked the nuns to take care of him and get him well.
The gift of five tons of cement managed to take care of the foundation and floor slab but we had little else to complete the structure. To take care of some of this problem I had written to Rick, the student who lived with us in Aptos, telling him to get an old truck and bring somehow, someway a load of California redwood with him to the project. In a sentimental moment I thought the wood from the states would make a grand symbol of the international character of the project. The Mexican architectural students thought the idea was great and designed a handsome hexagonally shaped building with redwood posts, rafters and roofing.
Rick phoned collect from the border at Mexicali near the end of June when we badly needed the material to keep the students busy and working. But the news was very bad. He needed $350 for customs duties, special permission to drive the truck into Mexico and special permission to import the lumber. None of which we had. I told him to drive on to Eagle Pass, Texas while I went to the federal authorities in Mexico City. Thus began the month long battle for the redwood lumber or as I preferred to call it – the Sage of the Sequoia.
To keep the students working in the meantime I had them start on a concrete block building for the boys and girls restrooms which some people thought was more important than the school. It eventually took fifteen students an entire month to finish two little crooked restrooms that a couple of Mexican bricklayers could have finished in a week. But that wasn’t the purpose of the project – to give money or buildings to the poor. We wanted instead to present our love for them in person and thereby become their friends who had come to know them, their lives and our responsibilities better. I shall never forget the picture of Steve and Jorge working together on a block wall for the good of others. They learned more about Mexico and the U.S. from each other than from a thousand textbooks – and became better men in the process.
I really felt that more of the middle class Mexicans ought to be working with us. Although the fathers helped in many other ways, not one ever lifted a finger in manual labor. But they did send thirty-five of their sons one Saturday to help. Considering that they too never did manual labor and even had servants to carry their schoolbooks this was quite an achievement. The argument the organizer, Dr. Gonzales, used was that if American students could come all the way to Mexico to help the poor there was no reason why their own students couldn’t.
I was surprised and thrilled when three families and a priest from the movement in California arrived with house trailers to work on the project during their three week summer vacation. While they took over the supervision of the students, Manolo Benet and I continued our rounds of the government offices to obtain the necessary papers for Rick still waiting at the border. We won the first round by securing a highly unusual special fifteen day pass for the truck from the Secretary of Motor Vehicles. From there we rushed over to the Secretary of Agriculture’s Sub-Secretary of Forestry and Hunting to secure papers for the importation of lumber. Respectfully, Manolo acting as translator, we explained the importance of the lumber to our project. They promised all kinds of cooperation but first they needed a letter from the American Embassy to certify the authenticity of the project. I found out later that his was the beginning of a literal runaround being given to us by the Sub-Secretary, who did not approve of subversive peace projects by Americans.
Saturday, July first, the poor people of Actípan treated us to a fiesta in our honor. They danced, acted and sang for us. It was a very moving gesture of gratitude and it did not matter that we could not understand all the words.
I did get a very good letter from our embassy, right from the very top, but it did not help much to get our needed permission. Manolo and I, and now Paul Guidry, were sent over to the office of the Secretary of Foreign Relations (equivalent to our Secretary of State). They told us our problem was not in their jurisdiction and sent us back to the Sub-Secretary of Forestry and Hunting. He still sent us back to the Secretary of Foreign Relations for a letter. Upon our return there I lost my temper and I threatened to create an international incident by running the truck through the border without permission. Why could not the people of one country give a load of wood to the poor of another country? If we were building a profit making bowling alley we would have gotten permission in forty-eight hours. They replied that if I took any rash action I would have to suffer the consequences.
At one of the student parties I learned that some of the movement officials were unhappy about our struggle with their government over such an unimportant detail. I decided that since this was supposed to be a joint effort I had better consult with them. Roberto and Antonio both told me to forget about trying to bring in the lumber, sell it and use the money to buy some wood in Mexico. For the first time in a very long while I was brought to tears as I very reluctantly agreed. That night I left word for Rick to sell the lumber and then tossed in my sleep with the second temptation to quit and go home.
But the boys from Yale said no, we had to make one more try. Three of their best talkers, John, Dan, and Shef, dressed up and went over to the Secretary of Foreign Relations and gave them the old college try to get that important letter. At noon Shef came out to the rest of us working at the school and proudly announced that they had succeeded. We could hardly believe it but we got a hold of Rick by phone just before he was leaving for San Antonio to sell the redwood lumber. Our victory celebration plans ended when Dan and John arrived later to tell us that the head man had refused to sign the wonderful letter his assistant had drawn up. The next day it even rained on the fresh concrete we had just poured.
Meanwhile back at the nitty gritty task of building the school I decided to give the old lumber from the foundation forms to the people of Actípan. But how? How could we be fair to each family? The announcement that each mother of a family could have one board each brought out a long line of women who vied to get a single piece of wood to improve their huts or to cook tortillas.
Joaquin and the other Mexican students still refused to give up the struggle for the redwood even after the American students and I did. And since it was their project as well I had to consider their wishes even though they were contrary to those of the movement. Through their friends and relatives in the government they procured a letter from the Secretary of Education. Armed with this and the knowledge that the Secretary of Agriculture had told his Sub-Secretary to give us our permission Joaquin and I went to the Forestry and Hunting offices determined to succeed. Faced with our persistence, proper letters and the pressure from above they lost their patience and angrily asked us to leave without giving us any papers. And then when I got back to the house on Guanajuato Estelle presented me with a bill of over $400 from the lumber company in California for the lumber which I thought had been donated.
The arrival of Rick at the project from Eagle Pass without the lumber brought the other students’ morale down to its lowest point. The early enthusiasm had waned and we kind of nagged at one another. The students complained to me that my children were noisy, unruly and inconsiderate. And my children complained to me that the students were noisy, unruly and inconsiderate. My poor wife and kids. With more stomach sickness, schoolwork and never seeing me the project was not turning out to be much fun for them. Occasionally I would take them down to the school and let them work but most of the time they stayed cooped up in the house on Guanajuato St. My oldest boys wanted to work more with me but it was a sensitive point with the students. Some of them even thought that it was their project alone and wondered what we were doing there. They did not realize it but sometimes I wondered about that myself.
The glamour of the project had worn off for the students especially the parts connected with manual labor. It was harder and harder for me to get the boys up in the morning and out to work. Then too as they took up the invitations to live with the Mexican families they found it hard to return to our poor headquarters. They naturally preferred the better food, the softer beds and servants to the house on Guanajuato with its beds to make, floors to scrub, cold showers and seventeen noisy children with an austere and strict mother.
Nevertheless, it was my wonderful wife who was at the students’ besides nursing them back to health when they became sick with dysentery, upset stomachs and high fevers. My poor little cream puffs. One night after a talk to the students by one of the Mexican psychiatrists Dan and John said they wanted to talk to Estelle and me about the children. They said that we kept the children away from the students too much and that we were far too overprotective. We listened to their criticisms and said that we would try and improve the situation. But when Dan demanded that it was their right to be with the children we countered that we had certain rights as a family as well. After Estelle went up to bed I impatiently explained to them why were so protective. A Berkeley student we had trusted to baby-sit with the children had betrayed us and mistreated them. That sobered Dan and John up and they were much kinder to Estelle after that.
Through it all, though, there was one great consolation – the daily mass at noon in the Actípan chapel whenever we could find a priest to celebrate. Fr. Blaney, a priest from Indiana, had brought four high school students to work on the project during his vacation. In between working on the school doing manual labor he was our celebrant. The coming together of all the people involved in the project as one community of friends made us forget all the differences and disagreements. This unity of the poor, the rich, the young, the old, the families and the students, both Mexican and American, was the most priceless ingredient of the whole project.
The students even got the teenage rebels to join them for the services. Pushing them even further, they got some of them to read the scriptural passages to the rest of the community for the first time in their lives. After mass one of them came to me and wanted to know where he could get a copy of the missal.
Finally, near the end of July, we received word from Joaquin that the Sub-Secretary had granted us permission. Rick, Dan and one of the Actípan boys took a bus to the border with the precious papers. It still took some money, a special bond, insurance and a lot more talking to get the lumber across the border. Then in the middle of the night I had to make a special trip to meet the truck on the highway to fill an empty gas tank, empty stomachs and empty wallets. But we made it and the truck finally rolled into Actípan with its hard won redwood.
One Sunday my cream puffs took the poor children of Actípan out to the mountains for an American Style picnic of hot dogs, soda pop and potato salad. The students had to stay up all night to finish preparing the food after a late party of their own. Once again I had my faith restored in the youth of America. On the way to the picnic we had to continue our dramatic way of doing things by having a near tragedy with a borrowed bus filled with forty-five children. The driver lost his brakes going down a mountain road. Otherwise the kids had a great time running wild in the fields that most of them had never seen before.
We began immediately to put up the redwood beams and rafters. But it was not easy. The building was designed with complicated angles to give it the round table atmosphere so the only right angle in the entire building was where the post came out of the floor. And the students had never built anything more than a birdhouse or book shelves. Nevertheless, once I showed them how they learned fast. And how they enjoyed it. For once, they were doing the work of men with the tools of men. With renewed spirits they worked harder than ever to finish the school before time ran out.
We still continued to have our project differences. One day when I arrived at the project after getting some special bolts the students crowded around me and started complaining that Estelle was interfering with the project. They said that she told one of the Actípan girls to stay away from the students. I could not believe it but promised that I would find out what had actually happened. They did happen to be mistaken and I was not the least bit gentle about straightening out my misinformed cream puffs. My prediction that it would be harder for the students and our family to get along with each other than with the people of Mexico turned out to be true.
The party that celebrated the victory in the Saga of the Sequoia included a meeting to determine if the Mexican students would consider undertaking a project similar to Actípan in the U.S. They had given to my students and me the privilege, hospitality and cooperation to come to their country and work on their problems. They could have just as easily told us to stay home and take care of our own problems such as the negro problem. I felt then that we ought to give the Mexican students the same privilege, hospitality and cooperation for a reciprocal project in our country. Once they got over the unusualness of the idea of people of a small poor country going to help a huge rich and powerful country they agreed that they would like to do something.
Family problems kept happening to keep me rushing back and forth between the house and the school. First Lawrence had to have nine stitches for a cut in his forehead. Then Mary, on the very next day, needed four stitches in one finger and two in another for cuts from a broken bottle. As I fretted over the constant interruptions I groaned to the doctor about why everything had to happen to me. Mary turned to me and in all innocence said, “But Daddy it doesn’t. It all happens to us.”
The students got a lot more satisfaction out of the project as the building began to take shape and look more like a school. This led us all to look to the future of the next summer’s vacation. They were enjoying the project so much that they wanted to come back to Mexico again and do more of the same. So I suggested that they scout some other projects on their free weekends. Rick and Ted found a good possibility to build a badly needed dispensary in Zinapecuaro, the home of Enrique our bracero friend. And Steve and Jon followed a lead to a village called Huautla in the state of Vera Cruz where there was an unfinished school building.
Just then we received word that our Guanajuato house had been sold and that we had two days to move out. We placed the remaining students with Mexican families. We returned the Army bunk beds and furniture to the proper owners. And I asked a widow, Mrs. Cordero, if she would let us use their summer home in Cuernavaca for my family until we finished the project. She consented willingly and then my children were really rewarded for their many sacrifices. The house had seventeen beds, five bathrooms, seven bedrooms, a pool table, and even a cook to help my wife. It had only one swimming pool but we decided to take it anyway.
In order to finish the building we needed roofing, windows, doors, siding, hardware and bathroom fixtures. And of course we did not have them or the means to purchase them. I remembered that Mr. Springer, an American businessman I had encountered, was a Yale alumni. So I sent a team of students to approach him and the rest of the Yale alumni in Mexico City to see if they would help. The students explained about the project and pleaded for assistance. The hardheaded businessmen could not understand why and how we were trying to build a school without funds or at least an organization. All the students could reply was the project motto, “The Lord would provide,” and that somehow they would finish the school. Well the alumni wanted to help and they also did not want another American project to look bad. So they promised to give us all the materials and labor we needed to finish the building.
With that as an encouragement the students and the boys of Actípan worked harder than ever together. Most of the students had by now returned to the states. The remaining ones, Ted, George, Rick, Jon and Dennis, worked six days a week and ten hours a day to get the school finished in time. They were really responding to the challenge they were faced with.
Pat Crowley wanted me to come up to the convention at Notre Dame and report on the project so badly that he set the money for airline tickets. In one session sat a monsignor who was another expert on Latin America. After my enthusiastic and glowing report he had to get up and make a few remarks. He said that the project was beautiful and idealistic and that I was a poet but – we had to be practical. We had to do these things through organizations, training and with sufficient funds. I told Pat later that it was strange how the clergy were becoming the realist and we laymen were becoming the dreamers.
On the way back to Mexico, Jorge and I stopped in New Orleans to scout out a possible project for the Mexican student project that coming winter. We were able to line up a possibility with a Benedictine monastery that was building a retreat house for laymen.
The more we trusted the so-called not-to-be-trusted people of Actípan the more they lived up to our expectations. During the whole project we never lost one tool or bit of material. But one morning I arrived to find a borrowed valuable electric table saw missing. We believed the rebels when they said it was stolen by outsiders. But the parish priest called in the police who grilled, tortured and even jailed our friends. Still we never got back the saw.
When I started to set up the grand fiesta to celebrate the conclusion of the project I received the greatest shock of my whole life. Something that I never even told the students. One of my friends in the Mexican family movement warned me that the executive committee had decided against accepting any responsibility for the school building and proposed family life center. This was completely contrary to the agreement we had reached under the proposal that they had formally approved. I knew that I was unorganized and that I had blundered with the lumber affair but I never expected them to completely reject all that we had worked so hard to accomplish and present to them.
Even though my friend was wiling to accept it as his personal responsibility, I asked for a meeting with the executive committee. There as I tried to remain as cool as possible I explained how I felt. I thanked them for all that they done to help and apologized for all the mistakes I had made. After it was translated into Spanish they thanked the students and me and did accept my invitation to the fiesta. When they asked if they could help with some of the food I knew that we had resolved some of our differences but they never did do anything about getting a family life center going. That really disappointed me because I knew that the parents of Actípan needed education as much as their children did.
When Rick had to leave to get back to his school we used the truck to haul some Mexican onyx back to the states. It could be used in the church the Mexican students wanted to build for their project. Fortunately he got across the border without a month’s work of getting the necessary papers.
On September the fifth, George, Dennis, some rebels and I put in the last panes of glass to close in the building and finish the project. Meanwhile three Actípan girls decorated the building for the fiesta. My children cleaned up the dirt behind the working students as they had during the entire project.
The Mexican young people who had invited us to Actípan in the first place had by this time found a teacher for the school. They made the necessary arrangements so that the school could open as an annex to an existing private school. They were also raising money to pay for the salary of the teacher. In this way the children of Actípan, who could never afford to pay any tuition, could go to school free of charge. This too was another significant accomplishment because all the middle class children had the resources to pay for their education but not the poor.
The fiesta turned out to be one of the finest and happiest moments in my life. It was wonderful gathering of many of the hundreds of people who had gotten involved in the Actípan project. And it was their help and participation that made the whole thing a success. I, as spokesman, thanked the rich, the poor, the students, the families, the businessmen, the clergy and government officials, both the Mexican and American, for all that they had done. Then I turned the keys of the building over to Roberto for the movement and to Padre Antonio for the people of Actípan.
The real success of the project, however, was not the product – a school building. We could have used all the money it took to transport and feed the students to accomplish that. No, the success was in all the wonderful things that came out of the process of building the school. The Mexican students learned that they could work with their hands and do something personally about the great problems of education and poverty. The American students learned the meaning of poverty at a personal level and consequently their lives and perspectives were changed forever and for the better. For once, Mexican people, American people, rich and poor, the church and the government all worked together in a cooperative spirit for the good of those in need. Above all, we and the poor had become friends, their dignity was enhance and our compassion was enriched.
No wonder that when the Yale students returned to their homes and school they spread the word about their wonderful experience. They showed slides about their work to other schools and as a result three hundred students followed their example the next summer and went to Mexico to work on similar projects.
We too headed home although Estelle and I could have stayed forever. Our six month’s tourist permit though was up and the kids were very anxious to get back to the farm in Aptos. I could hardly deny them their simple desire after all they had sacrificed for the poor of Mexico. On our way home we made two important stops that determined our future for the next two years. One was in Queretaro, Mexico and the other in Fowler, California.
In Queretaro, some wealthy farmers who had learned about the Actípan project invited us to stay and help them start a cooperative for their peasant workers on their huge hacienda. Even the children were attracted to the life on the hacienda with its fresh milk, riding horses and swimming pool. But we couldn’t stay. I had to keep going and set up a project for the Mexican students who were due to leave in two months. But in 1962 we did take up the invitation after we finished the Mexican student project in Fowler and returned to the hacienda of Obrajuelo.
The project in Fowler was unexpectedly arranged through our stop in Fresno to visit and see our Bishop. He congratulated us on the fine work we did and then in his concern over the welfare of the children advised us to settle down now. We had to tell him that we were planning to go to Louisiana for a Mexican student project. It was then that he suggested that instead we go down to Fowler to see if we couldn’t have the students build a church for the people there.
We just made it home from Fresno as the transmission in the bus went out for one more time. All I had left was one gear, fourth, and no clutch but somehow I managed to make the 150 mile drive. We even had to finish up in our typical dramatic way. We never intended it that way but that is the way it always turned out.
At least we were home in our beautiful little ranch surrounded by the redwood forest with its creek running with fresh clear water. Our six month absence, though, really showed. The backyard was overgrown with tall weeds and the apple trees were overloaded with wormy apples. I was not near as happy as the children were but it was great to be home again.
Epilogue I sincerely hope that you have enjoyed reading my story. I also want you to know that the Actípan project has resulted in a whole new movement in which hundreds of college students go to Mexico at their own expense during their summer vacations to serve the poor.
This story, by the way, is only one chapter in a whole series of adventures experienced by me, my family, and my friends. I hope, through the same personal methods, to publish more stories and produce more films about these adventures.
I truly appreciate your help and your participation in my personal efforts to do what I think is necessary. I cannot hope to reward you with any material return for your assistance. However, I do promise to report to you about my work to train and support a team of volunteers who will serve the poor in the United States and other countries.
I do wish to return the assistance you have lent once these efforts have become self-supporting, when and if you should so desire. Also, I wish to invite you to participate, personally, in these efforts when and if you should so desire.