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The Line Between Us

The Devil's Mess
(Lourdes Lujan, through the eyes of Bill Bigelow)

I remember how it used to be. What a place to grow up. To think that this used to be the country. When I was small, Papa would take me fishing in the Río Alamar. I'd catch a little trout and try to nab toads in the cattails along the riverbanks. The hills were a vast playground calling me to explore, to dig, to run. It was hot and dusty, but it was safe. We never even locked our doors. Now the river is filled with hundreds of families from Oaxaca, Michoacan, Chiapas. It's squalor. Burning garbage, discarded plastic everywhere. I haven't seen a fish in ten years or more. What fish could live in this poisonous stew of chemicals and human waste? And the hills don't call to my children to play. Instead they hover over our world like a giant devil, drooling poisons into our lives, poisons into children's veins, poisons into their lungs, poisons into their futures. There sits Metales. I can see it from my house. 40,000 times the lead contamination allowed in the United States. And yet the owner is a U.S. citizen. Rich and happy, living in San Diego. The American tourists come and visit me - the good hearted ones, like those teachers last week. "Why don't you leave?" they ask. And it's a good question. I tell them I've never once considered leaving. But that's a lie. What mother wouldn't consider getting out of a place like this? What mother would risk her children being born without brains, would risk her children becoming stupid from lead in their blood? But that would just be to leave this for some other mother, some other children. So instead I march along the pavement on a hot Sunday afternoon, going house to house, appealing to other women to take action - if not for yourself, then for your children, I tell them. If we unite, the government will have to clean up the maquiladoras, will have to put in drainage, will have to enforce the law. And this woman who stands in front of me. Weary, old before her time, deep age lines carved into a life that probably hasn't hit 30. She looks me in the eye. Not angry, not contemptuous, but honest, curious: "I'm barely living as it is. How do you find time?" "We'll clean it up. We'll get THEM to clean it up," I say. But I'm not even sure I believe myself. But here's what I know: This is God's work. The meek shall inherit the earth, I was taught. If the factories keep coming, if they keep poisoning, if they keep ignoring us, if the children keep dying - then the devil wins. And I can't believe that about this world. I can't believe that the devil wins. So I stay, and I walk these neighborhoods, and I talk to these women, and I educate the workers - and one by one. Slowly we will take this neighborhood back from the devil.

Spring 2006