Santa Domingo, a church near the heart of Oaxaca city. Puerto Escondido, from where Esperanza is based, is located about 6 hours south of Oaxaca city

From Tijuana to Oaxaca: Week 1

Eight months in Tijuana. That alone could be material for a lengthy blog. That, however, will be for another time. This is about Oaxaca.

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Eric Reutter and I just finished my time as an Esperanza long-term volunteer in Tijuana. I am 23, and am from Bellevue, Washington, located just outside of Seattle in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.
Many of those reading this are very likely quite familiar with the program Esperanza runs in Tijuana. Esperanza has been working with volunteer groups there for now over 21 years. We still have several groups that have come down for all 21 years. There are many dreams that have been realized there: countless houses, the Posada facility, the Esperanza clinic, environmental programs, community centers, schools and more. There are still many dreams left to be fulfilled. Even if there is more uncertainty now with the economic crisis and the loss of volunteer groups three years ago, the Esperanza team is still working and dreaming more than ever.

Community members working with clay for adoblocks. The clay has to be run through the strainer before it can be used in the block maker.

Esperanza in Oaxaca started almost two years ago, when one of our social workers attended a conference here. She found that there was a huge need for house and community building, something that we have gotten remarkably good at in Tijuana. Flash forward almost two years, and here I am in Oaxaca. In those two years almost every member of the Esperanza team and several volunteers have been down to Oaxaca. Eduardo, Rigo, Josefina, Robert, Chris Larson, Monica, and a volunteer group lead by Aimee have all been down here before. Many of the people I have bumped into in my few days here remember these people well, a testament to how lasting of an impact volunteers can have.

Both programs share the same vision, but Oaxaca is fundamentally different from Tijuana in many ways. With a few exceptions, the Oaxaca program works without any volunteer groups. The construction process shares a few basic similarities, but the houses are very different designs. We have social workers and a technician here, but a little more of the process is done by contractors hired by the families. Differences like these are, in my opinion, unavoidable, because Oaxaca in Tijuana are very much two different worlds.

How different is Oaxaca from Tijuana? First, there is the most obvious, the climate. It is hot here, and not like Tijuana, California or Seattle hot (does Seattle hot exist?). The heat here is humid and ever-present. Even though I am here in the winter months, I will still need a few days to acclimate to the humidity. I have heard that the spring/summer time only gets hotter.

On my way south I stopped to hike in San Bartolome, just outside of Oaxaca city.

The water situation here is an example in extremes. Yes, potable water is still not available through the city water system and people do not drink from the tap. Other than that, there are few similarities in the water situation. In Tijuana there seems to exist a constant state of low water levels, due partly to the population explosion decades ago. Not only that, but the rain in Tijuana is scarce and infrequent. I have been to several properties here in Oaxaca that have a ground-well. The water is level is not very far down, and in fact we have several properties that we have to adjust our foundations on due to high ground-water levels.

I nearly had a panic attack when one of the ladies turned on the well hose before dragging it over to the water jug that needed filling. I think she did that for the water pressure, but in Tijuana whenever water was flowing onto the ground everyone would be in a frenzy to bend the hose or turn off the faucet.
Even the language is different. I swear that the accent in Southern Mexico sounds a little bit like an Italian accent sometimes. The words for highway, van, contractor, and cool are all different.

I could go on about the differences between Tijuana and Oaxaca , but the question is what does this mean for Esperanza? First of all, I think that Esperanza is doing the right thing in not trying to carbon copy the the Tijuana system. They couldn’t even do this if they wanted to, because of the lack of volunteer groups here, but I think it is important nonetheless that they realize it is a different world in the south. Naturally there have been, and will continue to be growing pains because of the newness, but I think that is where the real potential lies for Oaxaca; the differences.

The staff is, in comparison to the Tijuana team, very new. There are 4 employees here, and the most veteran one has been in her position for less than a year, even though she had been working with us for longer. Our technician is named Cesar, and he has been with us for 3 months, while being trained by Rigo. He is 19, but carries himself with the maturity of at least someone 5 years older. Cesar is a good example of the potential of the Oaxaca program. He is new, and will be the first to admit there are things he is still learning, but he is already so good at what he is doing, when you take into account his short time with us. Furthermore, he has told me that he loves what he does and can easily see himself being in his position 10 years down the road.

Local community kitchen. We stopped to eat here during lunch at the worksite. I was told that a community kitchen is more economical and more informal than a traditional restaurant.

That is the really exciting part about Oaxaca, which also ties into the inherent difficulty and angst. This team and this system seems poised to form itself into a really amazing program. They are pumping out houses at an amazing rate, especially when you consider that there are no volunteer groups. I can see Cesar as a future Rigo/Robert, and if we can get him working with volunteer groups, maybe even something like Eduardo.
Perhaps more immediately important, Esperanza International is working to build a study abroad program here in Oaxaca that, if successful, could easily finance Oaxaca and more. Not only that, if done right, it could provide a sustainable model for continued operation.

This leads to the really difficult part. Esperanza has built something here with so much potential, and not just Esperanza; Aimee’s group, Chris Larson, and countless volunteers from the states have helped fundraise and start this program. What we really need now is this interchange of volunteers. If the study-abroad program is successful, we could get that aspect very soon. The problem is that things are hard right now. Esperanza is very cash-strapped, with our lowered group numbers and the economic crisis on top of that. Although things run efficiently here in Oaxaca, it still was very much an expense to get things running and to continue the program. The difficulty will be finding the way to financially continue the program and give Cesar and the team here a chance to be something great, and to do what Eduardo and the Esperanza team have done in Tijuana.

A big thank you to all the volunteers reading this who have supported us so much, to Chris Larson for providing us with the block machine, and to all the help we have received state-side. I will do my best to weekly keep everyone posted on Oaxaca. Hopefully we can report more successes and maybe even a study-abroad program by spring/summer. Until then,

Oaxaca finished house

Finished Esperanza home in Oaxaca










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