Thursday, February 24, 2005 | As we crossed the border into Mexico, my first time leaving the United States, I somehow thought I would immediately feel different. More enlightened, more sympathetic, more something. But I felt no real change or strong emotions until our arrival in the residential area of Tijuana, where I experienced my first glimpse of true poverty, my first glimpse of a society where trash and grime are a regular sight, my first glimpse of what life is really like away from the fantasy world that is my home which is only 35 miles away.

The weekend of February 5, 2005, my father and I went down to Mexico with Youth With a Mission (

When we first arrived, we saw the two children playing on a rickety swing set in the dusty, trash-strewn yard. We began our work-unloading the vans, nailing, hammering, painting, and carrying wood from place to place. The walls went up around noon, and by nighttime, we had the entire roof in place and were almost done with the wiring.

Throughout that day, I marveled at how the children, picking their way through trash and sharp and dangerous objects, played as innocently as children would in my neighborhood. These children have no knowledge or memories of a better life, but make do happily with the little they have. Children in the U.S. seem to need more expensive items to have fun, while these children, with so little, are able to improvise and enjoy life whenever and wherever they can.


It was very interesting how social and informal and friendly they were. They came right up to us, and in broken English, asked us if we wanted a picture of them. They then insisted on taking a picture of us with the quinceañera girl. This experience showed me one of the key differences between our culture and theirs: hospitality. If a group of Americans at a birthday party saw two obviously foreign people, they would probably not stop to think about saying hello, talking, taking pictures, or laughing with the strangers. There is an atmosphere of openness and trust in Mexican society that we don’t have in America.

Finishing the House

The completion of the house was almost as satisfying as the looks on the faces of the father, mother, and children when they entered it (the house was a bit smaller than a two-car garage and was without plumbing or running water). The children’s gleeful cheering and laughing and playing made all the soreness, smelliness, and paint-splattered clothing worth it. When it came time for the group picture in front of the house, the three-year-old child who had been in the house marveling at his new bed, toys, and well, house, refused to come out. When we tried to make him come out, he started sobbing, and I realized in a bittersweet way that it was because a bed and toys and the home were so special to him, and perhaps he thought he would never get it back if he was to leave, even for a moment.

Real Life

Max Sutton-Smolin is a freshman at Torrey Pines High School. His mother Marsha Sutton is Voice of San Diego’s education writer.

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