TIJUANA — Some call them "los sucios," or "the dirty ones." Children in a Tijuana dump pick through the garbage and refuse, side by side with scrawny pigs and other scavengers. Yet despite their bleak environment, the children's dirt-smeared smiles reflect warmth, spirit and resiliency.
When David Lynch, 33, a New York special education teacher, first came to Colonia Pan Americana, a Tijuana dump settlement, the children's aspirations were low: "If I make it through elementary school, I'll work in the dump." Today, children dream about becoming pilots, teachers, boat crewmen, secretaries, cooks, bus drivers, airline ticket agents.
Lynch seeks to break the cycle of poverty stifling these youngsters' futures. He offers a rare commodity--hope--and English is the children's ticket out.
"Parents say that learning English is most important for their children to get a good job," Lynch said.
Lynch teaches both spoken and written English, encourages children to attend Mexican public school, and offers new cultural experiences undreamed of before his arrival.
Takes Kids on Trips
"I want to show these children there's a world out there, to go for it," said Lynch, who, through private donations and group sponsorships, has taken small groups of children on trips outside Mexico. Last Christmas, Lynch took four students on a trip as "special guests of New York City" to his family's home on Long Island.
As he shared American customs and his family with them, students experienced airplane travel, ice skating, swimming in an indoor pool, and big-city hustle-bustle. They even met privately with Cardinal John J. O'Connor at St. Patrick's Cathedral.
"I was so choked up I couldn't talk," Lynch said.
The Big Apple responded with free dinners at restaurants, special desserts and newspaper coverage.
Later groups visited Sacramento and San Francisco, and repeat trips are planned. Students must have studied with him for at least a year, be older than 11 and be enrolled in Mexican public schools.
Six days a week, Lynch drives up a rock-strewn road, then down into a valley to reach this settlement of 55 families, 350 people. The children race to meet him, calling out "Da-vid (Dah-veed)!"
"Isabella! How are you?" Lynch shouts to a small child hurrying tight-rope style across a heavy wood beam spanning a deep ditch. The child pauses, mid-step, to giggle and shout back, "Fine thanks, and you?"
Filth and Bright Colors
Behind her stretches a collage of brightly painted one-room shelters amid shacks of cardboard and wood. Their roofs are anchored with tires, and tiny yards are rimmed by fences of rusting mattress coils, boards and wire. Discarded aluminum, glass and cast-off furniture lie everywhere, and earthy smells of mud, manure and trash mingle. Beyond lies the pastel-hued tranquility of the Tijuana hills.
Lynch first came to Mexico as a volunteer in summer, 1980, returning again in the summers of 1981 and 1982. Then 2 1/2 years ago, he took a leave of absence from teaching on Long Island and, with $15,000 in donated funds ($5,000 from the Sisters of the Holy Child), came to work in a Tijuana orphanage, as a mediator in a Tijuana prison, and in the dump, where only 40% of the school-age children were enrolled in public school.
Working with four other volunteers, Lynch's first classes were seat-of-the-pants adventures held outside.
"The children came to us easily. They were so anxious to do something, because in the dump there isn't much to do. Learning was something different for them," Lynch said.
By the end of that year, Lynch was hooked. He requested a second year's leave of absence. "I just couldn't leave those children," Lynch said matter-of-factly, with the quiet commitment that has led him to offer practical assistance--food, medicine, clothing--far beyond his teaching.
By 1984, on his own now, Lynch decided to dedicate his energies full time to the people in Colonia Pan Americana. One of the families built a room onto their house with a cement floor and said to Lynch, "This is your school." Excited children raced home to bring their parents back to see new folding chairs donated by a Pacific Bell employee. Pacific Bell also donated some blackboards. When necessary, the multi-use room becomes a funeral parlor, community meeting room and pinata factory.
Everyone Gets a Ride
Ordinarily, when Lynch holds "school," he collects waiting children in his van. "Even the ones who live just a few houses away want to jump in and ride!" On this day, he conducted a walking tour for his visitors as he rounded up the children.
"This is Coco, she's my youngest, just 3," said Lynch, greeting a small, brown-haired, grime-covered girl. "Once, she found an egg for the family to eat. She's very smart." Coco grinned and held out three fingers to mark her age.