TIJUANA — The smell of raw sewage greeted the 100 Americans almost as soon as their caravan of motor homes turned off the main highway and wheezed up the tortuous unpaved roads of one of this city's poorest barrios.
Passing by small cinder block houses and plywood shacks--many without electricity, nearly all without running water--they finally reached the center of Colonia Lazaro Cardenas, a dusty settlement of several thousand homes perched atop garbage-strewn hills.
But the mostly teen-age visitors who came here last week from Presbyterian churches in Camarillo and Oxnard did not seem disheartened about spending their Easter vacations amid such bleak surroundings.
With the ambitious goal of building seven small houses during their annual five-day mission, these "Carpenters of the Cross" hoped to make as great an impact on the destitute barrio as life in the barrio would make on them.
'They Show So Much Gratitude'
"It's just a small change, but they show so much gratitude," said Karen Giles, 16, of Camarillo's Trinity Presbyterian Church. "Sometimes we forget how lucky we really are."
Even with their good intentions, however, the presence of so many Anglo middle-class high school students was not without its awkward moments, especially in a place reminded of its relationship with the United States by patrolling helicopters crisscrossing the horizon.
Some of the girls, for instance, complained about the local men, who at times responded to the novelty of American visitors with whistles and lewd jeers.
Other teen-agers, after a hot morning working on one of the wooden one-room homes, found themselves clumsily refusing an offer of homemade punch--presumably made with unpurified water--from the family that would soon be living there.
And a few saw a disturbing symbolism when leaders of the Camarillo group, which camped and ate its meals in an outdoor courtyard in the colonia, or neighborhood, announced that they would keep the iron gate surrounding them shut at all times for security reasons.
"It was kind of like the border," said 16-year-old Michele Swaner of Camarillo. "We could come and go freely, but they couldn't come to us. . . . Like, we have all this, and you can't have any of it."
Church leaders readily acknowledged the difficulty of trying to bridge the many gaps that separated them from the colonia's residents, but said the value of their efforts far outweighed any harm that might have been done by cultural gaffes.
"We have to try to reach out, knowing that we're going to make mistakes, that we're going to say and do things that are not as sensitive as we want them to be," said Chris Kohlbry, 33, associate pastor of Trinity Presbyterian. "We need to take that risk. . . . It's worth failing."
For seven Mexican families who were able to trade in miserable dirt-floor huts for simple but sturdy 12-by-16-foot houses, there was no question but that it had been a worthy venture.
"This means so much to me," said Antonina Rivera, 42, who, along with three of her children, had just been evicted from a rented house. "I feel rich now."
And for the dozens of teen-agers, many of whom ended their stay in tearful exchanges with the residents of their new homes, there was also little doubt that at least some gaps had been bridged.
"We have so much richness over there," said 19-year-old Adriane Hopkins of Oxnard's First Presbyterian Church, as she gestured to the north. "But they have a richness here, too. They don't feel sorry for themselves."
Ties Since 1967
Although this was one of the largest delegations to visit the colonia in recent years, church groups from California have had ties with the barrio since 1967, when a Presbyterian minister from Whittier named James Letcher founded a community center there known as Futuro del Oro, or "Future of Gold."
As word of the center circulated among church leaders, contributions flowed in, and soon Futuro was offering medical services, kindergarten classes and a scholarship program for teen-age students.
But it wasn't until 1980, when a San Gabriel Valley minister and his youth group arrived at the center to build a single plywood house, that droves of young volunteers began making the journey with the idea of leaving behind more permanent contributions.
Since then, about 100 houses have been constructed here by more than a dozen California churches, which, besides the Ventura County groups, include La Habra Hills Presbyterian Church, St. Peter's by the Sea Presbyterian Church in Palos Verdes and Village Presbyterian Church in Arcadia. The structures, which consist of wooden beams and plywood walls mounted on a cement foundation, cost the churches about $800 each in materials.
"They're not just writing out a check for some far-off need; they're getting their hands dirty," said Ethel Walton, 71, an El Monte electrician, who serves as president of the Futuro del Oro board of directors. "They're not rich gringos looking down on the poverty; they're friends."