TIJUANA — On a dusty hillside nine miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, Maria Luisa Roldan watched in fascination as a storm of about 300 norteamericanos came down on her Colonia Cumbres.
They parked their fancy cars and trucks on the dirt street and then offered Roldan, her children and the community a small milagro.
"These are good people," Roldan said as emotion swept through her, causing tears to flow from her strong, brown eyes.
The norteamericanos, as they are called by the locals, belong to an Orange County-based group that offers help to people such as Roldan, whose sense of hope has been snatched away by the circumstances and who, indeed, need a miracle.
The group, called Corazon, which is Spanish for heart, has been helping people in Baja California for 20 years and has built 275 homes in some of the poorest areas from Tijuana to Ensenada. For Roldan, a single mother raising two children on $13 a week, the group built a new 16-square-foot wooden home.
Roldan's family was one of eight who recently received houses during the organization's first Super Build Saturday.
The group, which started small, is made up of volunteers from Orange and Los Angeles counties, and some travel from the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington state, said John Torrence, 37, a former computer analyst who now operates an embroidery business in Orange and serves as Corazon's president.
Corazon also offers scholarships, provides health clinics and distributes food and clothing. A child-care center created with volunteers from Santa Margarita High School has spun off into a separate project.
"In the early days, we always had the same people going down to Mexico, and we averaged about eight to 12 houses a year," Torrence said. "Now, we build about 65 houses a year and have thousands of volunteers."
Volunteers come from churches, schools, civic groups and private business.
Typically, the volunteers leave Orange County before dawn and meet at a Chula Vista shopping mall before driving across the border. Facing them are grueling, 16-hour days of building and painting.
Once across the border, the group caravans through Tijuana's paved roads then onto a dirt road that snakes past numerous communities before reaching Colonia Cumbres, a community of about 5,000 people staked out in small shanties.
For families living there, it is a daily struggle to find enough to feed themselves. The community is made up of immigrants who have struggled in southern Mexico and have found themselves destitute and victims of the country's severe economic problems. They traveled north in search of jobs.
"These are the folks who simply put up homes out of old wood and stuff, anything they can find and put a plastic tarp over their heads to protect them from the rain," Torrence said.
But they are not squatters. Roldan and her neighbors have spent their life's savings as down payments to the city for parcels that sell for about $1,000. In return, the city cuts the new dirt roads, provides police protection, staffs an elementary school and collects trash. Potable water is trucked in and sold regularly for $3 for a 50-gallon barrel. For some of the lucky ones, there is electricity. There is no sewage system.
Roldan, 40, and her husband moved to Tijuana from Guadalajara two years ago. At that time, they had dreams of finding good jobs--her husband as an electrician, and she in a maquiladora, or foreign-owned factory.
Instead, they never found those jobs and settled for day work and sold trinkets on the streets to make it. Then, the couple broke up. After Roldan's husband left in December, she was forced to move from an apartment with her daughters, Maria Luisa, 1 1/2, and Roxana, 9, into Cumbres, which is Spanish for summit.
There, she spent one of the most miserable winters of her life beneath a plastic tarp roof that leaked and a dirt floor that quickly turned into a carpet of mud.
"Every time I saw rain clouds, or heard thunder, I got scared," Roldan said. "I knew it meant that we were going to get wet again."
Roldan suffers from a nagging stomach pain that saps her energy at times, and which has gone undiagnosed because she can't afford medical treatment. A house cleaner, she earns barely enough to buy food for her family.
On the day the group was due to build her house, she arose at dawn, put on jeans and a sweatshirt and dismantled her shanty. Later, she shoveled dirt and rocks into a bucket, carried it up a steep grade and dumped it. She could have stopped and let a young volunteer do the hard work, but she didn't.
She said it was her house they were building, and she needed to help.
Cement slabs for the new homes were laid a week before the volunteers arrived. The volunteers quickly started to work, cutting 2-by-4s, hammering out walls and putting in windows.