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In Castoff Doors, the Makings of Castles

For poor Mexican squatters living on the outskirts of Tijuana, garage doors discarded by Californians are the building blocks for simple but comfortable houses.


TIJUANA — Federico Fregoso and his wife, Guadalupe Valdovinos, have never lived better.

For the first time in her life, Valdovinos can cook frijoles on a gas stove and watch novelas on a small black-and-white television. Her husband can boast of owning a home, one he built himself on a hilltop with panoramic views of the golden-brown mountains in the distance.

Every day, the two pray thankfully at a simple altar above their bed, where a portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe hangs next to a cross and a rosary. They are grateful for all of their blessings--but mostly they thank God for their four walls.

Or seven doors, depending on which side of the border you live on.

Hundreds of small houses like theirs, made from wooden garage doors discarded by Southern California homeowners, have sprouted over the last few years on a treeless desert hillside at the eastern edge of Tijuana.

Hauled across the border by enterprising middlemen, the doors are the raw materials with which a determined band of squatters, led by women, has turned a settlement of cardboard shacks into a small city known as Maclovio Rojas.

Over the opposition of government officials and powerful foreign factory owners who also lay claim to the land, they have built homes, markets, churches and schools--all out of garage doors. Forty doors went into construction of a cultural center that features a poignant mural depicting the life of a garage door on its journey from California to Mexico.

The story of Maclovio Rojas, however, is more than a tale of innovation and persistence. It is a telling illustration, observers say, of the dramatic economic disparities between Southern California and Tijuana.

"The idea of pulling off an old [wooden] door, which is still in good condition, and replacing it with an aluminum one is typical of California," said Michael Schnorr, an art professor at a San Diego County community college who helped build the cultural center and teaches free classes there.

"But for the Mexican people, building a garage-door house is like building a Renaissance building of marble. . . . It speaks volumes about American excesses and the most basic and unmet needs of our neighbors to the south."

Fregoso, for one, is well aware that his one-room house wouldn't impress the Southern Californians who threw away the materials from which it was made.

"We all know it's a modest home," Fregoso said. "It doesn't offer much in the way of security, and it's hot when it's hot and cold when it's cold. But it's a wonderful thing because . . . around here, we feel rich if we can buy a door and build a room."

Demand for Doors Is Spreading

Maclovio Rojas may be the largest community made entirely with garage doors, but homes built from the American castoffs are seen elsewhere in Baja California.

Most are found in the colonias--settlements--along the eastern edge of Tijuana, but the demand for secondhand doors now extends south to Rosarito and east along the American border toward the cities of Tecate and Mexicali.

The leaders of Maclovio Rojas were the first to recognize the potential of an unwanted wooden door, Schnorr said. The illegal settlement, or poblado, has grown dramatically since 1988 to a population of 10,000 people living on 600 acres.

"We are poor but energetic," said Hortensia Hernandez Mendoza, one of the poblado's founders. "We know we are living off the scraps of the United States. But, at the same time, these houses are affordable, strong, and they are more beautiful than the homes we used to live in."

The Mendozas and 44 other families who settled Maclovio Rojas were farm workers from Oaxaca who were attracted to Tijuana's booming economy. The poblado's namesake was a Mixtec Indian labor organizer who was killed at 24 by a hit-and-run driver who many believe had been hired by a grower. When Rojas died, his followers migrated from the interior of Mexico into the hills and ridges at the edge of Tijuana.

These first pobladores set up house wherever they could find land on the dusty hillsides southeast of Tijuana, where the city is growing the fastest. At first, they built their homes from cardboard, scraps of lumber, plastic tarps and discarded tires.

"The first year they were camping out there pretty rough," with settlers sleeping on the ground wrapped in plastic and catching snakes for breakfast, Schnorr said.

Then garage doors started arriving by the truckload, seemingly out of nowhere. Suppliers of the doors, Mexican businessmen who collect them from as far north as San Jose, sell them for $18 to $30, depending on the competition.

"Who put the first house up, I don't know," Schnorr said. "But it didn't take long for it to catch on. You work a little, your wife works a little. Pouring cement for the foundation is a community thing and the next thing you know, you got four walls, and four walls make up a house."

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