Monterrey: Construcción

When we heard that the construction supplies being loaded into the vans included “about 20 machetes”, we began to get excited.

Our particular mission trip included multiple service opportunities. There was a Vacation Bible School team, which had prepared lessons and crafts to teach kids at the Elim church. There was a sports team that would put on soccer clinics at the nearby park, and minister to kids that way. And then there was the construction team, that would work at building…something.

I did ask, before we left for Monterrey, what we would building. I was on the construction team, and was naturally curious. The answer? “We’ll find out when we get down there.” Didn’t answer my question, but I was fine with that. I was there to help, and it was assumed that whatever they had us work on would be a worthwhile project and not something like Monterrey’s newest McDonald’s.

We still didn’t know what we were building as we all piled into the vans for our first day of work. In our first real experience with Monterrey traffic, we zoomed and swerved through the streets and freeways of the city, in something akin to a video game. I have joked before that half the cars in Dallas must have broken turn signals, because so many drivers fail to use them. In Monterrey, I guarantee that every turn signal works, because none of them have ever been used. Our drivers constantly evoked the Tonnage Law: our church van is much larger than your Volkswagon, so you can either get out of the way or be crushed.

Despite the competitive, aggressive way that everyone drove, I never saw a single accident the week we were down there, and not a single traffic backup caused by a car wreck.

After about 30 minutes, we had left the city behind. We continued driving for at least another 30 minutes, past refineries and freight railways and pastures of mesquite. We finally turned off the highway onto a gravel road that ran through what appeared to be an undeveloped country subdivision, and pulled into the multi-acre lot that was our construction site.

There we were greeted by one concrete slab, one foundation wall awaiting a concrete slab, a shade tent, a working windmill and cistern, several piles of dirt and concrete mix, and a lot of weeds. Tools were unloaded, and we set to work. We still didn’t know what we were building, other than a couple of concrete slabs in the middle of nowhere.

We were first instructed to clear weeds from the construction area. This is where the machetes came into play.

Despite our original enthusiasm, it soon became known that clearing weeds, and especially grass, with dull machetes was not an easy job. Nor was it much fun, especially considering that the idea was to chop them off at ground level.

It soon occurred to most everyone that the job could have been done much quicker and easier by one person with a weedeater, or even a lawnmower. When asked why we did not have any power equipment, our Mexican foremen essentially said that hard work was good for us.

Sitting on my knees and bending over to swing a machete soon got old, but then I remembered seeing a solitary “idiot stick” among the shovels and other tools. I was, somewhat unfortunately, quite familiar with the scythe-like weed-wacking tool. I think most of the Americans had never seen one before, though, which was why they were using the much less efficient machetes. I couldn’t find the tool, so I started asking around for it.

“Have you seen the idiot stick?” “Do you know where the idiot stick went?”

“Shh! We’re not supposed to say that word!” a friend reminded me.

Oh, that’s right. “Idiot” is supposed to be a fighting word down here. But that’s the only name I know for the tool. How am I supposed to ask for the tool without using its name?

“Hey, have you seen the…um…thing?”

“The what?”

“The…tool…that’s name is a word we’re not supposed to say?”

“Oh, you mean the hoe?”

I soon realized that the non-politically-correct names that my family used for many hand tools could cause a bit of a problem here. The hoes we were provided with were not your standard garden hoe, but a far superior heavy hoe that is almost impossible to find in the U.S. anymore. My family owns a few of them, but they are essentially antiques, and have an antique name that is considered a racial slur. When a friend, who was impressed with these superior hoes, learned that I was familiar with them, he asked what they were called so he could buy one for home use. “They’re called…um…I can’t really tell you what they are called,” I replied.

In addition, my Grandpa had always jokingly referred to wheelbarrows as “Mexican trucks”, and the person pushing the wheelbarrow was called the “Mexican truck driver”. Ah, the irony.

I finally found the mmmm stick, which allowed me to clear weeds much faster without bending over. I didn’t keep it for long, though, since the swinging motion soon attracted several other guys who wanted to practice their golf drives. I handed over the tool and moved on to a different task.

Besides weed whacking, work at the construction site was generally divided into 3 tasks: mixing cement, moving dirt, and straightening wires. The latter might sound like a pretty easy job in comparison, but it was easily the most frustrating: long pieces of thick, curved wire had to be bent straight for use in building frameworks for the cement columns. The Mexican foreman in charge of this task had very exacting standards, and wanted wires that were pencil-straight. This might have been possible with a hammer and anvil, but we had no such tools. Instead, our best options for straightening the wire were a board with two nails stuck in it, and a hole in the old junk couch that served as our one piece of furniture. 

Since performing this task up to Jose’s standards was almost impossible, I quickly moved on to a job that required more sweat and less tears. Shoveling dirt seemed to fit the bill. There was always plenty of dirt available to be shoveled, and the goal was pretty simple: move dirt from high spots into low spots until the ground was level. At night the Dirt Fairy would come, leaving us fresh piles of dirt for the morning. Somehow, these truckloads of sandy soil seemed to always be dumped in the wrong places, requiring us to move the entire pile with wheelbarrows. This resulted in the closest thing I heard to a complaint all week, as someone mused why they couldn’t just dump the dirt in the place it needed to go. “Probably the same reason they don’t have any power equipment or machinery,” one astute co-worker noted.

I did spend about 30 minutes shoveling concrete, but since that area seemed well-staffed (and wet concrete is much heavier than dirt) I decided that I could be more useful elsewhere. The concrete was mixed in a pile on a flat patch of ground encircled by about a dozen high school kids with shovels. Braun, their youth pastor, served as their ringleader, instituting a “shovels up” procedure for airing grievances—usually in jest—and resolving imaginary conflicts within the group.

The high schoolers liked to sing as they shoveled their way around the pile—a nice touch, though their music choices were suspect. Over the course of the weekend, they sang every song in the Disney library at least once—“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” included—and often threw in a rousing chorus of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”. Hearing a bunch of white, mostly upper-class private school students singing Negro spirituals while doing manual labor was a rather, um, special experience.

The Mexican foremen did the skilled work of leveling the concrete foundation and laying concrete bricks for the walls. Texas is solidly in the center of the illegal immigration debate, so we were all familiar with the Latino arguments that Mexican immigrants help the economy by working for low wages and doing the dirty jobs that native-born Americans did not want to do. And here we were, in Mexico, working for no pay and doing the jobs the Mexicans did not want to do.

Once or twice a day we would stop for a “Coca break”. Coca, as in Coca-Cola, or, as Braun called it, “the nectar of progress”. During one of these breaks I finally learned from one of the foremen what, exactly, we were building. It was to be a retreat center for the church, and the two buildings slowly taking shape would serve as the men’s and women’s dormitories. Having seen the relatively slow progress produced by all our hard work, I was curious as to how long it would take to complete the project. “A few years,” the foreman shrugged, unconcerned. They only did construction work during the summer, when missionary groups were around to help. We were the first missionary group of the year, so it was clear that they had already been working on the project for at least one summer. Our group’s net progress amounted to maybe 25% of the remaining foundation work and 5% of the buildings’ walls. The simple concrete structures will probably last forever, but they seemingly take forever to build, and we will likely still be working on them if we come back in 2 years as expected.

That doesn’t seem to bother the Mexicans working on the project. They are used to being patient.

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© 2007 by Kevin McConaghy. All rights reserved.