If possible, Mike Chase was even more of an outlier to this project than I was: a builder, sculptor and father of two, he had accepted a fifty-hour ride in a van with four men a decade or two younger than him and somehow ended up providing them with housing for their project. Worse, he had been shanghaied into helping engineer the solar panel installation as well.
Mike's house sat on the sixth hole of a golf course in a gated community in San Carlos. Beige stuccoed walls, terra cotta tiles on the roof, an open car port, air conditioning, microwave, a forty-foot palm tree in the yard: it was a little slice of America next to the Sea of Cortez. We dubbed it The Bubble.
The locals call the harbor town of San Carlos Gringolandia. The two-summitted Teta Kawi, "the Goat's Tits," sits atop an ancient talus field, poking its spiky nipples at the sky. Below it, the hills tumble down to a sparkling ocean. Powerboats and sailboats were moored against the wharfs when we arrived in the morning, and condos and brightly colored houses rose up at the harbor's edge. A billboard announced in English: "Dianna Rheingberg: Your Real Estate Agent in San Carlos."
Khyber stood atop a bucket loader, carefully manhandling a solar panel from the top of a lamp post into the bucket. El Presidente had come through with the extra help: a heavy equipment operator guided him back down to the ground.
Mike stood beside the van, holding something that could have been a geiger counter to a black box on the back of the panel.
"75 watts," he said. He looked at me through amber sunglasses. I squinted at the panel.
"Is that good?"
"Good as the day they were new, every single one of them so far."
The panels looked like most solar panels I'd seen: round blueblack circles of photovoltaic cells in a flat white rectangular board. One of the concerns of the trip had been whether these panels would actually work, but now the poetry of reclaiming non-functioning panels from San Carlos and reinstalling them on the roof of a barrio school seemed possible.
Two white-haired retirees pedaled past on mountain bikes. A gunmetal gray Hummer with Arizona plates drove by. In a bay behind the restaurant, three older Americans spoke with Midwestern accents as they prepared their fishing poles, baseball hats shielding them from the glare. A line of pelicans perched on the edge of a rowboat. On an unfinished building down the street, a white plastic banner announced, "Condos from $189,000."
This was how I had imagined the gringo sections of Mexico: surrounded by the good parts, insulated from the rest.
Five miles from San Carlos we picked up Rosa Keilholtz, a tiny, weathered Guaymas woman who was to be our translator. Rosa was married to David, a potbellied American with a bulbous nose, big glasses and an easy smile. They were both in their seventies. We asked Rosa about Fatima as we drove to the barrio.
Sometime near the end of the 1970s, she told us, poor residents of Guaymas who lived on a hillside overlooking the ocean were kicked out of their homes to make way for developments for wealthy Mexicans. With nowhere else to go, they went to the city dump and began assembling shacks from the detritus. Over the years, the growing number of shacks and buildings overtook the trash. By now, a second generation had grown up in the barrio, and the dump had moved across the street.
We entered Fatima via a side road and parked the car beside a chainlink fence. Many of the houses and buildings of Guaymas featured fences around the yards as well as iron bars on the windows, but the houses opposite the school had more fencing and iron than we'd yet seen. As we walked toward the school, a dusty white VW Beetle drove past, a loudspeaker strapped to its roof announcing a special at the taqueria.
Inside the fence, kids shrieked. Children between the ages of six and twelve blurred into flurried lines of motion. A vast steel roof sheltered a cracked concrete floor. Dozens of children chased a soccer ball on the concrete; in the dusty center of the schoolyard behind them, dozens more chased another ball toward netless goalposts.
Rebecca Silva, the principal, waited for us between two bright blue buildings with her hands clasped behind her back. She was five-foot-three, with thick, blowdried hair and an oblong face. She wore beige slacks above pointed black flats, and as she spoke and Rosa translated, I took notes.
We were in Fatima's Vicente Guerrero de Guaymas Primary School, which hosted 500 children from first through sixth grade in two separate classes. At mid-day, the classes switched, and 300 schoolchildren from the morning gave way to 200 in the afternoon. I looked at the frenetic activity on the soccer field: kids hollered and ran and rode bikes down concrete steps in such a blur of motion it was difficult to focus on individuals. Was the entire school at recess?
Many of Fatima's residents were fishermen in the ports or manual laborers in the maquilas, the factories created by NAFTA that made parts for American auto and aerospace companies at Mexican wages. Minimum wage in Sonora was eight dollars a day. "Most families here are lucky to have one wage earner," said a robust-looking American woman at my side. Eight dollars a day, six days a week, added up to less than $2,500 a year. "When the kids turn twelve, the parents send them to work because secondary school costs 300 dollars a year. They can't afford the tuition."
The woman introduced herself as Terry Challis. She and her husband split their time between Phoenix and San Carlos, where they'd been for fourteen years. I was surprised to find American retirees this far from their bubble.
"Why are you here in Fatima?" I asked.
"Because of Mark Mulligan."
Mark Mulligan, Terry explained, had come to Mexico in the early 1990s on a mission to teach, and his teaching had brought him to Fatima. Over the years his relationship with the barrio deepened: he met a local gal, married her, and became a part of the neighborhood itself.
As Mark became more familiar with Fatima, he found himself watching over a few underparented children who had been abandoned by their fathers and left at home while their mothers worked. His shepherding eventually became formal when he created an organization called Castaway Kids, which nurtured the children who slipped through the barrio's support network.
Mark was also a singer and guitar player, and he played the gringo bars throughout the Guaymas area, including in San Carlos. During breaks between songs he began to mention Castaway Kids. Soon, he was working with people like Terry who volunteered.
Terry paused. "When I first got here and asked what I could do, they said just level a playing field in the back so the kids can play soccer. They said if they had that, the disciplinary problems would go down so much."
The roofs of the school buildings were comprised of asphalt. We pointed out to the principal where we wanted to put the panels: on the southwest-facing roof, where the kids could best see them.
"If you could just use the solar panels for some secondary lights to keep the kids out of the schoolyard at night," said Terry, "it would keep them from spraying graffiti on the walls."
I broke away from the group and looked into an empty classroom. Fraction tables hung on the walls next to a dry erase board. A simple blue desk and wooden chair at the front of the room held a computer. In front of it the children's desks--small metal chairs with wooden seats and wooden tabletops--stood in orderly rows. An overhead projector was fastened to the ceiling beside a fan.
I walked out and looked into the room next door. Ten black computer monitors, five up one side of the room, five down the other, were perched above cubicled desks. It was the computer lab.
This was not dirt poor. Dirt poor was no electricity, no running water, distended bellies, sunken eyes. The Vicente Guerrero primary school received running water two hours a day; it had desks, computers, ceiling fans, electricity, not to mention children who had the energy to scream around the soccer field seemingly without stop.
But it was poor enough. I remembered the three young women we had seen when we first drove into Fatima. They had walked toward us unselfconsciously, jutting their hips, their curves and bare midriffs protruding from tight t-shirts and skinny jeans. The young men watching them from cement walls wore gangsta jeans and backward-facing baseball caps. Sex was one of their only assets; soon enough, it too would be gone. In six years, their children would go to school at the primary school while their parents--or parent, as the fathers often left--struggled to keep them clothed and fed.
How much was our little electricity project going to change their lives? Realistically, I thought, not much. But by having the panels where the kids could see them, perhaps we could plant a seed in their minds. Maybe their teachers would refer to renewable energy in their lessons. The panels could become part of playground lore, lodged in the collective experience of the barrio. Maybe one student would tend to the panels, and through a combination of tenacity and luck and the Castaway Kids he or she might make it through secondary school and land a job. Maybe the panels could lead him or her to a future outside.
But as I walked past the barred-up windows toward the group, I had my doubts.
When the meeting with the principal broke up, we followed David's white compact van deeper into the neighborhood where the broken pavement yielded to rutted dirt. The construction material began to shift: here the concrete gave way to loosely constructed walls of rough planed wood; now the iron fence broke down, revealing one wall of the house behind it--a rusting warped sheet of tin. Soon, even the iron fences disappeared. Concrete walls, where there were any, sagged, broken; shacks were constructed entirely of tin sheets and scraps of wood. In front of one shack, four young men in tattered basketball jerseys stood in the shade. One of them held a shovel.
I left the others and walked slowly down the dirt road. Here, the shacks were constructed even less of concrete and more of sheet metal. I smelled shit. 7-Up and Sprite bottles lay collapsed in the dirt. Electricity hijacked from a leaning cement lamppost powered a stereo, from which mariachi music played. Splashes of colored walls--blue, yellow, teal--offset the monotony of the street.
To my right a dirt yard was divided by a thin line of bright green plants. At the head of the line a broken plastic pot held a single marigold. A boy, perhaps ten, squatted in the dirt at the edge of the road, twirling a piece of string in the dust. He looked up as I walked past, but his eyes were the only things that moved.
Rebecca had said that twenty percent of the students of her school would go on to higher education, but as I watched the boy with the string, that number seemed improbably high. I wondered how he would ever get out of the barrio--and even if he did, how far he would go before he was pulled back in.
We got in our cars and drove back through Guaymas toward the bubble.