On the horizon I saw the dirt road raise dust hackles, in blooming plumes, against a pale blue sky. My son and I were standing on a featureless barren plain in Baja California. American 18-wheel rigs, laden with big-box store supply donations, bumped and lurched, over a dusty trail.
I was with Patrick at Colonia El Niño for two days of church-sponsored homebuilding volunteerism. I took out my bandana and wiped my brow, the early-morning heat already fierce.
Born from the maquiladora movement, El Niño was an outpost on a new frontier. Many dwellings consisted of plywood, crates, washboard-shaped roof panels, and tarps.
The wind came and went in great gusts. It was accompanied by soul-blasting grit, dust, and sand. We inspected the homes to be replaced. The blue tarps, grommet fastened, shook vigorously in the wind. They have a short life before they are frayed with gaping crosshatch threads, and rendered as bed pads on a dirt floor. My recollection is a visual stutter: Nothing but “snow” airing on an old battered TV; tortillas in a kitchen set up in a makeshift porch; sea shells from a distant beach displayed on a keepsake shelf.
By mid-morning, my bandana was whisked off my neck and set adrift on a blinding burst of sand. Children hunted for the bandana, that I described as “sand colored,” but which they quickly relabeled, amongst themselves, as café. Color names here are often derived from small luxuries, like pure chocolate, and milky coffee. Is this because to voice a color is to conjure it and taste it upon one’s lips? Perhaps sustenance and hope can be spoken present.
The bandana, color café, was seemingly swallowed by the distant hills. The children searched for it, with mounting concern. I was later asked where it went. “Voló como un pájaro,” I explained, “La perdí.” It flew like a bird. I lost it. The words saddened them. They felt they had failed me.
My unprotected neck turned red in the sun. I saw a broken dog the color of dust. The pariah dog limped with his battle-scarred snout in the dirt, searching for food and affection. “Not to be touched!” the children cried. “Let him go elsewhere to die. Let his rot smell up someone else’s house!” and large stones were flung from small hands. A dog without a home is defenseless, destitute, and despicable.
A short while later, the same children, tickled and wrestled a beloved family dog called “Candy.” Here, the pet’s English name echoed the goodwill currency bestowed on children by volunteers. I then met a bashful chocolate-complexioned 7-year old named “America.” Hope runs high.
That night in a Tijuana bunkhouse I cried tears of sand. My finger cautiously traced the grit-formed-rims that underscored my blasted eyeballs. And today, I think to myself, perhaps even now my bandana beckons. A paisley prize nested on the brown fingers of desiccated scrub brush. It must be somewhere in the cross-border wind current chaff; where dried discarded cornhusks intermingle, swirl, and rattle with empty glistening plastic water bottles. Somehow, that would be just “so.”
Image: “Patrick’s Dust Dance.” I am still trying to learn his moves.