From the trash of others, Mexican lives take root

McClatchy NewspapersMay 19, 2009 

Lola Perez has lived in Las Aquilas, a former garbage dump, since she was 15 years old and has made a living picking through the garbage.

JESSICA TURNBULL/PSU/MCT

  • FROM PENN STATE

    About these stories

    This story resulted from a nine-day reporting trip to Mexico City by print and broadcast student journalists from Penn State University. See all of their work here.

MEXICO CITY — Since she was 15 years old, Dolores Garcia Perez — or Lola, as her friends call her — has made her living from what the rest of this city of 20 million throws out.

Her house is built on garbage, and it stands on the landfill where Perez and a few dozen others pick through the trash each day in search of things of value.

When it rains, rivers of black water seep out of the dump and form a toxic soup of pesticides and other poisons that can swallow a shoe. When the weather is dry, residents worry about explosions from the gas generated by the decomposing waste.

"It's a hard life," said Perez, who's now 45. She isn't ashamed of her life, but she wants something better for her children.

Perez is one of a few thousand people who survive on the 12,000 tons of trash that metropolitan Mexico City throws out every day. They don't look for food, but hope to spot things of value and recyclables — cardboard, plastic bottles, cans and glass — to collect and sell.

Their occupation puts Perez and the others solidly in Mexico's working class. Garbage pickers typically make about $300 a month, while the average Mexican salary is $500 a month, according to the Mexican Social Security Institute.

Those figures are somewhat misleading, however. According to the World Bank, about 40 percent of Mexico's population lives on $45 a month. Garbage pickers aren't getting rich, but neither are they the poorest of the poor.

"Many people are trying to get their kids, who are fourth-generation garbage pickers, enough education to leave and do something else besides pick garbage," said Joyce Stinson, an American missionary who works in Las Aquilas, the dump that's been Perez's home for 30 years.

Perez's house is impossible to spot under the pile of sorted trash. Garbage sits next to the door, and plastic bottles are separated into bins on the roof. A turkey clucks from the top of her shack and a leftover Halloween scarecrow hangs from a tree that's growing through the sidewalk.

Perez has raised four children in the dump. Her sons, Omar and Juan Carlos, work on garbage trucks. Her 16-year-old daughter, Sandy, is attending school and hopes to finish high school and study law at a university. Stefanie, her youngest, is in the sixth grade.

Perez believes that education is the key to escaping the dump. She said that pickers typically had little schooling, so they were unable to find other jobs.

"Why would you study unless you would want to leave here and have a better life?" Perez said she told her daughter.

The government closed the Las Aquilas dump 17 years ago, but some trash is still taken there, and about 30 families such as Perez's still make their livings there.

Las Aquilas is tiny compared with the huge dump at Bordo Poniente, 30 miles away, the only one that officially remains open. There, 300 families make their livings from the 2,500 acres of trash that's received 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Bordo Poniente is a subject of controversy, misinformation and a court battle. Because residents there fear that the government will try to close the dump, they're suspicious of outsiders and have set up makeshift checkpoints to prevent strangers from entering.

At one such checkpoint, an elderly guard sprang up from his rocking chair next to the road and waved his arms to keep outsiders from taking cell phone pictures. The pickers think that protecting the secrecy of their way of life will shield them from eviction, said Carlos Morales, who lives near the dump and knows several people who are pickers.

"They have always been afraid of outsiders and not let many people in, but now more than ever. ... The fear is new," Morales said.

The rumors that the dump will close and its residents will lose their jobs and be put out of their homes aren't true, said Conrado Sarmiento, the assistant director of technological development at the landfill.

"Pickers are a marginal population ... but we're not kicking them out onto the streets," he said.

Sarmiento said the relationship between the authorities and the Bordo Poniente pickers was symbiotic.

For example, when the police suspect that a body may have been dumped in the landfill, they come to the warehouse and tell the pickers where the person probably disappeared. The pickers are then able to identify almost immediately where in the vast warehouse of trash the body probably would be, he said.

Residents allow horse carts and garbage trucks to dump trash, which pickers then sift through before garbage dump officials cover the trash in landfill dirt. There's no overwhelming smell of garbage except the occasional odor from puddles of dirty water.

Joyce Stinson and her husband, Beto, work as part of the Union Biblica de Mexico. One of their goals is to develop a community center to provide health care and education for the dump town, two of the biggest concerns for the residents.

Joyce Stinson said that medical care was expensive and available only sporadically. She said that many residents suffered from chronic pain and other health problems but that it was nearly impossible to pin down the effects of garbage on the residents' health.

Perez, however, needs no scientific study.

"I worry about the possibility of an explosion because of the gas coming off of the trash," Perez said. "It can happen at any time."

She said that her younger daughter, Stefanie, once lost a new sandal to the black muck that results from heavy rainfall. The youngster stepped into a stream of black water and her foot was sucked underneath.

"I scrubbed her foot for three days after that," Perez said.

The sandal was never found.

(Turnbull is a student at Penn State University. This story was reported from Mexico City for a class in international journalism.)

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