Habitat for Humanity in Laredo, Texas Reflections

By Christopher Wink | March 18, 2006

Temple University sent 23 of us to Laredo, Texas to work with Habitat for Humanity. We slept on the ground of vacant classrooms, took less-than-hot showers, and worked a watered-down form of construction from 8am until 4pm daily. For those unfamiliar with what the phrase college spring break generally connotes, this wasn’t your garden-variety week off from American higher education.

Yet, nearly 100 volunteered to pack screwdrivers and hammers in their spring break suitcases. It’s a shame that only 23 of those who applied got to work with the international group that manages to build beautiful homes with volunteer crews and sell them to deserving families with long-term, low interest loans. -The teach-a-man-to-fish type of charity that makes us get mushy inside.

It was a sneaking sensation, a shot from a faraway tree reminding us that we weren’t getting paid $8 an hour to cut baseboard trim or paint wood siding. We were a group of 23 whose lives had only intersected because of our interest in renovating a house we’ve never known for a family we’ll never meet. For our group, who would never see the house be turned over to a chosen family, it was an anonymous act. We found a penny on the ground, turned it heads-up and hoped it would serve well someone who deserved to come across it.

It is regrettable that an active Habitat chapter generally means there are plenty of people hoping for luck in a penny facing heads-up. No one wants a funeral home to have too much business. In Laredo, where 30 percent of its 200,000 residents are living below the poverty level, business for Habitat is, unfortunately, good.

We enjoyed our time there, anyway, whether we should have or not. Somehow this group, which seemed to be chosen more as a whole, than as individuals, made even the worst of the trip seem nothing short of enjoyable.

There was a moment when the van’s rear-view mirror showed eight group members singing a song in terrible harmony. We all know that feeling, when we are blessed enough to realize we are experiencing something we won’t soon forget. It is so much more special when that moment involves nothing more significant than the always-rare moment when strangers feel a bit closer than strangers. That screeching collaboration with mumbled lyrics is just such a moment for me.

We were lost and we laughed, we sweated and we smiled. I will not remember building a base frame for a bathtub or cutting cedar trim nearly as well as I will remember watching these people whom I got to know in Laredo play basketball or take silly photographs.

It is so common for me to offer so much of so little of me. I am prone to manipulating the truth when describing myself to strangers. I claim it’s an attempt to dramatize my surroundings. In reality, though, my propensity for withdrawing from bonding is probably motivated by other reasons. After all, lies are like shoes, they not only protect us, but often hide our ugliest parts.

Yet, for once, I stumbled upon an interest in offering personal truths to others. It’s been a long time since a collection of 20 individuals knew my real name. It’s been longer since I cared to know the real names of a collection of 20 individuals. I personally arrived 42 hours later than I was scheduled to be home, but my memories of airport creeping and airplane sleeping are hardly contentious because I wasn’t waiting to get home, I was avoiding the end of an exceptionally distinctive week in my short life.

I have been given so many unbelievable opportunities, Laredo being one. What I have learned through the years is that people don’t need much to be thankful. I was reminded of this in my time just north of the border.

Life in a U.S. border town is American by geography but Mexican by population. The Rio Grande, which lazily and, looking around the Tex-Mex city, haphazardly splits Laredo, Texas from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, is the only clear sign that this portion of the Lone Star state isn’t Mexican property.

In the northeast United States, Latino seems to be more of a race than an ethnicity to me. There are features, neighborhoods, and culture associated with Latinos, like whites or blacks.

In Laredo, where more than 90 percent of the population speaks Spanish, everyone is Latino. It isn’t a skin color and it isn’t stereotypes, it’s going to a hardware store and needing to know what “clavos” means or realizing that winning a jalapeño eating contest is a serious accomplishment. It’s curves, and salsa dancing, emotions and a roll of the tongue.

I slept outside one night, with clouds ruining my opportunity to describe my siesta as star-strewn, yet I continued to find it odd how much I, someone who craves dissension and difficulty, genuinely liked the group by which I was surrounded. It is only now that I just accept it as another reason the trip wasn’t just a trip, but, instead, needs more than 1,000 words to be described.

Very little of what we do is actually worth the invaluable time we spend doing it. 23 of us went to southern Texas and made, when compared with the rise and fall of civilizations, a very small contribution. Yet, I can’t help but grant myself even a fleeting moment of complacency for at least doing something. Indifference has claimed far more lives than the height of any war or the depths of any famine.

My feet haven’t gotten larger in the past few years, but I tend to believe I’m still growing. I am in a genesis, it feels. Teenage notions of my indefatigably destined place as a worldwide historical actor have fallen, though I maintain my hope to always make a micro-change to my macro-community. My actions may not be able to change the world for the better, but I certainly won’t let the world change my actions for the worst.

Written after a service immersion trip with a group from Temple University to work with Habitat for Humanity in Laredo, Tex.