When a House is a Home



It’s called a “home-build” for a reason

Building crew for Casas de Luz

Can you pick out the wealthy Americans from the working-class Mexicans in the above photo? I can, but only because we all worked together for two days to build the house that you see behind us. When we show up early on a Saturday morning, the differences are stark. Some of us speak English, some Spanish; some of our cars are new, others are not so new; some of us have never swung a hammer, some do it every day. The work begins early on a Saturday morning for those that travel from the US. The work has been ongoing for weeks and months for those we are joining to build this home.

Team leaders are chosen, work teams self-select

On this job site, the team leaders are chosen based on skill and desire; two are Mexican, two are American, two of them are skilled, two have little experience if any at all. Work teams self-select, this time based a little on one's skill, but more on one's desire or fear. Framing begins on top of the concrete slab with hammers swinging. Favorite sneakers are soon Panels are painted before they are nailed to the wallsdecorated with paint the color of the new house, The angles of roof trusses begin to take shape in the dust of the dirt road. The chop saw whizzing through timbers supporting the build crews. As the work starts, the differences fade away. It's August, the sweat begins to bead, the sun rises higher in the clear sky, nails are missed, and thumbs are hit. The sweat is the same, the thumbs too, throbs and throbs… The fancy cars fade into the background as  passing trucks cover them in dust from the dirt road. Water bottles are passed and bits of English and Spanish mixed with hand signals that become a form of communication.

By lunchtime, the walls are sheathed with panels covered in paint, the same as the favorite sneakers, and are ready to be  Trusses waiting to go up to support the roofraised into place. Everyone comes together, side by side, to lift on the count of three, the four weighty walls that will be this home. The first wall goes up, raised by everyone, with only one thought, "We have got to get this wall up, and keep it up, it's heavy!". Cheers go out, the wall is up, three more to go. One by one, the other three walls fall into place. The sense of accomplishment begins to develop as the house takes shape. It is the first tinge of satisfaction drawn from the hard work. Satisfied, but hungry, it's time for lunch.

Tamales, Rice, & Beans

If this were a food review, I would gush about the tamales and beans we were served for lunch. You can smell the aroma of the beans as you approach the pop-up shading the lunch service. The home-made tamales are steaming hot in a cooler, yes, a cooler. That's the way it's done in Mexico. Elba, the cook, cautions us that the red sauce is muy caliente. There is aRoof sheathing over the trusses  lot of red sauce, it runs out early on. The food was great, it always is. Here's the kicker though. To the surprise of anyone new to this, Sua cleaned up after lunch, snapped on her tool belt, and climbed up a ladder to help install the roof trusses. Okay, so anybody still not doing a job out of fear - just got a wake-up call.

A 12 Year old becomes an electrician

With the trusses going up and the painting done, for now, the interior walls need wiring and sheetrock. I demurred on installing the electrical, so the job went to the 12-year-old boy  standing next to me who raised his hand to do it. And with some help, he did it. Out of three switches and four outlets, only one outlet didn't work. Not bad for a kid who never even changed a light bulb. Trusses Drywall going up after lunchbegan to swing up and into place while sheetrock went over the framing. Two interior walls quickly went up, almost like an afterthought, but intended from the beginning. More wiring, more sheetrock, the sun was fading as the trusses were covered in chipboard. Paint covered the sheetrock almost as quickly as the nails were driven in. Those same sneakers became the splattered keepsakes from a day of hard work. The blisters would heal and fade. This day is done. The first day of a home build is always long and hard, but not without rewards and satisfaction for the hard work and extra efforts. The family we are building this house for became part of the crew and worked with us all day long. Their two children played with whoever was taking a break, or they entertained themselves with paintbrushes and scraps of lumber. We packed up our fancy cars and trucks and waved goodbye for now. The family of four went to spend their last night in what had been their home, but barely resembled a house, and we left for a night at a local orphanage.

An Uncommon Orphanage

If you have visions of Oliver Twist in your head when you hear orphanage, forget it. Not high-end, but perfectly adequate and functional; this orphanage was built with the intention of hosting home-build crews over the weekends. The orphans who live here do not have parents, but they do have relatives who they spend the weekend with. The orphanage is set up on the lower three floors of the building with space set aside on floors five and six for the build crews. We enjoyed dinner and told stories from the day in the dining hall where kids  usually sit and eat. Moving to the roof after dinner and looking out over Tijuana lasts only a short while as we fade away to our rooms; one by one. 

Sunday morning comes early in Tijuana. The dogs that are barking and the roosters who are crowing don't know what day of the week it is. The sun is rising, the city is waking up, and we are too, we have no choice. In quick order, Breakfast, announcements, pack a sack lunch, and out the door. There is no time for small talk this morning. The sun is still rising, again we work side by side and fall into our chosen places like we've done before. Shingles are hauled up the ladder to the Cutting exterior trim piecesroof, handed off fire-brigade style. It's hard physical work, but once again, boys and girls, men and women, Mexicans and Americans, all working together to shingle a roof that will keep this family dry during the winter. Inside the house is a quieter buzz of activity. Trim is carefully nailed into place around the windows and tacked to the drywall at the base and header. Once more, the paint cans are out, but this time the brushes are smaller, and the work is focused on touch-ups and covering cut ends. Curtains are soon in place, and furniture is waiting outside the front door. The shingles are falling onto a line, row by row. The wonder and amazement of the building crew becomes almost overwhelming as they look at what they accomplished in such a short time. For some builders, who never thought they would frame a wall or nail shingles to a roof, they stand back and look at this house we built, not quite sure if what has happened is really even possible. A final push and a flurry of activity after lunch sees the house decorated and furnished, a plaque with the families' name is affixed to the front of the house, the front door is pulled shut and locked. The house is finished.

A key circle

As the key is removed from the front door, everyone gathers in a circle. One by one, the key is passed from one crew member to the next. Everyone, in turn, in their native tongue, tells what this experience has meant to them. I stand in the circle, waiting my turn with the key, thinking to myself "I got this, I got this, I got this" I watch as the key is passed along, one after another saying what they want to say, choking up. The key is passed to me. I think once more, "I got this" I start to speak, I choke up, and a tear sneaks from the corner of my eye. Damn it, I thought this time would be different, it wasn't. When a house becomes a home; it carries a profound emotional weight.

Passing the key is a celebration of accomplishment

Visit Casas de Luz at www.casasdeluz.org
Words by Martin Banks martin-banks.com
Photos by Kathy Faller & Martin Banks