I'm a communications strategist and writer with a long history of journalism in Canada, including 14 years of writing a column for the Victoria Times-Colonist. My partner and I began volunteering in Central America for Cuso International in 2012, and now do communications work part-time in B.C. and part-time in Central America. All views here are my own.
The stink is what hits you first, a fetid
blend of sewage, rot, musty laundry washed in a contaminated river, and poisonous-looking
water spewing into the river from the giant factory across the road.
Dixie, they call this place. It’s one of
San Pedro Sula’s notorious bordos, the
riverfront slums where an estimated 8,000 families from all over Honduras have ended
up putting their dreams for a better life behind them to live as squatters in rickety
shacks built out of scrounged materials. Squeezed onto a tiny strip of land
between the factory and the filthy river, Dixie is one of the most impoverished
of the bordos.
The Comision de Accion Social Menonita (CASM)
has been working in the bordos for a
decade now, helping the makeshift communities organize themselves for better
services; providing school supplies and educational support to children and
teens; giving lifeskills workshops and job training to young people in hopes of
getting them out of the bordos.
Young lives have been changed by the work,
says one of my CASM co-workers. But the bordos
just keep getting bigger and more complicated, she adds. Gangs have now taken
control, divvying up the power and even rotating supervisory positions within
the various bordos. Nobody comes in
and out of the bordos without the
gangs knowing; boys take their first step toward gang initiation as banderos, the sentinels who report back
to gang leaders if anyone new enters the territory.
Waste from the Dixie factory
To the outside eye, a bordo looks like a place where a person hits bottom and makes a
plan to get out as soon as possible, a place where you linger only for as long
as it takes to find a real home – someplace where you don’t have to steal electricity
from nearby streets or endure the stink of you and all your neighbours flushing
toilets straight into the garbage-filled river just outside your back door. If
you even have a door.
But it turns out that there are perks to
living in the makeshift communities. There are no bills to pay, no place worse
than where you are to worry about falling into. Yes, bordos are where dreams come to die, populated by citizens of a
struggling nation who moved to the big city looking for work only to discover
that they can’t afford to pay rent. But that’s not to say that everything about
them is bad.
Without housing costs to worry about, a
person can get by on the proceeds of collecting and washing plastic, tin cans
and other castoffs for resale, a common job in the bordos. They can find a horse and cobble together a cart, and make
a living hauling fruit and vegetables to market. A significant number of men in
the bordos work as security guards –
dangerous, underpaid work that no one else wants, so there’s always someone
And over time, it seems that a sense of
community develops even in the bleakest of places. In Rio Blanco, a bordo with a 25-year history, there are
barber shops and beauty salons, corner stores, tortillerias and even a new private school run by a Chinese couple,
albeit without any of the required state permissions. Many of the shacks have
satellite dishes on the roof and big TVs inside, and motorcycles parked out
Hair salon in Bordo Gavion
The community leaders in Rio Blanco now
collect and distribute river water for the 800 families living there, and with
the small profits that have accrued from the paid service are constructing a
health centre – the first ever in a bordo.
On the wall of one house we pass, someone has painted, “I will die to stay
That’s not the sentiment in Dixie, however.
Named for the factory whose shadow (and contamination) dominates the
neighbourhood, Dixie has a death wish. All the residents want out. CASM is
working with them to plan a relocation, and hopes to win support from the owners
of the factory – a snack-food manufacturing plant owned by one of the
wealthiest and most powerful families in the country, the Facussés – in swaying the
government on the idea of relocation. Another government-supported relocation
is already underway in a neighbouring bordo,
although in that case it’s because the land is needed for a new highway.
But until a new day dawns, life goes on in
Dixie. Children bounce past as we walk along the dusty strip of road between
the factory and the shacks, showing off their new school uniforms to the CASM
worker who helped their families buy them. A horse-drawn cart passes by,
looking strangely out of time with the smoke stacks of the factory rising up
As we pass by a garbage-strewn area, I ask a
family working there if I can take a picture of the group sorting recyclables.
The dad smiles broadly after I take the shot and show him the little image in
my camera of his family hard at work. “Que
bonita!” he declares. “How nice! Look at all of us together.”
Three generations of a bordo family that works in recycling