Lucy Durán was tired of raising seven kids on her own in Guanajuato, in central Mexico. Her husband had moved to Tijuana more than a decade earlier to work, and one day, she decided to up and move the whole family there. It was 1990.
Rosario Gibbs, one of Durán’s daughters, was 14.
“When I was in Guanajuato, I was so excited to move to Tijuana because I thought it was this big, huge metropolis, kind of like the U.S.,” Gibbs said as we drove along a wide, paved boulevard marked with modern shopping malls and mega grocery stores.
But when she first got here with her family, most of this area — most of what is now Tijuana — was just miles and miles of scrubby, sandy hills. And few roads were paved.
Gibbs remembers that it was really, really dusty.
“I was like, ‘Oh man, this is disgusting. I don’t like it,’” she said with a laugh.
We’re headed to the house that Rosario’s mother, Lucy Durán, built 22-years ago with the tenacity that characterizes most migrants who settle in Tijuana. Migrants — mostly from other parts of Mexico — make up more than half of Tijuana’s population.
We turn right down a steep hill into the Colonia Solidaridad Gabriel Rodriguez. The neighborhood is now a mix of two- and three-story concrete homes and wooden shacks like the one Durán and her fellow squatters first built here.
The mishmash is typical of neighborhoods that sprung up during the 1990s, when Tijuana’s maquiladora industry boomed. There wasn’t enough housing for the people who came from all over Mexico for the jobs.
So many people, including Durán, sought help from guys like Jesús Minchaca.
Minchaca has a thick nose underlined by a thick, greying mustache. Deep grooves run through his cheeks and forehead.
Minchaca's business card identifies him as a “community leader” and he says he has a passion for helping the poor.
The maquiladora boom created Minchaca’s job, too. He helped organized Durán and others looking for land to set up squatter colonies in the empty hills around Tijuana.
“We didn’t trespass on this land here because we wanted to,” Minchaca said, sitting on the patio of his comfortable-looking home in the neighborhood he helped bring into being.
“We had to,” he said. “Because no government...no government agency that could have resolved the problem was interested.”
The problem was that Tijuana simply didn’t have enough housing for poor people who came from all over Mexico for the factory jobs.
Land occupations by groups of squatters became a primary driver of the city’s growth. Up until recently, more than half of Tijuana’s population lived in what are called informal neighborhoods. This is typical of large Latin American cities.
Minchaca and his colleagues would recruit people looking for land, particularly newcomers, from Tijuana’s poorer neighborhoods. Interested families were required to attend weekly meetings to plan the land invasion.
Lucy Durán remembers, if you were willing to camp out at the invasion, you could get one of the best pieces of land, the ones on high, flat ground. But it was also risky business. The police regularly broke up land invasions — sometimes violently — and threw the squatters in jail.
Durán didn’t camp out. She said she wanted to, but her daughters wouldn’t let her because they thought it was too dangerous. So the family ended up with land on a steep, sandy hill.
They built one small room out of wood torn off of discarded pallets. They had no electricity or running water. Their bathroom was a latrine with a blanket for a door, up a steep hill behind the house.
But that was part of the deal — squatters were told that if they were willing to sacrifice without basic comforts for awhile, eventually the city would have to recognize the neighborhood and bring in basic services. And it did.
Minchaca’s role was chief negotiator for the squatters.
“I’m tenacious,” Minchaca said, adding that he loves to negotiate with government bureaucrats. First, he said, he asks nicely, on paper. Then he shows up and demands an answer, he said with a laugh.
Minchaca still organizes people to get land on the outskirts of Tijuana. And though a hero to many of Tijuana’s poor, Minchaca and others with similar job descriptions are the nemesis of city officials like Esteban Yee Barba, Tijuana’s secretary of urban development.
Sitting in his office at Tijuana's city hall, Yee said community leaders like Minchaca “don’t understand the problems they’re causing.”
Instead of strategically mapping out new roads, sewage pipes and telephone lines, city planners are forced to play catch up as new squatter communities pop-up around the city’s periphery.
Yee said some squatter settlements are practically inaccessible.
“Some are on top of a hill that you need a four-wheel drive to get to,” he said. “And it’s extremely expensive and difficult to get them pavement, put in drainage, etc.”
Plus, a lot of squatter neighborhoods in Tijuana are downright dangerous when it rains. In January 1993, flooding and mudslides killed more than 30 people and left some 10,000 homeless.
Rosario Gibbs remembers when government officials came to her neighborhood and told everyone they had to evacuate.
“Nobody left,” she said. “Everybody was in danger and not one single person left.”
Gibbs said the family’s shack slid about three feet down the hill during the storm, and the latrine filled with mud, making it unusable. But no one was hurt.
Where city officials see hazard, hundreds of thousands of Tijuana residents see hope, or at least reality. And something else — a sense of unity.
The original house that Lucy Durán built is now much improved: two bedrooms, a spacious, concrete-walled kitchen and dining room, running water, electricity.
The neighborhood roads are paved. There’s a school and a small park.
Another of Durán’s daughters now lives in the home. A few years back, Lucy moved to a new, brick house in one of Tijuana’s planned communities.
Even though her new house is more comfortable, Lucy said she misses the old neighborhood.
“We were all really united here,” she said. “In my new neighborhood, nobody talks to you.”
Lucy’s daughter, Rosario Gibbs, now lives in San Diego. She’s a successful engineer with a pay grade well above most in her old neighborhood.
But still, she said she could go back to the way she lived before, crunched into a one-room shack with her mom and six brothers and sisters.
“We were very happy,” she said. “The union in the family was great, so regardless of the material stuff and the inconveniences, I learned so much from all of that.”