Mexico City priest brings dignity to an off-limits flock

A rugged, 70-year-old Jesuit priest stops his SUV on the soggy road that runs through Mexico City's largest dump and asks: "Where's mass today?"

"Down there," announces an elderly, hunched-over woman, pointing to a nearby clearing, where garbage pickers are converging to sift through a newly deposited pile of rubbish.

At the site, Father Guevara unfolds a small metal table, places a lace doily over it, and waits patiently for his flock. Eventually about 150 workers gather, taking a break from hauling refrigerator-sized garbage bags bursting with bottles and flattened cardboard. They keep their hoods and kerchiefs on, shielding their faces from the dust and eye-stinging toxic air. Mass begins.

For more than 20 years, Guevara has trekked into this mafia-run landfill. Nonprofits with good intentions have come and gone here, attempting to create positive change. But Guevara remains the only outsider who has managed to penetrate this seemingly off-limits subculture and forge a trusting relationship with the pepenadores, as the trash pickers are sometimes known.

Along with spiritual inspiration and a powerful sense of community, Guevara has been able to provide some food and medical assistance, while running a foundation that runs pre-schools in the poor neighborhoods near the dumps. The secret to his success lies in treading a cautious line between accommodating the bad while doing good, which, he says, is not complicated.

"I'm not a savior, not a hero," says Guevara. "I've found a simple path to this community: I keep my nose out of politics and what goes on here and focus on bringing mass, along with some food, to the people."

Guevara attributes his longevity to keeping hush-hush for decades about the organized crime families who rule the dumps and keep outsiders at bay. "I came here and said, 'I'll respect you, if you respect me,' " says Guevara. "I've never tried to form a power base here."

Thousands of workers, including entire families who live in this miles-long wasteland on the outskirts of the city, recycle what they can from the mountains of trash the 20-million-plus metropolis generates.

The leaders charge the rubbish pickers a fee to sift through the trash. In return, they keep city officials from meddling with the system with threats of a violent backlash.

Guevara first spotted the opportunity to assist the pepenadores in September 1985, when an earthquake devastated Mexico City. He was invited to the dump earlier that year, to give mass during the landfill's patron saint day. After the earthquake, the pickers, horrified to find body parts mixed in the rubble tumbling from the dump trucks returning from quake-damaged areas, asked Guevara to return and give mass out of respect for the victims.

Guevara recognized the rare bond he formed with an isolated community and befriended some of the dump leaders in order to initiate a weekly mass. This, despite allegations that some leaders engage in drug trafficking and keep more than one wife.

Coffee socials build up community

Before and after masses, workers gather together, sip coffee, and trade gossip - something they rarely did before Guevara came. In this way his work has helped foster an empowering sense of community for the workers, who toil for most of each day separated by piles of rubbish.

"It was the first thing I noticed when I came here," says Guevara. "The workers have so much in common, but they never socialize. Why not gather?"

After a recent mass, Guevara and a few longtime assistants hand out small bags of food, mostly cooking oil, cornflakes, and black beans. Alongside them a doctor and nurse offer free physicals. Severe skin rashes are common year-round, blamed on toxins and gases from refuse in the dump.

Soon, everyone returns to work. María Gómez and her husband and two young daughters sort through cardboard and glass from plastic soda bottles. Together, they earn about $5 a day.

Gómez remembers when Guevara first arrived. "He lifted our spirits," she says. "Few people come from the outside, never before a priest. Now, he's been with us for so many years, we know he does what he can to watch over us."

Gómez's son, Tomás Tavira, is blind and in a wheelchair, a condition he blames on years of sniffing paint thinner. When Tavira's legs started failing two years ago, he was at a loss. Father Guevara arranged for a hospital trip. "You can feel invisible here," says Tavira. "Father Guevara understands that."

After mass, Guevara tours the three preschools built by the nonprofit organization he founded. The foundation receives funding, mostly from European donors, and attends to about 500 children total. A few students arrive directly from the dump; many pupils have relatives who work at the rubbish heaps.

Adriana Pegueros who grew up in the dumps but now lives in an outlying, dirt-road neighborhood, sends her children to one of the foundation-run schools in hopes her children can move out of poverty. The schools, with colorful murals, on-site psychologists, stocked libraries, and long operating hours, outshine government-run facilities in the area.

For now, Guevara prefers to keep his foundation and his work at the landfill separate from the Jesuit order. "It'd be hard for me to collaborate," he says. "You can't enter the dumps with just anyone. It takes time to build trust, and the more people involved there, the better the chance it'll self-destruct."

Further, says Guevara, not everyone could take it; some might be tempted to judge the situation and try to change the system. "I may not like what I see going on at the dump," he says, "But I keep my mouth shut."

Changes may force a political stand

Of course, not tackling the system means Guevara cannot be part of solving the root causes of the pickers' problems. But his work does make a powerful statement that these people on the margin of society matter too.

"Guevara's task is to give the workers dignity," says Miguel Martín, a Catholic priest who has helped organize literacy programs in the dumps in recent years. "It's not about tossing handouts and then leaving for a while. This has earned him respect and keeps the door open."

But, despite his desire to maintain a low profile, Guevara's commitment to the trash pickers and their families may soon draw him into taking political stands. After years of talk, government officials now appear ready to sell off parts of the Nezahualcoyotl landfill. Trash would move to more modern sites, while commercial developers would buy the land.

The move would force pickers from the dumps and mean evictions for squatters.

During mass, Father Guevara reminds the trash-pickers that they must protest any government plan that does not include a resettlement plan that recognizes their longstanding ties to the dumps and the volumes of trash they have recycled. "Defend yourselves," he says. "You will not stand alone."

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