It Takes A Village, The Tale of Two Important Community Events



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By Susan Fogel

Neighborhood kids getting ready to have some fun!And the village is El Centenario/El Comitan. Back at the start of the New Millennium, there was a wave of buying and building here at the back of the bay, and expats from points north purchased lots, and homes. Things slowed down with the crisis of 2008. Slowly expats from the US, Canada, and the EU continued to buy property with the intention of making La Paz and the surrounding area their new home.

Part of feeling at home in any new place, and especially in a foreign country, is being involved with the community. In the beginning for most, the language barrier is a form of isolation. But charity and generosity are universal. Two events took place in El Centenario between December 24th and January 10th that truly define the concept of “It takes a village…”

Nowhere in La Paz is the culture clash and the contrast of wealth and tradition and modernization, and the difference between haves and have-nots more apparent than in El Centenario. To be sure, many of the Mexican villagers are working and saving and enjoying a good life. But there are those that still do not even have indoor plumbing.

And it is to those people that the community of El Centenario and El Comitan joined together to spread some goodwill. Melanie Torres, the founder of Decide AC, a non-profit dedicated to educating children about caring for their environment, and Paul (Pablo) Abuja, a resident of El Comitan, called the community together to hold a Christmas Eve luncheon for the less-fortunate among us. With barely a month to organize, shop, cook, and serve, these two and their committee of Americans, Canadians, and Mexicans pulled off a Christmas miracle.

Personal invitations were delivered to the homes–250 people, mainly children, were served in three sittings on December 24th. Over $50,000 pesos was raised. One group of volunteers spent three long days shopping for gifts and another day wrapping them. Each child received two small gifts from Santa’s pack, and each family went home with a care package that was personalized to them. The parents could then decide if they wanted to give the bigger gifts in the bag on the 25th or wait until Dia de Los Reyes (King’s Day) on January 6th.

After each sitting, there was a piñata for the younger kids. Some pre-teen Mexican kids acted as waiters, and also some visitors down for the holidays, brought along by their hosts and cheerfully helping. It was a lot of work and a lot of fun. The neighbors in El Comitan and El Centenario started at 8:30 that morning setting up the event hall, others rotated on the food line, and some were on hand to clear and re-set the tables after each sitting. The group rented a city bus to pick up and return those folks that had no other way to get to the party. To-go boxes were prepared for those who were too sick or aged to attend. No details were left to chance, and as much as the kids and their parents enjoyed the festivities, the volunteers enjoyed it more!

The salon de los eventos (banquet hall) attached to Las Charros restaurant was decorated for the event. Las Charros restaurant owner, Victor Martinez de Escobar, lent his party salon, his chefs cooked turkeys. Martinez’ staff cooked, served, and generally helped. The three sittings started at 1:00 p.m. and ended at 6:00 p.m.

When my beloved and I laid down our roots in El Comitan in August 2000, we did not even have phones. My daughter refused to visit if we could not provide internet services to her! She was appalled that there was only one or two choices for espresso and none close to the house. She wondered how we could live with such privations! In the ensuing years, goods and services came our way. As La Paz grew, spread, and developed, so did El Centenario and El Comitan. The Mexican middle class grew, and home ownership also became the dream and reality for Mexicans.

Building and buying homes means work for Mexicans who are not in professions or doing other work in the city. They are construction workers, handymen, maids, gardeners, and interpreters.”Handyman” does not begin to describe the genius of some of these men that can fix a gate, a toilet, or a washer with little or no tools. We learned early on to save everything. When my outdoor fountain was missing a spout, I took the nozzle from a spent container of grout. And I learned this from one of the many helpful and resourceful Mexican men and women that helped us settle into our new home. If one of the neighbors needed something done at their house, they would ask for a referral or they would tell a neighbor to send the plumber over so they could make an appointment for repair work.

And so it went for several years until reliable internet became available. Once reliable high speed internet service came to the village, the smoke signals and Morse code went by the wayside. The community became more closely knit. The ease of spreading the word helped newcomers become part of the village quickly. Along with prosperity, growth, and influx of foreigners comes petty crime. Expats, even those living on fixed incomes, appear rich to some Mexicans. And the things that the foreigners considered necessities were luxuries to others.

As we reported last summer, there was a rash of burglaries and robberies. The angry villagers, Mexican and foreigners alike, had meetings with the police commander in El Centenario and La Paz. Things changed for awhile. But the petty crime started up again. More meetings and citizen complaints resulted in the reassignment of police and a new crew was brought in. Some expats formed a security crew and patrolled the neighborhoods at night and were instrumental in aborting burglary attempts and even collared a perp or two.

Since the re-assignment of the police, things have returned to normal. Peace is upon us. Our lovely village with the clean air, beautiful views, and exotic fauna has returned to what we came here for–tranquility. Because of the response of the city police chief, one couple,  Jan Lee and Warren Jorgensen of El Centenario decided it was time to stop complaining to and about the police.

They put out a call on the neighborhood electronic bulletin boards and the neighborhood Facebook page asking for donations to hold a police appreciation luncheon. When the Jorgensons approached Manuel Aurelio Amador, Commission Director General, Amador asked: “What do the foreigners want in return?” When the Jorgensons assured him that the goal of the luncheon was to show our appreciation and to build a bridge of cooperation between the foreign community and the police, the commander actually had tears in his eyes.

Once again, Las Charros restaurant owner Victor Martinez opened his heart and made his event salon available. He designed a special menu and his staff cooked and served. The expat community was asked to come and at least shake some hands, and if they liked, they could order from the standard menu and share the afternoon with the police. And they came, and they shook hands with each and every officer. Many stayed to have lunch as well.

Enough money was raised to pay for the luncheon, pay for a small duo to play live music, and to give every attending police officer a gift card worth $800 pesos at El Patriota, uniform store.  La Paz Mayor, Esthela Ponce called each officer to the front and presented with their gift card. The response from the individual officers when they received the gift cards was amazement and surprise. They thought that the luncheon was thanks enough. Katya Avena and Jesus Barrera owners of El Patriota said that they were appreciative of the invitation to attend, and they were proud of the police, and grateful that they and the foreigners had confidence in their business. Avena and Barrera set up a nice display of their wares at the luncheon.

Rebecca Buenostros the coordinator of the city-wide Neighborhood Watch department attended. She said she thought the luncheon was a beautiful event.

In a speech to the community, Mayor Ponce thanked the police for their hard work and thanked the foreign community for their support and hoped that we would continue to work together to keep our city and towns safe and tranquil.

Ponce said that never before in the history of La Paz has the foreign community reached out and done something like this for any official part of the municipality. She went on to say that the police and the community, working together, can accomplish amazing things, and that the foreign community could bring new ideas to the local police. Ponce said she is proud of her officer’s daily work and that El Centenario is a mix of the traditional and the touristic and that is what makes it special, and also why this cooperation is so important.

Asked to comment on the event, individual officers and various municipal employees used words like: magnificent, gorgeous, fantastic, perfect. For the expat villagers, it was not a big effort to donate a few hundred pesos and shake some hands and enjoy a nice lunch. But every one of them in attendance said they were grateful to the Jorgensens for organizing this event.  A snowbird villager, Jan Anderson said that she was proud to be here. She said her son was a federal officer back in the US and never felt appreciated. She said she feels safer because of the work to communicate and cooperate with the La Paz police. All agreed that this luncheon was the single best thing they could do for their community.

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