Four Days in Acuña, Mexico

First: Apologies to my readers who were expecting this to be published earlier on Monday, as I said it would. An unexpected family duty caught me, and forced me to delay this post.

Second: Give yourself at least 20 minutes. This is a very long post, as it covers 4 days of toil, tears, and laughter. But I think you'll enjoy it, nonetheless :).


Let's get started anyway, shall we?

So last week I went to Acuña, Mexico (a couple of miles south of Del Rio, Texas) for a mission trip to build a house for a family, with a team of 15 photographers, under an organization called "Photoserve."



You can learn much more about them at their website, but in summary their mission is to gather photographers and use their talents and gifts to give back and serve.

For this trip in particular, Photoserve partnered with a separate organization based in El Paso, TX, Casas por Cristo, a non-profit whose mission is to build homes for families living in extreme poverty.



Our mission last week: Build a home for Maria Elena (57) and her husband Daniel (54) in three days. Sunday was arrival day, Monday was Build Day 1, Tuesday Build Day 2, and Wednesday Build Day 3. Thursday we would gather around to dedicate the house to the family, and celebrate together with home-made Mexican food. Friday, we returned home.


Maria and Daniel's house were constructed mostly from cardboard, pallets, old advertisements and metal sheets:








Day 1, Monday

Day 1 was the most brutal of the week. We did not waste any time to get to work; we were told to meet up at 7am (despite my flight arriving at 11pm!) fully clothed in work attiré, ready to get our hands and knees dirty. Our team was made up of people from all over the country: California, Seattle, Wisconsin, Chicago, Alabama, Detroit, and Texas. Furthermore, our photography disciplines varied just as wide and far: from one who's been shooting for 15 years to one who's only been shooting for 1 year, and then everything in between.

Our team leaders warned us that Day 1 would be the most intensive, especially because we had to break the ground before the concrete guys came at 1pm, to pour concrete into the carved foundation. Thus, we had to get things done before 1pm came around. Furthermore we had to labor together in 105ºF, dry heat weather (I'm grateful it wasn't too humid).

The first task was to break the ground, and prepare the foundation of the house.





Tony Skarlatos (left image), one of our team leaders, didn't hesitate to begin leveling and measuring the ground:





And yes, we were very privileged to have the Mike Colón join us for this trip.


Bobby Brown and pastor Wayne were in charge of cutting the studs for the walls:




We also had some extra help, we couldn't have done this without him:




Here's a close-up of the little guy (Tony's kid):




The unseen objects that keeps the house together:




I haven't shown you a photo of Maria Elena and her husband yet, have I? Well here they are, making by hand tortillas for us. They gifted us with a delicious lunch!






Another one of our team leaders, and friend, Kurt Norris. It was just about lunch-thirty at this point:




Remember how I said we had to quickly break the ground to prepare for the concrete by 1pm? Well, the concrete guys were 2 hours late. So our team was baking under the hot sun in the hottest part of the day, waiting for their arrival. We made the the most of our time nailing wall frames and the roof frame together, while trying to remain cool and hydrated as much as possible.

When 3pm rolled around, we worked hard until 5pm getting the foundation squared away. We especially had to work quickly too, because the heat was drying the concrete up real fast!

(Yup, we were there for 8 hours getting toasted! But it was all worth it, as you'll see later).

At this point I should make clear that I couldn't capture the entire story of our journey in Mexico because…well, I had to work too! So I didn't get photos of us nailing the frames for the walls, nor the portion when the concrete men finally showed up to pour concrete into the carved out foundation. Besides, we were there to build a house and interact with the family; photos were just secondary.

That's why you should visit our Facebook fan page and others' blogs to grasp the entire story (I'll link to these at the end of this blog post).

A quick tangent: Having lived abroad in Spain for 7 months, I'm fairly fluent in Spanish. So this was my first mission trip abroad...being an interpreter! It was truly a blessing, and really fun. I always wanted to use my language as a gift to help others.

By 6pm, we came back to humble abode, a church called Amistad (it means "friendship" in Spanish):



You can imagine that we got to know each other really well! I miss my new friends.

And because I know you're really curious to know which was my cot, it's the one with the water bottle on it:




For our well-deserved dinner, one of the Mexican families on staff with Casas por Cristo, cooked us a deliciosa dinner! ¡Empanadas!




These are all of the photos I have for Day 1, Monday. We ended the evening showering (of course!), and talking, and getting to know each other, and properly introducing ourselves to each other at the end of the day. It's funny how after a full day working together, we finally properly introduced ourselves and shared more beyond our names.

I remember feeling so tired this day, I went to sleep with a headache. One of those headaches that just meant you needed some rest.


Day 2, Tuesday

The next day, I was truly grateful my headache was gone, and I felt rested. Though, we did have to get up at 6am to get to work before the heat of the day settles in.

It was a beautiful morning:




At the beginning of Day 2, our concrete was nice and dried. The foundation was done. We already had nailed the wall frames together, and the roof too. So now it's just a matter of putting the walls up, and going from there.

As always, we couldn't have done it without our little helpers:




Getting the first wall up:




I caught a quick photo of this moment that tickled me:




Another one of Jax, and a quick one of his sister. Kids are such a joy to bring on missions trips. They help you see the trip as it really is: through children's eyes.






Jeff LaPlante manning the electric nailgun. He's such a great guy, and I'm so glad to have met him:




The next is one of my favorite shots: capturing the perspective of Maria and Daniel, as they watch their new home coming to life before their eyes:




After putting all four walls up, we nailed up the blackboards:




By this time the day was once again starting to heat up. Our team often noticed hoardes of birds swirling around in the sky, and I made a joke of how they were waiting for one of us to collapse in the heat:




Brian, Raquel and I saw some goats in the distance, and I think we were way too excited for to see goats…like we were tourists or something:




This one goat in particular really liked the smell of my camera:




Now Brian is one of those guys who makes friends really easily, and he met the owner of this goat. Brian talked to him a lot, and got to know him really well. Brian really wanted to take a family portrait for him, but the man's family was not there at the time. The next day Brian met him again, and noticed his clothing stained with blood. Let's just say that...little did Raquel, Brian or I knew…that we were capturing the last moments of the goat we met yesterday (pictured above). I knew I saw something sad in its eyes...

Well, back at the worksite, Jeff LaPlante was preparing the house for electricity:




Meanwhile, Mike Colón and Bobby Brown were preparing the insulation:






Matt Savage, of Avery House, getting some chicken wires done.




I learned the purpose of chicken wire was to hold the stucco (concrete) in later on.


Here's a close-up of our fearless leader, Tony Skarlatos:




I can't imagine what was going through his thoughts, as we were building this man his new home:




A photo of Maria Elena, and I:




For the rest of this working day, I helped set up the chicken wire. Tuesday was much more relaxed than the day before, since we got the most important things done on Monday. We were able to leave the worksite around 2:30pm this day, because we didn't want to get caught working in the heat of the day again (it was already starting to heat up!).

That evening we did what any other group of photographers would do together in a foreign place: a photowalk downtown!

The street was strangely quiet and dead. Tony said there's been an extreme drop in tourism since the news of Mexico lately. But nonetheless, we made the most of it. The lightning that evening felt surreal.



One of my favorite photos from this trip:




From left to right: Jeff LaPlante, Aidan Colón, Mike Colón, Elizabeth Morris, and Brian Slawson.


Many photographers hide themselves behind the camera because they feel very shy in front of one. Raquel Patterson was no exception! So when she told me that, my goal for that evening was to get a great portrait of her. Being the portrait photographer I am, I get excited at the challenge of taking a portrait of someone who doesn't like being in front of the camera!

After many, many tries, though, I finally got the shot. It's happily now her Facebook profile pic :)




This gal is from Alabama, and we had great times talking about accents and toilet-papering ("rolling" as they say in Alabama) other people's houses. Mainly it was her doing the "rolling." I can't ever remember "rolling" in my life. Ever.

Tuesday ended so much more relaxed than the night before, and by this time our team were getting to know each other really well, and becoming great friends. The next day was expected to be our last workday, when we would finish the house.

This evening wrapped up with the horrific food adventures of Mike Colón. Don't worry, I'm not going into any details here.


Day 3, Wednesday


Remember at the beginning of Day 2, I took a photo of the sky? Well this morning Matt Savage (AveryHouse Photographers) was doing the same, with the "best camera he had with him,"




Yesterday we left off with finishing the chicken-wires about the entire exterior of the house, and the interior of the house insulated.

Today's task? Roofing, Drywalls, Electricals, and Stucco.

As before, we started early in the day (I think we arrived at the site by at 8am). I was part of the roofing team, so sorry…I don't have photos early that morning because I was busy getting more work done this time. And I'll reiterate here: that I'll post links to my friends' photo sites, and specific ones where Acuña photos have been uploaded too.

But this next photo is after a couple of us guys finished butting the roofing material on, and nailed plates to wrap it all up:




You can also see the completed chicken-wiring throughout the house.


This photo shows the drywall and insulation inside:



Around the house:




Midday, we were told to stop whatever we were doing, and sit down…to enjoy the privilege of listening to some live music. The songs were beautiful, as I understood many of them. The entire family sings, including the children:







I caught a portrait of Elizabeth Morris in the meantime:


Liz is an excellent photographer! And she has such a sweet and wonderful heart too. I was so blessed to have met her too.


Stucco was A LOT of hard work, in the really hot sun. This was also something we had to quickly do, before the sun dries up the concrete.

Perhaps one of our highlights of the trip was when I persistently persuaded Daniel to help us apply stucco. In our team meeting Monday evening, we all agreed that we wanted to include Daniel, the head of the household, more in the housebuilding process. I know if I was the man of the household, I would've wanted to help contribute. So while our team was diligently putting stucco on the house, I noticed Daniel watching us not more than 3 feet away. I had a decision to make then: to act like I'm ignoring him, or to just invite him into what we were doing. I opted for the latter, and I asked him politely in Spanish if he wanted to help. At first, he refused. Then I asked him again. I told him it was really easy. But he still refused. At this point I wondered if I should keep persisting, or respect his decision. I decided to take the challenge of seeing if I could get him to help, and this time my Spanish tone changed. Instead of using proper, nicer diction; I switched to stronger command words. So instead of saying "Do you want to help out?" I told him to come here (in the Spanish imperative tone) and I put the tools in his hands, and reminded him it was easy (and even fun) to do. I wasn't trying to be rude, I just knew that he eagerly wanted to help out, but felt unsure around us foreigners, and just needed a little nudge...or two, or three.

Sorry, I don't have the photo here to show you of this moment (because I was working at the time), but it's floating around on the Photoserve Acuña Facebook Page somewhere.


So here's what it looks like after all was said and done:




You can also tell how quickly the stucco was drying off in some areas. Jeff LaPlante was doing most of the electrical work, adding a little lamp outside. At this point, the exterior of the house was done.

Wednesday turned out to be another long day, because we really wanted to get the house done. But as the time neared 5pm, we had to call it a day. We only had small sections of dry walls to do on the interior of the house, and then we would be completely finished! We knew we could finish those remaining pieces in less than 2 hours, so we held those last sections of for the next day.

Besides, our team was pretty exhausted by that time.




Now I've been on 5 short-term mission trips before…3 in Mexico before, and 1 in Panama. I learned over these trips that as short-term missionaries, we shouldn't promise the people we are serving photographs. The reason? Because for the majority of time, the people never get them. So we set them up for disappointment when we promise them photographs we've taken, but we quickly forget to make them after we return back home, or it becomes a hassle for the local missionaries there to deliver the photos we've taken. This is also in areas where internet connection is rare, so no Facebook tagging either.

But in our roundtable discussion Monday evening, our team talked about how cool it'd be if, we, a bunch of photographers, can give the family their own family album, á la Jeremy Cowart's Help-Portrait idea. What if we could pull it off?

So this Wednesday evening would be the manifestation of that idea. Our team quickly assembled some photos we think Maria's family would love to have: photos of her children and grandchildren, photos of her husband and herself together, and even photos of us building the house. Wouldn't you want to remember and share with your family the brothers and sisters who came from afar, to give you a house?

The initial plan was to take the photos to WalMart across the border, because we weren't sure if there were any easy photo-printing labs in Mexico. But by that evening, it was already getting late and we wouldn't have been able to make it before the store closed. I was getting bummed out at this point, because I really wanted to gift the family with a family album the next day when we dedicate the house to them; but it seemed like we were running out of choices. It seemed our other choice was to wake up real early and get them printed early in the morning. But I know from experience that fitting too many things in the morning can easily add unneccessary stress too.

Tony threw out another idea to check a local pharmacy in Mexico, that was like Walgreens here in the States. I thought we should give it a chance nonetheless, because if we could get them printed that evening, the better.

So after loading up a thumb drive of more than 70 photos, Tony, Raquel and I headed to a local pharmacy in Acuña at 9pm, Wednesday night. To an answered prayer, there was a Kodak photo kiosk! Tony, Raquel and I were even stunned at the quality of photos the little kiosk were printing. We even printed some larger prints for the family, like the ones of all their grandkids together (Jeff LaPlante caught some really good group shots of the kids and families).

That evening, we took the photos back to our team at the church, and layed them all out on the table for everyone to see.

We were all stunned and speechless. Suddenly it felt like everything was coming together, and this trip was so worth the cost: paying hundreds of dollars to come, tolerating the burning heat, and giving our time and physical labor to this family. And on top of it all, we could give them what we all are passionate about: our photography.

I wish I could've taken a photo of all of us huddled around looking at the photos…but I, too, was enamored with what was before me.

I love this tweet by Matt Savage, "What happens when 14 photogs go on a trip? We build a house & take a ton of pics to give to family":


You can actually see all the photos we printed for the family here: Photoserve - Acuña, Mexico Project - September 25-29, 2011.

This was truly one of my favorite, and one of my most memorable portion of the trip.


Day 4, Thursday


Today we would finish last touches on the house, and then dedicate the house to Maria Elena and Daniel.

Because there was not much left to do, most of our team had more freedom to do other things.


Katy Skarlatos, Tony's wife, started putting the family allbum coming together:




(The photo inside was taken by Brian Slawson).


Maria's family were preparing a large feast for us, in celebration of completing the house:





Brian McDade and Matt Savage brought polaroid films, for instant development. It was such a great idea, because we could instantly develop and give the family photos. Matt Savage took the incredible portrait of Daniel there in the center. The family were already collecting these photos on their mirror:




David was born and lived in Mexico all his life, and works with the Casas por Cristo staff and occasionally tickles Jax:




Here's David son, also named David. I noticed his jersey of FC Barcelona, the best soccer team in the world right now. Yup, I just said that.





For this day, I made more efforts to talk and hang out with the family more. I felt like I didn't have an excuse to not interact with them, since I spoke Spanish too.

The next thing I knew, I was getting goosebumps listening to Maria Elena talk about an eerie woman a year ago dressed in white, walking around the neighbhorhood, with chains around her wrist. She was sauntering around asking, "Who stole my land?" Maria said her face looked like death. A couple of men from the neighborhood tried to help her, but she seemed unaware of everyone. Soon they called the police to help the woman out…but the woman was nowhere to be found. Creepy!

You can imagine, then, that I was a bit scared when Maria Elena wanted to show me the neighborhood around a bit. She showed me a ravine with no water, but she told me that it gets filled up really high during the colder months.

I learned she was a woman who suffered much most of her life. Earlier during the week she told Mike, Jeff, and I how her first husband died trying to fix a light bulb: he was severely electrocuted. She also told us that next week, after we left, her current husband Daniel had to leave to work at a ranch for the next 3 months. I thought about how long that must feel, especially in a lifestyle that proceeds much, much slower than I'm used to. Before we arrived, she also suffered from a heart attack. Maria Elena waited over a year on her church's waitlist for a new home, and that day finally came.

But I think Maria's joy now far outweighs her suffering, and our entire team are so grateful for her smile, her generosity, and her heart. I also think Daniel is more grateful now that his family can be in a more reliable shelter while he's gone in the colder months.

I took some shots of the neighborhood and houses around us:





Elias, the Pastor of the church they attend, came in preparation for the dedication shortly thereafter:




The house was just about completed when we tested their new ceiling fan:




I don't have any photos of the dedication itself because I wanted to help interpret. My teammates had it covered, so you can look at their blogs/photos for this part.

The dedication was the culmination of the week, and it was also the bittersweet moment when we knew our trip was coming to an end. We gave our blessings to Maria, and Maria and her her family shared theirs.

"We'll always remember you guys, and we'll always carry in you in our hearts forever," Maria Elena told us, between tears.

"We'll always remember you too, Maria, and you'll always be in our hearts, too."

Emotional walls came down at this point, and even Maria's macho husband was in tears. We huddled close together and prayed for their family.

Afterwards we went outside, and prayed over the house.




Alas, Mike Colón and Daniel nailed down the final plaque that signified the completion of the house.

Maria's neighbor, also a recipient of Casas por Cristo, played some loud music in celebration afterwards!

The family didn't hesitate to start giving us lunch.





I wanted to give Maria my hat, because I felt like she needed it much more than I do. I was so excited to get a photo of her without her glasses this time, so now you can see her eyes! She's so beautiful!



Her granddaughter, named LLuvia, which means "rain" in Spanish:




A daughter of their neighbor came to celebrate too. Her name is Violeta. Can you feel the love here?




A cute story with Lluvia and Violeta earlier that week: Raquel was resting in the shade with her sunglasses on, and these two sweet little girls came to sit next to her. Lluvia was asking Raquel a question in Spanish. I was on my way to help stucco again, when Raquel called me over to help translate. I knelt down to eye-level with Lluvia, and asked her what did she want to ask Raquel.

"¿De qué color son los ojos?"

I smiled and laughed! Then I turned to Raquel, "She wants to know the color of your eyes!"

It was such a joyful time!




The photo below was taken by Mike Colón, with the polaroid. I was showing them photos of Brian Slawson throwing his camera high up in the air, and catching it. Crazy guy.





I am so blessed to have work alongside with Mike Colón doing two things I love doing: being on a mission trip, and capturing stories through photographs.

I met Mike Colón early 2008, at a "Missional Photography" forum at my church (I shared this is my "About" page), and learned the importance of photography: a powerful means to tell real stories, of real people. Stories that need to be kept, and stories that need to be told.

At that time, I wasn't pursuing photography as a career. But a couple of years later, here I am, just going for it. He was an incredible inspiration for me back then, and he still is now.

And who would've thought 2½ years later, things would come full circle, and we'd meet again on a mission trip, taking photographs together?





I hope you enjoyed your stay here, listening to this story! I hope even more that you're encouraged to step out with your talents and gifts and give back, and serve our neighbors both at home and abroad.





serve more:


Casas por Cristo:



read more, see more:

Bobby Brown

Elizabeth Morris

Photoserve - Acuña, Mexico Project Facebook Page