The Notorious Bordos

  • Written by  Jody Paterson

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 life skills 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.

 

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 neighbors 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 hiring.

 

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 front.

 

That’s not the sentiment in Dixie, however. Named for the factory whose shadow (and contamination) dominates the neighborhood, 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 neighboring bordo, although in that case it’s because the land is needed for a new highway.   

 

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 center -- the first ever in a bordo. On the wall of one house we pass, someone has painted, “I will die to stay here.” 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 behind it.

 

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.” (2/7/14) (photo of waste from Dixie factory courtesy author)

 

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Note: The author is a former journalist from Canada. She currently lives in the town of Copán Ruinas, Honduras, and volunteers with Cuso International, a Canadian development agency that matches skilled professionals to organizations in developing countries. She writes a blog called A Closer Look.

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