TIJUANA, Mexico - Federico Fregoso and his wife, Guadalupe Valdovinos, have never lived better.
For the first time in her life, Valdovinos can cook "frijoles" - beans - on a gas stove and watch "telenovelas" - soap operas - on a small black-and-white television. Her husband can boast of owning a home, one he built himself on a hilltop with panoramic views of the golden-brown mountains in the distance.
Every day, the two pray thankfully at a simple altar above their bed, where a portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe hangs next to a cross and a rosary. They are grateful for all their blessings - but mostly they thank God for their four walls.
Or seven doors, depending on which side of the border you live.
Hundreds of small houses like theirs, made from wooden garage doors discarded by Southern California homeowners, have sprouted over the last few years on a treeless desert hillside at the eastern edge of Tijuana.
Hauled across the border by enterprising middlemen, the doors are the raw materials with which a determined band of squatters, led by women, has turned a settlement of cardboard shacks into a small city known as Maclovio Rojas.
Over the opposition of government officials and powerful foreign factory owners who also lay claim to the land, they have built homes, markets, churches and schools - all out of garage doors. Forty doors went into construction of a cultural center that features a poignant mural depicting the life of a garage door on its journey from California to Mexico.
Tale of two economies
The story of Maclovio Rojas, however, is more than a tale of innovation and persistence. It is a telling illustration of the sharp economic disparities between Southern California and Tijuana.
"The idea of pulling off an old [wooden] door, which is still in good condition, and replacing it with an aluminum one is typical of California," says Michael Schnorr, an art professor at a San Diego County community college, who helped build the cultural center and teaches free classes there.
"But for the Mexican people, building a garage-door house is like building a Renaissance building of marble. ... It speaks volumes about American excesses and the most basic and unmet needs of our neighbors to the south."
Fregoso, for one, is well aware that his one-room house wouldn't impress the Southern Californians who threw away the materials from which it was made. "We all know it's a modest home," he says. "It doesn't offer much in the way of security, and it's hot when it's hot and cold when it's cold. But it's a wonderful thing because ... around here, we feel rich if we can buy a door and build a room."
Maclovio Rojas may be the largest community made entirely with garage doors, but homes built from the American castoffs are seen elsewhere in Baja California.
Most are found in the "colonias" - settlements - along the eastern edge of Tijuana, but the demand for second-hand doors now extends south to Rosarito and east along the American border toward the cities of Tecate and Mexicali.
The leaders of Maclovio Rojas were the first to recognize the potential of an unwanted wooden door, Schnorr says. The illegal settlement, or "poblado," has grown rapidly since 1988 to a population of 10,000 people living on 600 acres.
The 45 families that settled Maclovio Rojas were farm workers from Oaxaca who were attracted to Tijuana's booming economy. The poblado's namesake was a Mixtec Indian labor organizer who was killed at 24 by a hit-and-run driver who many believe had been hired by a grower. When Rojas died, his followers migrated from the interior of Mexico into the hills and ridges at the edge of Tijuana.
These first pobladores set up house wherever they could find land on the dusty hillsides southeast of Tijuana, where the city is growing the fastest. At first, they built their homes from cardboard, scraps of lumber, plastic tarps and discarded tires.
"The first year they were camping out there [was] pretty rough," with settlers sleeping on the ground wrapped in plastic and catching snakes for breakfast, Schnorr says.
Then garage doors started arriving by the truckload, seemingly out of nowhere. Suppliers of the doors, Mexican businessmen who collect them from as far north as San Jose, sell them for $18 to $30, depending on the competition.
Hortensia Hernandez Mendoza is known affectionately in the poblado as "El Comandante." She formed a committee that assesses a "donation" from any family seeking to build a garage-door home in the community - money that goes to support community improvements such as the cultural center.
A fast-growing market
The border's fast-growing market in second-hand building materials recycles warehouse pallets, plywood, tires, cardboard, concrete blocks and lumber, as well as garage doors. Ignacio Rodriguez is one of the middlemen.
The father of two had tried almost everything to support his young family: picking strawberries in Oregon and Washington, repairing cars in the Los Angeles area. Two years ago he moved back to Mexico and opened a business in Colonia Terrazas del Valle, a legal settlement across the hills from Maclovio Rojas.
"I got the idea to start bringing wood, and that's when I realized that there was a big demand in Tijuana for garage doors," Rodriguez says. "It goes back 10 years or so, but in the last few years, it has really become popular. All over Tijuana, this is the best and fastest way of building a house."
Rodriguez purchased a flatbed truck, hired his two brothers-in-law as assistants, and started making weekly treks across the border to Los Angeles and Orange counties. On each trip, he picks up 26 doors from Overhead Doors in Garden Grove, Calif., which he sells for $18 to $25 each. Rodriguez is left with $200 from each load after he pays for gasoline, a border tax, use of a forklift at Overhead Doors, and the wages of his employees.
"This is a decent living, enough to feed and support my family," says Rodriguez, who lives in a two-story garage-door house. "I work whenever I want, and I work for myself. My life is much easier here."
Some American contractors charge the salesmen $5 or $10 a door. But many, happy to save the cost of dumping them in a landfill, give the doors away. For years, Ed Wold, the owner of Heritage Doors in Huntington Beach, Calif., has turned down offers to sell his used doors to Mexican entrepreneurs. Instead, Wold is loyal to a Tecate businessman who picks up 60 doors a week at no charge.
"For years we just dumped them," Wold says. "He comes in and takes them, and we don't have to do anything. It's a real benefit to me, too. But I really like the idea that he takes them down there and they get to be used to help people build homes. Mexicans are doing lot with these doors."