Before You Buy

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Garage Door Recycling Program

Heritage Garage Door Door is proud to participate in the garage door recycling program. Through this program, your old door is recycled to become materials to build a home for someone in Mexico.

For poor Mexican squatters living on the outskirts of Tijuana, garage doors discarded by Californians are the building blocks for simple but comfortable houses.

Doorways to home

By MARIA ELENA FERNANDEZ.  The Los Angeles Times. (Record edition). Los Angeles, Calif.:  May 30, 2000. 

Federico Fregoso and his wife, Guadalupe Valdovinos, have never lived better.

For the first time in her life, Valdovinos can cook frijoles on a gas stove and watch novelas 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 of their blessings-- but mostly they thank God for their four walls.

Or seven doors, depending on which side of the border you live on.

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.

The story of Maclovio Rojas, however, is more than a tale of innovation and persistence. It is a telling illustration, observers say, of the dramatic 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," said 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," Fregoso said. "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."

Demand for Doors Is Spreading

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 secondhand 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 said. The illegal settlement, or poblado, has grown dramatically since 1988 to a population of 10,000 people living on 600 acres.

"We are poor but energetic," said Hortensia Hernandez Mendoza, one of the poblado's founders. "We know we are living off the scraps of the United States. But, at the same time, these houses are affordable, strong, and they are more beautiful than the homes we used to live in."

The Mendozas and 44 other families who 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 pretty rough," with settlers sleeping on the ground wrapped in plastic and catching snakes for breakfast, Schnorr said.

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.

"Who put the first house up, I don't know," Schnorr said. "But it didn't take long for it to catch on. You work a little, your wife works a little. Pouring cement for the foundation is a community thing and the next thing you know, you got four walls, and four walls make up a house."

Simply having walls, however, wasn't enough. Settlers needed water, power and other utilities that the government was unwilling to provide to the outlaw community.

So they improvised once again.

Today, webs of electrical wires crisscross the dusty streets and provide bootlegged power to hundreds of homes.

When the Mexican government built an aqueduct at the Samsung plant, neighborhood plumbers installed taps into it and developed a network of hoses to deliver stolen water to many homes in the community.

And Mendoza--known affectionately in the poblado as "El Comandante,"--formed a committee that assesses a "donation" from any family seeking the right to build a garage-door home in the community- -money that goes to support community improvements like the cultural center.

Residents chose the area for no particular reason: "We settled here and took ownership of these lands," said Lidia Labana, whose garage-door house sits on Calle Hortensia Hernandez near the main entrance to Maclovio Rojas.

"But it's out of necessity that we stay," she said. "This is our home now, our community."

From an international perspective, however, Maclovio Rojas, situated between the production plant and storage yard of the Hyundai factory, is in the way of progress.

Since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, industrial parks have sprung up throughout Mexico's border towns. Taking advantage of cheap wages and Mexico's relaxed labor policies, the companies offer workers less than $1 an hour to assemble electronic parts, build furniture or weld cargo containers.

"They have invaded lands that do not belong to them," said Raul Ramos Popoca, a Baja California government official. "It's up to the federal government to decide if they can stay. Until then, we can't provide services to that area as a state. I would think it would be very difficult to live in those conditions, in houses constructed so poorly. But most of these people come from the south of Mexico where living conditions are deplorable."

With the men of Maclovio Rojas toiling 10 to 12 hours a day in the nearby maquiladoras--factories--owned by Hyundai, Samsung and Mueblex, community leadership was left to Mendoza and a network of women who decided to turn their primitive village into a city.

Their mission was twofold: to force the federal government to recognize Maclovio Rojas as an official colonia and to prevent foreign companies from developing the poblado into an industrial park.

To this end, there are female block captains in charge of keeping order, town criers who use bullhorns to alert the poblado to the approach of police vehicles, and even grandmothers who block traffic on Highway 2 when the authorities try to evict them.

Once, in 1998, the federal government mobilized a force of 200 policemen and soldiers to evict 60 families whose homes are directly in the way of planned expansion of the maquiladoras. It failed after women and children armed with sticks and rocks held off the police and used their belongings to block the highways for four hours.

"There is a joke in Maclovio Rojas that it's not only the men who wear the pants," Schnorr said.

One of the Few With Telephones

Labana is one of the block captains and one of the few residents who owns a telephone. It is her job to take calls and deliver messages to her neighbors.

A seamstress all her life, Labana makes a living from sewing everything from school uniforms to elegant gowns.

Her sewing room is full of personal touches: Wicker baskets hang from the ceiling, framed photographs of her grandchildren sit on shelves and posters of doves and spring flowers mask discolorations in the wood of the garage doors. Her sewing machine is next to a window so that she can work in the warmth of the sun.

The three-room house Labana shares with her two youngest sons is in meticulous order. A worn carpet covers her dirt floors. There is no rack, but dishes are stacked by size on a kitchen counter. Clothes are piled neatly in several laundry baskets that she uses as her armoire. Hanging and potted plants decorate her tiny porch.

In Maclovio Rojas, Labana has made it--without her husband, an alcoholic fisherman who vanished after losing all of his jobs.

As the sole supporter of her five children and two grandchildren, Labana took nearly four months to save enough money for the six wooden garage doors that became her four walls and ceiling. Next door, Labana owns another garage-door house that she rents for about $30 a month to supplement her $200 monthly sewing income.

"You do the best you can," she said. "There's always something you can do in order to survive. All it takes is imagination."

Secondhand Market Is Booming

The men of Maclovio Rojas are equally entrepreneurial. To boost their incomes from the maquiladoras, they hire each other to construct and paint homes. Others sell fresh cheese on horseback, cotton candy on foot or tamales and warm bread from cars equipped with loudspeakers.

And then there are those who make a living selling American leftovers: warehouse pallets, plywood, tires, cardboard, concrete blocks, lumber--and garage doors.

"This goes back to the mid-'60s, this idea of buying used stuff and selling it to the Mexican people," said Josiah Heyman, an associate professor of anthropology at Michigan Technological University who studies border issues.

"There were people who took used appliances from the U.S., reconditioned them and sold them," he said. "Whoever is collecting garage doors and selling them has figured out they are a good resource and presumably a cheap one."

Ignacio Rodriguez certainly has. The border's fast-growing market in secondhand building materials caught his eye two years ago. The father of two had tried almost everything to support his young family: picking strawberries in fields in Oregon and Washington and repairing cars in the Los Angeles area. He moved back to Mexico and opened a business in Colonia Terrazas del Valle, a legal settlement recently built 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 said. "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 in search of the coveted garage doors.

On each trip, he picks up 26 doors from Overhead Doors in Garden Grove, 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," said Rodriguez, who lives in a two-story garage door house himself. "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, 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 said. "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."

Homeowners Add Personal Touches

The success of Maclovio Rojas has inspired dozens of Mexican families to purchase cheap lots in the barren hillsides east of the poblado and build garage-door homes. In nearby Lomas de Tlaltelolco, where the Mexican government approves settlement, three houses went up this year.

Garage-door homes, in fact, have become so common on Tijuana's outskirts that homeowners are becoming more creative in distinguishing one from the next.

Hand-painted birds on the white walls of one house give it a polished look. Yellow and orange paint calls attention to one home from the highway. Some are two-storied, and one on a high hill overlooking the mountains is topped with a pair of pitched roofs resembling twin steeples.

This home is owned by Francisco Melgoza, a Samsung groundskeeper who teamed up with his wife and five children to build their dream home on weekends. Melgoza saved for a year to buy 10 garage doors, then spent several evenings on his kitchen table sketching the framework.

"He just kept drawing it on paper until he came up with this," said his wife, Benita Piedra Hernandez. "He said he'd never seen one like it and he wanted it to be different. It is. And it's ours."