Martin Lopez Vasquez holds up his right hand to eye level. His ring finger crooks forward, and just above the bottom knuckle are two black, jagged circles, where he was bitten by a rattlesnake years ago. The 61-year-old is unemployed now, but at the time, he had taught himself how to hunt poisonous reptiles for local buyers.
“You can’t afford to hesitate,” he explains in gravelly Spanish. “If they see you, they will start to rattle, and that’s when they attack.”
Vasquez is at an open market in Maclovio Rojas, Mexico, for basic medical services. Every other Saturday, UCLA students set up a free health clinic in this impoverished community on the eastern fringe of Tijuana. The students have no medical training, and they operate without the supervision of the university.
But for many residents, the students' offerings of free vitamins, blood pressure checks and healthy-living advice are a rare chance to get help. “Thanks to God,” Vasquez says, “we can get this free treatment.”
Maclovio Rojas is a squatter village dating to the late 1980s, when poor farmers began erecting nonpermitted shanties. The elementary school uses a dilapidated Airstream trailer as a makeshift lounge, and a bodega is supported by worn-down wooden beams. The Mexican government sought to take over the illegal town, but defiant villagers fought back. The government cut off their water and power — and residents stole electricity by running wires underground.
Its location on a major drug-trafficking route spawned violence that prompted UCLA administrators in 2010 to issue a travel advisory warning about Maclovio Rojas, and the UCLA Daily Bruin reported, “When night falls … women and children stay inside, while men only step outdoors in large groups and in familiar areas.”
In 2009, some 300 corpses were discovered in Maclovio Rojas, dissolved in acid and deposited in a pit. The liquefied remains had been disposed of by a man known as El Pozolero, or “the stew maker,” working for the Arellano Félix cartel.
With its strife-filled history, Maclovio Rojas' residents aren't necessarily focused on preventive health care. But that's what Fellowship for International Service & Health students at UCLA hope to provide.
A student-run organization, FISH sends about a dozen undergrads at a time across the border to check residents' vital signs, offer free vitamins and help those without access to information they need. The students, whose majors range from pre-med to communications, are not able to provide actual medical care.
This fact has raised eyebrows. “My dad said for a while he questioned the effectiveness of trips like this,” says sophomore Jackleen Lee, whose father is a doctor. “Like, how much can we do? But it's better to do this than nothing at all.”
On a recent Saturday, the students departed Westwood at 4:30 a.m., most spending the first two hours of the drive asleep on one another's shoulders, earphones shoved in their ears, awakening as the scenery started to morph from La Jolla opulence to border-town grit.
“So, Tijuana,” one girl said. “Is that the area before the border?”
It's the first time some have crossed the border, passing by guards with AK-47s. But not German Lavenant, born in San Diego to Mexican parents. Most of his family lives in Tijuana, and he's the first one to attend college. His parents are undocumented.
“My mom lost her right to cross [the border] five years ago,” says the studious 20-year-old, “and my dad hasn't been home in 20 years. His friends will invite him to stuff and he always has to play off an excuse — once he comes back to Mexico, he can't get back in.”
His family closely followed President Obama's immigration plan, which is expected to be signed into law by Obama. The plan won't necessarily protect Lavenant's parents, but the shift in American consciousness “had more of an emotional impact on my family,” he says. “They've always had to watch their backs, but it took the weight off their shoulders. They're relieved.”
The students set up shop in Maclovio Rojas under a sweltering sun. The smell of sizzling pork thickens the air around a nearby taco stand. A booth next to UCLA's, hawking electronics, is blaring Pitbull's “Ah Leke”: “The world is my block, the globe is my home.”
Clad in blue T-shirts, the students begin rotating among stations. In high school Spanish, two call out: “Una clinica gratis!” Interested parties fill out a short intake form, then have their vital signs assessed before waiting to speak to one of three FISH students fluent in Spanish.
Hector Lerma, a towering 20-year-old student wearing Warby Parker–style glasses, is also first-generation Mexican-American, and lived in Tijuana from age 6 to 11. “We lived a couple of miles from here,” Lerma says, gesturing down a dirt road. “I was lucky — we all had running water, we all had Internet.”
One of the students' aunts, a registered nurse, has joined the trip. “We always try to bring a medical professional if we can,” says Shane Huston, a UCLA senior. The registered nurse is clearly troubled by the range of health problems the group is seeing, from a constipated 11-year-old to a woman with lymphoma.
Even so, in many instances the students do appear make a difference. Carmen Villareal Brindis, a zaftig beauty with honey-colored hair pulled into a ponytail, patiently waited to speak to the nurse, then revealed that she has Type 2 diabetes. The 37-year-old has been trying to monitor her diet. But last year Brindis' husband lost his job, and the family of five lost its health care subsidies. She has been relying on the students to check her glucose and help her decide what to eat. The students have been ready for her.
“I eat more vegetables and fruit,” she says in Spanish, adding with a giggle: “I ate bread today, though. Sometimes I sin!”
To skeptics who wonder how much assistance ideological 18- to 22-year-olds can give, Lavenant says, “We are not there to tell someone they have something wrong with them. We're there to provide information — to educate, to counsel and to guide.”
Vasquez, the ex-snake hunter, pulls from his shirt pocket a worn package of pills — codeine and paracetamol for chronic stomach pain. To get an appointment at a local free clinic, he wakes up at 4 a.m. to wait for a doctor who arrives about 8 a.m. He can't always afford the medication's price of 60 to 130 peso ($4 to $9), and the free clinic often doesn't have it.
But he's not here for pills the students can't provide. He wants somebody who has the time to listen. “I lost my memory twice,” he says quietly. He wandered off both times, and his family finally found him — days later. “I fear that I will leave the house,” he says, “and I don't know if I'll ever come back.”
A student translating for Vasquez finally turns her attention to the next person, and Vasquez heads into the crowded market. Before saying goodbye, he considers a final possibility. His son and daughter both live en el otro lado (on the other side), like Lerma and Lavenant.
“I may lose my memory, forget why I'm here,” he says with a shy smile, “and go back with you guys.”