On a recent sunny Saturday, as many people flocked to local malls to shop, Maria Cervantez and a few other Tucson volunteers spent a long day delivering Christmas gifts to poor children in Mexico.
When asked why, Cervantez thought for a moment before replying: "I can offer them hope, and I'm giving back a little of what was given to me."
Born in Mexico 51 years ago, Cervantez lived in poverty as a child in Nogales, Sonora.
"I remember being really hungry," she said while driving west toward Sasabe, just as the pink rays of dawn were illuminating the Tucson Mountains and a crystal-white frost was disappearing from the desert floor. "We'd go through other people's garbage looking for eatable produce. Sometimes, though, Americans would bring clothes and shoes to our church, and receiving those really helped a lot."
At Christmas time, Cervantez recalled, there were no presents for a poor 9-year-old. "My grandma would take me to see Santa Claus so I could ask him for something," she says. "But I figured, 'What's the use?', since I knew I wouldn't get it."
After moving to the United States in 1964, Cervantez became a U.S. citizen, graduated from Tucson High School and went to work for the Tucson Water Department. Thirty-one years later, she is still employed by them, and it was through a fellow employee that she learned of Mission to the Children in 1995.
Although a Catholic, Cervantez was soon volunteering with the Lutheran organization, which began in the early 1990s, by taking food to 25 children in one village in Mexico. Today, despite a budget crunch, the group serves more than 350 families with 850 children in 12 tiny communities south of the border.
Instead of distributing food themselves, Mission to the Children helps Mexican small businesses by providing $5,000 worth of vouchers monthly, redeemable for food in local grocery stores. The group also supplies vitamins, blankets, shoes and miscellaneous school items while offering emergency medical financial aid if necessary. In addition, some of the assisted families have American sponsors who periodically send items, including clothes and other basic necessities of life.
After driving to the three Mexican villages, she is responsible for paying grocers for the food coupons that have been used in the last month. Cervantez's December trip was also to deliver Christmas presents to the kids in two towns. After a 90-minute, bone-jarring journey over a deteriorated dirt road that cut through the rolling desert hills southeast of Sasabe, the Mission's van--packed with gifts--arrived in a lush green, hidden valley, home to the village of Cerro Prieto.
At the farming community of 700, with unpaved streets and widely scattered single-family homes, more than 50 well-behaved children and their mothers were waiting for Cervantez in a neatly swept, tree-shaded dirt yard, which had been decorated with colorful balloons. After an American Lutheran missionary performed a religious service that featured the story of the three wise men, gifts of balls, toy trucks and dolls were handed out. As they were distributed, one local woman remarked, "For most of these kids, it is rare for them to have presents to open on Christmas morning."
A short fiesta, highlighted by the breaking of a star-shaped, tri-colored pin--ta, was followed by a hearty meal for everyone. The delicious food of carne asada, beans and coleslaw had been prepared by local women, even though the village's water pump had been broken for four days.
After Cerro Prieto, the next stop was nearby Saric, a slightly larger and more prosperous community. Almost 100 children and their mothers had gathered in the courtyard of the mission's clubhouse, and helpers quickly emptied the van of the boxes full of gifts.
Before the presents were handed out, the gaily attired Cervantez, who was wearing a bright red holiday sweatshirt decorated with one dozen holiday scenes, visited three small grocery stores to pay for the used food coupons. She then returned to oversee the gift giving, and to share in the white cake and green jello.
Driving back toward Sasabe later, the setting sun was turning Baboquivari Peak into a crimson-hued ornament fit for the season. In its reflected glow, it was easy to understand how this day's work by Cervantez and the other volunteers for Mission to the Children was a lot more in the original Christmas spirit than many other holiday events--like heading to the malls.