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    Thursday, March 16, 2006

    Mexico Garbage Pickers' Priest



    At the site, Father Guevara unfolds a small metal table, places a lace doily over it, and waits patiently for his flock. Eventually about 150 workers gather, taking a break from hauling refrigerator-sized garbage bags bursting with bottles and flattened cardboard. They keep their hoods and kerchiefs on, shielding their faces from the dust and eye-stinging toxic air. Mass begins.

    For more than 20 years, Guevara has trekked into this mafia-run landfill. Nonprofits with good intentions have come and gone here, attempting to create positive change. But Guevara remains the only outsider who has managed to penetrate this seemingly off-limits subculture and forge a trusting relationship with the pepenadores, as the trash pickers are sometimes known.

    "I'm not a savior, not a hero," says Guevara. "I've found a simple path to this community: I keep my nose out of politics and what goes on here and focus on bringing mass, along with some food, to the people."

    After a recent mass, Guevara and a few longtime assistants hand out small bags of food, mostly cooking oil, cornflakes, and black beans. Alongside them a doctor and nurse offer free physicals. Severe skin rashes are common year-round, blamed on toxins and gases from refuse in the dump.

    Soon, everyone returns to work. María Gómez and her husband and two young daughters sort through cardboard and glass from plastic soda bottles. Together, they earn about $5 a day.

    Gómez remembers when Guevara first arrived. "He lifted our spirits," she says. "Few people come from the outside, never before a priest. Now, he's been with us for so many years, we know he does what he can to watch over us."

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