Garbage Pickers, Garbage People, Trash Dwellers, and Scavengers of Tijuana

November 06, 2012 | | Comments 0

By Ray Holt, Graduate Student, University of Mississippi,  October 2, 2012

Tijuana, Mexico is a border city of over 2 million people just south of San Diego, CA.  Tijuana is a favorite city of the garbage pickers that make their living sorting and picking through the city garbage dumps at the large landfills.

“Everything a person needs to survive can be found in a dump.  Poverty-stricken people across the world have known this for decades.” “The smell is bad, but the effect is worse. The gases from the cow poop seem to heat things up while consuming oxygen at the same time, making it uncomfortable and hard to breathe.” (Morlan, 2008) “Of course we’ll eat the good stuff,” explained Manuela Esquivel, 61.” “What we don’t eat we give to the pigs. Better to eat this than die hungry!” (McDonnell, July 24, 1988)

In the mid-1990’s I took my first trip to a Tijuana dump.  I was accompanied by my friends Dr. Kevin Lake, a Los Angeles lung doctor, and Carlos Montoya, President of La Roca Ministries ( ).  We also took a few international students with us.  Carlos led the trip as he was acquainted with the garbage dumps and some of the dump families.

The first thing I noticed about the Dump was the strong smell, the graveyard built into the landfill ($8 a gravesite you can bury your loved ones) (McDonnell, July 25, 1988), and the large number of children running everywhere.  Of particular interest to me were two young children around 7 and 9 years old that seem to attach themselves to us.  Carlos seemed to know them.  Their names were Juan and Maria Ortega. They were two of six children in their family.  Juan was talkative in Spanish and Maria very shy.  Maria’s blond hair and blue eyes were striking and a rare look for a Mexican girl.

Streams of toxic gases flow from the garbage everywhere.  Homes are made from cardboard and pieces of wood found in the dump.  Electricity is “stolen” from the manufacturing plants about 100 yards away with “hot” electric wires everywhere on the ground.  Dr. Lake made the comment “that if any of these people live past age 30 they will probably die of lung cancer.”

Tijuana is a favorite city for garbage pickers as the trash has a mix of valuable products from the United States, especially a heavy mix of electronic items that contain copper and gold which brings the highest prices.  Most of the people working on the dump have “no papers,” such as birth certificate or any form of ID.  As far as the Mexican government is concerned the people do not exist.  Many of the dump workers are addicted to drugs and use their dump income for that purpose.  Most have families that may or may not work the garbage dump with them. A few current adult workers had parents that worked the garbage dump when they were young.

The dumps are so far away from the city that in most cases there is no school for the children. Even with a school the children can only attend up to eight grade without papers.  Some local charities and ministries will setup school facilities as close to the dumps as possible in order to educate some of the kids.  Juan and Maria were able to attend one of these schools.

About 300-500 people work the garbage dumps (La Roca  Ministries, website: ) searching for that golden nugget of diamond rings, cash or something valuable enough to give them a few days off. Some garbage workers will lose their life by being run over by the bulldozers.  It is real easy to be caught in front of one of them and not be noticed.  Most garbage workers make 2-3 times the income as the local manufacturing workers, however, the risk of health and life is great.  Without an education this is their only choice for work.

Carlos and his wife Rossy work tirelessly to care for these families and their children.  Carlos eventually was able to get Juan, Maria, and their family (eight total) off the garbage dump.  Over time Dr. Lake and his wife lost contact with them after trying to help the children seek a better education.  As for me, about ten years later I was able to inquire about little Juan and Maria.  Dr. Lake told me the family had been found, were doing well, and that they were attending church with Carlos.  This was exciting.  During my next visit to Tijuana, Thanksgiving 2011, I was sitting in church and saw this girl around 18-20 years old holding a baby and sitting next to a boy.  The profile was just like Maria.  After church I found a translator and we approached the girl and after many questions she said she was Maria, the little blond, blue-eyed girl I had befriended about 12 years earlier.  It was a great reunion with many hugs.  The next week I was able to meet her parents. They also were happy to visit with me.

Because of the effort of many at La Roca Ministries and the many donors in the United States families like the Ortega’s are spared a lifetime of living on or around the toxic and dangerous garbage dumps.  However, for many, life will continue sorting and sifting valuables in the garbage dumps of Tijuana with little to no hope of ever changing.


Juan, Ray, Maria, Monica (1998)                      Tijuana Dump Garbage Workers                    Garbage Dump Kids Receiving Gifts








Ortega Family (Juan & Maria not shown) in 2011             Typical Garbage Dump Houses             Children Rescued from Garbage Dump
and Tijuana Streets

All Photos Courtesy of the Ray Holt Collection © copyright 1998-2012



La Roca  Ministries, website:  . Youtube: Tijuana Dump Ministries

McDonnell, P. (July 24, 1988). Sea of Filth a Way of Life: Society of Scavengers Sifts Through Scraps at upscale Tijuana Dump. L.A. Times.  Retrieved on November 3, 2012 from

McDonnell, P. (July 25, 1988). Resourceful Poor Find Survival in Stink of Tijuana’s ‘El Dompe’. L.A. Times. Retrieved on November 3, 2012 from

Morlan, K., (January 15, 2008). Home Sweet Dump, San Diego City Beat.  Retrieved on November 3, 2012 from


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