Hope Zone: Local families help kids growing up in Zona Norte, North America’s largest red light district
by Mark McDermott
Mackie Lauzon was 18 years old when she took a different kind of spring break. It was 2017 and she was a senior at Ambassador High School in Torrance. A group of kids from the school was visiting Tijuana as part of a youth mission. One day they were walking to a park called Benito Juarez sports complex, where a couple named Giezi and Amanda Niño ran an outreach program called “Zone Kids” for children growing up within Zona Norte, the largest red light district in North America.
Giezi was giving Mackie and a couple of her friends a tour. They were about a block from the park, when he stopped and pointed to a large red building across the street.
“Do you see that?” he asked. “That is Hong Kong, the biggest brothel in all North America.”
Many of the kids they met a little while later at the park were connected to the Hong Kong brothel, or the other major brothel in town, the Adelitas Bar. Some of their mothers were prostitutes, and the pull of either the sex industry or the drug cartel would likely eventually pull many of the kids in, as well. There are more than 18,000 registered prostitutes in Tijuana (officials believe at least as many are not registered) and 6,000 street kids, according to UNICEF; 60 percent of those kids have parents who suffer drug addiction or are in jail. Since 2006, when the cartel took over Tijuana and all tourism but sex tourism essentially stopped, there has been very little hope for any child growing up there to find a path towards a different life.
“They are really in the heart of where all this happens,” said Lauzon.
The Niños were trying to provide a beacon, a shred of light that showed possibilities outside drugs or prostitution. At the park, kids found a safe haven. They had toys, games, and sports equipment to play with, even guitars and instructors to teach them music. Zone Kids was also a religious mission, offering Bible study and educational programs, and its reach extended beyond children. Mothers could come to learn how to sew, a skill that might help them find work outside Tijuana’s main industries.
But by the time she walked into the park, Lauzon was still in shock at what she’d seen and felt — not just the brothel, but the dismal feeling that pervaded the streets of Zona Norte.
“I wasn’t hopeful then,” she said. “I was just like, ‘I need to do something. This is insane.’ You can’t just see that and live your life the way you were living. It’s easy to get really caught up after seeing something like that and just feel deflated and hopeless. But you have to look at what else is there — people who care. Hope is people who care. Hope is so beautiful.”
As she began getting to know the zone kids, what struck Lauzon is how much she had in common with them. They were just running around, being silly, having fun. They were just kids being kids, something the daily circumstances of their lives did not always allow. Lauzon, who spent most of her life in Manhattan Beach before moving to Torrance as a teenager, realized how capricious her own affluent circumstances had been growing up.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” she said. “We don’t pick where we are born, whether in a brothel or a super nice place. We don’t decide who are parents are. When people take it as a blessing, it kind of implies then that God is making one child have a horrible experience. I don’t believe that.”
And as Lauzon came to know the Niños, she had another realization.
“I think I have always had this privilege — here, we all have so much privilege,” she said. “Let’s use it.”
Lauzon is one of a few dozen South Bay residents who are indeed using their resources — labor, money, donated goods, or even just social connections — to provide hope in Zona Norte. Earlier this year, the Niños launched a fundraising drive to buy property within the red light district to build a community center. They hoped to raise $62,000, but with the help of local residents, the crowdfunding campaign raised $90,000 in just 40 days. Within two years, if further fundraising is successful, a four-story complex will rise in the middle of Zona Norte which will include a library, a rooftop sports facility, places just to hang out and play, and classrooms offering instruction in everything from sewing to photography, art, computer use, and music production.
The new building will be called Hope Zone. Amanda Niño believes that the building will be the beginning of a new sense of community in Tijuana, and a new feeling of hope. At its core, however, Hope Zone will not be about a new building, but about the connection that occurs when one child from a place of affluence meets a child from poverty and together they discover how little separates them.
“I love watching that because it lays down the ‘I’m better than you, I’m here to serve you’ thing,” she said. “I’m here just to be your friend. It gives them value, lets them know people see them, and care about where they are at. They are just there to hang with them. We have teams coming down from all over the world to hang out with the kids, and they see, ‘We are not forgotten, not just a lost group. Because people come and care about us.’”
Into La Zona Norte
Nine years ago, Amanda Niño was in Tijuana working as a staff member for Youth With A Mission (YWAM) , an interdenominational Christian organization that, among other programs, operates Homes of Hope, which gathers volunteers to build houses for people who own land in Baja Mexico but do not have the resources to construct a home.
One day some of her co-workers planned a “prayer walk” into La Zona Norte, and Niño went along. As they walked through the red light district, they didn’t directly interact with the prostitutes on the streets, in the knowledge that their bosses were watching.
“All you can do is smile and say, ‘God bless you,’ but you kind of just have to keep walking,” she recalled.
Outside the Adelitas brothel, Niño saw a mother with her six year old child. She couldn’t help but approach the woman and ask her what she and her daughter were doing in such a place.
“Well,” the woman said, “we are just selling some things.”
Niño looked again. Neither the woman or her child held anything in her hands to sell.
“We realized the mom was selling her daughter,” Niño said.
As a report in the San Diego Union-Tribune last year demonstrated, La Zona Norte has become a destination for pedophiles. Anything, and anybody, is for sale. Children from all over Mexico are brought to Tijuana for this purpose, and the market is largely for American visitors.
“It’s as easy as going on the internet and the dark web to get what you want,” Marisa Ugarte, a former Tijuana social worker and founder of Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition, an organization that helps victims of sex trafficking, told the Union-Tribune.
Niño and her fellow YWAM workers tried to help the woman they’d met on their prayer walk, hoping to reconnect her with family members who could help. They quickly came to understand that the little girl’s father “wasn’t on the good team,” Niño said, and that their involvement would not come without exposing themselves to danger. YWAM leadership said that they could not in good conscience send workers into such a dangerous place. They did, however, help Niño by providing her with education about how to work with at-risk children. Afterwards, Niño, who is originally from Sacramento, and her husband, who is a Baja native, went back to La Zona Norte to establish their own mission.
“We came back every day and just walked the community and just prayed a lot about what we were supposed to do,” she said. “We felt like, as an organization, we are not equipped to rescue anybody at all. That is not our gift. We don’t have a governmental buy-in; nobody is doing that, and it would be a silly risk that would not have a lot of fruit. What we felt we could do is preventative work.”
“The more I walked down there, the more I realized, yes, there is a lot of prostitution and trafficking going on, but even kids not directly in that situation — they see it,” she said. “We started recognizing that moms just walking kids, whether they walk past a prostitute or a drug deal going on, they see it every single day. It’s become normal for all these kids. That is what broke my heart. This what they grow up with, and it’s nothing like what a normal community looks like. They are not going to know this is not okay…That was my wake up call.”
Niño and her husband started going to Benito Juarez park (made famous of late as the camp of the immigrant caravan) and reaching out to kids. They taught from the Bible, but their main goal was even more fundamental: to teach the kids how to dream. She was shocked at how difficult this was.
“It was very sad,” Niño said. “They were really having a hard time thinking that way. Their lives were just day-to-day, just trying to make it, so it was hard to think about what the future could look like. Honestly, the bad people in their community are the only ones who have anything. Trying to make that not look so favorable is our challenge, to show there are other ways to dream, ways to move forward that have value and importance.”
The Zone Kids program took place at the park for eight years. The Niños, with the help of YWAM, were able to build a small staff and attract volunteers. As more and more kids began coming to weekly gatherings, mothers began showing up, as well.
One such mother arrived with a little girl and a tragic story that was on the cusp of growing worse. Her husband had died in a fluke workplace accident, falling down a flight of stairs, and the woman struggled to raise two daughters alone in Zona Norte. She worked multiple jobs, selling Mary Kay products in the street during daytime and working as a server in a bar at night, where the owner persistently asked her if she wanted to do “other things” to supplement her paltry pay.
At the park, she found a positive community. They helped her throw Mary Kay events, and connected her with a program for women at risk of falling into the sex industry, and she learned how to make jewelry. Today, she shows other mothers how to make jewelry, and helps connect them with jobs.
“Now she’s a teacher,” Niño said. “She is one of my favorite stories. Not only did she not fall into a trap, but she’s helping others also not fall into that trap.”
Perhaps the biggest ray of hope is that her daughters now see the possibility of a better life, as well. They are not alone. The program has kept broadening. Earlier this year, when the Niños were able to buy land and thus build a little structure and install lighting, they painted the word “Espranza” on a concrete wall in the outdoor play area. Zone Kids officially became Hope Zone. Now, gatherings are held several times a week, offering programs in STEM, music, karate, creative arts, carpentry, photography, and providing personal tutoring for the kids; mothers learn sewing and jewelry-making. A social fabric is being knit together, a life at a time.
“This isn’t a quick fix,” Niño said. “It’s been generations and generations of this community being used for the wrong purposes. I think it is now time to change that. And it’s going to take time.”
Visitors from the North
In the spring of 2011, Michael and Chrissy Miles traveled from their home in Redondo Beach to San Francisco, to say goodbye to their dear friend Richard Eachus. Eachus was a successful man who’d lived a very full life. He was in advanced stages of cancer but was clear-eyed and contemplative. He looked Chrissy directly in the eyes and said something that deeply struck her.
“The greatest thing I have ever done was last year, when my entire family and I built a home for a family in need with Youth With A Mission,” he told her.
“That’s the greatest thing?” she replied, a bit stunned.
“Yes,” he said. “And I really want you and your family to do this.”
The program helps landowners lacking resources for a home build a house in two days. The Miles family, in deference to their late friend’s wisdom and in honor of his last wishes, jumped fully into the Homes of Hope program. Through their spiritual community, the Rock Covenant Church in Manhattan Beach, they also engaged more friends and more families. They have helped build 15 homes, and five more are planned for next summer. Through this work, they encountered the Niños.
“They are contagious,” said Sheri Milewski, a Manhattan Beach resident and member of the Rock congregation whose family this year became involved with Hope Zone. “You want to help them, and you can see they are clearly getting good results. They have given their entire lives over to this. They are truly amazing at what they do.”
The involvement of these local families has been instrumental in Hope Zone’s growth. “They have just been huge,” Niño said.
The families’ involvement now totals 50 to 60 people. What this has done, in a very real way, is to create a bond between the communities of the South Bay and the fledgling community of hope arising in La Zona Norte. An acquaintance of Michael Miles, for example, learned about the vision of a community center and pledged $20,000 so long as his contribution would be matched. A match was found, and that quickly two-thirds of the fundraising goal was met. In another instance, local AYSO Region 18 organization partnered with Fully Equipped Sports founder Damian Stevens to bring down two vans full of soccer balls (new and used), cleats, full sets of new and used uniforms, goalie gloves, referee uniforms, cones for soccer drills, and sweatshirts for the kids in Zona Norte.
But what truly struck local families as they became involved is something famously noted in the ode to peace, the Prayer of St. Francis: “For it is in giving that we receive.”
“Every time I’m down there, I just realize I have everything I need,” said Nancy Grimes, a Manhattan Beach resident who along with Michael Miles now serves on the board for Hope Zone. “After the home builds, then getting more involved with Zone Kids — you really do receive so much more than you can ever give. It becomes addicting, almost.”
Dozens of kids who have grown up in the South Bay’s nest of security and wealth now live in a larger world, one in which gratitude and service are more than mere notions or sentimental buzzwords.
“We live in a community blessed with abundance,” Milewski said. “My kids lack for pretty much nothing. My oldest daughter in college just called and said, ‘Don’t get me anything for Christmas.’ She wants the money to go to those kids.”
Michael Miles remembered a bus ride home with a group from the South Bay after a visit to Tijuana. He overheard a conversation between a friend who was a very successful venture capitalist and his 7-year-old daughter.
“Daddy,” she said, “I want to live there.”
“You want to live where?” he asked.
“Where we were this week,” she replied.
Where she’d been was a place of hope and love, working shoulder to shoulder with little girls not nearly so different from herself as material circumstances would seem to indicate.
“I thought that was pretty huge,” Miles said. “This girl has grown up in the lap of luxury, vacationing all over the world.”
His own daughter, Davy Miles, is 16 and has now known kids from Tijuana half her life. She has a little friend now, Cassandra, who is three years younger and looks up to her like a big sister. They text all the time on WhatsApp. Her world has expanded.
“It’s definitely opened up my eyes to see outside the bubble of the South Bay,” Davy said. “I feel it’s made me more compassionate.”
Davy now sees commonplace miracles in things she didn’t know were not givens, like going to school. She once witnessed a little girl being told by her mother that the family couldn’t afford to send her to middle school. Then, at the last moment, with help from her community of hope, the little girl was given the gift of middle school.
“I kind of thought everyone goes to middle school,” Davy said. “But I guess not.”
Dr. Vanessa Hernandez, a doctor from the South Bay who donates her services to Hope Zone, said that one of the things has struck her both about YWAM and Hope Zone is their lack of presumption. Families helped are not chosen by virtue of their faith, and the overall intention is not to overwrite a culture but rather to simply provide a connection with an older, more true side of Mexican life.
“Both of my parents are from Mexico, and about nine years ago a half-brother of mine was teaching down in Tijuana and was actually murdered by the cartel, so it’s kind of a weird connection I have,” Hernandez said. “I still have a lot of family down there, especially on the Arizona-Mexico border…And I have yet to see this kind of thing, ‘Let’s just squash this whole situation and come to America.’ They are very proud people, and kids are excited to show you their artwork and school work, but all in the context of their culture, of their place. So what this is about is not being some rich American, ‘Oh, we are going to give you a TV,’ and then I’ve absolved myself.”
Instead, the giving is most emphatically a two-way street.
“It’s this beautiful thing of human dignity,” Hernandez said. “It’s not about imparting any kind of wisdom. This is a place of strong family, and a lot of pride, and a lot of beauty. It’s more a matter of friendship, as corny as that sounds…There is a very strong desire to make a place beautiful. They are families who want what is best for each other and the best we can do is give them that sense of dignity. We are not better. We do not have all the solutions.”
What it is about is reweaving torn social fabric. Hernandez said she worked in a county jail in Lynwood where she came to understand the nature of such a breach.
“It hit me so hard to think I would have to blow through a hundred different layers to end up homeless, selling crack,” she said. “But you meet some people who have one safety net, after that…It’s just sad. I could start to understand why these decisions were made, out of despair. In Mexico, poverty and corruption and politics have really made it difficult for people. But the human value of family and love and home — it’s very alive.”
On Dec. 11, Hope Zone will hold a Christmas party. A South Bay contingent will arrive, bearing gifts. They are currently in search of a variety of things — donations of items to raffle away and lightly used or new goods, including guitars, sewing machines, cameras, used tablets/iPads, skateboards, athletic balls and equipment, nice toys, kitchen items, and tools.
“Christmas time is one of my favorite times here with the kids and their families,” Niño said. “The gifts are super special for them, but to them to be reminded that people do care about them…That’s the real gift.”
For more information, see ZonaDeEsperanza.org or on Facebook or Instagram at ZonaEsperanza. If you have something to donate to the Dec. 11 Hope Zone Christmas party, contact Michael Miles at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d like to contribute a gift directly, see the Hope Zone wish list on Amazon.