TIJUANA – The 70 boys and girls – some carrying babies in their arms and all dressed in hand-me-down clothes – paraded in the Posada procession around the blue stone-block home singing Christmas carols.
Christmas had come early in Colonia Pedregal, one of the poorest sections of Tijuana.
Darkness was closing in fast and swirling clouds of dust buffeted these unwanted children who have found love and protection at Hogar de los Niños.
The Home of the Little Children is perched high on a bleak hill surrounded by scores of cardboard and scrap-wood shacks clinging to the steep canyon slopes.
Leading the procession was the scion of a wealthy Southern California family, freckled-faced, red-haired Tony Ralphs, 34.
“Feliz Navidad, Papa! Feliz Navidad, Papa!” the youngsters shouted as the procession marched into the home, bathed in candlelight.
“Merry Christmas, Papa . . . Merry Christmas, Papa,” the children were shouting in Spanish to Ralphs, the Pied Piper of Pedregal.
It was one of the happiest nights of the year at Hogar de los Niños – a Christmas party at the home for the 70 unwanted children from the shantytown at the Southwest end of Tijuana.
Blindfolded youngsters whacked away at piñatas. The paper piñatas broke open with each blow, spilling candy quickly scooped off the floor by the squealing children.
Toys and dolls delivered by the six Tijuana university students were distributed to the children, who range in age from one month to 14 years. They also received Christmas cake and bags of oranges and nuts.
The boys and girls were asked by Ralphs if they had any Christmas prayers.
“I pray my mother comes to see me someday soon,” said a pigtailed 6-year-old with big brown eyes.
“I pray we will always have enough food to eat in this house,” said a 10-year-old boy.
“I thank God for Tony,” said a 12-year-old girl.
There is no electricity, heat, running water, toilets, television, refrigerator, chairs, washing machines, or beds at Hogar de los Niños.
But there is ample food, benches to sit on, mattresses and carpets to sleep on, latrines outside.
Tony Ralphs had been a “rich kid” all his life – his grandfather owned Ralphs Markets, one of the largest supermarket chains in Southern California.
He grew up in Newport Beach and Rolling Hills. He graduated from Long Beach State College.
He toured the world.
He was a leading long-distance swimmer – ranked seventh in the world in 1961 in the 1,500-meter competition – and was a member of the U.S. Olympic kayak team at Tokyo in 1964 and at Munich in 1972.
“I really had everything going for me, yet, I was searching for something with much more meaning than material wealth,” Ralphs explained.
Three years ago he dropped out of the affluent scene and drove to Mexico in an old bus to work with the poor people of Tijuana.
“A nun directed me to Colonia Pedregal,” Ralphs recalled. “She said if I really wanted to help the poor to go there, that I would be shocked by the poverty and would know what to do.”
Ralphs drove his bus to the shacks on the hill and has been there ever since. At first he transported people needing medical attention to clinics in his bus.
“But there were always these little kids that gathered around the bus. They were hungry. They lived in the shacks. They stood around with nothing to do all day,” Ralphs said. “Many who should have been in school never went. I began to feed them in the bus. The husband of a woman living in one of the shacks with three small children died. The woman, Marsalina Venezuela, came to me one day and asked if she could cook for the kids in my bus."
Soon many children were eating in the bus, their meals prepared by Mrs. Venezuela, who is now Ralphs’ chief assistant.
Children began spending their nights in the bus.
Many of them were abandoned by their fathers or their fathers had died.
Their mothers in many cases were prostitutes and were away day and night.
The children were locked up in the tiny shacks alone while their mothers were away or left to roam aimlessly in the sea of shacks.
Ralphs bought two lots and built the stone-block home for the unwanted, uncared-for children, completing it a year ago. It cost him about $14,000.
He has a trust fund from his grandfather’s estate from which he receives $900 a month.
He uses that money for food and other needs at the home.
Friends in Tijuana and from the United States bring him used clothing and additional food for his large family.
Ralphs was an atheist for many years.
Now he is studying four hours each weekday to become a priest at the Iglesia Sagrada Carazon Catholic Seminary on 10th St. in downtown Tijuana.
Ralphs will be ordained a priest in 18 months. He hopes to spend his life caring for the poor children of Tijuana, opening other homes like Hogar de los Niños.
He makes certain all his school-age children attend school and each day he spends time teaching them reading, writing and arithmetic.
“I want them to go beyond the sixth grade, which is about as far, if they’re lucky, as any of the children go to school in these poor sections,” Ralphs says.
“I tell them not to get married, as most do at 14 or 15, and start having a whole bunch of kids right off the bat . . ."
“In California, to take care of 70 kids you would probably need a half-million dollars. Here it’s possible to do it on peanuts, in my free-wheeling style,” Ralphs says.
“We’re like one big family. The kids have nothing to give but love, and that they give in abundance.”
Article Written By: Charles Hillinger