A mouthful of healthy teeth has become a luxury in America, and the divide between rich teeth and poor teeth has become a stark symbol of inequality. Poor dental care can be both humiliating and life-threatening, and those who wait in lines for hours at free clinics in tents or local stadiums are often given the chance to fix one thing, and little else.
Los Algodones, Mexico — tucked into the sharp corner where California and Arizona meet at the border near Yuma — has 600 dentists among its 6,000 residents, giving it the nickname “Molar City.” As Republican senators cobble together a plan to repeal Obamacare behind closed doors, little has been done to address the dental crisis currently unfolding in the United States, where 114 million Americans don’t have dental insurance.
Dental insurance has only been commonplace for about thirty years in America. As a 34 year old, I remember trips to the dentist in the mid-1980s as intense and frequent. Fluoride was a cure-all at the time; I was given extra-fluoridated chewables on top of our already-fluoridated town water supply, which left my teeth strong but streaked with white stains. When I lost my four adult front teeth in a playground accident at ten, I didn’t get porcelain veneers until I was 18. They cost $1000 each, so we had to save.
In Los Algodones, porcelain metal crowns that can cost $1500 in the states are just $180 each — one patient got fourteen in a single go. “We’re helping the United States take care of the people they are not able to,” the mayor of Los Algodones told Buzzfeed in their recent profile of the city. And many of those people the US is unable to take care of just put the new president in office.
Jennifer Ure smiles sheepishly through the numbing agent as we stand on the sidewalk outside her dentist’s office. She’s just had her first round of surgery to replace three crowns on the right side of her mouth and is speaking with a lisp. The crown would have cost $600 back home in Ashland, Oregon; here, it’s $190. Her sister, Dana Gross, is here, too. Both are retired, both lack dental insurance, and both have been coming to Molar City for years.
“I’m on Medicare, and I can’t afford dental insurance,” Ure says as she starts to choke up. “I just can’t afford to pay.”
Both sisters warn that to get quality care in Molar City, you have to get recommendations from people you know and trust.
“You really need to do your research,” Ure, 61, tells me. “You can get some who don’t know what they’re doing, which happened to me.” Her first procedure here seven years ago didn’t go well — the implants a dentist put in fell apart soon after Ure returned to the US.
Ure, like most of the Americans I spoke with in Molar City, voted for Trump. The president’s dark warnings of Mexican rapists and gangsters coming into the US haven’t deterred his supporters from coming to Mexico for dental care.
Of course, that’s not to say the Mexicans providing care don’t see the irony.
David Gil, the manager of TLC Dental, says he’s become Facebook friends with many of the patients, and “everything is Trump, Trump, Trump.” But so far, he hasn’t seen a drop-off in customers who support the president — and he hasn’t had any problems with visiting Americans. “I think when it comes to racism, people hide it … [but] why else would you vote for him?”
“I think it’s a little bit odd, but we can’t judge them on how they voted, so we just try to respect them,” says Margo Carilla, who works as a translator for a dentist in town.