TIERRA DEL SOL, Calif.—The tiny towns that line the U.S.-Mexico border in east San Diego County—Campo, Boulevard and Tierra del Sol—mark the road north for hundreds of migrants as they cross the border, and travel on. Hardly any of those migrants stay - only those who die in the crossing. But for the people who live here, some with roots going back generations, these tiny communities are home to growing hunger and poverty.
The border fence features prominently in the landscape of Tierra del Sol, snaking through the desert, two miles south of Campo. A sprawling Border Patrol station – spanning several acres – sits just outside town. Every month, hundreds of migrants risk crossing the border by trekking though the mountains here, and many die during the attempt. The graveyard in Holtville, a few hours away, is filled with hundreds of graves, marking those found dead in these hot, dry hills.
Up the road from Campo is Boulevard, another small town on the border highway. Near it sits "Camp Vigilance," home to the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a rightwing anti-immigrant militia. The camp gained notoriety when Shawna Forde, recently sentenced to death row in Arizona for her role in the murder of a nine-year-old Mexican girl, lodged there on her way to commit the crime.
The private security firm, Blackwater, had also planned to open a clandestine training facility near Boulevard, until locals caught wind of the project and stopped it. Presumably, the facility would have provided a training ground for paramilitary actions against the poor farmers and workers making their way north from Mexico. But after a Blackwater security unit was accused of murdering 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad's Nisour Square in September 2007, the training camp proposal was quickly shelved.
Not surprisingly, the national media has described this area of the U.S.-Mexico border as ground zero for immigration enforcement, where military operations and violence meted out by government authorities and right wing militias is commonplace.
But for those who call these towns home, the most immediate crisis is not the border war, but having enough food to eat. East San Diego County shares the distinction with other southwest border regions - from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas to the Imperial Valley just hours east on the highway - of being among the poorest communities in the United States.
Ken Koppin leaves his shack on Tierra del Sol Road, where an American flag hung in the window provides the only shade from the sun's intense heat. He drives up to Highway 94, and there puts up a signboard, which tells his neighbors that the food pantry will be handing out bags that afternoon.
Around two o'clock in the afternoon, a large mural-covered truck pulls into the open area next to Koppin's shack. Willie Mills, an African American driver, pilots the truck from one border settlement to another -- from the suburbs of San Diego, through the mountain hamlets, to the border of Imperial County. The truck is a project of the San Diego Food Bank and Feeding America, a national food program.
Koppin says that it was hard at first to find a place for Mills’ truck to make a stop in Tierra del Sol, but his landlord finally agreed to let it park on his property.
Mills and Koppin call out for volunteers from a group of people leaning on their cars, and others who are sitting, smoking and talking in the shade of a solitary tree. Soon, folding tables are set up and residents from the area begin parceling out the food from bins into bags. Then they line up, and each volunteer is given whatever the truck is holding that day: Oranges. Canned milk. Potatoes. Bread, or maybe just hot-dog buns.
Off to one side sits Jesus Rodriguez. He doesn't know exactly when he was born, but says he's lived his entire life – over 80 years, at least - here on the border.
"My family has always been here," he says. "We were probably here when this was Mexico."
This land became part of the U.S. in 1848, after the U.S. army defeated the Mexican forces and General Santana signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, handing over Mexican territory that now makes up California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and parts of Colorado and Utah. The land, however, had only been governed by Mexico for 27 years –Mexico having not claimed it’s independence from Spain until 1821.
Even before the Spanish conquistadors and their friars came to this region in the 1700s, native people occupied the land. The Kumeyaay and Cocopah Indians were the original inhabitants, and they resisted outside settlement until as recently as 1880, the year fifteen of their tribal members were massacred by ranchers, in nearby Jacumba.
Today, several small Indian reservations are scattered throughout east San Diego County. The Manzanita Band of Diegueño Mission Indians has its tribal office in nearby Boulevard, and tribe members often get their food from the truck.
A Spanish-speaking neighbor has brought “Don Jesus,” as she calls him out of respect for his age, down to the food distribution area.
"He needs the food, of course," she says. "But he also needs to get out and see people. He gets depressed living alone by himself, so I make him come. The food feeds his body, and the people here feed his soul."
Another old man, Nick, also arrives to get food, even though he is himself in the food production business. Nick is a pig farmer, and he operates a small farm that actually abuts the border fence at the end of Tierra del Sol Road.
"He's really too old… to slaughter the pigs himself," Koppin says. "So every now and then I'll go work with him, and in return I get some of the meat."
There are no official statistics that measure hunger in these border communities, but to Willie Mills, numbers don't tell the story, anyhow.
"Even though there are fewer people living here than in urban San Diego, they need this food (here) even more," he explains. "That's why I drive the truck out here every week. If I didn't come, I don't know what would happen to them."
Koppin identifies a shared suffering in the hungry faces of those who live here, and those on their way to points north.
"We see the people coming up the road, or more often, walking cross country from the border. It's not hard to see how hungry they must be too. We see women walking through, and even children. I hope they find what they're looking for. It's very hard to be poor and hungry, whether you live here or you're just passing through."
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