In the Shadow of the Border Wall

In the Shadow of the Border Wall

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In downtown Tijuana, a huge concrete channel was built to house the Tijuana River. The river rises in Sierra de Juarez in the south, and eventually crosses the border five miles before it reaches the beach. Only a trickle of water, however, runs down the middle of this vast expanse of cement. Instead, its walls house people. Many have come up from the south, especially Oaxaca. Some thought they might get jobs in a maquiladora factory, while others thought they might have some luck jumping the fence.

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Juan Guerra cooks dinner in the camp.

Juan Guerra lives under one of the bridges that cross the river channel. In their camp of stranded migrants he heats tortillas and a stew of vegetables, gathered from food thrown out by nearby restaurants catering to tourists. Juan speaks Zapotec, an indigenous language of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Some in the camp speak Mixtec, another indigenous tongue, while others from Mexican states further north just speak Spanish. "I'm proud that I speak my language," he says, "but people look down on me here. Maybe it's because I'm from Oaxaca, or maybe it's just that I have no money or place to live."

Mexico is a country of young people. Its median age is 26.7 and the average age of border crossers is even younger – 20 years old. Guerra says he's 25, and the others living in the camp under the bridge look younger. In the streets of Tijuana live hundreds of street children even younger than that.

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One man eats dinner while another climbs the channel wall to the camp.

I had a friend, Mario, who was a Tijuana cop. He talked about the kids in a very matter-of-fact way. “There are so many living on the street here,” he said. “Some are abandoned by their parents when they go across the border, or when they arrive in Tijuana from other parts of Mexico." Once I drove with him through the honky-tonk area of downtown. Some of the buildings at the bottom of Avenida de la Revolucion, as it gets close to the border, have broken boards and doorways on their front facing the street. Small, dirt-paved alleyways weave through the blocks, where many street children live. "They sleep in hotel rooms, under food carts, or in abandoned buildings during the day," he explained. 
 
Next to the river's channel rise apartment houses for the luckier of Tijuana's working class residents. These are the families who can pay enough rent to escape the dirt streets of the hillside barrios ringing the city. In the trash bins behind the buildings, Luisa, a homeless woman, collected discarded plastic bottles. She's doing the same thing homeless people do in San Diego, just a few miles north. The border often seems a chasm separating wealth and poverty. But the lives of people who have no home are basically the same, regardless of which side they live on.

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Luisa finds plastic bottle in a bin behind an apartment house.

Mario had stories about street children that sounded like tales from Oliver Twist. “Doña Lupe,” he says, “has thirty three children. She used to be a pollera [someone who guides people across the border]. Then she taught her kids to sell roses in the street in front of the clubs. They’d surround a customer, and while they're asking him to buy roses, they've hidden a knife in the bunches. Someone cuts the pocket of the pants of the customer, and their wallet falls out.”

Mario remembered the time when there was no fence on the border. When he started he believed those crossing the border without papers were just criminals. “I thought they deserved to be caught and punished because they were breaking the law,” he said. “But after a while, I began to understand that immigration and undocumented people exist in many countries. After that, I began to look at myself as their protector, rather than as their enemy.”

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A camp in the Tijuana River channel.

Today no one can cross the border in Tijuana. There are multiple fences, including one made of iron bars over twice the height of a person. A concrete no-man's land on the U.S. side is lit by floodlights, and Border Patrol agents are omnipresent. But there was a time, two and three decades ago, when people could still cross in Tijuana, hilariously dramatized in a famous scene in a Cheech and Chong movie. Mario remembered a similar scene, but it wasn't as funny.

“Once the Grupo Beta squad [the Tijuana police group monitoring migrants] was called to a place where a lot of pollos [border crossers] had assembled to jump the fence,” he recalled. “A whole lot of them jumped over, and began to run. The border patrol was about a hundred yards away. There were two brothers among the pollos, and the migra got one. After they had him, his brother began to throw rocks at the agents, to get them to let him go. So then the migra began to chase the one throwing rocks. He ran to the wall and began climbing back over into Mexico. As his hand grabbed the top of the fence, and he was hanging there, the agents grabbed his legs and pulled him down. They threw him down into the dirt, and one of the agents put his foot on his neck.”

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Families at Playas de Tijuana.

There wasn't much love lost between the U.S. Border Patrol and Tijuana cops. Border Patrol agents think the cops are all on the take from drug gangs, Mario said. And the cops think the Border Patrol is filled with agents who look down on Mexicans. "We criticize the U.S. government for sending army troops to patrol the border here, but the Mexican government sends troops to the border with Guatemala," he charged. Once the Mexican government sent him there after the Guatemalan government asked the Mexican government to investigate complaints of beatings and rapes. Mario said he found the crimes were committed by former police and border guards themselves.

Mario's dead now, but I once asked him what he thought the border should be like. “I've come to the conclusion that it's OK the way it is," he said. "What would happen if our roles were reversed? Lots of Americans live in Rosarito [half an hour south of the border], and have houses and jobs. The government doesn’t say anything because it thinks they're good for the economy. But what would happen if the U.S. fell into the same kind of crisis we have now in Mexico, and millions of people wanted to come here? We'd build a wall twice as tall as it is now.”

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Jorge, the Tijuana boxer.

In Tijuana the wall and the border are omnipresent facts -- taken for granted, yet a physical and social presence in each resident's life. At Playas de Tijuana, going to the beach seems at first the same as anywhere. Looking south along the sand families stand and sit in the sun and wade in the waves. But looking north a 20-foot high barrier of iron posts marches into the Pacific, a wall whose other end terminates in another ocean entirely, 1,954 miles away. 
 
Curious visitors go up to look between the bars, at the concrete barriers beyond, and then a similar stretch of sand that continues north to San Diego. A little park -- Friendship Park -- welcomes families on the Mexican side, but the impenetrable wall (at least for humans) belies any visible sign of friendship with the U.S. On the park's little platform and exercise bars, Jorge, a boxer, acts out his fantasy of the ring. He moves through his exercise routine, from one stance to another. They all seem to defy the border itself.




 

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