September 15, 2016

Crossing the Border (Cruzando la Frontera)

It's hard to ignore the fact that this is a presidential election year. It's hard to tune out the campaign promises—which, this year, feel a bit more like threats.

It's all got me thinking a bit more about Mexico.

Of course, living in California, I'm very aware that my current "homeland" actually used to be Mexico. It feels like relations should be a bit friendlier because of that.

And with all this talk of a wall being built, it's almost as if people don't know that there's already a wall at the U.S. / Mexico border.

Upon my third visit to Mexico earlier this year, I visited that wall for the first time.

I'd had the luxury of taking a train through a tunnel the first time, riding a bus through the border patrol checkpoint the second time, and walking right into the country this most recent time.

I didn't have to deal with that wall getting in...

...and I didn't have to scale it, dig under it, or break through it to get back home.

But, as I learned at La Casa del Túnel in Tijuana, there have been lots of people before me who haven't had it quite so easy.

This "House of the Tunnel" is better known as "The Illegal Tunnel" or "The Drug Tunnel" because drug traffickers hid out here, using a tunnel in the basement to deliver marijuana up through a manhole in a parking lot on the other side of the border wall.

The tunnel transported drugs—and it also gave safe passage to some people, too.

This was one of dozens of such tunnels discovered along the U.S. / Mexico border since 2001, but now—despite its bad reputation—it's been transformed into an arts and cultural center with a sculpture garden.

The 1950s boat-shaped building is about a quarter of a mile (as the crow flies) from one of the world's most bustling border crossings.  And with a new focus on art, it's a little redemption for a formerly confiscated drug property.

Anyone who actually is already familiar with the the U.S. / Mexico border probably knows the westernmost section of it—which is more of a fence, right by the Plaza Monumental Playas de Tijuana, under the "El Faro" lighthouse and across from the bullfighting ring.

This is where you'll find the marker that indicates where the initial border was established between the two countries in 1848, at the end of the U.S.-Mexican War.

This is also where you can get above the border a little to see that it's not just one fence, but several. It's like what you've got to do to keep deer from leaping into your yard and eating all your vegetables.

The border is heavily graffitied here, calling for empathy...

...and reminding us that this is where dreams (presumably, of life on the other side) die—or, at least, bounce back into Mexico. (Aquí es donde rebotan los sueños.)

We all are America.

But not at that fence.

On the San Diego side, there's the Border Field State Park—and at its southernmost point, Friendship Park (El Parque de la Amistad), where border-divided family members and friends can meet up (with the fence between them).

On the Tijuana side, there's the Playas...

...with the smell of hot churros...

...and the realization that the fence isn't really so tall here, or so far out into the ocean.

Even if you're someone who can cross legally, it's difficult not to imagine trying to sneak your way through.

Of course, those who do manage to sneak through don't always make it. Some get caught, and some perish.

At the Panteón Municipal Número 1, the oldest cemetery in Tijuana just three blocks from the border, you can find a shrine to "Soldier Juan," the patron saint of undocumented migrants.

Although Juan Castillo Morales, a soldier in the Mexican army, was shot by firing squad in 1938 for the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl and buried here, he's become somewhat of a folk hero for border crossings.

His believers would contend that he was framed by his general—and therefore falsely accused, convicted, and executed at just 24 years old. As was the tradition with ley de fuga ("law of flight"), they could only shoot him if he was fleeing, so they made him run for the border (and for his life).

Even though he didn't actually make it, people actually pray to him for safe passage: "Juan Soldado, ayúdame a cruzar" (help me cross).

The candles and the prayer cards and other offerings to the now-infamous victim of injustice have become big business. Then again, crossing the border is big business.

And it's not just Mexicans flooding into the United States via California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. There are those who managed to cross over once for something and then merely tried to get back home. And worst of all, there are those who are lured to the border with false job offers and other promises that make their passage seem legal—only to entrap them in the unescapable clutches of human trafficking.

I'd made my pilgrimage to Juan Soldado, but I did not pray to him. I didn't need his help getting back home. No one would be kidnapping me or seizing my belongings.

And so I walked right back into the United States, through San Ysidro, still licking the grease and sugar from a bag of churros off my fingers. The border patrol officer barely said two words to me, while others seemed to be held up at the checkpoint for a pretty long time.

I wonder how it will be after November, and for the next four years...

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Bussing It to Baja
Photo Essay: A Giant Christ Towers Over Tijuana

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