Tijuana Reflections from January 2005

Our group of Temple volunteers and some of community leaders with whom we worked
Our group of Temple volunteers and some of community leaders with whom we worked

By Christopher Wink | January 28, 2005

On a recent trip to poverty ravaged Tijuana, I could not help but see the irony, clichéd as it may be, of a border wall – that divides with great tumult the U.S. and Mexico – extending into the serenity of the Pacific Ocean. It is unreal to brace oneself against the rusted wall and watch it snake its way into the greens and blues of the water below as it divides San Diego and Tijuana. Here, lines drawn on maps are far from imaginary and they carry emotional meaning that no fence should.

But for me, when I travel, the first things I notice are the similarities between where I am and where I live. Mysterious or not, the smiles of children are the same in Mexico: where south not only describes its geographic relationship to the U.S. but also its location below the poverty line. Of course American business spills over the fortified walls, so the border region oozes the products of Sam Walton and Ronald McDonald with a Mexican touch.

Otherwise though, the two sides could hardly be more different. The smiles of youth, globally recognized, are eclipsed by the speed with which Mexican children are forced to mature. Repeatedly I was asked if I were married: an idea, as a nineteen year old American boy, that had not yet occurred to me. But there in Tijuana, resting with other volunteers who were helping to build a school for kids with special needs, I stood a man without a wife. A few miles north and I was back to being a boy without a care.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that the exchange rate is not in pesos or dollars, it is in decades. Time has a different meaning in Tijuana. Ages don’t translate. Twenty-three year old women with more horrors in their pasts than the American troops we support and more violence in their presents than the urban teens we neglect are forgettable there. Married fifteen year olds and buried infants are part of a generational pancake, where diversity of age is as nonexistent as paved roads. The cavernous potential of Mexican youth is too often eroded through bitter time and darkening age.

And so crossing the border becomes a way of life: a fundamental part of Mexican culture. For many, Tijuana, where a gallon of milk costs the same as in the U.S. but wages don’t correspond, is a stopping point before moving on to the riches and splendor of an American minimum wage. Some say that migrants are criminals, but it is hard to imagine doing anything less for your family than risking your life. It is hard to lean against that fence dividing work and poverty, success and failure, life and death, and imagine fathers and sons, mothers and daughters watching their families die without risking a trip across the border.

Standing in the way of the hopes and dreams of millions of Mexican migrants, however, are walls of steel, armies of border agents, and the most dangerous predator of all: the mountains and deserts that line the border east of Tijuana.

Since 1994’s Operation Gatekeeper instituted hugely increased protection of the border, the mountainous and desert regions offer the only possibility to cross for Mexicans without the money for the documents to cross legally. Physical boundaries will not stop men and women from trying to save their families; they will instead ensure that many will die with unimaginable pain.

It is not rational to support open borders, but it is altogether impossible to live and breathe in Tijuana and not recognize that American enforcement of the border has become savagely murderous and insufferably unjust.

I write this on the plane ride home after watching a patient father with bags under his eyes walking the aisle with his recently pacified daughter. It seemed to me that in Tijuana even the most devoted parent rarely had the strength, if blessed with the time, to coddle his child. So the crying doesn’t stop and the closest thing to being pacified is in the reach of the nearest ocean. The fences may muffle the sound, but as the death totals climb well over three thousand, the cries cannot be ignored forever.

As prepared after spending a week working with community groups and living in a migrant workers’ home in Tijuana, Mexico.