A long green garden hose snakes up a sidewalk near the border fence in Las Playas de Tijuana, one end hooked to a faucet in a public restroom, the other end dragged by a small but determined woman, María Esther Fernández Gueuara, a teacher at Colegio Tijuana. Gueuara -- called Teté for short -- hands the hose to one of her students and instructs the teenage boy to water the newly planted garden at his feet, a pretty mixture of native succulents, flowers and cacti that abuts the rusty base of the border fence. The boy points the hose at the plants then squirts himself in the face as soon as Teté turns her back. He and the rest of the students have been cleaning beaches and planting the garden since early morning; they're ready for the fiesta.
A live band starts playing music from atop the flat roof of a public bathroom while a few kids rush to finish a sidewalk mural nearby. Laura Silvan, founder of Proyecto Fronterizo, the activist group sponsoring the beach cleanup, stands in front of a huge pile of garbage bags piled in the street, clipboard in hand, ready to tally up the day's trash finds.
Things are much quieter on the San Diego side. A small crew of students from Kearny High School, all teenage girls from the school's MEChA club, and a handful of volunteers finish shoveling dirt onto their half of the garden. The white trucks of Border Patrol agents and state park rangers idle in the background while the only sound, aside from the shoveling, is the yapping of a tiny dog, a half-poodle, half-Chihuahua in a hot-pink sweater chained to the fence.
"Are you guys ready for some water over there or what?” Teté yells from the Tijuana side. "We'll give you some water,” she says with a laugh, "some Mexican water to feed your American plants.” Teté smiles, then carefully tiptoes her way through the garden so she can slip her hand through a hole in the fence. She shakes the hand-or finger, because that's all that fits-of Daniel Watman, founder of the Border Meetup Group, and congratulates him for a job well done.
Last week's binational garden project is one of the many events conceived and put into action by Watman, an activist armed with unnatural amounts of energy and dedication.
Watman, who teaches Spanish part-time at California Western School of Law, wears the prerequisite badge of liberalism, a long wavy ponytail tied at the nape of his neck. He doesn't drive a car, a choice made for political and environmental reasons a few years back, but he doesn't let it slow him down much, either. He chose a battle, immigration rights, and took it one step further by narrowing the scope to what he likes to call the "cultural front.” He says his goal with the Border Meetup Group (www.bordermeetup.org) is to break down cultural boundaries.
"People have all kinds of ideas of what a Mexican's like and what the border's like,” said Watman, "and when they meet somebody through the fence and they see all the similarities and all the differences, and just see them as an individual, that's when I feel like, OK, this is what I'm shooting for, and I get really excited.”
With the help of schools and organizations like Proyecto Fronterizo and Colegio Tijuana, Watman has been organizing monthly Border Meetup events in spring and summer for the last four years. Last summer, one of the most successful events was a binational salsa lesson. Hundreds of people from both sides of the border took part, dancing in the dirt and kicking up dust. This summer, Watman is planning a Mixtec teach-in, a surfing lesson, yoga class, poetry reading, another salsa lesson, a beach cleanup and a language exchange. "I'm hoping this will be the biggest summer yet,” he said. The backdrop for each Border Meetup event on the San Diego side is the beautiful natural surroundings of Border Field State Park, a sprawling reserve that's home to the Tijuana Estuary and several salt and freshwater marshes. Families divided by the border use Friendship Park, a portion of the state park, to picnic or talk with each other through the fence. The scene is almost always the same: deported fathers grasping children's hands and kissing wives through gaps and holes in the fence.
Watman picked the location both for the strong symbolism of what it's like to meet people through the fence and because the park itself shows the scars of the environmental degradation the fence has caused. According to Greg Abbott, an environmental scientist with California State Parks, the construction of some parts of the fence has caused erosion and sediment buildup in the Tijuana River and other waterways that flow across the border. The buildup causes part of the road leading to the park to become flooded with untreated sewage and runoff from the river in winter months-something that never happened before the federal government's Operation Gatekeeper immigration crackdown started in 1994 and construction of the first border fence began.
Just a few miles away from where Watman holds the Border Meetup gatherings, there's a section of the park called Smugglers Gulch. It's a deep ravine that the feds plan to fill with sediment to create flat ground for construction of a triple fence, part of the 700 miles of new border fencing authorized in the Secure Fence Act signed by President Bush late last year. When Watman drives by the proposed triple-fence construction site, he shakes his head, and although he doesn't consider his cultural events a direct protest of the new fencing, he does hope his message is getting through. "My motivation is always bringing people together,” he said, "and the fences are stopping that.”