Waves crash against the iron pilings of the border fence at Playas, Tijuana, in the farthest possible northwestern corner of Mexico. The fence is stark black against the muted grey tones of the ocean and sky, yet the atmosphere is upbeat as ladies sit on concrete benches under brightly colored flowered umbrellas, families snap photos, vendors push snack carts and couples stroll hand-in-hand. San Diego is barely visible through the haze to the north, but nobody appears to be looking in that direction, anyway. Instead, the collective attention is focused not on the border to the north and the land beyond, but to the west and out to sea.
Jose "El Negro" Castillo lives here. Standing on the portico atop the public restroom, he surveys the space around him and deeply inhales the fresh sea air. He considers the entire vista his living room, though he sleeps every night behind the second stall in the men's room of the lone public facility in the area. But the 42-year-old isn't lurking around temporarily or squatting there illegally, and even though he literally lives in a bathroom, he certainly isn't looking for anyone's pity. Instead, he is proud to call this place his home.
Eight months ago, Castillo was hired by inSite-a bi-national organization that creates temporary and permanent art projects in public spaces in San Diego and Tijuana-to work as the caretaker for the newly constructed garden along the border in the Playas district of Tijuana.
"People are always coming to that spot," explained Michael Krichman, co-director of inSite. "Mexico, in particular, is constantly kind of looking north both physically and psychologically, and the idea was to re-orient that view and bring it back to the ocean in a sense."
To that end, the space where there used to be only barren land, one filthy toilet and a queue of people waiting to get their crack at swimming across the border now looks like a page out of a tourist brochure. InSite has stalled a much nicer public restroom (with winding steps to the roof to offer visitors extended panoramic views), a cactus garden decorated by the purple and yellow blossoms of indigenous plants, and white-painted sidewalks that wind through the garden and slope down to the beach.
Krichman is correct that the spot has always drawn a high volume of people. The little patch of land serves as a main connection point between the so-called first and third worlds as some attempt to swim their way around the fence, long-separated families meet on both sides for fleeting contact and a glimpse of their children and those with the means pass money through to their family in Mexico.
Castillo's dark eyes shine with pride at the central role he now plays in the beautification of this space. In broken English, he declares that he's never been happier, and says he feels that after having spent 23 years living and raising a family outside of Los Angeles, he is finally doing something for his country.
Of course, living in the bathroom was not part of the original job description, but Castillo was enchanted by the atmosphere and asked for permission to live on the job site. His supervisors consented and say the arrangement has worked out even better than they expected.
"It's a good thing because it really keeps him [involved], and it's such an open spot," says Krichman. "He's been fantastic, really taking care of the place.... My sense is that he's done a very, very good job."
Castillo's duties include watering the plants, hosing down the sidewalks, keeping the garden and bathroom clean and litter-free and generally keeping the peace-though he seems to have taken on this last responsibility of his own volition.
"I love this place-it's a family park," says Castillo, "I try to keep it safe."
Castillo agreed to show CityBeat his abode but declined to have it photographed. In place of a welcome mat, he has pinned some white silk flowers to an exposed pipe at the entry to the bathroom. He leads the way past the two toilet stalls and a shopping cart stacked with blankets, opening a door to reveal his den. Despite the fact that the space can't be more than 6 feet wide and perhaps 10 feet deep, Castillo has a twin bed, a television, a stack of videos, a radio, a hot plate, a toaster oven, a blender, some framed photos, art supplies and a litter of puppies that squirm in a box under the small bookshelf. A pair of women's white bikini panties is stapled to the Mexican flag above his bed, evidence that his living quarters, while certainly unusual, still invite pleasurable activities.
Castillo appears happiest when he's working outside and maintains the grounds carefully and tenderly, making it clear once again that as far as he's concerned, his digs extend far beyond the four cramped walls of his bedroom.
After the tour of his room is over, Castillo strolls through the garden, picking up bits of trash.
"See," he jokes good-naturedly as he stoops to pick up a beer bottle, "is drunk already, my plants!"
Krichman says inSite considers the Playas garden an ongoing project and plans to continue to fund the maintenance of the park indefinitely. However, the garden is technically on land owned by the Mexican government, and if any Mexican organizations should ever show an interest in re-claiming the space, Krichman says inSite will gladly let them take over. Until that time comes, however, Krichman says he considers Castillo an integral part of the garden.
Two men approach the fence from the U.S. side, drawing attention to the fact that the mowed grass on which they stand looks strangely drab and featureless in comparison to Castillo's garden. Peering through the rusted fence, one of the men, Jeff Tofflla, an American in his early 40s, admits he's not yet visited the garden.
Nevertheless, his reaction shows that Castillo has a right to be proud of his work.
"[The garden] looks beautiful and peaceful," observes Tofflla, "like the kind of place I'd like to visit."