With his velvet half-size top hat and nubby purple sweater vest a few sizes too big, he could be a poet or a ringmaster in some sort of working-class circus. A group of 15 or so young bohemians, political activists and curious passers-by are gathered around him, listening as he lectures, seminar-style, about culture versus commerce, reclaiming public space, resisting corporate dominance. He speaks gently, his talk peppered with highbrow references: memes, semiotic violence, Dadaism.
“We're immersed in an environment where commerce controls what happens and what we do,” he says. The group nods in agreement.
He's mid-way through a discussion of the 1960s French Situationist movement, drawing upon their “the more you consume, the less you live,” ideology, when a short, stocky 40-ish Latina woman in a pink flowered dress sidles past him. At her side is a pudgy girl not much older than 12, a pink bandana tied around her hair. A minute later the two are followed by what the observer assumes is the other half of the family-a Latino man wearing dress pants and a white collared shirt (father) and a young boy in a striped T-shirt and jeans (son).
“... there's an energy coming at us from consumer culture and corporate media; it's attacking our ability to think clearly,” says the poet to his audience.
The woman, man, boy and girl wind their way up a dusty path and approach the 15-foot high chain-link fence that sits a few yards beyond the poet and his group. Their side is dust, overgrown weeds and rocks; the other side of the fence, a well-manicured lawn, freshly cut, recently watered, part of San Diego's Border Field State Park (christened “Friendship Park” in 1971 by then-first lady Pat Nixon).
On the park side another family has gathered—a young woman with a baby stroller, a man and two small children. The two groups talk, animated, bodies pressed up against the fence, fingers wrapped around the openings in the linked wires. The older woman in pink passes sugared fruit candy to the children on the other side.
“... the way the art world is building, fusing a culture to resist,” the poet continues.
Everything he's saying is interesting, enlightening, intellectually appealing, but it can't compete with what's going on a few yards to his right-a strikingly real moment that, for those of us who traverse freely across borders, socks you right in the throat.
The woman in pink, her husband, son and daughter are from Mexico City; the family on the other side of the fence lives in the U.S. The young woman on the U.S. side is the daughter of the woman in pink and the man in the dress pants, and she's the older sister of the pink-bandana girl and the striped-shirt boy. Her children are the grandchildren, the niece and nephew of the family on the other side. And this is the first time they've had a reunion of this sort; the first time the daughter has seen her family in six years.
The mother explains to the reporter that they've come from Mexico City for a weeklong visit to Tijuana. Before leaving home they had made plans to meet with their daughter at this location, at this day and time. “This is the only way we can see each other,” the mother explains. They are too much of a flight risk to get visas-poor Mexican citizens, especially those with relatives who have preceded them to the U.S., have no reason to stay in their homeland, say immigration officials. As for those who have migrated to the U.S., many of them lack the documentation (or harbor too much of a fear of INS corruption) that would allow them to return to Mexico to visit family.
The mother reaches her fingers through the fence, signaling for her daughter to bring the baby closer, and for the first time, she gives her granddaughter a kiss. Despite the fence, the toddler giggles, delighted, and pushes her baby-fat cheek even closer to her grandmother's lips. The two families will remain at that spot for the next three hours, catching up on all they've missed. The men on both sides will wander off to get food or a drink of water for their families; the children will sit down and shade their eyes from the sun, but the mother and daughter stay standing, talking the entire time until they part ways at 3 p.m.
“This is the new Berlin wall, separating families,” says the daughter about the fence that's wedged itself between her and her mother.
It's become a one-sided border, immigrant-rights activists argue, open to the transport of goods and commerce but closed to people—especially to those who derive no benefit from the free exchange.
San Diego County's economy is roughly 20 times that of Tijuana's, a fact that wouldn't matter much—one's part of a slow-developing nation, the other contains the sixth-largest city in the U.S.—except for the proximity of the two.
Its own government's long history of incompetence and corruption is no doubt to blame for the conditions in Mexico, but so too is U.S. policy. NAFTA has dealt a blow not only to the entire Mexican economy but also to Tijuana's once-thriving maquiladora industry (also known as the Mexican Border Industrialization Program). Simply put, maquiladoras are international offshore manufacturing plants for which necessary parts, machinery and raw materials are allowed to be imported and the final products exported duty-free and tax-free for the maquiladoras' corporate owners. Despite low wages and poor working conditions, the plants have become default employment options for an unskilled Mexican workforce.
However, as of Jan. 1, 2001, under NAFTA rules, only maquiladora plants owned by companies from NAFTA-member countries (the U.S., Canada and Mexico) get the tax kickbacks. Additionally, plants, regardless of origin, that might rely on imported foreign-made parts and equipment must pay tariffs on those imports. What it all results in is a mess of compliance rules overburdening an already volatile system and because of this in the past year alone, 50,000 maquiladora workers in Tijuana have been laid off.
Mexico's leaders should have seen this coming, some say, and invested in better infrastructure and kept up with technology that would allow them to compete in the world markets. It's somewhat of a moot point, however, and sharing a border with a first-world country has only underscored Mexico's poverty, especially when it comes to Tijuana.
Third-world Tijuana is pushing up against its first world neighbor. More than 2 million people—double 1990 estimates—inhabit Tijuana, most of them filling up the steep canyons and valleys that provide a natural barrier between countries. But what this critical mass is really pushing up against is an unyielding fortress.
The chain-link fence that once separated the two countries was replaced in the early '90s with a stronger, steel matting fence that stretched into the Pacific Ocean-out to a point where the strong current makes swimming around the fence dangerous. 1994 introduced Operation Gatekeeper to the San Diego-Tijuana border, which doubled the number of Border Patrol agents and in doing so resulted in a skyrocketing number of complaints of racial profiling and police abuse. Since its inception, immigrants-rights people attribute more than 2,000 migrant deaths—70 in June of this year alone—to Operation Gatekeeper, which activists say forces migrants into border-region mountains and deserts where they are exposed to extreme weather conditions.
In addition to imposed military force, plans for a second border fence to supplement the rust-mottled original fence are in the works despite protest from environmentalists who say that the additional fence will imperil the ecologically sensitive areas it'll bisect. The new fence is expected to cost around $1 million per mile, essentially creating a no-man's land between fences. In theory, the reasons for the additional fencing seem pretty clear: to reduce high-level drug smuggling and international crime. The reality is that drug smugglers are far too sophisticated to be kept back by a steel fence.
“The powers that be want us to see the border as a danger or a threat over which we have a firm upper hand,” says Ben Weinstein, who works with La Resistencia, a Houston-based immigrants-rights organization that also has a San Diego office. “NAFTA and Operation Gatekeeper began at the same time, trapping people in a place where they are forced to work for wages one-eighth what they are [in San Diego].”
But, adds Weinstein, U.S. elected officials never tell their constituents about Mexico's social realities. “Instead it's all about protecting our children from drugs and terrorism.”
For the third year in a row, Luis Rosales has organized Tijuana's Borderhack, the only Latin American version of similar peaceful border protests that have taken place throughout Europe since 1998. He, along with the help of friends and supporters, have set up camp at what's perhaps the best location for this sort of thing—“friendship circle,” a round slab of concrete sitting half on U.S. territory, the other half in Tijuana. Cutting through the circle's midsection is the chain-link fence that runs the length of Friendship Park, the only “see-through” portion of the border fence, save for a handful of cut-aways in the rusted steel matting that comprises the rest of the barrier.
It's at this spot where Mrs. Nixon stood 31 years ago to dedicate the area and adjoining park. “I hope,” Nixon said, glancing at the fence separating the space, “there won't be a fence here too long.”
Rosales and fellow organizers Fran Ilich and Daniel Moreno were born in Tijuana. “The border has been a big part of our lives since we were kids,” Rosales explains in slow, precise English, “but we didn't fully understand the problems that arise from it.”
As teenagers, he and Ilich developed a growing sense of awareness of what was going on in their city, the “duality of life” between their country and its neighbor. They began self-publishing print media that focused on the theme of border crossings, literally and ideologically, and in trying to find other ways to get their message across, they stumbled upon Borderhack, the first incarnation of which was held in summer of 1998 in Rothenburg, Germany to protest Central European migration policy.
The term “Borderhack” is a play on words, Rosales said. On one hand there's the divisive notion of “hack”-the slogan “delete the border” is a manifest of the event's utmost goal. The second meaning taps into cyber-culture lingo. (Rosales, who spends most of his time as a medical intern at the Tijuana state hospital, admits he “hacked” into a local phone system the night before so participants could communicate online with supporters worldwide.)
“The metaphor of ‘hacking,'” Rosales explains, “is learning all you can about a system and learning to fix it in one way or another. It's trying to see the border from different ways, different aspects.”
Tijuana's Borderhack is a three-day event that draws people from around the world—there's a large contingent that caravanned from Northern California, bringing with them several donated computers that they plan to leave for use by a Tijuana-based nonprofit. A smattering of other languages and accents reveal world travelers who are passing through, getting a sense of what this other part of America is like. A gentleman from Nicaragua and a young man from Austria converse freely in Spanish, the former clearly delighted by the opportunity to educate his new friend.
If they can put up with the sweeping spotlights and occasional fly-overs by military aircraft, participants are welcome to camp out on the Playas de Tijuana beachfront, just down a slight rocky incline from where Rosales and his crew have set up computers, information tables and tarps. The tents are pushed up against the iron rods and rusted steel that jut out of the sand. “Alto Guardian,” a warning aimed at people thinking about trespassing, is spray-painted on the fence along with painted outlines of people climbing the measured curves of the wall. Someone points out that the wall on the other side has been kept rust- and graffiti-free and that the white folks who walk along the sand have no idea that the other side is so ugly.
Prior to the event, Rosales sent out a general invitation for interested parties to make presentations at Borderhack—the poet, actually a San Francisco artist named Pod, was one person who took up Rosales' offer, putting together a presentation on “culture jamming”—resisting corporate media through innovative exchange of ideas between independent groups and organizations.
Rosales' goal was to find creative ways to address border-related issues. The festival kicked off with a group of University of California, San Diego students who put together a series of digital art projects. Rosales' favorite, he said, was a video game that puts the player in the place of a Mexican immigrant attempting to cross the border, find a job in the U.S. and send money back to family in Mexico.
“[Borderhack] is not about telling people what to do or how to think,” says Rosales. “We're going to give you all the information in different forms of media, and you can decide for yourself.”
This year some technical glitches have prevented the festival from being as multi-media as Rosales would have liked-the first year he won sponsorship from an Internet company who pitched a “freedom through the internet” campaign; Rosales convinced the company that the event's theme of breaking down borders was a perfect match. It was a one-time only thing, however. “Companies turn away from anything to do with the word ‘hack' or anything that's against the U.S.,” he explained.
A three-panel cardboard display is about as high-tech as they get, but Rosales knows that La Resistencia will put on a good show. “It's always interesting to see a group of Americans challenging their own citizens,” he says of the organization that's represented at Borderhack by a contingent of San Diego activists.
“I won't be a snitch for the INS” reads a button on Aida Reyes' brimmed hat. Reyes and Dan Kaufman, both of La Resistencia, do tag-team interpreting for a crowd that's grown to 40 or 50 people, Spanish and English speakers equally represented.
Reyes leads off in English, speaking in measured cadence, fueled by charisma that comes from channeling frustration into voice. “Our immigrant brothers and sisters, everyday more and more are finding it a necessity to cross the border, exposing themselves to the danger of the border patrol officer,” she announces. “You have the extreme cold of the winter in the mountains, dehydration in the summer. Before the wall went up, migrants had the opportunity to cross and find the most difficult work,” she says, referring to the 1942-64 Bracero program through which Mexican immigrants were brought over to the U.S. to supplement the World War II and post-World War II agricultural labor force. “They were exploited in those jobs,” she says, “but at least they were able to find opportunities.
“It's not like they wanted to get up and leave their families,” she adds.
“We're going to expose the abuses that take place at the border, the migrants being forced into Arizona given the augmentation of the San Diego border patrol,” explains Reyes.
Using the hacked-into phone line and phone tap hooked into a P.A. system, which is nothing more than a Fender amp, Rosales puts in a call to Rick Ufford-Chase from Samaritan Patrols a nonprofit human rights organization based in Tucson, Arizona, that provides medical care, food and water to migrants making their way through the Arizona desert.
Ufford-Chase explains that they found two more bodies that morning, just west of Tucson where it's not uncommon for temperatures to reach 115 degrees. It's something he chooses not to discuss further, talking instead about a recent dilemma that's drawn media attention to his group.
While on patrol with a newspaper reporter in mid-July, they came upon a couple that had crossed the border with a coyote—an immigrant smuggler—but had become separated from him. Too ill for onsite medical care, Ufford-Chase and his group took the couple to a Tucson church where they could recuperate and seek medical care with no fear of deportation. The reporter, however, wanting to generate a hook for her story, called up the border patrol and informed them of what was going on. “She wanted to find out what would happen when the two sides came face to face,” said Ufford-Chase.
The couple was faced with two options-leave the medical facility immediately and continue through the desert or turn themselves in to the border patrol. Ufford-Chase said he urged them to choose the latter.
Under the law, Ufford-Chase said, Samaritan Patrol isn't doing anything illegal. The medical assistance they provide is considered humanitarian aid and is therefore perfectly legal and, he said, Samaritan Patrol is open about everything they do, a must in a state where there are groups who that regularly round up migrants and turn them over to the border patrol. Or take matters into their own hands and kill the people they find.
“Was it a mistake to let a journalist come along?” asks a Borderhack participant.
“She wrote an article that was very supportive [of our work],” Ufford-Chase explained. The couple may not have reached their goal, but perhaps positive press in an area skeptical of migrants was a necessary trade-off.
“Don't listen only to what the activists say,” Rosales cautions the reporter. “Listen to the people-it's important to hear the testimony of people living here.
This, he says pointing to Friendship Circle and to the fence that stretches out into the ocean, “is the corner of the world, where it starts and where it ends.”
Visuals, perhaps, are more powerful than words could ever be. A couple of hours after the family from Mexico City had departed, an elderly gentleman stands in the same spot, waiting. He's tall, gangly, his arms and hands covered in a layer of dry skin.
Shortly, a woman in her 30s makes her way across the park lawn and approaches the man at the fence. He says his name is Pedro Martinez and his daughter's is Anna. He's traveled 48 hours on a bus from Vera Cruz, a poverty-stricken town in southeastern Mexico, to see Anna for the first time in 14 years. She's brought him tacos that she slips through the gate, attracting attention from a nearby border patrol agent who summons three additional patrol vans to the area.
The father-daughter reunion is far less lively than the one that took place earlier in the day—perhaps Pedro Martinez is tired from his trip; perhaps too much time and space are between him and his daughter.
Daniel Moreno watches from a few yards away. He explains that the two family reunions on one day were no coincidence but something that happens far too often.
“You come here to see your family through a fence,” he says.