At the Wall that Divides Us: The California Mexican Border

I handed my passport to the Mexican border patrol agent.

“Does it take a long time to come back?” I asked him.

“Sometimes four hours.”

He smirked and averted his eyes. I tried to make small talk anyways but he responded to my words with silence. Within a minute, he’d granted me a visa and I was free to enter Mexico.

A few steps later, I crossed the border from the U.S. into Mexico as easily as walking in and out of a shopping mall.

The day before, my friend from high school and journalist, Derek, mentioned he’d been covering a story in Mexico that follows a border patrol agent and a few families who meet at the border fence every weekend to talk to their loved ones. I asked if I could come along and promised to be just a shadow while he worked and made connections.

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A taxi driver in a yellow cab waved us in and we directed him to Playa de Tijuana, or Friendship Park. Every weekend, families from both sides of the border meet at a mesh fence to exchange stories and reconnect with their loved ones. Once a year, the gate opens for a few minutes, allowing children to hug their family members — sometimes for the first time. This weekend, like most weekends, the gate would stay firmly shut.

“Don’t get in another colored cab.” Our driver lifted his hand off of the wheel, revealing four full-sized fingers and one stump. “Another taxi driver shoved me in the back of the trunk. Cut off my finger. Don’t take the blue taxis — very dangerous.”

“Do you think he’s for real?” I whispered to Derek.

“I don’t know. I don’t think so.” Derek answered.

At least it wasn’t the thumb…

No matter if the story is true or false, it doesn’t bode well for the taxi industry’s reputation. Best case scenario: taxi drivers are liars. Worst case scenario: taxi drivers chop off people’s body parts.

We arrived at Friendship Park fifteen minutes later, and I was happy to be out of the car and away from the mysterious nine-fingered man.

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About sixty Mexicans with guitars and colorful clothing played music against the fence. Across the fence were paintings of murals depicting hearts, the word ’empathy,’ and two fingers interlacing. Though the U.S. side was strictly controlled, with a tight ratio of Border Patrol Agents to visitors (who entered through an extra fence), the Mexican side was an unregulated party complete with dancing, singing, and food carts.

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“Is it always so lively?” I asked Derek, who’d been here multiple times before.

“No, this has to be some sort of celebration.”

We watched for a few minutes as families and friends touched fingers through the tiny holes in the mesh. A father held up a child’s painting for his loved ones on the other side. A couple walked to the side of the crowd, craving privacy. We were the only yanquis around and at times I felt displaced, wondering if I was perceived as an eavesdropper, snooping on the wrong side of the border. However, all the people around us never made us feel unwelcome. Any eye contact made was met with a slight smile. But for the most part, I was invisible.

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A father brings a child’s painting to show to family across the border

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We walked along the boardwalk. I could see Imperial Beach from where we were, a place I used to teach surf lessons during the summers while I was at university. The smell of corn cooking on a roadside cart mixed with the stench of an open sewer. Money, culture, opportunity — there was more than just metal dividing the two cities. The steel fence jut out into the ocean. On a foggy day, some attempt to swim out into the sea and around it.

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After forty minutes or so, we walked back to Friendship Park, where the singers and dancers were performing with just as much vigor as when we’d left. The song went on forever.

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A short woman with a wide smile walked up to us and pointed to our cameras. “Periodista? Journalist?”

I nodded and called Derek.

She introduced herself as Maria, an activist who devotes her time to helping those in need around the entire Tijuana area. She waved over a man wearing a shirt with “Border Angels” printed on the back and told me about their group. The Border Angels are a nonprofit who aid in legal affairs and psychological support for those who’ve been deported from the U.S. Next week, they would be joining a protest led by deported U.S. veterans. The week after that, they’d be dropping off water and food along the border’s most barren areas, to help anyone risking their lives to cross over.

Border crossing is a business that’s lucrative for the coyotes, or men paid to smuggle lead people over the border, and often deadly for those who attempt it. (You can read a fascinating in-depth account by Derek on this post, A Tour of the Border.)

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I don’t understand those who can have such animosity towards people willing to spend all that they have, separate from their families, and risk death in search of a better life. I thought back to the rusty letters sprayed across the fence. Empathy: something that isn’t widespread in the U.S. milieu.

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We asked Maria if she knew where we could hail a taxi back to the border checkpoint. She offered to take us herself — if we didn’t mind stopping at a homeless shelter along the way.

We couldn’t see into the back windows of Maria’s SUV because it was filled with used clothing. I opened the door and tried to crawl in. I picked up an unopened package of adult diapers and searched for a place to put it, but resigned to setting it on my lap. Every nook was stuffed with toys, clothing, toiletries, and supplies. Derek crammed in beside me and Maria’s friend sat up front.

“The Mexican government, they don’t like me talking to the media. A boy was shot in Tijuana — nobody cares. There’s no story. There’s no action. They want to cover it up and pretend it never happened. Why doesn’t someone care? I’ll talk to anyone who will listen. Just a few weeks ago, I reported to the media that there were hundreds of homeless people sleeping in the hills. The next day, the government came and found a new place for them…” She laughed, “I don’t care if anyone doesn’t want me talking. I’ve worked in tough jobs my entire life — drugs, AIDS, mental health problems.”

Her voice went quiet. “I’ve already lost my son to cancer. I have nothing else to lose.”

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We arrived at the homeless shelter. Through the window I could see that it was filled with older men. Maria sorted through the mess with military-like precision, pulling out only the male’s clothing.

“I’ll drop the rest off later, somewhere else.” She told us as we hopped back into the car and weaved through the busy streets.

Derek made plans to see her again next week. I bid her goodbye.

The day before I visited Friendship Park, my little sister and I attended a Trump rally (not as supporters, but as observers). The anger in the sea of voices chanting, “Build a wall! Build a wall!” at the Trump rally was a disturbing contrast to the atmosphere of peace and community at the Mexico/California border wall. Build a wall to keep out people like Maria? Build a wall to keep out the people who spend their spare time dropping off water in the desert so that humans don’t die of dehydration? I wondered if the people at the Trump rally would be able to proclaim their separatist battle cry in front of a father touching his child’s fingertips through a cold metal fence.

Humanity is more complicated than us versus them.

After a short line and pass through a metal detector, we were back in the United States. Our four-hour wait was more like fifteen minutes.

Those few steps are the ultimate representation of privilege, where I can complete a journey in the matter of minutes that many other people on earth would risk their lives for. It’s a privilege I did nothing to earn, as it’s pure chance that my DNA assembled inside of the uterus of an American citizen, just one hour north of Mexico.

My passport is a genetic lottery prize, not a deserved item.

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35 Responses

  1. Oscar says:

    Thank you for sharing a story about humanity.

  2. I learned a valuable lesson. While in Mexico blue or yellow, don’t take the cab.

  3. This is a beautiful piece and an examination of your own privilege. As Americans we are lucky to have passports that grant us access to almost everywhere in the world. Most of us do not understand the pain and suffering that comes with families being ripped apart and risking their lives for a better future. You are right. The divisive rhetoric at Trump rallies is harmful, as issues are always more complicated than us vs them.

    Beautiful pictures, too!
    Erika Bisbocci recently posted…Gamlastan, Royal Palaces and the Stockholm ArchipelagoMy Profile

    • Chantae says:

      Thanks Erika. I definitely agree – every time I open my passport or check for a visa requirement I’m reminded of my privilege. Thanks for reading <3

  4. Anita Zych says:

    Interesting. I have neve been in this part of the world and I didn’t know this kind of wall exists. It reminds me Palestine, cuz it is the only place I have seen this kind of separation between people. Thanks for sharing
    Anita Zych recently posted…Israel / Palestine Conflict – Trip to PalestineMy Profile

  5. Collette says:

    Love this piece Chantae. I want to read more! It’s so moving and makes me want to pack my bags and fly to Mexico to help somehow. Sounds like it was a very eye opening trip.

  6. Mike Cotton says:

    Families separated by arbitrary borders, what a world we live in.

  7. Chloe says:

    Gosh, growing up in SoCal it’s been so long since I’ve been to the Mexican/US border in San Ysidro! I kind of avoided it the last few years due to the security and have since moved to Denver. I missed being able to go down to Ensenada whenever we wanted!! Looks like it’s becoming safer again!! Love your pictures and post!

    • Chantae says:

      Yeah, I know what you mean. To be fair I didn’t spend enough time down there to get a real feeling of how safe/unsafe things are. It is so nice to live so close, though!

  8. Janine Good says:

    The pictures truly illustrate the humanity and the heart at the border. I love the biblical verse wording on the fence and that the Mexican community didn’t make you feel unwelcome. This part of the country doesn’t get much positive press (you hear more about resort towns) that it was nice to see your piece.
    Janine Good recently posted…The Thai King’s Passing: What to Know When Travelling to ThailandMy Profile

  9. Pete says:

    Great story! I wonder how many Americans are actually aware of the fact that the wall they are all shouting for already exists in large parts of the country. It’s a shame people behave this way towards each other. In my opinion it comes down to lack of education and probably lack of interest in being educated. FOX and CNN are just more convenient than independent media outlets that actually make you think and form an opinion for yourself. Would like to read more about Mexico 😉

    • Chantae says:

      Yeah, your observation is totally spot on. There is too much political distance where people are unwilling to entertain alternative thoughts and ideas to their own. I would love to read more about Mexico too 🙂 Wish I was there longer.

  10. Oscar says:

    This story really touched my heart. Your article and photos showed a very humble humanitarian side. I want to thank you for showing a side that is totally different from what Trump supporters are trying to portrait about Mexico. I have been to Tijuana many times and every time I cross over to the USA, I feel humble, fortunate and blessed to live in a country that offers many opportunities. However, I feel sad and emotional for the honest people that are on the other side of the wall and are trying to get here to get a better future. Trump is a privileged individual and not an ordinary man. He will never understand how the other half of the world live.

    • Chantae says:

      Thanks Oscar, that’s a really touching comment. I also feel fortunate when crossing over. And yes, totally agree with your perspective that someone who has hatred for people trying to better their lives has no understanding of what it’s like.

  11. Isn’t it interesting how a border draws the line between two nations and what you see (culture, history..etc) changes so drastically? Very nice write-up and thank you for showing me your experience through your writing 🙂

  12. Loved going through the pictures in the blog.Human emotions have been captured in their best possible natural form.
    Arnav @ Eat, Travel, Live and REPEAT recently posted…The ETLR (Eat, Travel, Live & REPEAT) Bangkok Food Trail – Part 1My Profile

  13. Maybe the culture in this area is diversified by Mexican and American.

  14. Jack says:

    It is real picture, real world under your words. I hope that many people can read and support to countries in poverty, like Mexico.
    Thank you. You are a true journalist.
    Jack recently posted…How Do Pull Ups Help Increase Height? 3 Tips Can Help You!My Profile

  15. Looking at your photos, I could see hope, happiness and positive colors. Thanks for your photos. In a world like today, war, death, terrorists … are every where. What we need, what’s the most important foundation, love, hope and belief.

  16. Emily says:

    Nice !!! So in love with this piece of story about humanity Chantae !
    Your post and the photos just about make me feel sooo excited to come to this place for my next trip 😀
    Thank you for sharing the story of your journey 🙂
    Emily recently posted…How To Build a Bicycle Wheel: Doing It RightMy Profile

  17. Kate Storm says:

    What a fascinating post, and what an interesting opportunity to visit Friendship Park.

    As an American citizen reading this from Mexico right now, you’re completely right–“humanity is more complicated than us versus them”. I fear for the empathy levels of many of our fellow Americans–you wrote this before the election, of course, but we all saw what happened there.
    Kate Storm recently posted…The Ultimate Packing List for Central America & MexicoMy Profile

  18. Amber Rolak says:

    I shared this.Made me cry at two points in the story because of the reality.So sad to read about the loss of the son and then to read about how a man can’t even hold his or hug him is heartbreaking as well.Everyone always have an opinion about how so many men don’t step up to the plate but in situations like these they cannot do anything further than what they are doing for their children.So I would just hope that people be less opinionated about the wall until they go visit this border themselves.My words of advice is to bring your own toilet paper if you do.Seriously.
    Amber

    • Chantae says:

      Thanks for your sweet comment Amber. It is really sad and I totally agree, people should see what’s happening for themselves before judging another’s life.

  19. Dirk says:

    The feels are real. Heartbreaking.

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