Faces At The Border: Commuter Staffers Talk Through the Fence in Tijuana
Waves crashed and boomed as I made my way with two other Commuter staffers towards the westernmost border of the U.S. and Mexico. Having packed for the ACP student journalism convention, all three of us struggled to conquer the sandy terrain in flat boots and running shoes. The recent heavy precipitation in southern California filled the air with a strong smell of fresh rain, and covered the dilapidated state park roads in deep puddles, creating roadblocks for potential park tourists. We were determined, however, to practice our craft. So we trucked forward.
A border patrol agent who asked to be left unnamed waved to us from inside his white Chevy Tahoe. He was parked on a hill facing south, and watched closely as we walked towards the border fence. He sounded a brief “whoop” with his siren when we got too close to the outer fence. We circled back and met him at his post.
“A guard will open up the gate to the International Friendship Park in about 30 minutes,” said the agent, withdrawing inside his vehicle to avoid our photojournalist’s viewfinder.
From this vantage point, we surveyed the metal wall that divided one land into two nations.
“A lot of development has happened here,” said the agent. “This fence used to look like chopsticks.”
A coast guard helicopter circled overhead as we caught our breath seated at one of the many picnic tables atop the coastal hill.
In the late morning, the U.S. side of the International Friendship Park was almost completely empty save for one man, who stood alone looking out at the tall, ocean worn metal fence. Angel Hernandez travelled to San Diego alone from Vancouver, Washington to visit his wife between the bars.
“We aren’t really married, but I still call her my wife,” said Hernandez. “She used to live in Portland, she was deported to Mexico about two, three years ago.”
As we waited for the guard to arrive and open the proxy gate, Hernandez kept his phone handy, texting occasionally and frequently checking for a response. “I’m waiting to meet her,” he said, “This is the first time I will see her since she was deported.”
At 10 a.m. another border patrol officer unlocked and opened the gate, asking if we understood the Friendship Park rules posted on our side of the fence.
“No filming, pictures, video, or electronic recordings of any type.”
In the little space between the densely interlaced bars of the rusted fence, several faces beamed back at us, their smiles barely visible.
The first to greet us was Gus Nava, lively and grinning. He said that he was from Las Vegas, and that he was visiting family in Tijuana. A relative of his, Maribel, stood quietly at his side.
“I come here every month to visit,” Nava said. As we spoke, people went about their morning behind him. Joggers passed in colorful attire, a man with a camera freely took our picture, and several others simply watched our exchange.
The Mexico side of the Parque de la Amistad was spotted with multicolored sculptures and vast murals painted on buildings. “There’s color on this side, there’s a big heart painted on the fence over here,” Nava observed. Looming above person and 20 foot fence alike was an old faro (lighthouse) that gleamed bright white in the late morning sun.
Another face that appeared from behind the fence was Hector Bramasco, who was no stranger to press coverage. As the caravan moved closer to the border, several international news organizations approached Bramasco for a Tijuanan perspective on the issue. “I’ve talked to people from Australia, France, and Japan about this,” said Bramasco. “One time, a group from Japan wanted to come record me, film me and my family in my house. I said ‘OK.’”
Bramasco is a volunteer at his church, La Iglesia Fronteriza, which organizes once a week to donate items to the migrants and pray with a Pastor.
Throughout the migration, many in Mexico have denied asylum seekers hospitality, but Bramasco insisted that despite challenges, he hopes his community can work to support these people during this tumultuous time. “Some [migrants] make mistakes, do bad things, but not all,” he said. “We have to learn to be tolerant.”
We said our goodbyes, having a plane to catch back to Portland, OR in just a few hours, and made our way north up the beach. The cheery faces vanished into the metal grates, echoes and squeaks and hollers of the city persisted. Even while divided by a 20-foot border wall, voices faded, but did not disappear.
Column by Caleb Barber