It seems we can’t escape newspaper articles, radio reports and TV programmes about the border between the USA and Mexico, and all this has led me to think of my travels along that border some years ago. I wrote an article at the time for The Traveller magazine and I thought it might be interesting to use it as a Post on my Blog as when I was there the border seemed to benefit the American tourists almost as much as the Mexicans.
So, here it is.
You’ll see them every evening, peering through the holes in the fence at the patrolling agents on the US side, or astride the wall, silently waiting for sundown and their chance to make that final spurt for freedom. These are the ‘chickens’ – illegal immigrants who nightly swarm across the high steel fence that snakes inland from Tijuana to San Diego. Like the old Berlin Wall, this one also has arc lights and guards equipped with night-vision cameras.
San Diego County, USA, borders Mexico for approximately 70 miles but the wall itself runs for only 14 of them. Further north, the immigrants risk a gruelling three or four day journey across tough, arid terrain, but from Tijuana to the suburbs of San Diego it is only a short run. Joselito spoke for them all. “If we don’t make it tonight, there is a chance of finding some sort of job while we wait for another day. So we stay”.
Tijuana is a tough place to live: it is noisy and dirty, the crime rate is high and drugs are easily available, but for the scores of people who arrive daily from all over Mexico, this frontier town is the gateway to new beginnings and new hopes, Many who come here to try their luck at crossing the border end up finding ways to support themselves and their families in Tijuana itself.
You will see them on the side-streets of the city: the brick-makers who squat by the streams, the farriers who tool and fashion the graceful Mexican saddles and boots, the touts who stand by the sidewalk, a damaged car door in one hand and a panel-beater in the other. Their customers are Americans who drive their cars across the border for high calibre work at one-tenth of what it would cost in California.
That’s not the only thing that attracts Americans to Tijuana. Drugs and dental treatments that are expensive in the United States are cheap and readily available in this border city. It is almost certain that the American matrons you see clutching pharmacy bags have just picked up a six-month supply of Prozac at giveaway prices, a supply of chemotherapy treatment or a mixed bag of sleeping pills and wake-up pills.
Rich and poor live in close proximity here. There are modest houses of concrete and metal alongside magnificent colonial-style mansions, interspersed with crazily leaning shacks. Plastic containers, splashed recklessly with scarlet and yellow paint and filled with scented red and pink geraniums, define the ‘garden’ space in front of these dwellings. Here and there on end walls are brilliant murals of darkly exotic flowers and oceans and skies of an impossible blue, a naive art that owes more to the capacity for gaiety and colour in the Mexican temperament than to any innate artistic talents. Even here, strolling groups of traditionally dressed Mariachi bands want to serenade you and if you have suffered six versions of Quantanamera in 30 minutes it may be prudent to know the title of one or two other Mexican songs.
Twenty years ago, Tijuana was little more than a clutch of ragged adobe houses and a few stores, a border town of such searing poverty and dirt that I was glad to leave it. Today it is a city in its own right, a city that has a future – of sorts. Above all, it has a young and vibrant population, one of the reasons why Samsung, Sanyo, General Electric, Ford and other multinationals have invested billions of dollars in the city and why they currently employ more than 100,000 workers here. The fact that there is work for thousands where before there was nothing will not halt the border crossings, but it makes the plight of the ‘chickens’ less hopeless and enables some of them to remain in their own country.
Meanwhile, the steel border, illuminated at night, adds a frisson of excitement, a charge, to life in Tijuana. And those gaunt figures that sit astride it today will be followed, inevitably, by others tomorrow.