After a half-dozen trips, I thought I knew Tijuana. I thought I understood the ups and downs of border life. But I had never been to the crazy spot between the United States and Mexico, San Ysidro and Tijuana, where the border wall descends into the sea.
I finally saw during a trip with the Occidental College Multicultural Summer Institute in 2008. Given all I had learned about the border’s militarization and uber-tight security, the fence surprised me. On land, a puny, thin sheet of corrugated metal. At the beach it morphed into an average chain-link fence, then a collection of rusted metal planks arranged at odd angles, leaving gaps almost big enough to squeeze through. Finally, it transformed into a series of wooden beams snaking out into the water.
“That’s it?” I thought. I expected more — a visual image equal to the wall’s tremendous significance. But maybe its flimsiness was appropriate. The border may have keep worlds apart, but it didn’t prevent me from connecting with people in Tijuana — talking, learning their stories, sharing an experience.
Like Luis and Rael. Both were born in Mexico, but had lived in Orange County most of their lives. Police had picked them up in a gang raid just a couple of weeks earlier – a matter of being on the wrong street at the wrong time. The two were deported to Tijuana, where they didn’t know a soul. Their families were all in the United States, of course, including Rael’s baby girl. (He showed me a photo.) Luis and Rael told me they had already crossed to the U.S. a few times, and would do so again soon. The pull of el norte was strong.
When I asked how they crossed, Luis said, “I can’t tell you.” I thought he didn’t want me to spread secrets. Then he added, “If I tell you, you’d have to come with me.” And it hit me: I could never understand that kind of experience in mere words.
When Luis asked if I could lend a dollar to help them get back, I passed a five through one of the gaps in the wall without hesitating. He also asked if they could join the students on our bus back to San Diego. For a moment I slipped into fantasy and entertained the idea of helping them sneak around the wall… before snapping to reality. It was difficult to accept that even though we were standing an inch apart I couldn’t get them a lift home just because we were separated by a symbolic wall. I felt bewildered and sad. It was incomprehensible how I could be so close to people, know so much about them, yet be separated by such an immense boundary. The contradiction felt surreal.
Despite the heaviness, we parted happily. Or maybe it was just bittersweet. I wished them good luck and said “nos vemos pronto!” Of course I had no idea if I would see Luis and Rael again, or on which side of the border that might happen. In a way, it didn’t seem far-fetched that I might run into them in Santa Ana. As I walked back to the bus, Luis and Rael yelled in unison, “Daina! I love you!” I laughed and waved back, shouting “hasta luego!” It was as if we were united just as strongly as we were separated.