IMAGE: Old border fence at Border Field State Park, between San Diego and Tijuana, next to the Pacific Ocean. iStock photo.
NOTE: I wrote this (unpublished) column in 2009, just before Friendship Park was closed so a new border wall could be built. The park was reopened, but the sadness remains in this southwestern corner of the United States. A world divided by the whims of humans. The Mexican next door to the south, America to the north.
Mexico is on the other side. Through a chain link fence I can see its people, its buildings, its beach. I can smell the food waiting to be sold from hot grills, attended by men and women trying to fill the beachgoers’ needs for something to eat. A snack, a meal. Something to be shared with the rest of the group, with the family.
I can also hear the sounds of blissful music, played on loud speakers that contribute to the festive occasion. It is mostly Mexican, banda, rancheras, but spiked with vallenato and other tropical sounds. Uplifting notes and beats that sift through the fence, migrating north without a visa.
Not far from me, but on the Mexico side, the Playas de Tijuana bullring rises above a nearby lighthouse and a line that slices the land into separate political entities. America to the north, Mexico to the south.
A few steps from the bullring, towards the west, the land drops and turns into a strip of sand, repeatedly bathed by the Pacific Ocean waters. Today the waves are tame and soon turn into innocent foam as they timidly try to climb the steep earth at the bottom of Playas.
On my side of the fence, the place is called Border Field State Park – or Friendship Park as some of us call it. It has a border monument, number 258, which defines the boundary between Mexico and the United States. Surveyors from both countries, after the Mexican American War, were involved in drawing the original divider, a manmade line that tells us where one country begins and another one ends.
“How are you?” I asked the border patrolman inside his vehicle, perched on a cliff facing the ocean and the poles on the water that define the border.
“I’m fine,” he said. His last name was Aguilar. It was embroidered on his nametag. He was born in Tijuana, I later found out, after chatting with him for a while.
“Do many people get across here,” I asked again.
“Not really, they’re not supposed to, but once in a while they do,” he replied. He also told me that on that day eight people were caught a few miles north, in Imperial Beach, who had crossed the border at the spot he was in charge of watching.
“I don’t know how they did it,” he continued, “but, it makes me look bad.”
While I talked to him, a woman with three children getting ready to go down the cliff and to the beach, asked him in Spanish if it was okay to walk down.
“Go ahead,” he said.
“Isn’t the beach water contaminated?” I asked him.
“It sure is,” he replied. “Especially when it rains and the Tijuana River drags bad waters into the ocean.”
As I was about to walk down the cliff too, the patrolman turned his head towards a poignant place on the fence. People on both sides were talking to each other across the wire divider. One man, a tall white man, was holding a baby in front of him as he quietly chatted with a woman on the Mexican side. She poked her fingers through the wire to caress the baby’s face. She was the baby’s mother, I found out later. It was an emotionally moving sight. Instead of walking down the cliff, I decided to walk towards the place where the people were gathered.
What seemed like a religious group was sitting on a circle next to the fence, singing quiet songs, led by a woman with a book in her hands. They were praying, I noticed. They wanted to stop the U.S. government from building a triple security wall that was to replace the current one. Part of the plan was to temporarily close the park.
As I surveyed the area, I noticed a man with a popsicle cart on the other side, not that far from me. I hadn’t had a Mexican style “paleta” in a long time, so I decided to find out if I could buy one from him.
“Sí,” the man said. I could buy it. Coconut was my favorite flavor. I was lucky; it was available.
“¿Cuántas quiere?” he asked (how many).
“Just one,” I said.
I wondered how he would hand me the popsicle across the small holes in the chain link fence, but before I could finish my thought he had already walked a couple of meters to his right where some links were missing and proceeded to push the popsicle across this supposedly impenetrable international wire divider.
“¿Cuánto te debo?” I asked him. I needed to pay him.
“Diez pesos,” he said. Roughly eighty cents at the going exchange rate.
“You sell a lot of paletas at this spot?” I asked the man. Only on weekends was his response. I also asked him if he had ever been in the United States and his reply was that he used to come across everyday to work as a gardener, using his local passport, but that in 2002, he wasn’t able to renew the passport after it had expired.
“The rules changed,” he said. “The U.S. customs people wanted to know where I worked in Tijuana and how much money I had in the bank,” he explained. “I didn’t know what to say because I didn’t work in Tijuana and I had no money in the bank.”
“You think you might come back some day?” I asked.
“Está canijo,” he said. It would be tough.
As I walked away from the area, I noticed a few families gathered around some of the stone picnic tables at the park. A man lighted up one of the public grills and pulled several steaks from an ice chest and threw them on a plate next to him. As he continued his chores, two small children ran to and from the area where he stood and the place where the land made a sudden drop onto the beach below.
I wondered why anyone would hold a picnic at this place, at such a barren patch of land next to a contaminated beach. And next to a heartbreaking scene of human suffering. Maybe it was the ocean view that attracted folks to the park. It probably was. There’s something about the sea and those illusory images that get lost far away in the horizon. There’s also the eternal cool breeze from the Pacific and its chilly waters, the ocean battered and cooled all year long by the Humboldt Current.
But if you were to ask me, it wasn’t my kind of park. To begin with, there were way too many border patrolmen lurking around. It felt like a war zone. Or a prison or a POW camp.
As my eyes surveyed the coastal rim that repeatedly caressed with its sea waters the dry reddish dirt at the beach, I saw patrolmen there. They were camping on the sand, along their parked vans. As my eyes turned east and to the south, more vans were perched on the red dirt hills next to the road that led to Playas on the Mexican side. Not far from that vantage point, and to the north, I noticed more than a dozen other vans, somewhat camouflaged, but not well hidden behind the chaparral, guarding the eastern perimeter of the park.
Less than one hundred and seventy years ago, people roamed freely at this place we now call Friendship Park. There was no border, no border patrol, no fence.
If we were to go back no more than four hundred years, this park was just plain old land next to the ocean. That belonged to everyone.
AUTHOR: Pedro Chávez