Laying Low in a Border Town: Tijuana

James C. Cook Issue: Section:

I had been on US5 exclusively since San Juan Capistrano and it was there that the state-long freeway opened into an uninterrupted flow of Californian beauty. San Clemente, Encinitas, Solana and the near-perfect La Jolla lapped like waves along the same shore. My two year stay in Los Angeles was in the rear view mirror but more in my vision than the road that lay ahead. With one more meeting to go in Hollywood before heading back through Dallas, then home to New York, I had to lay low somewhere for one week with little money to spend until the check from my latest contract would come. The rest of my life, including most of my important relationships, was crumbling with nowhere to go.

I didn’t stop in San Diego. The day was getting on and the sun growing orange over the sea made me think that I’d best get to my destination before nightfall. I began looking for a place to stop and get my bearings. By the time I stood in a Big Box parking lot in Chula Vista I began to refocus, staring south into the hazy distance. There I could see the stratified archaeology of modern crummy housing obscuring the Californian hills. It took a few minutes to sink in, this was Baja, Tijuana, a world away from the affectionate bosom of America. Where the hell was I going?

At the border crossing I experienced no delay, rather I was waved hectically into the 30 mile border zone where passports are not required. Essentially I made a right at the first chance and kept visual contact with a stretched-out moiré that ran as far as I could see. The infamous fence separating the countries was intimidating all the way to Playas Tijuana and into the Pacific Ocean. I guessed it to be made of two inch by two inch angle iron steel welded vertically 2 inches apart and about twenty feet high.

Eventually I would see that it was not the only inhibiting element to an illegal border crossing. Past it was perhaps another 200 yards of flat cleared desert before the US Border Patrol and chain link fences, yet higher and decorated with barbed wires and curly razors. Towers with sharpshooters and machine guns squinted back at me from America.

It felt a little like being in jail, although I knew that I could get back, at least this time. But it would only take a couple of days before I felt as though I had fortunately escaped the US with a couple of bucks and a Toyota Corolla. A vacation from the life in America that had left me largely alone and to my own devices. Here, devices could be afforded.

A small portion of my money went to a Craigslist connection for an apartment for the week. I needed to write. I had money for food, a small bottle of tequila, and gas enough to get across the border and back to LA. I had a contract to deliver a bookazine, a single subject magazine to Hudson News Group. The subject was Abraham Lincoln and the irony of my self-deportation in order to achieve an American success about an icon of American history rang sour to the point of not being funny at all.

Now in Mexico with Lincoln in mind, I could not ignore the irony of US President Barack Obama, in obvious ways the embodiment of Emancipation’s dream, walking a razor’s edge between status quo of US protectionism and minority anxieties. He ran for office on a platform of immigration reform and ended up repatriating/deporting undocumented Mexicans more than nine times the rate of the previous 20 years.

Currently undocumented aliens are deported, in effect, by misdemeanors adding up to a sort of paper felony. There are currently close to 11 million of them in the US now. To some, the United States is the only home that they have known. Separated from family and sent without paperwork or money, some have no ability to speak the language in Mexico. Those even less unfortunate take to sleeping in small holes dug along the seasonally wet drainage rivulets that lead to the sea, a place to leave a few belongings in the hope that they will not have been stolen during a day of scrounging for work, food while avoiding the government.

Dusty jeeps of federales, made the scheduled display, up and down the center of streets as I wandered the tiendas along the sidelines. Their large machine guns mounted upon high tripods on the rear as if to encounter Sinaloa cartels on the road and engage immediately. Such demonstrations felt like more of a warning to the general populace. I would not meet the gaze of the police, and my instinct proved to correspond with the prevailing common wisdom. Apparently a stare is taken as aggressive, and a challenge to the super-macho culture of the Mexican police. After the soldiers passed I wandered around the wide dirt street from shop to shop. Strangely rolling out from an empty storefront was the unmistakable scratchy hum of a 1970’s stereo with detachable speakers cranking out a vinyl rendition of Plastic Ono Band with John Lennon crooning, “Love is real… Real is Love…”

Later that night, along the coast in an empty lot framed by a cacophony of failed architecture assembled incomprehensibly would blare Alphaville’s “Forever Young” at club volumes, escaping from the open doors of a shiny black Ford F 150. Beside it a small congress of unidentifiable men standing silent around a burn barrel looked only down at the ground. I continued past up the boardwalk overwhelmed with colors; brilliant and drab, good street art on the walls that ended near the fence.

On this side of the fence were the painful scribbles of protest. Quotes from Jesus, Orwell, and Ghandi fallen largely impotent on deaf ears. Hanging in the local air was the ubiquitous pheromone of desperation and/or frustration. Not lost on me (being a movie guy) were the facile parallels of the border town in Casablanca. Dangerous and easy, the place was physically falling apart. It reminded me of the way pieces of a dream disintegrate upon waking.

Multiple instances of stenciled painting on the fence represented a simple family being lifted by balloon presumably up and over the fence. Husband clings to wife who clings to child. They float over the walls and guns to people they love and a place that they want to live in.

I avoided the city assiduously staying only two blocks from the beach. My CL hosts say that they would like to move to the more rural parts of Mexico where life is better, but they are fixed on trying to resolve permanent solutions to family issues. They have some freedom to move back and forth over the border, but in order to survive, they make arrangements on the side, travel for Americans to places to which they are not permitted outside the US, Cuba, Haiti, Venezuela. Did I want to buy some weed? Not really. At $40 for an ounce it was nowhere near the quality that anyone could get in LA. Their border business ranged from bringing back goods from the United States (legally) to transporting important documents to the United States from family members stranded in Mexico. The wife is the brains of the work, she weathers an intolerable wait and is tearful as she talks about her daughter. Married into a legitimate American life, she has since moved far from the border and off to be assimilated into the Dream.

Near the boardwalk I found the tight but small community of ex-pats who can either never go back or never want to. Here John the cancer patient can afford a large screen television and cigarettes to die by at his home on the sea. Better than a nursing home in the US, he tells me. Something he couldn’t afford anyway. Here he can live until he dies. Doesn’t sound so outlandish when you see it. He is introduced by Rick, a New Yorker who is done with the US but not his Yankees cap. He remembers the Bronx with a smile that becomes a wry wince as he talks about the poverty of his life there and the decision to move to Tijuana where he can live without growing debt. Coincidentally the playoffs were on TV from New York and I had been watching the Yankees in Spanish in my small room of painted cinderblock. Rick told me that I would be welcome anytime if I got tired of America.

Literally 2 blocks from the ocean Pacific Ocean my daily walk along the boardwalk ambling and crooked, along tiny cliff running north and south took me to its northernmost termination very near the fence near the Baja Corridas, bull ring; empty of slaughter for the season.

After a week of cheap beer and fish tacos, I was on the way out of Mexico when a vendor with some ugly pastries in a wide and shallow box approached the car. Literally on a ramp to the highway that was scarcely moving, he looked around furtively and didn’t bother to hustle me some fried sugar and flour. “I’m like you, man, from US. Man but I got no papers. I can make a little money.”

How much?

“Maybe ten or four dollars a day. Nobody buys this stuff. And it’s tough because the police don’t like us to sell here.”

What happens when you get caught?

“They throw you in jail and beat the shit out of you.” He shrugs, “But you got do something for a living, right?”

In the film Casablanca, the German, Major Strasser (played by the iconic Conrad Veidt) suggests to Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) that he may have noticed that here “human life is cheap”. In Tijuana, “cheap” is a living word. Later in the film, Rick, wistful and drunk, asks Sam the piano player, “If it’s December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in America?”

Sam says, “What? My watch stopped.”

Rick, “I'd bet they're asleep in New York. I'd bet they're asleep all over America.”

Yes, something about that rings true.

As I write this the ice floes along the Hudson River, impossibly slow, seem a world away from the Baja California of two years ago. Maybe I’ll go back sometime and not look at the fence at all.

(James Clement Cook is the author of “Lincoln: A Close Up of the Man as He Was” and “The Lone Ranger & All the Favorite Television Cowboy Heroes” for Event Bookazines. He is also Director of the film “Amma Means Mother” and a former inventor for Blue Man Group.)

References: 1. (“Barack Obama: Deporter in Chief, The Economist, Sat Feb 7, 2014) 

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