You Guys’ Wall:
Crossing the US-Mexico Border in 1998
Knowing I’d be driving back North to Los Angeles later that day, I got up early in the morning and drove south from San Diego to the border. It was a lot closer than I’d thought it would be. The Taco Shop Poets, a group of young Chicano poets who I’d come to San Diego to interview, had told me that it would take about twenty-minutes to reach the border. But in the excited state of mind that I was in, I couldn’t measure twenty minutes. The border appeared suddenly, strangely, inexplicably. That it was where it was and not anywhere else seemed to me an anomaly, a random and innocuous truth that was begging to be explained or justified by an argument that did something more than merely appeal to the self-evident presence of the border itself. And yet here it was: The infamous San Diego-Tijuana crossing.
The only signs on the road read like warnings: “Last exit in the U.S.” and then again “Last Exit in the U.S.”. Another portentous sign consisted of the silhouette of a fleeing immigrant family set against the bright yellow of U.S. traffic signs. I’d seen deer crossing signs before; I’d seen cow-crossing signs before; but never a fleeing-immigrant sign. The first one I saw slipped by me at 60 mph and I wasn’t sure if I had in fact seen what I thought I had seen. A bit further down the road, I saw another set of these hideous signs. So I stopped, got out of the car and, feeling like a neophyte ethnographer, I snapped a few quick shots of them.
What could these signs mean? That immigrants from Mexico are animals? Animals that freeze, like frightened deer, like dumb, confused cows, in the headlights of oncoming gringo traffic? If these signs had been posted out of a desire to protect immigrants from speeding traffic, than certainly some less conspicuous image might have been more appropriate. Who were the people that voted in favor of these signs, preferring them to other symbols? Something that was not concern for human lives must have been the principal motive behind those signs. But what? Insurance companies tired of lost profits from claims on fender-benders due to crashes with fleeing immigrants? With my suspicions getting the better of me, the curiosity I’d felt when I first saw the signs turned into anger and this anger, eventually, turned into embarrassment – embarrassment, essentially, at all that I had in common with the people who were responsible for the existence of such signs. Those people were, in part, my people.
I drove on to where there was a split in the road. Again, I stopped. The time had come to make up my mind. Either I turned around now to head back North, toward where San Diego, La Jolla, Los Angeles and eventually Oakland – where I needed to be by noon the next day – all awaited me or I continued south toward the border. In order to see it up close. And cross it. And then be able to say, as much to myself as to anyone else, that having once had the opportunity to get to know the border and the city that lay to the other side, I’d not been too poor of spirit to not take advantage of it. With emptiness in my stomach attributable to a mix of hunger and anxiety, I turned along the Southern route. I would eat lunch in Tijuana.
At the border there were signs that were just a bit too big to qualify as obvious. They looked as though they had been made with children in mind. The signs explained where one needed to go if, as in my case, one had nothing to declare to the customs officers. I obeyed the signs and got in the quickly moving line of cars I saw before me. A Mexican customs agent pointed at my car and, with a jerk of his index finger, indicated I was to stop the car over to the side of the road, where another agent was waiting for me. With studied indifference, this agent asked me to open my trunk. I did. He looked inside, lifted the little carpet in the back that was hiding the spare tire and, satisfying himself that the trunk contained nothing else, he shut it and gave the rear of my car three friendly pats, as if to say giddy-up.
In something less than two minutes, I’d crossed the border. I was in Mexico now. Nobody had bothered to learn my identity nor had they inquired after my reasons for traveling to Mexico. They did not ask me if I was French, German, Canadian or whatever else. I have to suppose that they figured I was nothing but another gringo … one more among a daily multitude who travel to Tijuana in search of trade and who knows what other delicacies. As I drove away from the border crossing, I started singing to myself that silly song by Manu Chao that goes: “Welcome to Tijuana. Tequila, sexo, marihuana”.
I had no idea which road to take. It wasn’t even clear to me why I’d come or what exactly I hoped to accomplish by going to Tijuana. Did I only wish to learn if the much-coveted salsa of the Washington embassies and newspapers tasted somehow different South of the border? Or was I after some other kind of experience, one that could open my eyes and open my heart and open my mind to the realities of the border and the emerging transnational, half-breed culture of the borderlands? Uncertain of what I was doing, I let myself be guided by the traffic. It was mostly heading west, along the border, toward the sea. The road ran parallel to the great fence that the government of the United States had constructed in order to obstruct the passage of the undocumented, the undesirables, the forgotten ones of Mexico. I was struck by how close people in Mexico actually lived to the fence. For many, it was literally in their back yard. Others, I imagined, saw it more as their front door.
To the other side – the U.S. side – what I had seen was very different. There, the fence was not surrounded by streets, houses, and children on bicycles; but, by ample, wide-open, monumental spaces. Empty spaces. Spaces that had been set aside, it would seem, mostly in order to celebrate the energy and intensity with which they were kept under constant surveillance. To the American side, the power of the state was omnipresent. It had turned the borderland just north of the border into a no-man’s land. In its totality – watch towers, helicopters flying overhead, INS migra pick-ups stationed every one-half mile – this no-man’s land had the feel of a theater stage on which the state was making a spectacle, not of its power per se, but of the paranoia such power breeds. There – on the Northern side – the border was fortified, militarized, fetishized. If I didn’t know any better, I would have had to say that the United States and Mexico were still at war, still fighting over whose land this was.
But on the Mexican side the presence of the state was less obvious. I am tempted to suggest that it was practically absent. But to do so would be misleading. What did reign here was public use of the space. This was a public space, nevertheless, that did not seem to be valued by the state, much less protected by it. What I saw was people. Many of them amassed along the fence, as if they meant to push it over, as if they wished to tear it down in order then to pass, pass, pass. But pass on to what? To the jobs that no self-respecting, sweet-toothed ketchup eater would ever want? Yes. To a misery somewhat less miserable than the one with which many Mexicans in Northern Mexico were already familiar as workers in the maquiladoras or machine shops of today’s civilizing globalization? Also. But others would say that these people wished to tear down the fence in order to reclaim a land that had once been theirs: Aztlán.
Having driven into town, and not wanting to eat lunch at a restaurant for gringo tourists, I stopped at a roadside taco shop where there were already other people eating, some on foot, others seated. This establishment occupied the terrace of a house that was painted in two competing shades of blue-green. It had two pink counters and somewhere in the vicinity of ten rickety yellow stools situated along side the counters. Behind the counters was who I took to be the owner of the business: a half-breed, a mestiza, approximately fifty years old, who wore a white but filthy dress and whose swollen, drying, arthritic hands told the story of a life of tireless manual labor. At her side there was a young man in his twenties, also a half-breed, a mestizo, who had a strangely high-pitched voice, like that of a girl of eleven. He, not she, was the cook. The meat had a bad look to it. A film of green sweat that shone dangerously luminescent covered it. The vegetables and guacamole were on the counter, where fruit flies and some of their larger brethren danced incessantly. Beneath my feet were stained paper napkins, half-toked cigarettes, empty beer bottles and drying mud. Around me was the everyday taco eating clientele: relatively poor people, nervous and chattering. They studied me out of the corners of their eyes. What was this gringo doing eating lunch at a roadside taco shop? I thought I could see the fence reflected in their watery eyes. Or was I only transferring onto them the fence I carried inside, as a half-breed of Spanish and Anglo-American descent? The fence was in them, tearing them apart. Or was the fence in me, tearing me apart? They were looking at me with suspicion. Or was it me who was looking at them with suspicion? They were half-breeds happily at home in their half-breed world of the borderlands. I was a different kind of half-breed, uncomfortably not at home to either side of the border. Despite all this, or rather because of it, I greatly enjoyed the food I was served and the conversation that I fell into with the señora whose taco shop this was.
After placing my order – three taquitos with red salsa and a coca-cola – the señora commented on how well I spoke Spanish. She told me, as if she had been pleased by her discovery: “¡Habla español!” (“You speak Spanish!”). I answered: “Lo estamos hablando los dos, ¿no?” (We’re both speaking it, aren’t we?). Certainly, she had not expected to receive such a disagreeable response. Sensing that I felt offended, she sought to pardon herself. She explained to me that I did not look like I should know how to speak Spanish and that considering my physical appearance, she’d assumed that I was a gringo. I was tempted to tell her that I was gringo only in part, and that my mother was Spanish, that I had lived in Argentina as a boy, that I was married to a Colombian, that like her and everyone else at the taco shop, I was a half-breed. But I held my peace and instead told her that her assumption had been correct. I was a gringo. Where then -- she wanted to know -- had I learned to speak Spanish so well? In the crib, I told her. And with no more explanations I asked for the bill.
In order to return to San Diego and from there to Los Angeles I would have to cross back over the border. This time around I had to wait in an interminably long line. It seemed like everyone and their grandmother had decided to leave Mexico behind and try to cross to the other side. Several people on the side of the road asked if they could hitch a ride over with me. I just kept smoking cigarettes and behaving as if I were mad, like someone who understood nothing of what was being asked of him, whether in Spanish or in English. And little by little, I put some distance between the Mexican flag and myself. Slowly but surely, I advanced toward the flag of the United States of America.
I watched as the customs agents, the agents of the migra, looked over the cars in front of me. They used mirrors to peek underneath the cars. They used dogs to sniff at the wheels, to sniff at the drivers, to sniff out drugs. There were about three agents per car. They all wore mirrored sunglasses: the kind that are rounded just enough to contort the reflection of anyone who looks into them. They bore smiles. They were armed to the teeth.
Finally it was my turn. One of the agents signaled for me to advance. Another asked me something I was unable to understand. I said: “Excuse me?” And he asked me again, this time raising his voice: “You are a citizen of what country?” I hesitated to answer. The sight of these agents, their dogs, and guns had gotten me thinking of the fleeing-immigrant signs I’d seen earlier in the day. Impatiently, the agent asked me again: “What country are you from?” Impishly, I sang out “the Great Ole U.S. of A!” He asked for documentation. I fumbled a bit in my wallet and then presented him with my DC driver’s license. He snatched it from me, kept it in his hand, went into his little booth, and began typing, perhaps in an attempt to find my name among those who figured on his little black list. “What were you doing in Mexico?” was his next question. “I wanted to see what you guys’ fence looked like from the other side” I spat back at him. Irritated, he ordered me to open the trunk. Being the freedom-loving, independent-minded, and self-reliant American that I am, I sheepishly obeyed his command. In the rearview mirror I could see the dogs coming and that several other agents were already inspecting my car, touching it, penetrating it with their gaze. I started to believe that I deserved so much attention. In the trunk they came across, much as the Mexican agent had before them, the spare tire. The irritable customs agent put his arm through the window and gestured as if he were going to hand me back my driver’s license. As I reached for it, he let it drop, with the subtlest of contemptuous flips, onto my lap. “You’re free to go,” he informed me with bored authority. Once again, I did as I had been commanded to do and drove away. Once again, I was among those who had built up a fence in order to protect themselves from the dangers of the Hispanic world. Once again, in the home of the brave and the land of the free.