A trip to ‘the last building on the beach at the wall’s end’
Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part essay. Part two will appear in Thursday’s edition.
I returned to the U.S.-Mexico border two months after my first migrant shelter visit with Hayley Connors-Keith, a young woman I have known since she was 12. Now 28 and a world traveler, volunteer, teacher, and artist, she was the perfect companion for this trip to Tijuana.
After driving from Humboldt, we arrived on a Saturday morning in late September at the Border Angels office in San Diego. Our plan was to stay two days in Mexico visiting migrant shelters, and facilitating an art project with children.
Just as we pulled up, we saw Hugo Castro drive into the parking lot in my old green truck (which now lives with him in Tijuana). He was there to lead another “Caravan of Love” across the border, delivering needed food and personal-hygiene items to migrants, mostly Central Americans, waiting in shelters for their asylum hearings in the United States. He regularly delivers supplies to sixteen migrant shelters. We had items donated by the Humboldt community in our vehicle, including art supplies for making piñatas with approximately 40 children.
More volunteers arrived with loaded vehicles, and we all crossed the border, driving along the border wall built in the 1990s. This wall runs west from the San Ysidro Port of Entry for five and a half miles before dropping into the ocean. Looking between the rapidly passing vertical rows of metal slats, the fluttering image of the U.S. peeks through the wall, looking like a giant flip book. That glimpse of freedom tempts those who dream of making it to the other side.
The Tijuana Border Angels office is in the very last building on the beach at the wall’s end. At this convergence of sand, sea, and wall, Mexican military police patrol the area in front of multiple murals that have been painted on the metal slats. One of the images is of a ladder leading upward toward wings painted on the rim at the top.
Next to the Border Angels office is a shelter which is being torn down, and will soon be rebuilt with better materials and more space. We met some of the occupants who continue to live inside as it is being demolished. These men will be part of the crew that rebuilds.
The next shelter we visited was Embajadores de Jesús, hidden deep inside Scorpion Canyon. The route gave us a glimpse into the extreme poverty in this densely populated border city of 2 million. We found the church after a long and complicated drive among the steep cliffs and gorges of a rugged, non-tourist part of Tijuana. As we wound our way through narrow roads lined with endless dilapidated houses and shacks, we saw hillsides and shanties held up by stacked, half-buried tires. The dwellings and road conditions worsened the further in we drove.
When the asphalt ended, a bumpy dirt-and-rock road wound its way toward a large cinderblock building. Approximately 300 migrants await their fate there. On the day of our visit, we were told there were 130 children among the residents.
The shelter residents were excited as they gathered outside the church. While volunteers distributed their supplies, Hayley and I explored the building and the grounds. Inside were large rooms, mostly filled with tents, serving as temporary apartments for each family. We found the very small kitchen with stacks of donated food piled in boxes on the floor, waiting to be prepared and served. In a covered area outside the kitchen, there was a large cement wash basin with washboards mounted on either side.
Outside, a fence that travelled up the hillside, served as a clothesline, strewn with recently washed shirts, pants, and tennis shoes, all drying in the sun. Old tires were scattered like rocks, or sometimes used for support to hold a post in place.
Just outside the kitchen/ washing area, chickens and pigs wandered and ate garbage out of a smoldering burn pile with an Earth flag, fluttering in the smoky breeze above it.
By this time, it was late afternoon and Hayley and I had planned to camp 35 miles south of Tijuana and wanted to check out the campground before dark. We headed south and made it to Alisitos where we set up camp on a cliff above the ocean. After eating dinner in a local restaurant, we fell asleep to the sound of the waves.