I returned to the US/Mexico border two months after my first migrant shelter visit with Hayley Connors-Keith, a young woman I have known since she was twelve. 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 US 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 two 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 cinder-block 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.
The next morning, we headed back up the coast to Tijuana and met with Hugo. We followed him in the green truck to the Movimiento Juventud shelter to do our paper mâché project. The shelter is a block from the border and about two blocks west of the San Ysidro entry point. The migrants are literally feet away from the USA. But they are stuck inside a metal building, sleeping in tents on a concrete floor, waiting for their future to begin.
We unloaded supplies and set up in the small room where the residents eat. The children came in, and Hayley used her basic Spanish to explain the project. We brought prototypes of each phase so they could understand. After working for an hour and a half on the first phase of piñata-making, we took a break so the shelter residents could eat lunch.
Hugo asked if, during this break, we wanted to see some other shelters. We followed him to a shelter for LGBTQ migrants. These migrants often face bullying, discrimination, and harassment by government officials, as well as other Tijuana residents and other migrants. We were graciously welcomed into their home and helped bring in supplies from Hugo’s truck.
Following a few blocks further, we arrived at a shelter with people of all ages. They formed a line on some steep, colorfully-painted steps and handed up boxes in a human chain. After that, we were invited to come inside to see where they lived and take a photo. The image of these lovely people completely contradicts the words the current American president uses to refer to them. They had warm, kind faces, and looked ready to work and contribute as soon as they had the chance.
We then returned to the Movimiento Juventud shelter to continue our project. It was almost two o’clock. The adults asked if they could help with this part, and we were glad they wanted to participate. They set up tables in a long row in the main room in front of all the tents. Hayley explained the next steps while I filled bowls with flour to make paste. In no time at all, almost everyone in the shelter was mixing flour-and-water, tearing up paper, dipping the pieces into the “goop,” and smoothing it onto the stuffed paper animal shapes.
There was laughter and excitement as the taped-up shapes became covered in paper mâché. The kids loved sticking their hands in the paste. The moms became excited as they added their expertise, and many wonderful animated forms emerged.
I knew at this point we could leave. The shelter residents had taken over the project, and we were no longer needed. As we said goodbye to the group, I asked one man who spoke English to tell them all we loved them. After he translated, a roar of exclamations came from children and adults with phrases I couldn’t translate, but I knew what they meant. Our hearts were full as we drove two blocks to get in line to cross the border.
We made our way through the terminals and headed north onto the wide and fast San Diego freeway, returning us toward freedom and independence, leaving behind poverty and captive migrants. I recalled the moment I was looking through the porous wall toward the beach in San Diego, then back at the beach where I stood in Tijuana. The beaches looked the same. The sun shone brightly on both sides. The ocean waves shifted sand back and forth through the metal slats with ease and grace. I was reminded of a quote by Joni Mitchell. “If you hold sand too tightly in your hand, it will slip through your fingers.” The more walls we build to claim and divide, the more ways those who are determined to get through those walls will try.