by Maureen McGarry, August 2019
The first time I went to Mexico was fifty years ago. It was 1969. I was 15 and traveling with an American-born friend from high school, her mom, and her aunt “Tia Maria,” both of whom were originally from Mexico. All three spoke Spanish. I remember being thrilled to travel to another country, but I was also shocked by the poverty I saw there.
Returning to Los Angeles across the nighttime desert ten days later, I remember listening to the radio in the car as Apollo 11 was landing on the moon. The static-laced voice of Astronaut Neil Armstrong had sounded universal in intent. “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” Yet many who watched on their TVs felt a possessive kind of pride as that stiff little American flag was planted on that lifeless little planet. Winning the space race and conquering the moon had nothing to do with taking care of humanitarian needs back on earth. My visit south of the border that summer had made that very clear to me. Now, half a century after first setting foot in Mexico, I was heading back, but this time for a different reason.
Having attended a local vigil in Humboldt County in mid-July in support of detainees at the US/Mexico border applying for asylum in the United States, I was frustrated by the helplessness I felt. After listening to numerous heartfelt speeches about the struggles of migrants and refugees, I wanted my support to be more direct.
I had looked into volunteering at the border last summer when our government’s shameful policy of separating families was brought to national attention. All I could find in an online search were requests for money for lawyers. I couldn’t afford to send much money. With all the media hype around this issue, I knew I needed to see firsthand what was happening. I wanted to help in person and be able to report back to my community the reality of that experience, and maybe encourage others to get involved. But no United States detention centers were allowing volunteers inside any of their facilities.
Renewing my web search, I read more about Border Angels, a nonprofit based in San Diego. I already knew the organization was primarily known for leaving water in highly visible places in the desert with the intention of sparing desperate travelers from dehydration and death. I knew the physical effort in carrying full gallon jugs of water was not an activity I could help with, but I hoped that maybe they had other volunteer possibilities in Tijuana. I left a message asking if there was anything I could do that involved cooking, or doing art activities with children. It was worth a try.
To my surprise and delight, I got a call back a couple of days later from Border Angels. They described their twice monthly one-day caravans across the border, transporting supplies to shelters in Tijuana. I could join the caravan, and could also bring art supplies and make art with the children, or bring a camp kitchen and food if I wanted to cook for them. I was thrilled that there were ways I could fit in and help out. Their next “Caravan of Love” was only two weeks away. I knew if I drove down from Humboldt, I could stay with family members up and down the coast. Then, when I arrived at their office in San Diego, I could join a collection of cars crossing into Mexico to a network of shelters in Tijuana. I had to go.
Although my small 1997 pickup truck had over 300,000 miles on it, I was determined to take this journey. Then, I called my friend Cindy who had expressed interest in volunteering at the border as well. She said she wanted to go and has a much younger car than mine in excellent condition. She told me I could ride with her. My car was off the hook!
Through social media, and word of mouth, we began telling our friends about our plans. My brother Jim, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, contacted me after seeing my post on Facebook. He also wanted to go. I realized he could drive my truck if I drove it as far as San Francisco. That way we could carry more supplies. I contacted Border Angels and signed us all up to join the caravan on the last Saturday in July. I decided to forego the cooking idea, but started preparing materials to paint watercolors with the children.
Border Angels had sent us a very specific list of items that were needed, from dry goods to underwear to toothpaste, as well as other personal hygiene products. The City of Arcata heard of our plans and offered to set up a table inside City Hall for donations. The community generously responded. We were able to collect a mountain of supplies in two days. Local businesses like Tin Can Mailman and SCRAP Humboldt donated books and art materials. People gave us money to pay for gas for the trip which added up to over $1,500.
With some help from city staff the day before we left, we sorted through the donated supplies and taped up numerous boxes. To my amazement, with the exception of donated clothing and shoes, everything fit into the two cars. (We were told that the customs agents did not want used clothes to come in and be resold in Mexico without paying sales tax.)
On the following day, Thursday, July 25th, we began our long journey to the border. We spent the first night at my brother’s home in Pacifica. He and his wife, Kathy, fixed us dinner. We then rolled out early the next morning to head to Los Angeles. Jim drove my truck, and Cindy and I followed him in her car. I kept watching my truck drive down the highway, filled with supplies, and with the suspension maxed out. I worried that it might not make it to Tijuana, but I had to have faith that it would.
After a long, hot day of driving on Friday, we arrived at my brother Tim’s place in Los Angeles. He and his wife, Lin, had dinner ready for us. We went to bed early to be able to rise early Saturday morning. When we got up, Tim cooked us all breakfast and sent us off to San Diego by 6 a.m., well ahead of traffic. We arrived in San Diego in two hours and immediately found the location for the Border Angels main office in the Sherman Heights Community Center. With some time to spare, we bought a folding table with a donated gift card, just in case we needed one for the art activities.
Returning to the community center, we met up with Border Angels Hugo and Juan. More volunteers arrived and supplies were divided out to each vehicle. There was still some room in my truck, so we added a few more things. Setting aside gas money for our return trip and the motel room we would be staying in that night in San Diego, we presented the remaining money to Hugo. He was happy and surprised to receive it, and told us that it would pay for food and utility costs at one of the shelters for two weeks.
Hugo gathered us all together by 11 a.m. and filled us in on some of the history of immigration from and through Mexico, as well as all that Border Angels does to assist immigrants seeking a better life for themselves and their families. The nonprofit began in 1986, providing humanitarian assistance to migrants living in the canyons of San Diego, and aiming to prevent deaths on the US/Mexico border. He told us how, in the 1990s, NAFTA negatively impacted the Mexican economy and caused more people to try to find work in the US by crossing the border through alternative routes. The Clinton administration also built the first wall (Operation Gatekeeper) from the Pacific Ocean to the San Ysidro Port of Entry five and a half miles to the east, which forced those crossing illegally to travel further east through more difficult and dangerous terrain. This increased the number of human smugglers, or “Coyotes” and riskier illegal crossings.
The corruption and violence that has plagued Central American countries for the past fifty years is an additional part of the immigration story. Currently, the Mexican military police patrol the shelters of Central American immigrants. However, the Mexican government has not been providing any assistance for the refugees. The current US administration’s policy is to send refugees back to their original countries, or insist that immigrants claim asylum in the country they are in right now. Our government’s “Remain in Mexico” policy pushes these immigrants toward becoming Mexican citizens, and rids the US of any responsibility. Those who have claimed asylum in the US were returned to Mexico and are awaiting their hearing. These immigrants made it to the US, asked for asylum which is their right under international law, and were deported back to Mexico. According to a federal judge in D.C., this is a violation of the Immigration and Nationality Act, a federal law passed in 1965. Those from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are waiting for their number to be called. The Mexican citizens who want to come to the US, a long-standing issue, are in competition with Central American asylum seekers. It is a hot mess! Asylum seekers must feel like their lives are going backwards.
The Border Angel volunteers clearly knew all about these issues firsthand. They tried to prepare us for the sorrow we would see and feel at the shelters, but they also asked us to interact with people we would meet there. We would be going to four of them. Hugo also mentioned and thanked the compañeras and the Humboldt community for their financial contribution. All of the shelters need continual financial support, and he encouraged volunteers who had arrived from other parts of California to find ways to encourage financial contributions.
Finally, we started up our engines, and the cars lined up behind Hugo’s car. A small Mexican flag was attached to his roof. The “Caravan of Love” slowly rolled away from the community center and headed south down the highway for about 15 miles toward the border. Border Angels has been doing this twice a month, but the caravans will now be shuttling supplies to the shelters every weekend, provided they can get enough volunteers and donations.
When we reached the San Ysidro border terminal, we were led by Hugo into the extreme right lane and parked by the Mexican Customs building. Somehow, Jim didn’t get that direction, and he just drove my truck into Mexico, arriving at the shelter within a few minutes. The rest of us waited for a customs officer to look at each car and estimate the value of what we were bringing in. Fortunately, the customs agent understood the purpose of our venture, and Hugo must have convinced them we would not be re-selling anything. He was charged a fee for each car, but it was less than the actual value of our donated goods. This took almost an hour. In that time, I was finally able to reach Jim by phone. He wondered where we were. (Because we were at the border, reception was off and on again.) He was ready to unload supplies, but said he would wait for us to arrive.
Finally, all the cars lined up and quickly made it through the gates into Tijuana. We had been told the shelter was a block away from the border and to just follow the caravan. I wanted to make sure I had my iPad camera ready to take photos as we approached the shelter, and was rapidly deleting old photos to open up more storage space when Cindy said, “You have to help me!” I looked up and saw that, instead of a simple one-block drive ahead, we were about to join a wild and frenetic three-lane roundabout with horns honking, and cars, bicycles, motorcycles, and pedestrians aggressively forcing their way around each other. The buildings in this very old part of Tijuana looked ready to fall apart. All lines and angles were askew. The poverty in this part of Tijuana is not hidden.
There was no way to stay in the caravan. It was pure chaos! I told Cindy that she now had to become a Tijuana driver, which meant being ruthless and aggressive, as well as doing some serious tailgating. Cindy never tailgates. This was a new role for her. We immediately lost sight of any of the cars in our caravan and ended up lost on an empty street. Thankfully, a car from the caravan some distance behind us pulled up and told us to follow them. After a few more missteps, we finally made it to the shelter. Jim was there with my truck ready to unpack the donations.
As I stepped through the door of the corrugated metal building about the size of a small barn, I was struck by the thick, muggy air inside. The large room was dark, sheltered from the midday sun, and filled with people. About 20 feet inside, behind a table of volunteer medical workers, were rows of small, backpacking-type tents pitched on a concrete floor, all lined up next to each other, with barely any room to walk between them. As much as we had been told to be prepared, it was still shocking to see. No one should have to live like this.
Volunteers carried in supplies and piled them on the ground by the door. I asked one of the medical volunteers who to talk to about doing an art project. She pointed toward a woman who was a volunteer at the shelter and only spoke Spanish. I asked her, through another caravan volunteer who could translate, if we could set up somewhere to do art with the kids. After a flurry of words and gestures, I found myself standing in the middle of about 30 children. Then, we were all quickly herded into a room off the kitchen area which had tables and chairs. This was their eating area. All the children sat down, and immediately started pounding their hands on the plastic tables, chanting loudly. This was definitely different from any group of kids I had ever taught before, and overwhelming. Their pent-up energy was very intense. I knew I had to try and change the mood quickly.
While Cindy attempted to channel some of their pounding and chanting into other gestures and rhythms, I rushed back outside and asked Jim to find the art supplies that were, unfortunately, buried in the far corners of my truck bed. (I had thought we would unload everything else before starting a project with the kids.) He quickly crawled in and dug them out, and we went back in and started distributing the art materials. I had prepared several sheets of watercolor paper taped onto cardboard. The children finally started quieting down. Other Border Angel caravan volunteers, including Cindy, helped pass out materials, and then sat down with the children. Although we were short on paint brushes, everybody had something to use, from paints to crayons to marker pens.
When I went back out to the truck to look for something, I passed by all the mothers who were sitting on folding chairs in front of the tents in the main room. If I thought I could have taken a photo of them, I would have, but the look on their faces was so overwhelmingly sad, tired, and hopeless, I could not ask. I did not want to rob them of any last shred of dignity they had. If anything, I think we simply gave them relief from the restlessness of the children in the hot and crowded tin can that is their home. Of all the images in my mind from that day, that scene was the most haunting, and one I will never forget.
Although the art activity was chaotic, I think it went well. While we were making art inside, Hugo stopped an ice cream truck passing by in the street outside. He bargained with the guy for half a tub of ice cream for the kids and some cones. As we got back into our cars to go to the next shelter, those who lived inside that sorrowful place were enjoying ice cream cones, and looking at pretty paintings and drawings made by the children. In that moment, I felt as though we had accomplished something.
However, as we got in line with the other cars, we saw that the door to the shelter was suddenly shut, and we knew that all of the people inside were waiting, in the heat, without a home or country, to find out what was going to happen to them next.
We caravanned a few blocks down to another shelter that was mostly for men. Hardly anyone was there because they all leave during the day and come back at night to eat and sleep. We left all the men’s underwear and some hygiene products, but then were told there were two little girls and a teenage girl inside. We pulled out some of the toys donated by Humboldt County folks. The girls seemed pleased to get them, and their mom okayed a photo.
Just a few more blocks away, we arrived at the home of Perla, a kind and generous soul who has converted her very small domain into a shelter that sleeps 12 people. She serves dinner in shifts at a lovely table for four in the tiniest kitchen/dining room I have ever seen. Through narrow hallways, she has a network of small rooms with bunk beds. Only a couple of people were inside, escaping the sun and the heat, lying down on the beds. After volunteers unloaded supplies and eventually returned to their vehicles to go to the last drop-off point, Perla stood in the street holding a big American flag, thanking us for our help as we drove away. I was glad we were a part of a group of Americans helping those in need. But like that flag on the moon, I had mixed feelings. I felt shame that our government has rejected all of these people and made their lives hell.
Jim was driving a few cars ahead when he pulled my truck into a parking space a couple of blocks away, out of the line of cars heading for the last drop-off of supplies. He jumped out and ran back to Cindy’s car and told me that the needle on the truck’s temperature gauge had shot up, and a little bit of steam had started to come out from under the hood. I jumped out of Cindy’s car and hurried to my truck and opened the hood. The radiator looked okay, but everything was very hot. A little bit of moisture had run off into the radiator reservoir. There were also some warnings lights lit up on the dashboard. I knew this was a bad situation.
A car with Border Angel volunteers pulled in near us, as did Cindy in her car. While I was checking the oil, which was full and clean, three of the volunteers looked at my engine and discussed with me the possible causes of this problem. We all knew we had to wait for the radiator to cool down before removing the cap and adding water.
Javier said he had an uncle who was a mechanic in Tijuana, and that maybe we could catch him before he went home. He drove me to his uncle’s garage in the middle of Tijuana traffic, and translated for me as we asked questions and got answers about what to do. Javier’s uncle was done for the day, but said the car should be able to get across the border if we just let it cool down and topped off the radiator with water. I had my doubts, but it had been an extremely hot day, the air conditioning had been used intermittently, and we had all been doing a lot of idling while waiting to follow in the caravan.
When I got back, Jim had already done what the mechanic recommended. He had added some water and driven around the block, but the needle started to climb again. The warning lights on the dashboard remained lit. Staying parked, we turned the engine on once more with the hood open and saw that the fan was not turning. This was the moment of truth for me. After 14 years and many miles, it was time to say goodbye to my little green truck.
I turned to Osvaldo, who is on the Board of Directors for Border Angels, and asked him if they could use a truck. He looked a little surprised, but said, “Yes.” Then he said, “Are you sure? Because it probably won’t cost very much to fix.” The others chimed in and said that we could try to cross the border, and if the truck started to overheat, we could just get out and push it across the border. Then we could have it towed to a garage. At first, I thought they were kidding. They were not. They know how to deal with difficult situations. There was no way I could see us doing that. It was Saturday evening. We would not be able to find a mechanic on Sunday in San Diego. And I really did not want to put any more money into the old truck. The final moment had arrived. They were willing to accept it in its broken-down condition. It was time to let it go.
While they called a tow truck, I pulled out the title from the glove compartment and signed the truck over to Border Angels. Jim and Cindy helped me remove all of my belongings and transfer everything into Cindy’s car. As we waited for the tow truck, we could see that we actually we were a block away from the border. In the distance, the border wall snaked over a hill and dropped out of sight down to the ocean on the other side. That section was built in the ‘90s, and the Border Angels told us of the many ways people get around it.
Hugo returned from the last drop-off site right just as the tow truck arrived. My injured vehicle was hoisted onto the ramp of a flatbed. I must say, for all its age and history, the little green truck still looked pretty good shining brightly in the hot Tijuana sun. After the tow truck pulled away and disappeared around the corner at the end of the block, with Hugo following in his car, I had a very strong feeling I would see that truck again someday, helping those in need in this complicated border town.
Our “Angels” gave us directions on how to get through the border faster, and they even drove ahead of us to guide us before turning off in a different direction. Jim, Cindy, and I felt very grateful. And we were very glad we were not pushing my truck across the border. Most of these Border Angel volunteers work other jobs during the week in San Diego, and Tijuana, and then give their time on the weekends to help others. The generosity and dedication of these volunteers (not only local folks, but interns from other countries as well), is what earns them the title, “Angels.” Whatever your religion or belief system may be, these people are protectors, and they are extraordinary people.
We found our motel in San Diego, showered, and wandered next door to a casino to eat dinner. We were too tired to hunt around for another place to eat. It was very surreal to be sitting in a bar with multiple giant flat screen televisions, loud music, and boisterous Americans reacting to sports and gambling stimulus as we ate our salads, sipped our beers, and reflected on the day.
We retired early, then got back on the road to drive four hours north to Santa Barbara in time for a summer production of Grease starring, among many other Santa Barbara children, Jim’s and my twin nieces. It was a light and energetic performance, lifting our spirits after the heaviness of the day before. Then in the early evening, we attended a reader’s theatre performance that included my brother Paul in a project written by his wife Claudia about the Federal Theatre Project in the 1930s. It was another full day, and we were very tired and ready to sleep in the small but comfy home in the hills of Montecito where my sister Mary Pat and her husband and daughters live.
We rose in time for Jim and Mary Pat to fix a tasty full breakfast. By 10 a.m., we were on the road again and headed to Pacifica to return Jim to his home. After a nice dinner out, we went to bed early. Cindy planned to stay with family in Santa Rosa before returning to Humboldt. Jim and I got up early the next morning, and he drove me to Oakland where I boarded the train and rode to Martinez. I then caught the Amtrak bus home to Humboldt.
Unlike what we hear about American detention centers, everyone we met in the Tijuana shelters was clean and fed regular meals. No one was treated like a criminal. Maybe most importantly, children were not separated from their parents. But all of their lives are in limbo. They are not free to live in Mexico, and some fear they will be deported by the Mexican government. They feel helpless, and are stuck in the” in-between” of borders, all searching for a better life than the one they had in Central America. Our government has blocked them from achieving their goal. The “Remain in Mexico” policy is causing shelters in Tijuana to become over-crowded. As the number grows, the pressure to maintain this humanitarian network becomes more complicated.
As I relaxed into my train ride out of Oakland on that last Tuesday morning in July, I caught a glimpse of the moon, just a sliver in the sky, about to duck behind the horizon as the sun rose behind me. Then I remembered a quote by Astronaut Michael Collins of the Apollo 11 flight. “I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of, let’s say 100,000 miles, their outlook would be fundamentally changed. The all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument suddenly silenced.”
The revived truck two weeks later, delivering supplies to migrant shelters in Tijuana.