by Maureen McGarry
Along the 160 miles of California’s southern edge, from the Pacific Ocean to the southwestern corner of Arizona, a couple of border towns and a wide swath of desert provide a complicated terrain, especially for those trying to make their way north into the United States.
Driving south on Interstate 5 out of San Diego and into Tijuana, the hills on the southern horizon are dotted with dwellings. It can be difficult to distinguish from the car window, zooming down multiple freeway lanes through fast-moving traffic, where one country ends and the other begins.
This was my fourth trip to Tijuana since our government drastically changed our country’s immigration policies, and my first in 2020. This time I was very happy to have three other passengers in my van, and all lovely people. Kate is a former owner of a jewelry business, as well as having many other skills. Sue is a retired administrator and social worker, and an avid knitter. Marisela, a native of Nicaragua, is a trained Licensed Vocational Nurse and caregiver, who is also a knitter. Fortunately, she is fluent in Spanish.
We packed the van with beads, yarn, knitting needles, and watercolor paint supplies before heading south out of Arcata on a Thursday. Someone donated earned points on their credit card to cover the cost of motel rooms along the way. We drove approximately 400 miles each day, landing in San Diego in time to join the “Caravan of Love” at the Border Angels office in Sherman Heights on Saturday morning, January 11th.
There were approximately 25 cars loaded with people and donated items which eventually congregated at the customs terminal at the Mexican border. After all our vehicles were checked by customs agents, and fees were paid, we were all supposed to line up behind Hugo, who was leading this excursion, and cross through the border together, following him to the first scheduled stop. Unfortunately, his truck (my old truck) was randomly selected to go through a special x-ray terminal, creating chaos for all the volunteers in the many cars behind him.
Our car was only two cars behind his. While Hugo was directed to turn and cross in front of all the vehicles entering Mexico, the car in front of me did the same, and I followed. Since we could not get out of our cars (there were armed military police standing all around us), we could not communicate with each other. I really wasn’t sure what to do, especially after I watched the car in front of me decide to suddenly turn into the lanes and drive into Mexico. I was not so bold. The caravan behind us saw what was happening and drove straight through into Mexico.
Fortunately, Marisela was able to roll down her window and explain to a guard that we were trying to follow Hugo, so they let us through to the x-ray area behind him. We watched Hugo get out and walk to a special waiting area while the green truck was scanned by a huge moving archway that passed over the cars. Our car came next. The whole process sucked up time and separated us from the rest of the caravan, which had already arrived at the first shelter.
Crossing into Mexico, there are immediate differences. Instantly, every sign is in Spanish, California road rules disappear into a town with seemingly no rules, and poverty is in your face in this highly concentrated border city where just about everyone there wants to be where you just came from.
When we finally got to the first stop, at least 30 people were standing in the street outside of Pro Amore Dei shelter. We made our way up the colorful steps which I had climbed up and down many times during my visit in November. This was my fourth visit to this shelter. I knew the area was a cramped space, but it was overwhelming once we arrived at the top of the stairs. The small space was filled with more people than I could count. There were medical volunteers from San Diego set up at tables talking to migrants. Within our caravan group were some folks from a Lion’s Club who had also set up tables and were passing out new clothing and blankets. Besides all the migrants, there were people from San Diego, San Francisco, and a couple of folks from Pennsylvania, along with the four of us from Humboldt. I saw familiar faces and greeted the woman who is in charge at the shelter. She recognized me, smiled and hugged me, and said, “We are all family.” I asked about whether the piñatas got finished from my last visit there. She said yes, and that they were also all smashed. (So it goes in the life of piñatas.) We handed over our big bag of beans and made our way through the crowd and back down the stairs.
The caravan moved to the next shelter which was not far away. This was the Arco Iris shelter (Rainbow Shelter) which houses about thirty LGBTQ migrants. Volunteers brought boxes full of food and other supplies into the courtyard and up to the door, but also being a small space, and with folks in need of privacy and protection, we did not go inside.
The next destination was Embajadores de Jesus in Scorpion Canyon. I had told myself I wouldn’t drive there again because the road to that shelter is so bad, and I feared that my car would get damaged. But as everyone loaded up and headed that way, I realized I would take the risk one more time. It had rained several times in TJ since my last visit. I was doubtful there would be any road left. As I made the turn onto the dirt road into the canyon, I thought about just parking there and having us all walk in. But there was a narrow strip with packed dirt. The rest was filled with rocks and a healthy flow of water from canyon runoff. We parked about halfway in, and walked to the shelter along with numerous volunteers carrying in supplies. As soon as we entered the large church, Marisela was approached to help translate for a doctor who was volunteering and did not speak Spanish. Not only is Marisela bilingual, but she is also a medical professional. It was clear that her participation on this trip was going to be beneficial for everyone she interacted with, including those in our group. Along with her talents and skills, she is a very kind, gracious, and friendly person.
I found some of the kids I had worked with from my last visit and asked them if they were able to finish their piñatas. They remembered me and said, “Yes.” One of the girls still had hers. She took me way inside the shelter, to the far back corner, past all of the tents, and pulled out her piñata from a hiding place. She was waiting for some black tissue paper to somehow arrive so that she could finish it. I was very happy to see and hear that the piñatas were finished and used.
As I came back out toward the center of the tent-filled area which is in the back section of the huge cinder block building, Marisela was talking to a woman about her journey from Central America. Sue and Kate joined us and we all sat down on a step while Marisela translated while the woman told her story. We all heard firsthand about what it was like for her and her 13-year-old daughter to end up in a detention center in the United States. She said it was very cold all of the time. Her daughter was separated from her. Not only did her captors take away everyone’s shoelaces, they were also not allowed to have long sleeves in case they might use them to harm themselves. They actually had their sleeves cut from their shirts. This, of course, made the ability to stay warm even more difficult. She said the aluminum blankets were not helpful, and that she was glad to be out of that situation. She feels that the shelter they are in now has lots of rules, but she would rather be there and follow all the rules than be in the US detention center.
While we talked, we also watched as toys were distributed to all the children. A toy drive had been conducted during the winter holidays by one of the groups in the caravan, and children were walking by us with big smiles on their faces, carrying their coveted new things back to their tents. However, this mom pointed out that her teenage daughter, who is very shy, is also too old for the kinds of items donated frequently for children.
We remembered that Kate had brought some teen novels in Spanish that she had picked up at a used bookstore. We went with the girl out to the car and pulled out three books for her to read. She seemed quietly pleased to have them and thankful that we made the effort for her to receive them.
Driving out of the canyon was a harrowing experience (Marisela caught it on video) as I drove over the narrowest of passes in the road. There was barely an inch to spare, but we made it, and even considered choosing that shelter as one of the places we might return to the next day. There were so many people there. Hugo told us the current number of residents was 350.
Our last stop for the day was at the one shelter run by Border Angels where the wall ends up at the ocean (commonly referred to as the corner of Latin America.) Unfortunately, we took a wrong turn trying to get there and ended up stuck in a double round-about where the cars sat motionless, with the exception of one or two at a time inching forward. We crept our way through the figure eight cluster of cars for at least a half an hour, then got back on the road along the border wall to the beach. We missed hearing the final wrap up with the others in the caravan. Just as we got there, the large group was leaving to go to a taco place which had the capacity to serve many people. Our group decided to stay at the beach. We chose a small place a few doors down from the border wall, and ate delicious fish tacos. Afterwards, we walked around the area where many people were enjoying a comfortable Saturday evening. As the sun was setting, Mexican music filled the air. We watched as a family set up lights and cameras to photograph their daughter all dressed up and posing in her “Quinceañera” gown. When a girl turns 15, she is celebrated for her passage from girlhood into womanhood.
Although the evening was still early, we made our way to the Jesuit retreat center where we were staying that night. As we entered through the gate, the gatekeeper had keys ready for us under my name. We drove to the top of the hill, unlocked the gate to the retreat center, and took our bags into our rooms where we looked out over the ocean and a peaceful western Tijuana night.
Tijuana can be very cold in January, and after a very cold night in rooms with no heat, we woke up to a clear, crisp morning. We packed up quickly and headed down the hill to meet up with Hugo. We stopped along the way at a tortilleria and bought some freshly made corn tortillas, as well as some queso fresco and a ripe avocado. We sat at the corner of Latin America and ate our tasty Mexican breakfast. Hugo arrived right at nine, and we followed him to a shelter that was not very far from where we had stayed the night before.
We parked at the bottom of a hill and walked up a steep driveway to a house with twenty people living in it. Hugo was talking to a man at the door of the house as we arrived behind him with our art supplies. The man was from Guatemala and had just told Hugo that he and his son were leaving to go back to Guatemala after a year of waiting in Tijuana to get their asylum hearing. He finally got his day in court and was told he had to come back in 1000 days. There was no way he could wait for almost three years. Although his life had been threatened in Guatemala by gangs, he couldn’t see staying any longer in Tijuana with his seven-year-old son. His wife and daughter are still in Guatemala, and he wanted to be with them. He had been an accountant. Hugo later told us that, although so young, his son had talked about suicide.
It was very cold when we stepped inside the house, built only from cinder block bricks. We then stepped outside into a small courtyard where a big brick oven had a small fire burning in it. There was very little room to set up to do our art projects, but the sun was shining there. On a short little makeshift table, Kate set up the beads for the jewelry-making project. Instantly four boys got on their knees and started carefully stringing beads onto elastic thread, making necklaces and bracelets. Sue and Marisela taught a couple of people knitting. I focused on encouraging one young man who everyone pointed to as the artist to paint. I gave him a few different paint sets containing a wide variety of colors and a stack of watercolor paper.
One thing that is abundantly clear is that there are many long hours of boredom while the shelter residents wait for their fate within the court system. Bringing them a creative, hands-on activity helped fill their day and puts a smile on their faces.
After about two hours at that shelter, we stopped back at the beach to eat lunch. We ran into Ruben who had helped me on my last visit, and he wanted to join us for our afternoon visit to at another shelter. He is bilingual and works well with children. After lunch, we drove to the next shelter in the southeastern part of Tijuana, about 40 minutes away.
Inside Roca de Salvación, there was a sunny, colorfully-painted courtyard with long tables where we set up to work with everyone. We were all out of beads, so we set up knitting at one end, and watercolors at the other end. In no time at all, the tables were full with both children and adults. While Marisela translated for the knitters, and Ruben translated for the painters, about twenty-five people of all ages were engaging in creativity.
As the painting session began to wind down, a little girl came up to me, cuddled up to my side, and asked a question. Ruben said she was asking if they were going to be able to keep the watercolor paint sets. I told her, “Yes”, and instead of a smile, I watched as her eyes grew larger. She then slipped away and went to tell her mother. I started to clean things up and put away the supplies in a plastic lidded tub that I had brought for them to keep. As I began collecting the pencils, tape, watercolor paper, and cardboard, I realized there were no paint sets left on the table. The kids had all disappeared as well. I envisioned watercolor sets being tucked into the bottom of sleeping bags, or into the corners of tents.
Some of the kids were giving us their paintings which is very typical of young children making art. “This is for you,” they would say in Spanish. Bags of donated yarn and knitting needles were also left with those who participated in the knitting activity. Everyone seemed happy to be a part of the projects. And our group left with smiles on our faces as well.
We headed for the border, dropping Ruben off right before we crossed. It only took us a half an hour to get through, and we cruised through San Diego and made our way to Carlsbad, where a motel room awaited us. I wish we could have stayed longer in Tijuana, and offered our art activities to more shelters. I think we all felt that it had been a good day, and that going again was a possibility in everyone’s mind.
The next day we drove from Carlsbad to Watsonville and stayed in the home of some friends of Sue. Then, on the sixth day, we drove all the way home to Humboldt. It was a quick trip, but a very successful one.
I want to go back again with more new watercolor sets and stacks of watercolor paper. And I hope others, including Kate, Sue, and Marisela, will go again too with more beads, and yarn, and any other art activity the can fill the hands and hearts of those waiting for the opportunities of the promised land that is the United States of America.
*As I publish this on my website, we are at the beginning of the US Coronavirus pandemic/shutdown. I was hoping at this time to be heading down again with more volunteers to do more art activities in migrant shelters. It looks like the US/ Mexico border will be closed to folks trying to cross. I hope I will be able to go again, but the future is very uncertain. The “Remain in Mexico” policy continues after many court battles. The promise of asylum for those seeking protection and refuge from persecution has been denied for over 60,000 migrants from Central America as of this moment in time. The United States under Trump’s administration has defied international law. My hope is that this pandemic brings Trump’s chances of continuing into the next presidential cycle to a screeching halt, and that a just and fair society returns to fulfill that promise.