On my third and final visit of 2019, I arrived in Tijuana the Sunday night before Thanksgiving. This time I was traveling alone, which was not the original plan. It had been a long and familiar drive, but I found myself fighting off the buckets of fear so many people had tried to pour on this excursion. “Aren’t you afraid to go down there?” “Isn’t it dangerous in Tijuana?” “How do you know you will be safe?” I couldn’t help but think that behind that fear, some of my friends lose the comfort and familiarity of their safe, American culture with access to everything. They are afraid of losing their power, privilege, and freedom of choice while being surrounded by brown people who speak a different language. There is an element of racism buried within all that fear. Prejudice is usually based on lack of information, and is often focused on differences rather than similarities.
Even though I would be passing through major cities with their own reputations for crime and violence (Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco), Tijuana has made it to the top of the list in a variety of recent publications as “the most dangerous city in the world.” Many miles of driving alone kept my mind returning to the understanding that fear and ignorance are forces that stops us from moving forward, sometimes for our own safety. Fear can also prevent us from keeping our hearts and minds open.
Through a friend of my brother John who is a Jesuit priest, I was able to stay in a Jesuit-run retreat house on the Ibero College campus built on one of the highest hills in Tijuana. After crossing through the border, finding the retreat house, and settling into my room, I watched the golden sun set over the ocean. As I gazed from my lofty perch over the rooftops of the many small and ramshackle houses below me leading out to the sea, I knew I would sleep in a comfortable bed, in a locked room, with my own bathroom, and know that my accommodations were far better than anything I would see in the migrant shelters where I would be volunteering for the next three days.
As darkness fell over Tijuana, I finally got a text from Hugo Castro,my contact in Tijuana for access to the shelters. He is the main link for the 16 shelters, delivering food and supplies including three in Mexicali (another border town 100 miles to the east.) We decided to meet up and go eat some tacos. He knew a place that had vegetarian tacos made with nopales, the pads of prickly pear cactus.
As we ate, he told me how Tijuana now has approximately 15,000 asylum seekers waiting in shelters for their court date in the US. The “Remain in Mexico” policy of our government requires that these migrants stay in Mexico where shelters are busting at the seams. None of the 33 shelters in Tijuana receive any support from the US or Mexican governments. Along with the continually donated food and hygiene supplies, Hugo has been bringing rolls of roofing paper and nails to several shelters for repairing leaks as winter arrives. He has also been bringing baby supplies for some recent newborns in a couple of the shelters. He is an amazing person with a big heart and a passion for the rights of migrants. I don’t know how he does all that he does.
Hugo has a way of also making volunteers feel like they can do more, maybe even do the impossible. When he said to me on my previous visit that making piñatas would be great at the Embajadores de Jesus shelter in Scorpion Canyon with 100 kids, I thought to myself, “That would be crazy!” Making piñatas is a three-stage process and has to be done over several days so the paper mâché can dry. Although they are a temporary art form, they are also three-dimensional, and take up space in shelters with very little space. Creating them makes a big mess. I had never done this piñata project with that many kids at once. Additionally, I do not speak Spanish.
But Hugo convinced me I could do it, and by 9:30 Monday morning, we met up at the Tijuana Border Angels office again and headed toward the canyon. I followed his truck (my old truck) to the shelter. Many children greeted us when we pulled up, and Hugo told them how we would be making piñatas for Las Posadas celebrations at several of the shelters. Posada is Spanish for “inn” or “hostel” and is celebrated in the nine days before Christmas. Referring to the journey of Mary and Joseph in search of a safe place to stay for the birth of Jesus, I couldn’t help but wonder about the individual stories of all the migrants who live in this large cinderblock building at the end of what can barely be called a road. How far had they all come to get to this dirt and rock hillside to live with so many others with similar stories? The holiday carries special symbolism because of their plight.
The kids helped carry the art supplies from my van inside the building. We set up several tables and Hugo translated as I tried to explain how to begin the process. There were kids of all ages, from toddlers to teens. I had anticipated this moment for several weeks. I don’t know how many children participated. More kept coming. There were too many to count.
With the sound of paper being ripped from the end rolls from the newspaper printers, masking tape being pulled and torn, and lots of questions in Spanish from the kids, my head was spinning. A couple of boys who looked to be around ten wadded up some paper and wrapped it repeatedly with tape until they had created a ball, which they proceeded to throw back and forth to each other in the vacuous main room of the large building. Although it added to the chaos, it was a clever way to make themselves a toy. I had to redirect them away from the area where we were all working. There was never a dull moment.
Hugo recommended that we begin the second phase which involved mixing flour and water into paste and applying it to the taped-up shapes. As a former teacher of children, I always thought it best to finish one phase, then clean up before launching in to the next phase. But this was not my classroom, and I already had no control of the situation. So, I pulled out the mixing bowls and white flour, and we all started mixing paper mâché paste with our fingers.
The paste was everywhere, but we managed to get most of the sculpted figures covered with coated pieces of paper. I set aside the piñatas to dry. We packed up the masking tape, the flour, the bowls with remnants of paste still in them, and the rolls of paper, and headed to the next shelter across town.
Hugo had to leave Tijuana to drive to Mexicali, delivering supplies to shelters there, so he called and recruited Ruben Robles, a volunteer, to help me as a translator. Fortunately, Ruben is fluent in both English and Spanish and arrived just as I did at Pro Amore Dei shelter.
There were less kids at this shelter, but there was also much less room. In a space about the size of a two-car carport, Ruben and I brought in the materials and started making piñatas with a new group of about 25 kids. Although the space was tight, I felt I had a little more control. We got done with the first phase by 4 p.m. It was time for them to eat, and I was ready to be done for the day.
I drove back to the retreat center and reflected on all that I had just experienced. It had been overwhelming, but good. I went to bed very early that evening in my quiet room with a view.
The following morning, I picked up Ruben at the Border Angels office, and we headed back to the Scorpion Canyon shelter. We spent the morning doing some repair work on the piñatas that were made the previous day, putting them out in the sun to dry, but safely away from the pigs, hogs, and chickens that roam the canyon. We worked until it was time for the shelter residents’ main meal of the day which happens around one o’clock. Although this shelter had received recent food donations, I was struck by the high carbohydrate meal that was served to everyone. Lunch consisted of a pile of white rice and a glob of spaghetti with tomato sauce mixed into it. It was alarming to think that rice and pasta was all everyone at the shelter was going to eat. It made me feel grateful for all the fruits, vegetables, and protein I am able to eat every day.
Ruben and I headed back to the Pro Amore Dei shelter around 2 p.m. and started the paper mâché phase with the kids there. We mixed the flour paste until there was no more flour left. Many piñatas were made and set aside to dry. When the younger kids tired of the project, teens and parents joined in to help finish. As I found spots to store the piñatas, a crew of adults got to work washing down the tables and setting up for dinner. It was impressive to see how quickly and effectively the space transitioned. In no time at all, the entire group of residents were sitting down, saying grace and eating potato tacos with a creamy sauce on them. Once again, there was no protein in the meal, or fruits or vegetables.
On Wednesday morning, I checked out of my solitary room with the great view, and met up with Ruben. We returned to the Pro Amore Dei shelter to work with the migrants on the third and final phase of making piñatas. Adding the colorful strips of tissue paper brought the forms to life. It was the moms and other young women that put the finishing touches on the piñatas.
Another group of volunteers was coming, and the open space was set up in a circle of chairs. We set up a couple of tables in a small, triangular space next a large propane tank, the clothes washing sink, and the steps down to the courtyard area where rows of laundry hung on clothes lines. The women calmly cut and applied colorful tissue paper with techniques I had never seen before. It was wonderful to not only observe this method, but to see the quiet joy it brought to their faces. They had something to do and it was something they knew.
While the colors and textures brought the piñatas to life, something wonderful happened within the circle of chairs. A small group of music and dance volunteers from San Diego arrived and passed out shakers and tambourines to all the residents. What I had witnessed in slow motion over the past three days happened instantly as recorded music started playing some rhythms. People started moving to the music. A tall, thin woman with dark hair started dancing in the middle of the circle. She reached out her hand for someone from the circle to join her. Smiles instantly grew on the faces of everyone. From babies to Grandpas, music and dance lifted the spirits of all who participated. I felt privileged to be witnessing these lovely people sharing music, art, and dance. It made me wish all my fearful friends could be standing there at that moment. There was certainly nothing to fear. Instead, the group radiated with warmth, beauty, and joy.
The lead dancer who brought this wonderful experience to the group turned out to be a Syrian refugee who now lives in San Diego. She understands their experience. She also knows how music and dance can be healing after a trauma.
I said my goodbyes to the residents at this shelter, and to Ruben, and drove back to the beach where the border wall drops off into the ocean. I left the last of my donated supplies in the Border Angels office. I decided to eat lunch at a nearby taco stand and had some excellent fish tacos. I reflected how afraid I was supposed to feel being on the streets of Tijuana, and how comfortable I had felt the whole three days I was there. Everyone I interacted with had been kind to me. I was glad I did not let myself be infected by the paranoia others feel about this place. I was not always in control of my situation, mostly with the kids and managing behavior and the use of the materials, but I never felt I was in any danger.
I headed to the border crossing and only waited an hour to get back through to the USA. As I drove into the rain and the darkness of night toward Los Angeles, the city where I was born and raised, I felt grateful for the opportunity to do this work, and humbled by the beauty and grace of all the migrants who patiently wait for the opportunities I have had my whole life.