A Day Spent across THE MEXICAN BORDER

Article excerpt

THE hills of Tijuana appear before we reach the border. They are not manicured green, covered with ice plant in all its various neon colors as are our hills in San Diego. No, they are raw, brown, and look like large sleeping animals.

As I have done probably a dozen or more times in the last 12 or 13 years, I am crossing the border between San Diego and Tijuana, between our affluent beach city and our closest neighbor. Lately I've gone with my grown son, his girlfriend, and her mother, who was born in Mexico and is very familiar with Tijuana. We trace a similar path each time we go, one that's not very spectacular or unusual.

Aztlan was once the mythic name of the area, the legendary homeland of the Aztecs. The names of our southern Californian towns (Encinitas, Chula Vista, San Ysidro), many streets (Camino del Rio or Porte La Paz), and some of the food we eat (from chimichangas to fish tacos) are reminders that California was once part of Mexico.

As thousands of residents of El Norte do, we escape for a day as we enter another world. At the same time, thousands of people from the southland, from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego, leave their homes and cross the border north. We from the United States often come to buy cheap trinkets, or even silver and leather; but once in a while, as some church groups and a few individuals do, we come to help, to visit an orphanage, or to try to make a dent in the enormous pockets of poverty.

The Mexicans and Latin Americans cross the border legally with their green cards (or illegally through holes in the border fence each night) in search of work, to earn much-needed money through low wages. They come to pick our vegetables, work in our homes, care for our children, build our homes, and trim our palm trees. And others, some children of the middle-class and well-off Mexican families, cross to attend school. The Tijuana border crossing is, in fact, considered the busiest in the world.

Life changes radically at the rickety, clanging turnstiles, and once on the other side, I take a deep breath and breathe in Mexico. There's the smell of fresh fruit from the woman in a blue checked dress who sells orange-colored papayas and melons on sticks, and the smell of grilled food and smoke rising from a metal container as chiles rellenos cook and ooze their juices.

The vistas here are at first more dreamlike than real - and the change is so abrupt, almost a step back in time. A tiny woman with black braids sits with her baby; her red blanket is strewn with silver and colorful woven bracelets. A man with no legs sits by the adobe wall, his cup nearby. His smile is a quarter moon.

Tijuana hits us right away. It doesn't hide, and we can't either. I drink in its sensual beauty, its laughter, and its struggle; nothing is swept aside, contained, or pristine. Life, in all its various manifestations, surrounds us, and before we have a chance to gather our thoughts, the line of cabbies begins beckoning: "Hey, five dollars to Revolucion," or "Five dollars for all of you."

"No," we say, "we'd rather walk." Walking, we decide, is the way to feel more connected to the dirt beneath our feet, to be rooted to this land.

Beyond the cabs, we head toward the tourist area of Revolucion. We go past the perfumery, the cobbler, and the bank - past the turquoise and blue buildings that look like watercolors on both sides of the street. We pass markets with shells, large conchs, and starfish. We see masks - a yellow jaguar mask, a blue laughing mask; velvet paintings of Elvis, of Lucy and Desi; and large pink plaster pigs. …