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
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. …