Border City Chapter 8: A city of resilience and hope – The San Diego Union-Tribune

It was a random misstep in 2018 that finally forced me to pause and ponder my place on the border.

It happened while I was running errands north of the border, 40 miles from Tijuana in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven.

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One minute I was paying for a cup of coffee, the next minute, I had tripped and was lying in the parking lot, moaning in pain.

My right ankle needed surgery and a metal plate. I’d have to keep it elevated above my chest for at least six weeks.

Self-reliance had carried me through tough times in the 25 years I’d been living and working on the border. But that wasn’t an option now.

I needed help.

Time changes everything, everywhere, of course. But here at an international crossroad, changes are often driven by forces far away.

A humanitarian crisis in Africa. Poverty and violence in Central America. Drug demand and migration policies in the United States. And when a pandemic sweeps the entire globe — the border makes everything more complicated.

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After I broke my ankle, I couldn’t shop or cook, so I signed up for Meals on Wheels and paid a neighbor to look in on me once a day. If something fell to the floor, it stayed there until she arrived.

But then friends started showing up at my door.

Friends from San Diego brought food and stayed to visit.

Friends from Tijuana crossed the border to take me to physical therapy, bring me lunch or make me breakfast. Or just keep me company.

Three of my danzón companions — Mirna, Rebeca and Temoc — moved in with me for an entire weekend. As I lay on the couch, they cooked, they cleaned, they danced.

Looking back, I still can’t say exactly what drew me to the border all those years ago. But here were the reasons I stayed — these people on both sides of the fence who picked me up when I stumbled and fell.

New-style violence

Tijuana looked very different in 2018 than when I arrived in 1994. The population had doubled to nearly 2 million people. The city was more complicated — and more cosmopolitan.

New condo towers were changing the skyline.

Sports fans from both sides of the border packed the Xolos soccer stadium. Big, boisterous crowds cheered lucha libre fighters in the municipal auditorium.

Soccer wave team flags and cheer at Caliente Stadium in Tijuana.

Xolos fans wave team flags and cheer during a match against Monterrey at Caliente Stadium in Tijuana in 2017.

(Alejandro Tamayo / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

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The food scene was exploding — everything from high-end restaurants to trendy food trucks, craft breweries and fancy coffee shops. Even traditional street food drew praise from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America.

Yet even as the business districts flourished, violence was spiking in other parts of the city. Much of it was driven by the growing street trade in crystal methamphetamine.

Working-class neighborhoods were hit hardest — places where families struggled to raise their children while low-level drug dealers fought to control street corners.

Violence hit an all-time high that year, with more than 2,500 homicides. That was nearly three times as many as a decade earlier, when it seemed the violence couldn’t get any worse.

The state homicide chief told me only about 12 percent of the cases were being solved.

A new wave of arrivals

In the fall of 2018, I covered a story so big that it turned the eyes of the world to Tijuana for weeks on end.

 Central American migrants climb the U.S. border fence from the Tijuana side.

A large group of migrants from Central America arrived in Tijuana by bus in November 2018. After a brief stop for a meal, many walked to Las Playas de Tijuana, where some climbed the U.S.-Mexico border fence.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

It began when a couple hundred people gathered in the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula and set out for the U.S. border. More people joined until they formed a massive caravan that moved through Guatemala, then into Mexico.

President Donald Trump called it an invasion. He ordered more than 5,000 troops to the U.S.-Mexico border.

By the end of November, close to 6,000 migrants had arrived in Tijuana.

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The first large group arrived on buses at a soup kitchen near downtown. Almost immediately, hundreds of them set out for a symbolic place — the beach where the border fence dips into the Pacific Ocean.

Union-Tribune photographer Nel Cepeda and I caught up with them on their 5-mile hike down a busy highway.

Some carried backpacks. Others pushed strollers.

Once they reached the beach, some teenagers scaled the tall bollards that form the border fence. As a line of Border Patrol officers watched, some jumped down onto U.S. soil, then quickly climbed back up the fence.

They seemed so confident. So hopeful.

They had reached their destination. Almost.

Central Americans from a migrant caravan walk along a road near the U.S. border fence in Tijuana.

By the end of November 2018, nearly 6,000 migrants had arrived in Tijuana as part of a large caravan that traveled through Central American and into Mexico.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Down on the sand, caravan members told me about the gangs back home that ruled by terror and demanded extortion payments. About governments too weak and corrupt to protect them.

They said they were poor and struggling to put food on the table. They seemed like people with nothing to lose.

But they also spoke of their dreams — and those were boundless.

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A piano teacher from San Pedro Sula hoped to hear jazz in New York City. A welder from Guatemala dreamed of moving to France. Each had a story to tell, an individual reason for leaving home.

One man told me he was a farmer and evangelical pastor back in Honduras. It hadn’t rained and his crops were dying.

As the crowd grew, he sang me a hymn.

For all the excitement of that day, it’s that quiet moment that still stays with me.

Tijuana wasn’t equipped to deal with so many migrants at once.

A downtown sports facility was converted into a shelter. But when it rained, the shelter became a sopping, muddy mess and people started getting sick.

The migrants grew desperate.

The Trump administration was accepting no more than 100 asylum applicants at San Ysidro each day — often far fewer. At best, they’d have to wait for months just to submit applications.

A couple of days after Thanksgiving, tensions rose.

Several hundred people marched to the border near the port of entry. The idea was to peacefully persuade U.S. authorities to speed up the asylum process.

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But then some of them charged through lines of Mexican police. They ran across a concrete channel and tried to force their way through a gap in the fence. A few hurled rocks.

Helicopters hovered overhead.

Seen through concertina wire, U.S. Border Patrol deploy CS gas on migrants at the U.S. - Mexico border near San Ysidro.

U.S. Border Patrol agents deploy CS gas on migrants refusing to step away from the concertina wire set up along the U.S.-Mexico border near San Ysidro on Nov. 25, 2018. Agents said they had been hit with rocks.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Mothers and their weeping children ran back in panic.

Two months later, the Trump administration made it even harder for asylum seekers from Central America.

They called the policy Migrant Protection Protocols. But most people called it “Remain in Mexico.”

Even those who managed to pass the first U.S. screening would now have to go back to Mexico while their cases were reviewed. That meant more months — or even years — of waiting.

The Cameroonians

In 2019, another group of asylum seekers began arriving in Tijuana. There were hundreds of them, not thousands.

And they came from somewhere I had never expected: Cameroon in Central Africa, a country of 25 million people. They were fleeing brutal repression and rampant violence in the country’s western region as the French-speaking government fought English-language separatists.

I met some of the Cameroonians at a small hotel close to the border, where they were staying while they waited to apply for asylum. They’d traveled by bus, plane and foot to get here. Through Africa, Europe and Latin America.

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A man named Kenedy told me there was one place where he thought he could find safety. One place in the world.

“We want to get to the U.S.,” he said.

Kenedy had studied law, worked in a credit union and owned some farmland. But as tensions rose in his country, his life unraveled. His crops were stolen. He was beaten and imprisoned. Fearing for his life, he fled Cameroon.

He learned later that his wife had been arrested, then released because she was pregnant. His native village had been burned down.

Kenedy led me to a small terrace outside his hotel room. He pointed north, toward some buildings we could see on the other side of the border and a small U.S. flag waving on a pole.

“So we get up every morning, we make sure that flag is still there,” Kenedy said. “Because that’s our dream. Moving inland to the United States.”

I asked Kenedy what gave him the faith and strength to keep going.

“The only strength I have is the courage my wife used to give me,” he said.

A few days after we spoke, I watched Kenedy join a crowd of migrants waiting by the San Ysidro border crossing. Everyone was listening intently, hoping to hear their names or numbers called so they could walk into the U.S. and file asylum petitions.

Refugees from the African nation of Cameroon have their papers checked by a volunteer at the port of entry in 2019.

A group of asylum seekers from Cameroon have their papers checked by a volunteer at the El Chaparral plaza on July 9, 2019.

(John Gibbins / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

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The scene reminded me of a train station crowded with anxious passengers fearful of being left behind.

Then I saw Kenedy step up, wearing a green sweatshirt and carrying a large backpack.

He disappeared into the port. He didn’t look back.

Angela’s daughters

Most of my encounters with migrants over the years have been fleeting, like my meeting with Kenedy.

I interview them in Tijuana and then they leave. Even if we exchange phone numbers, we soon lose touch.

I rarely know how their lives play out.

But one family that crossed into the United States is part of my personal life — the three daughters of my old friend Angela, who died of cancer in 2005.

Growing up, the girls all had border crossing cards. They allow Mexicans living in border communities to enter the U.S. for a limited time.

The girls usually came to San Diego to shop or visit me. They’d never considered moving away from Tijuana.

But as Angelita, Griselda and Teresa grew into women and had children of their own, their circumstances changed. Poverty, violence and bad relationships plagued their lives. And with their mother gone, they lost their strongest reason to stay in Tijuana.

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So, one by one the sisters walked across the border — and disappeared into the vast U.S. workforce of undocumented migrants.

They found low-paying jobs in California factories and packing plants. At roadside taco stands. Babysitting. Cleaning offices at night.

And they were profoundly grateful.

“Here in this great country that gave us the opportunity to have a better life, a new life, I thank God for everything,” Angelita said.

She works the night shift on an assembly line. On weekends, she sells tacos.

Angelita was 14 when I met her. Now she’s 40 and a single mother of five. She and Griselda share a two-bedroom apartment with four of Angelita’s children. All the sisters call me madrina. That means godmother. Their children do, too.

I’ve joined the family for birthdays and graduations. To eat cake and pozole. To honor a connection that has endured time and distance, sustained by the memory of a woman who offered me her friendship so many years ago.

So when my birthday rolled around in 2020, it seemed only natural to ask Angelita if I could celebrate it with them.

We settled on Saturday, March 7, for the party. I was one of three guests of honor. When I arrived, Angelita and Griselda were in the kitchen, frantically chopping onions and cilantro for pozole and potato tacos — just like their mother taught them.

Colorful Mexican banners flapped above a half-dozen tables they’d set up in the common space. Angelita’s teenage son was warming up a big barbecue.

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Before long, the courtyard was filled with chatter and laughter.

The third sister — Teresa — came with her partner, all smiles and with a gift in hand.

Teresa’s daughter came too — my namesake, Sandrita. She’s a stylish young woman of 25 now with two children of her own.

We talked. We sang. We danced. The teenagers checked their phones while the little children laughed and ran between the tables.

The sisters know their life in the U.S. could unravel at any moment. With a traffic stop. A workplace raid. A complaint from a neighbor. A child’s misstep.

But even with their lives so close to the edge, they seize on every occasion to celebrate, just as their mother used to. When I left that night, we exchanged abrazos. I promised I’d be back soon for Sandrita’s wedding in June.

Those goodbyes now seem like a lifetime ago.

Even as we were celebrating my birthday, COVID-19 was spreading through the world. Lives everywhere were turned upside down.

Sandrita went ahead and got married. But it was a small, outdoor wedding, and I didn’t go. I sent a gift and then sat on my couch and looked at photos of the ceremony on Facebook.

Pandemic complications

 People wearing masks to protect against the coronavirus walk along Avenida Revolución in June 2020.

COVID-19 restrictions put in place in March 2020 had significant economic and social effects in Tijuana. Crossings at land borders between the U.S. and Mexico were largely restricted to essential workers. Here people walk along a nearly deserted Avenida Revolución in June 2020.

(Alejandro Tamayo / The San Diego Union Tribune)

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COVID-19 transformed lives on both sides of the border.

Land ports of entry remained open to essential travel by U.S. citizens and permanent residents. But Mexicans with U.S. border crossing cards couldn’t cross, and all asylum interviews were canceled, even for those who had already begun the process.

One day, Esther Morales sent me a text that could have been written by any struggling restaurant owner anywhere in the world. She’s the woman who opened a little restaurant in Tijuana a decade ago, after she was deported from the United States.

“I am afraid. These streets are empty,” Esther wrote. “What happened? Oh, I am afraid, very afraid.”

Last June, I drove to Tijuana to interview Esther at her empty restaurant. I set up a microphone stand on one of her two tables so we could stay 6 feet apart while we talked.

Esther told me that in the first days of the pandemic, she felt helpless.

“I said, OK, I’m going to stay open, because what am I going to do at home? But there weren’t any people. The city was terribly deserted. There was nobody,” she said.

But Esther found a way to keep going.

She stepped up her volunteer work at the migrant shelters — places where she’d found refuge after she was deported from the U.S. She took them her famous tamales. And rice and beans from a sister in Los Angeles.

Esther Morales prepares plates of food to hand out at a soup kitchen in Tijuana.

Esther Morales prepares plates of food to hand out at a soup kitchen in Tijuana in August 2020.

(Alejandro Tamayo / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

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When a nonprofit called Al Otro Lado heard what Esther was doing, it began paying for the tamales.

“I said, I’m not going to be defeated. I never liked that, to give up,” she said.

The day I visited her, Esther was feeling upbeat. Tijuana had eased its restrictions on restaurants, and she was going to reopen the following weekend.

I told her I’d be there to record the moment. It would be one more example of her persistence and survival.

But that day, one of Esther’s friends called with some chilling news.

Esther had gone to the restaurant that morning to set out bouquets of roses for the opening.

A distant relative — a woman who had recently been deported from the U.S. — came in with two men, demanding money.

Esther said no.

The woman grabbed a knife and stabbed Esther in the neck.

Doctors saved her life by inserting a tube into her throat to help her breathe. She spent a month in the hospital.

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But here’s where the good part of the story begins.

The community Esther had built over the years rallied to support her.

Her daughter drove down from Los Angeles. Friends raised money to help pay her expenses. Al Otro Lado made sure she got the care she needed. And a small migrant shelter — one of the places where she’d been delivering tamales — took her in while she recovered.

It all reminded me of something Esther had said the last time we talked. About what she’d learned during her 10-year struggle to survive in Tijuana.

“It taught me that I have to work hard, otherwise I don’t eat,” she said then. “It taught me that I have to have friends because I am alone in the city. It taught me that the struggle is daily, and constant, constant, constant.”

Tijuana isn’t where Esther would have chosen to end up. But it’s where she now chooses to be. It’s where she rebuilt her life, a day at a time, and changed the path of her own story.

“My story is that I was lost, and here I pulled myself up. And here is where I celebrate my success, right here,” Esther said.

Violence flares

As the world focused on the pandemic in 2020, the violence continued in Tijuana. An aggressive new group from Central Mexico had moved in, challenging the dominant Sinaloa cartel. Remnants of the Arellanos were also around. With no group in total control, the drug world was in disarray.

Mexico’s president — Andrés Manuel López Obrador — had vowed to take a different approach to the cartels.

Abrazos, no balazos was one of Lopez Obrador’s campaign slogans. It means hugs, not bullets. Instead of taking on the cartels, he would tackle the root causes of crime — poverty and corruption.

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But violence is like a fire that Mexico can’t seem to put out.

For 26 years I’ve watched the flames flare in Tijuana then recede, only to return with a vengeance.

In 2020, homicides topped 2,000 for the third year in a row.

I asked human rights activist Victor Clark why he thought killings had gone up so high and no one seemed to be able to control it. He has monitored the shifting dynamics in the city’s underworld for decades.

“Because really Tijuana is under the control not of the authorities but under the control of the drug traffickers,” he said.

Cross-border lives

 In the distance, the border fence and downtown San Diego can be seen from Playas de Tijuana.

The border fence and downtown San Diego can be seen in the distance from Playas de Tijuana.

(Alejandro Tamayo / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

After all these years working and living in Tijuana and San Diego, I have to confess that the border is still a riddle and a puzzle and a mystery to me.

It’s a heavily fortified barrier that tears families apart. Yet it’s also a bridge that connects two major cities.

People whose lives straddle the border learn to live with these contradictions. They’re known as fronterizos. They navigate different legal systems, political traditions, languages and cultures. For them, the border isn’t a line, it’s a region.

“We have that . . . loving nature of a Mexican. But we also have that individualism or that pragmatism of an American citizen,” said 19-year-old Luisa Ramos. She was born and grew up in Tijuana but is a U.S. citizen through her father. She’s in my kitchen as I write this final installment of Border City and fix lentils for breakfast.

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“We are not as traditional as people at the center of the country would be. But we are not totally different from them.”

Her aunt is journalist Dora Elena Cortes, one of the first friends I made when I arrived in Tijuana. So when Luisa enrolled at Southwestern College in San Diego County last year, it seemed only natural for her to move in with me.

Luisa is a vibrant young woman with thick, wavy hair she’s been wearing cut short lately. She favors colorful Mexican blouses. She plays the piano and sings alto. She’s disciplined and thinks a lot about the future.

Maybe she’ll be an environmental engineer and try to solve Tijuana’s sewage treatment problems.

Or maybe she’ll pursue a career in music.

Luisa and I talked one day at Dora Elena’s house in Tijuana. We sat at the dining table while her mother and aunt chatted in the next room.

I asked if she wanted to build a life in the U.S. or in Mexico.

“I think both of them, like I’m used to living here and I like it,” Luisa said. “I really like it. It’s just my place. Right. And the culture and everything I’ve ever built is here. But I know there are other opportunities outside. And the United States, of course, has a lot of opportunities hanging out there.”

On weekdays, Luisa and I spend a lot of time in my apartment because of the pandemic. She takes Zoom classes, does homework and practices the piano. I work on the podcast, fix our lunch, and take long walks to clear my head.

In our free time, we do some singing together.

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Luisa and I practice for an all-female vocal ensemble. We call ourselves Meraki, a modern Greek word that means doing something with soul and passion.

Our leader is Daria Abreu, a Cuban woman who now lives in Tijuana and leads choruses there. Because of COVID-19, we can’t meet in person, so we rehearse on Zoom.

Daria sets exacting standards. Luisa is helping me meet them.

Even after all these years, the border’s broad reach still takes my breath away.

A musician from Cuba. Singers from Tijuana. And now Luisa and I rehearsing together in my U.S. apartment. All of us joined by the magic of music and the possibilities of this busy crossroad that we share.

Here I am, still filled with wonder at Tijuana. And still wondering what comes next.

I came here with no clear purpose. And never intending to stay.

But then I found a story I wanted to write. And then another. And another. And suddenly, more than a quarter-century had passed.

There’s now a new president in the White House, Joe Biden, who has lowered the anti-migrant rhetoric. But many migrants in Tijuana remain stranded. Their hopes of making it across the border into the United States seem no greater than before.

I’ve been following these developments from a distance because I retired from the Union-Tribune in 2020.

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But I’m still living on the border, which in a way has become my own story.

The story of how a restless and unsettled woman felt embraced by a restless and unsettled city.

A city that’s continually replenished and challenged. By new people. By new ideas. And by new generations meeting the future.

This place has taught me to keep going. To remain hopeful. And not to fear change.

I don’t know where the rest of my life will take me. But I do know this: that wherever I go, I’m not leaving Tijuana. I’ve become a part of it. Just as it is now a part of me.

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