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Tijuana Sunset: Shifting Sands, Rising Walls At US-Mexico Border

Somewhere, over the border
Somewhere, over the border
Luis Lema

TIJUANA - There is a party going on across the wall. You can hear the sounds of families and friends, and good fun. Adriana walks towards the fence and explains that further away, some kids are flying kites. But the wind is blowing in the opposite direction. From where we stand, we won't be able to watch them fly.

On this side, in the hot morning sun, there is no party going on and no kites flying anywhere. But there is at least one Border Patrol agent standing nearby, who seems a bit excitable. "Are you here for the opening? Have you got an appointment with somebody on the other side?" he asked a little earlier, creating some hope among us.

Not much happens on Imperial Beach -- where the wall that separates the United States from Mexico begins and ends. It runs across more than 1300 kilometers (800 miles) of hills and prairies, from this stretch of beach along the Pacific Ocean coastline.

It took three years to build this new fence on the site of Friendship Park. The recent inauguration of this small patch of fence went all but unnoticed. Only verbal exchanges are allowed, as a Border Patrol agent makes sure that nothing else gets passed through the holes of the tight net-wire fence.

Yet it is already a minor victory for Daniel Watman, who knows Adriana and Mexican activists across the border very well. "We negotiated for more than one year with the Border Patrol to achieve this," he says. "Well, "negotiate" is not exactly the right term. We make propositions and then see whether they are accepted or not. We are never given explanations."

Watman and his friends even hired an architect to design this hole in the six-meter-high wall. "We thought that it would have a bigger impact," admits the Californian activist. "We'll have to ask our architect to come up with a friendlier version. Then we'll submit it to the authorities, and see if they approve it."

For the past three years, this group of activists –- whose final goal is to bring down the wall completely – has been trying out this pass or fail rule. On both sides of the wall, militants have launched activities such alternative yoga and salsa lessons to build closer ties.

Gringos, past and present

Watman, who works as a Spanish teacher in several schools in the San Diego area, had first tried to organize a summer trip for his students across the border. But he was told by authorities that the administrative process could take more than a year. So he decided to enter Mexico with his most dedicated students as mere tourists. Some fell in love with the place. They have made Mexican friends and now make frequent trips across the border.

Like a handful of other Americans, artists and eccentrics, Watman went even further and settled in Tijuana a few years ago. His scooter allows him to sneak through the kilometer-long stretch of cars lining up at the Mexican border post. "We can go through in only 20 minutes. It just takes a little experience," he smiles.

The border crossing point between the cities of Tijuana and San Diego is believed to be the busiest in the world. Yet most Americans – who don't cross it as much as they used to – now see it as no-go area where massacres are continuously perpetrated by the drug gangs who fear neither law nor man.

This former settlement was built during the Prohibition area to host thirsty "Gringos." It is now in search of one thing only: normalcy. Tijuana is a sprawling city that has long swallowed migrants from all over the country trying to cross north. It has remained open to visitors who no longer make the trip South.

The drugstores, lining up on Revolution Avenue, sell hundreds of drugs that are only available in the U.S. through prescription: captopril, glucosamine, diclofenac, tramadol, as well as Viagra and Cialis, the most popular of all.

Today, music bands perform for locals only. But the city, which benefits from its proximity with the United States and growing commercial ties with San Diego, now features a futuristic-looking cultural center as well as dozens of hip bars and art galleries. Tijuana is ready for the future.

Immigration has become a political football in Washington. Right across the border, without expecting much, Gilberto Serrano, doesn't blame these Americans who "lock themselves in with walls." The man who went to college in Guadalajara has found no other occupation than distributing advertisements for cheap dentists to American visitors, another classic Tijuana special. Unfortunately, the image of the place has lately been dominated by the grizzly toll of the drug war, which has included chopped-up remains of victims found along the roadside.

Paz and presidents

Sarrano quotes writer Octavio Paz to express his frustration with "the Mexican race," said to have descended from Spanish conquistadors and the figure of La Malinche, the indigenous mistress of Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortes. Serrano is fascinated with popular culture, but only shows his video footage of the Guadalajara mariachi festival to his American friends. His fellow Mexicans don't seem to care.

Torn between love and hate, Serrano sometimes crosses into San Diego where he has always failed to find a job. He grits his teeth and says: "Every time I go to the U.S., I wind up angry. I start drinking, and end up pissing on the statues of their presidents. It is the only way I have found to release some of the anger that's burning inside me."

Back on the other side of wall, in U.S. territory: the small space that Daniel Watman and his friends fought for is shut down until next week. The guard changed his mind and no longer wants to get out of his vehicle. It is now impossible to come close to fence.

On an empty parking lot, Rick and his wife are watching the sun setting on the other side of the fence. Their trip has come to an end. Rick is pointing at the navigator of his Harley Davidson. They left Milwaukee, Wisconsin, two weeks ago. "2,500 miles!" he says proudly, bragging about the distance the couple covered.

Are they going to cross into Mexico and visit Tijuana? The retired biker, with his greying beard, laughs at the joke. With his bandana on, he turns to his wife and says: "Going to Tijuana? Did you hear that?" After a moment, though, his expression turns serious: "It's too dangerous. There are enough places to go in the U.S."

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