Day 16: The last stop, and looking back
The smells and sounds of Tijuana smack us as soon as we open the doors of our bug-splattered rental Jeep: food stalls selling roasted corn, churros and hot dogs; a near-empty bar blaring the oompa-oompas of norteno, Mexico’s answer to polka.
This is our last stop. We’ve logged 3,000 miles from the Gulf to the Pacific, crisscrossing back and forth across the world’s 10th-longest border 22 times over two weeks. We’ve traversed the terrain through which President Donald Trump would build a 30-foot-high wall; we’ve talked to anyone and everyone who was willing.
We’ve seen a father and daughter speak through the bars of the border fence, and talked to an Arizona rancher who supports the wall but who has installed taps at every well on his desert property so migrants can drink. In Ciudad Juarez, we watched Mexican children throw rocks across the fence at railroad maintenance vehicles in the U.S. In Tijuana, we met a U.S. Army veteran who crossed the border to, in her words, “hide” from life for a few hours.
What we’ve found, from the near-empty migrant shelters of Tamaulipas state in Mexico to the drug-running corridors of the Sonoran Desert, is a region convulsed by uncertainty and angst but rooted in a shared culture and history unlikely to be transformed by any politician, or any barrier man can construct.
Border life “is not going to change,” says Ramon Alberto Orrantia, a 54-year-old parking attendant who has lived in Tijuana for 48 years. “People continue doing the same thing. Life is normal.”
Practically everyone we met has been welcoming and evinced a deeply held sense of the place they inhabit _ from the Mexican-American sheriff in Nogales, Arizona, who shook hands and chatted through the fence with a man he later said was probably a lookout for smugglers, to the cheery border agent in Deming, New Mexico, who astonished us with his thorough knowledge of the history of the AP’s founding during the Mexican-American War.
Rodrigo Abd, my Argentine traveling companion, has spent little time on the border and tells me he had expected every American he met here would be fervently pro-Trump and pro-wall. But we often had a hard time finding people like that.
Just this week, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly acknowledged that despite Trump’s frequent promises to put up a solid barrier the length of the border, “it is unlikely that we will build a wall from sea to shining sea.”
To travel the length of the border is to understand why: Where the Rio Grande makes a long slow curve through the aptly named Big Bend National Park, we bore witness to how nature already dwarfs any man-made wall that could be built, with twin sheer cliff faces rising 1,500 feet above the shallow river and no border agents around to keep visitors from wading across.
More than anything, on this trip we’ve found a region and culture that are neither exclusively Mexican nor American but distinctively both.
As the sun goes down over the ocean off Tijuana, a lighthouse comes alive and its rotating beam slaps a border surveillance tower on U.S. soil. At a nearby bar, Mexican baseball fans are watching the San Diego Padres beat the Los Angeles Dodgers on four large-screen TVs.
The San Ysidro U.S. port of entry between Tijuana and San Diego is the busiest crossing in the Western Hemisphere, handling 50,000 northbound vehicles and 25,000 pedestrians each day _ more people than the top two U.S. airports for international arrivals combined. They’re crossing to go to work or school; as tourists; to visit family, dine out and party; to shop for bargains on medicines in Mexico or flat-screen TVs in the United States _ which, odds are, may very well have been assembled in Mexico in the first place.
The two countries do about $584 billion in commerce each year, with much of that crossing by land. People along the border are more likely to be bilingual than elsewhere in their countries and often share an affinity for things like baseball teams, jacked-up pickup trucks and chile-spiced cuisine. They draw water from the same rivers to drink and irrigate crops, and their governments work to protect the same ecosystems and imperiled species.
It’s a relationship that can be adversarial at times. Far more often, we’ve found, it’s symbiotic.
“We Mexicans have been through a lot, especially here in our own country,” says Hector Mendez Leon, a 28-year-old Mexican who’s about to cross from Tijuana to his cashier’s job at a clothing store in Chula Vista, California. “So for Mexico, a president like (Trump) is like having a cold. … One day you will get over it.”