Border walkabout

As I round the corner towards the bridge over the Tijuana River, two cops yell at me to stop. I pick up my pace, gripping my passport and money inside my pockets with sweaty palms.

Image:Levi Bridges

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They yell again and I start running.

Looking back, I see them pursuing me. I surrender. The officers slam me against a building, hands in the air. The contents of my pockets disappear into their hands for inspection.

"Why did you run? Are you carrying drugs?” asks the larger cop in broken English.

"No,” I reply. "I had heard that many Tijuana cops extort foreigners. So when you asked me to stop, I ran.”

"Listen,” he says, "there are some bad people in Tijuana, but you need to remember that not everyone is bad police."

They let me go, the contents of my backpack in complete disarray after their hasty search, and I continue towards California.

MORE THAN JUST A LINE

For better or worse, Tijuana and San Diego are in a complex, co-dependent relationship that dates back to a simpler time. Early in the 19th century the two cities were both part of Mexico and Tijuana was a peaceful ranching village.

The Mexican-American War, which ended in 1848, would change the destinies of both cities, as well as countless towns, from the west coast to the southwest, which suddenly became part of a different country.

“Today, many southern Californians who live near large Latino communities do not realize that many people of Mexican descent have been US citizens for generations. The border passed over them,” explains Andrea Skorepa, CEO of Casa Familiar, a nonprofit organization that works with Latino communities in San Diego County.

Following the war, Tijuana grew relative to nearby California’s booming economy. Prohibition drew tourists to Tijuana’s cabarets and bars, and the population expanded in response to American spending on both sides of the border.

Today, Tijuana is home to 1.5 million people and is one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Droves of immigrants from throughout Mexico arrive daily, seeking work in maquiladora factories on the Mexican side or as legal day laborers in the US, or looking to attempt to cross the border in hopes of joining America’s increasing illegal workforce.

As the police let me go, I cross the bridge over the Tijuana River, a murky stream of water flowing from Mexico into a sewage treatment plant in California, and take my place in the sprawling line of people waiting at the busiest overland border crossing in the world.

This is the point where America, that dominating entity that hovers at the nucleus of world affairs, physically collides with another nation.

An hour later, I get my brief interview with a US customs official and pass through a metal detector into the home of the brave.

The visual effect of passing from Tijuana into California is like cleaning a dusty window; suddenly the world seems healthy, flawless, and more efficient.

Stepping onto the Blue Line trolley headed towards downtown San Diego, away from Tijuana’s smog-billowing bus system, evokes a marvelous sense of convenience. As the train glides away, views of Tijuana’s crowded hillsides give way to neat American suburbs.

Days in north Mexico leave you dazzled when you rediscover the existence of glitzy American shopping malls, immaculate sidewalks, and the palm-lined avenues of downtown San Diego.

Crossing back into Mexico that afternoon, I pass through a turnstile gate. Nobody asks me to wait in line or even to show identification.

 

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