As norteño music churned through the sunshine and cool breeze on the beach at the southwestern most point of the continental United States, los pobres suffered in silence at the northwestern most point of Mexico. A hulking wall of flaking rust split the sandy beach and reached out into the foamy waves like a dirty knife in whipped cream.
Even the ocean cannot wash away the border.
Friendship Park on the American side and Plaza Monumental de Tijuana on the Mexican slopes are all that is left of the once-friendly, once-open relationship between two great nations. Looking at the oxidized chunks of naval landing strips that the American government pulled from the trash, stuck into the beach and called border security, it is difficult to imagine that most Mexicans and most Americans are actually very fond of each other.
Enrique Morones and his band of Border Angels have not forgotten the dream of Friendship Park, a place established by the Nixon administration and opened by Mrs. Nixon herself to promote cross-border fellowship, brotherhood and trust.
Fellowship and brotherhood are a thing of the past. Trust has been completely destroyed. The Wall is everywhere.
Morones said The Wall is in the minds of migrant workers braving freezing mountains, sweltering deserts and filthy rivers to find work in el norte. The Wall is in the minds of people in tropical Mexico and blustery Chicago who are wondering where their loved ones are. The Wall is where grim-faced young men and women in olive uniforms with guns stare across la frontera looking for signs of activity.
Since 1996, when Operation Gatekeeper ordered the federal government to build a wall between Los Estados Unidos de America and Los Estados Unidos de Mexico, the two great countries are less united and more divided than ever, Morones said.
“Mr. Obama, tear down this wall!” Morones shouted, evoking Kennedy and Reagan at Berlin. Border Angels on the north side and Mexicanos on the south cheered as Border Patrol agents looked on impassively. The Wall, at least for now, is not going anywhere.
Dichotomy and irony where merely yards apart. Just steps over the border from the world’s richest country are the world’s poorest people. A nausea-inducing refugee camp that has sprung up in the trash and sewage-choked Tijuana River has swollen to nearly 4,000, claim human rights advocates. Its occupants are mostly former residents of the United States who have been deported. Some are petty criminals, some are American university graduates. Some are drug addicts, others are veterans of the United States military. All are living in squalor, unwanted by two nations.
U.S. Navy veteran Amos Lee Gregory Jr. cofounded the Deported Veterans Mural Project along with deported vets Hector Barajas and Fabian Robolledo. Gregory lives in comfort in the U.S., his comrades in arms live in the rancid refugee camp in the river bed.
“We want to raise awareness within the Mexican community that these men are here,” Gregory said. “We also want to raise awareness on the other side of the fence for those men who served in the U.S. military during times of war and have been honorably discharged (then deported).”
Deporting military veterans is unconscionable, said Gregory.
“I am treated like a hero while these men are deported back to Mexico,” he said. “We want to highlight that injustice and unite deported veterans.”
Seen from afar, the veterans mural features an upside down American flag, a universal sign of distress.
Barajas, who served in the Air Force with the 82nd Airborne All-Americans from 1995 – 2001, created a piece of the mural that is very close to his heart.
He painted the word amor in the shape of a heart.
“I did amor, which is love, because love is supposed to transcend everything,” he said. “It is supposed to open doors. I put amor for my daughter and my ex.”
Barajas was deported in 2004 after serving three years in prison for discharging a firearm into a vehicle.
“I am eligible for benefits,” he said. “I am eligible to be buried in the national cemetery when I die. But I have a life deportation and I am never allowed to return to the United States.”
He said the U.S. government has failed to match the loyalty he and others like him demonstrated.
“We were ready to give everything, our lives,” he said.
Actor and activist Jose Yenque was a Marcha Migrante participant. He said it is easy to understand why migrants risk their lives to cross the border.
“They are desperate,” he said. “They are looking for opportunities. They are looking to earn money. There is little opportunity (in Mexico). There is not much work here.”
Marcha Migrante IX weaved back and forth across la linea from Tijuana to Mexicali, bearing witness to the suffering of migrants and collecting testimonials.
“The stories were unbelievable,” said Morones. “They are stories of love for family, sacrifice, courage and suffering. They are stories of tragedy and great generosity. They are human stories in an inhumane immigration policy.”