Story by Abigail Diskin
Photos by Abigail Diskin and Jeanette Lekach
En El Otro Lado takes us cerca de la frontera, or near the border, to San Diego for a closer look at the hardships Mexican immigrants face. ¡Ahora Sí! profiles Armando Morales, a pioneer in the fight for diversity in Eugene’s media. Petit Pois,Quisantes, Chicaros, Arvejas, También displays the challenges and benefits of being multiethnic and multilingual. Collectively, these three features provide a look at the mezcla cultural between Mexico and the United States and remind us of the importance of tolerance.
Salt and pepper hair arches across the top of Javier’s head, complementing his cinnamon-colored skin. Standing at about six feet tall, he towers above most of the others. He is wearing jeans and tan Converse shoes, dressed more like an 18-year-old than a man of his age, 44. Javier is one of roughly 15 migrantes sin papeles standing in front of the Home Depot in San Diego, California. Some have been in the U.S. for many years, while others crossed over recently. All have families; it is the reason why they risk their lives crossing to el otro lado, the other side.
Javier stands in front of the Home Depot from 6 a.m. until dusk, everyday. He waits, hungry and thirsty, for work, any work, even if it’s exploitative. It’s common for U.S. citizens to pay immigrants below minimum wage for backbreaking labor. And los migrantes tolerate it because they have no other options. Without a Social Security number, they are invisible, forced to live in the shadows; they do not legally exist in the U.S.
“There is no Statue of Liberty for people coming from Latin America.”
Javier’s hands look as though they belong to a man twice his age: wrinkled, rough, mangled. He was a skilled carpenter in Mexico; he even built his family’s house. However, seven years ago, Javier couldn’t find work anymore. So he did what millions before him have done—he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without documentation in search of a job.
Rivulets of tears stream down his face, pooling underneath his chin. He turns away, peering into the distance. The profile of his leather face crumbles; his lips quiver. He brings heavy, large hands to his broad, sun-kissed cheeks to wipe away the moisture. It has been seven years since he left Mexico, and Javier misses his wife, daughter, and son.
He faces us again. His milky eyes, framed by long, black eyelashes, lock with mine. I reach out and touch his arm; he lets me. There are no words to say, so I cry with him. We make deep eye contact, tears blurring our vision. I listen to what he is telling me without words, and I understand his loneliness, just one aspect of his struggle.
“What struck me about Javier was his perseverance and the amount of strength he had, even optimism, that he was going to get a job and see his kids one day … That seemed like the sliver of hope he was holding onto,” Anna Steeves-Reece says.
Steeves-Reece and I were two of 18 University of Oregon students who participated in this year’s Service Learning Alternative Spring Break trip. We spent eight days volunteering for two organizations in San Diego: Border Angels and Casa Familiar, both of which work on immigration issues.
Javier says approximately ten U.S. dollars can buy enough food in Mexico to survive for one month. However, the amount it takes to survive in the States is significantly larger. The majority of the men we meet in front of the Home Depot live in the Canyon Lands. There, tucked into the hills below the freeway, hundreds of undocumented immigrants squat in homemade shelters. On the road above them, wealthy Americans make their daily commute to work, Starbucks coffee in hand.
“It’s like smack[ing] the American dream in the face. It’s a perfect metaphor for our country … the beautiful million dollar houses above on the hills and down below, immigrants are staying in the slums, in the bushes and boxes,” trip participant James Brannon says.
In addition to being poor and undocumented, many of los migrantes feel socially ignored and excluded.
In Spanish, Javier tells me he feels like a piece of paper floating in the wind; like a piece of trash.
Enrique Morones, director and founder of the non-profit Border Angels, is appalled that los migrantes are forced to live under these conditions. “In the Canyons, they are living outdoors year-round with no electricity and no running water … It’s a very sad situation. To treat them in this manner is inhumane … They are the reason we have food on our tables; they take care of our kids; they do the jobs we don’t necessarily want,” Morones says.
In 1994, the Immigration and Naturalization Service launched Operation Gatekeeper in an attempt to disrupt heavily traveled immigration routes from Tijuana to San Diego. The operation funded the construction of a wall that extends across the majority of northern Tijuana and all the way into the ocean. Then post 9/11, the Bush Administration initiated a huge increase in government spending to improve border security and ensure that terrorists couldn’t enter the country across the U.S.-Mexico border. By 2005, Border Patrol officers had increased their numbers by 3,000; from 9,500 in 2001 to 12,500.
However, Morones asserts, this increased militarization has “forced people to cross in more hostile environments, like the mountains and the desert, and has increased the death rate … It used to be one or two people die every month crossing the border, and now it is two or three people dying every day.”
Many of these people are never identified. The bodies of over seven hundred Mexican immigrants lie in a dirt field behind the well-kept Holtville Cemetery, located cerca de la frontera, near the border. Their graves are marked with small, pomegranate-colored bricks and read either “John Doe,” for a male, or “Jane Doe,” for a female. The majority of these Johns and Janes died crossing the Imperial Valley Desert, one of the only areas along the border that doesn’t have a wall.
Morones advocates for comprehensive immigration reform to eliminate these unnecessary deaths.
“There is no statue of liberty for people coming from Latin America. There needs to be a more humane way for people to enter the country,” Morones says.
The sun burns our cheeks as we trudge through the Imperial Valley Desert. Our shoes slip on the rocks and sink into the white sand, dimpled by hundreds of footprints. This is where the vast majority of undocumented immigrants cross the border. The mountainous terrain is home to rattle snakes, scorpions, and cacti. With temperatures reaching as high as 127 degrees during the day and as low as 45 degrees at night, los migrantes are at the mercy of extreme conditions. The journey usually takes three to four days. They travel at night, risking injury to remain hidden in the folds of darkness. And although we are alone on the path, there is evidence of the thousands who have crossed here. Belongings are scattered in the bushes—a pair of blue jeans, a backpack, a hairbrush.
“If someone were to fall, there’s nothing you could really do,” Steeves-Reece says of the desert’s unforgiving landscape. “As Enrique [Morones] told us, there is the policy that if you fall, you get left behind.”
Border Angels upkeeps water stations throughout the desert to eliminate the number of immigrant deaths. Many stations are marked by tall, blue and orange flags but aren’t meant to be seen. Rather, the sound of the flags flapping in the wind guides thirsty travelers to them during the night. Morones says that extremist groups like the Minuteman Project occasionally inject water jugs with toxins to harm immigrants. In the past, they have also slashed water jugs, tampered with the flags, and dragged tires in the sand to track footprints. Jim Gilchrist, founder of the non-profit Minuteman Project, states on his website he is just “trying to get a neglectful U.S. government to simply enforce existing immigration laws.”
Although crossing the desert is extremely dangerous, many of the immigrants we spoke to at the Canyon Lands make the journey frequently. Steeves-Reece says she spoke with a young man from Oaxaca who told her matter-of-factly, “Of course we are afraid … but we have to do it.” At 24, he has crossed the border several times. However, for the older or less fit, the journey is more difficult. Javier is afraid to visit his family in Mexico because he doesn’t think he is physically capable of making it back across the desert.
Even though a large group of Mexican immigrants live in the isolated Canyon Lands, many live throughout San Diego, contributing to the city’s diversity.
La Cultura Mexicana is visible in Chicano Park, located in el Barrio Logan, a predominantly Mexican neighborhood. Brightly colored murals decorate the T-shaped highway supports above the park. Benches are painted red, white, and green, the colors of the Mexican flag. Larger-than-life images of Aztlan, the area of the southern United States thought to have been Aztecan territory, blaze up the walls.
But Brannon says he still sees the city as segregated, despite Chicano Park. “It holds a lot of history of the Mexican population,” he says.
“I see how [cultures] blend in the words but not in the people. Socially, not a lot of people go into these areas … It’s like they selected the parts of the culture they liked and left the rest.”
Back in the Home Depot parking lot, Javier proudly shows us a photograph of his children. Grinning, he tells us that they will start attending school soon. He is just like any other father, except that he can’t see his children when he misses them.
Maybe one day, Javier will be able to apply for legal citizenship.
But for now, that dream is unattainable, since he speaks hardly any English and lacks basic computer skills. Javier is only one face in a sea of millions, but his story reminds us that we are all human no matter what side of the wall we are on.