(Published by Pure Slush, Vol 21: “25 Miles From Here,” September 2021)
I wanted to leave Los Angeles and go to the US-Mexico border. Not 25 miles away, more like 120. I’d read about the Haitian migrants who’d made their way to the border after walking from Brazil. Walking through South America, Central America, and Mexico to reach the border with the United States. There must be something I could do, I figured. I felt hopeless.
How did the Haitians end up in Brazil? They migrated in 2010 following the Haitian earthquake when Brazil offered work contracts on projects related to World Cup 2014 and the 2016 Olympics. After both the huge construction projects and the economic boom related to them ended, work opportunities disappeared. An estimated 40,000 Haitians began their trek to a US-Mexico border which then President Trump was intent on sealing.
My connection to the US-Mexico border has been continuous. I crossed it as a youth when my mom drove from Los Angeles to Ensenada, Mexico for daytrips that included sightseeing along the expanse of the Pacific Ocean and reaching a final destination at a Mexican restaurant that had chicken tacos and sweet soda. During my youth, a US citizen driving across the border simply showed their California Driver’s License to enter Mexico and again, to return to the United States. It wasn’t the current situation of having to show a passport to cross over.
For me, the US-Mexico border always seemed accessible. Prior to the suburbs between Los Angeles and San Diego becoming developed cities of their own with their own traffic jams, San Diego, on the US side, was a quick two hours away by car. My mom would exit the urban sprawl of Los Angeles taking the San Diego Freeway which offered five or six lanes for the cars headed south. The apartment complexes and strip malls and car dealerships of L.A. would give way to homes on green hills and orange groves. Nearing San Diego, I saw glimpses of the Pacific Ocean with the sun beating down on rolling waves, seagulls in the sky.
And upon arrival at the border, it was my mother showing her California Driver’s License to the Mexican authorities waiting at the gate that had ten or fifteen entryways for cars entering Mexico. It was the change from smooth US pavement to the bumpier Mexican side. The chaos of cars driving in downtown Tijuana where no one seemed to keep their car within the car lanes, or where painted car lanes were not even visible.
As a teenager, I made a conscious decision to cross the border at 17 when I flew to Durango, Mexico to study Spanish in summer school and to live, during my stay, with a Mexican family. The family took in three females for that summer stay. I was the only African American, and there were two blondes — from San Diego, and Canada, respectively.
The following year, at 18, I crossed the border again, this time flying to Mexico City all alone to take in the sights, visit museums, and buy as many books as I could fit into my suitcase. The selections included books by Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, Mexican poet, Octavio Paz, and Nicaraguan poet, Ernesto Cardenal.
And even after the teen trips by plane in which I crossed the border, there was adult, schoolteacher me driving from L.A. to TJ to buy comic books in Spanish that I could use for my silent reading program. It was that odd year in which my middle school administration decided I, a bilingual English teacher, should teach a class in Spanish to newly-arrived, immigrant children from Mexico and Central America. And there was childless me crossing the border with my then husband to buy clomiphene at a Tijuana pharmacy to help us conceive a child. The Mexican pharmacies offered a much cheaper price than anything that could be found in the States.
But there was no me I could configure in 2016 to cross the border to assist the Haitians. None of the roles I had taken on were up to the task – the child on day trips, the foreign student, the literature and art enthusiast, the middle school teacher, the childless mom. None of those roles would adequately buffer social activist me. My passport was expired. I was now a single mom, and I felt I needed to be accompanied by a man because, despite modernization, patriarchy is a thing in Mexico. It’s the country with the second-highest rate of feminicide in Latin America after Brazil. There was getting my car across. Would I buy the additional car insurance in San Diego as US citizens do prior to driving their car into Mexico? Or would I rent a car on the U.S. side with the intent of driving that insured vehicle into Mexico as some are known to do as well?
I felt the helplessness both the US and Mexican governments had imposed on their citizens and non-citizens. I felt solidarity with the 40,000 Haitians who had walked from Brazil to Mexico in 2016. Their bravery and determination are unparalleled. Haitians have borne the emblem of Black resistance to empire for centuries — since their long fight against enslavement and for independence from France, 1791-1804, and during their long and ceaseless resistance against US-backed, feckless political regimes imposed on their own country.
While many Haitians have decided to try to live in Mexico as undocumented persons in that country, it is estimated that in Spring 2021 there are still 4000 Haitians at the US-Mexico border in Tijuana. They languish amongst the growing surge of immigrants from Central America who are fleeing a host of ills, including gang warfare, climate change, and post-covid economic devastation. The Haitians have cited incidences of racism from Mexican police and from other immigrants as well.
I continue to advocate for justice in as many ways as I possibly can on this side of the border – my existence inextricably bound with that of oppressed people everywhere.