THE hills of Tijuana appear before we reach the border. They are not manicured green, covered with ice plant in all its various neon colors as are our hills in San Diego. No, they are raw, brown, and look like large sleeping animals.
As I have done probably a dozen or more times in the last 12 or 13 years, I am crossing the border between San Diego and Tijuana, between our affluent beach city and our closest neighbor. Lately I've gone with my grown son, his girlfriend, and her mother, who was born in Mexico and is very familiar with Tijuana. We trace a similar path each time we go, one that's not very spectacular or unusual.
Aztlan was once the mythic name of the area, the legendary homeland of the Aztecs. The names of our southern Californian towns (Encinitas, Chula Vista, San Ysidro), many streets (Camino del Rio or Porte La Paz), and some of the food we eat (from chimichangas to fish tacos) are reminders that California was once part of Mexico.
As thousands of residents of El Norte do, we escape for a day as we enter another world. At the same time, thousands of people from the southland, from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego, leave their homes and cross the border north. We from the United States often come to buy cheap trinkets, or even silver and leather; but once in a while, as some church groups and a few individuals do, we come to help, to visit an orphanage, or to try to make a dent in the enormous pockets of poverty.
The Mexicans and Latin Americans cross the border legally with their green cards (or illegally through holes in the border fence each night) in search of work, to earn much-needed money through low wages. They come to pick our vegetables, work in our homes, care for our children, build our homes, and trim our palm trees. And others, some children of the middle-class and well-off Mexican families, cross to attend school. The Tijuana border crossing is, in fact, considered the busiest in the world.
Life changes radically at the rickety, clanging turnstiles, and once on the other side, I take a deep breath and breathe in Mexico. There's the smell of fresh fruit from the woman in a blue checked dress who sells orange-colored papayas and melons on sticks, and the smell of grilled food and smoke rising from a metal container as chiles rellenos cook and ooze their juices.
The vistas here are at first more dreamlike than real - and the change is so abrupt, almost a step back in time. A tiny woman with black braids sits with her baby; her red blanket is strewn with silver and colorful woven bracelets. A man with no legs sits by the adobe wall, his cup nearby. His smile is a quarter moon.
Tijuana hits us right away. It doesn't hide, and we can't either. I drink in its sensual beauty, its laughter, and its struggle; nothing is swept aside, contained, or pristine. Life, in all its various manifestations, surrounds us, and before we have a chance to gather our thoughts, the line of cabbies begins beckoning: "Hey, five dollars to Revolucion," or "Five dollars for all of you."
"No," we say, "we'd rather walk." Walking, we decide, is the way to feel more connected to the dirt beneath our feet, to be rooted to this land.
Beyond the cabs, we head toward the tourist area of Revolucion. We go past the perfumery, the cobbler, and the bank - past the turquoise and blue buildings that look like watercolors on both sides of the street. We pass markets with shells, large conchs, and starfish. We see masks - a yellow jaguar mask, a blue laughing mask; velvet paintings of Elvis, of Lucy and Desi; and large pink plaster pigs. A young fawn-haired man wanders nearby with a huge iguana on his shoulder.
We continue down Revolucion, sometimes on broken pieces of sidewalk, stepping up and down from high curbs. We walk past the rows of hanging leather purses and more tiny women selling their friendship bracelets and earrings. (I learn later they are Mixtec Indians from Oaxaca.)
These women, I think, come from a world I can never know, even if I were to visit. Their eyes are shy and downcast; their babies and children are solemn and smudged by the grime of the sidewalk. The palms of their hands are held up like nests, waiting for coins.
We stop for a moment to see little children rasping their hands back and forth on small out-of-tune guitars and singing corridos, songs, so earnestly. Then we continue past men with slick black hair and snub-nosed boots; they beckon the people strolling by to come in and see the show. Or, the men say they are having specials in their shops that day for all blonde women. This is the land of dark and light - of innocence and experience.
A man sits near the corner creating tiny pictures out of dyed straw. Each picture is displayed on the lid of a small wooden box he has carved. I choose one with a picture of a woman in a red dress, rowing a boat across an indigo sea. And I take a photo of the man, to remember the exchange we made, to remember the moment and the way he sat, creating his work in the slanted sun.
As we walk on, the streets are filled with the smell of tortillas and incense, the passion of mariachi music, and the benediction of the vendor with silver chains. In a street market the ponchos hang like banners of all colors: red, beige, blue, and pink. They blow gently in the slight breeze.
In a small restaurant, down a flight of stairs from the main street, we eat soft corn tortillas, beans, delicious cabbage soup, and drink orange soda. And then it's back to the street again with its bright colors; the cacaphonous music; the scent of grilled meat, fresh fruit, and dust; the mothers holding their babies close. Joy and struggle are evident on the streets of this tourist area. There are some large homes in Tijuana, on a hill in an area called Chapultepec. The houses have picture windows that
face the United States, but this is not a part of Tijuana most visitors see.
We stop at the bakery with its rows of white, beige, and brown pastries; they are twisted, round, and square, topped with sugar, cinnamon, or carnival-colored sprinkles. With large tongs, we choose a few to take home.
Then we retrace our path back to the border, where so much drama is enacted every day. We've only visited, the way you might take a long beach walk. This is not a day to do charity work, as others might; not a day to be wild or party, as some visitors do; and not a day to observe and contemplate problems that seem so large, as politicians and officials often must do.
Each time I go, I find more of what I'm really looking for: a kind of earthy rawness, a warmth, this immersion of the senses, but also the faces of our brothers and sisters. In many ways, we on both sides of the border are just two faces of the same coin, or heart. Perhaps we are all seeking, on an unconscious level, to exchange something precious and mysterious.
We cross now to el otro lado, the other side, and as we drive away toward San Diego, I glance back and see that the hills are no longer brown, but are now gray sleeping animals.
It is dusk, and the orange-red sunset just there to our left is visible, I know, on both sides of the border.