While I was home, I did something I hadn’t done in years— drove across the border with my family to spend some time in Mexico.
Growing up, we often went south of the border. Whether it was just driving down for an afternoon of $10 lobsters and tortillas in Puerto Nuevo, or a vacation farther south to Mazatlan or Cabo, going to Mexico was nothing strange or scary to me. We also did family road trips through Baja, camping on the beach as we drove down. Even greasing the hands of a Mexican police officer after getting pulled over for no apparent reason (well, it wasn’t apparent to me) didn’t seem to faze me. In my head, it was all just pretty normal.
It wasn’t until I got older that I realized this wasn’t the norm for most Southern Californian families. Surprisingly to me, many of my friends had never even left the country, even though we had one just an hour’s drive away. Of course, I would have been the same, if my parents weren’t comfortable and happy with taking advantage of proximity of a foreign country next door.
In my late teens, the cartels started taking over certain parts of Mexico, and we stopped going as much. In the years before I got to college, freshman would to go to Mexico for the day to party, but by the time I entered it wasn’t a very popular option anymore. I still went once or twice with friends, but as time went on, more and more news stories made the headlines of beheadings and shootings from drug related violence. In 2008, my sophomore year of college, there were 778 drug related killings in Baja California, and almost 7,000 around Mexico in total. While most of these killings were by cartel members to other rival cartel members, what we mostly heard of in San Diego were the kidnappings, killings of police figures and brutal murders categorized by grotesque public displays, all happening in Tijuana.
It was obviously enough to frighten most people away, but I was selfishly disappointed. I loved Mexico. I had decided to study Spanish and Latin American as part of my college degree at San Diego State University, and when the closest country I had to visit and explore now seemed off limits, I was frustrated.
In the meantime, I moved my travels even farther south, taking jaunts living in Argentina and Ecuador. I was still curious about Mexico, and if it really was as bad as the media said. During my senior year, as I was flipping through the available courses, I saw one that caught my eye.
Society and Culture of Tijuana. Tuesdays at 5pm. Must have valid passport.
I knew I had to take it. What an opportunity! Getting to visit a foreign country once a week as part of a class?! I thought it was so exciting, and in the midst of the drug wars, I was so happy to see that it was still being offered in the course catalog. I signed up, and despite my friends thinking I was crazy, and strong reservations from my parents, I attended the first class meeting.
Being one of the biggest party schools, characterized by a plague of sororities and fraternities, this class wasn’t a normal sample of SDSU students. Many of us were in the same niche major, International Business focusing on Latin American and Spanish, and many were of Hispanic and mostly Mexican descent. Of course Mexico wasn’t a scary ‘off-limits’ zone for them, many of these students had family living in Tijuana and would visit regularly, regardless of how dangerous the media was portraying the border.
Our teacher was a prominent human rights activist living in Tijuana and for the first real class we were to meet him “on the other side”. So on that first Tuesday in September, we carpooled down, parked on the U.S. side, and simply walked across. No lines, to border guards, no passport checks. It’s that easy to get into Mexico.
Each week we were met by our teacher, and his armed body guard, on the Mexican side. We would wait for a period of time for people who were running late or stuck in traffic, then we would take off in a few vans for that week’s destination. The class was as intense as any college class could possibly be, but instead of reading textbooks and writing long essays, we were actually out exploring, and our teacher did not hold back on what we saw. The first class involved us talking to recently repatriated immigrants who were caught in the desert crossing into the U.S. While we sat at the Tijuana immigration office, these people spoke to us, telling us their stories of why they wanted to cross and what was probably in store for them next. Some had been planning and saving for months in Southern Mexico, arranging a “coyote” (human smuggler) and thinking they’d be in the U.S. with other family members before they knew it. I’m sure they never expected to be caught, stuck in immigration and asked to be interviewed by some privileged college students instead.
Each week we were exposed to a different aspect of life and business in Tijuana. One week we were examining parts of the border fence from where people had tried to dig under, then the next we talked to a current and anonymous “coyote” who made a living smuggling people across. Another week, we talked to some of the police force, who lied to us about all the bribes they don’t take and great technology they are acquiring to fight violence. Armed cars equipped with lasers? Sure.
A different week we talked to a few prostitutes who worked in the red light district (Zona Norte) and why they did it. They told us about how they were sending money back home to their families in Southern Mexico, and how their families thought they were actually working in maquiladoras (border zone factories). The week after we saw it all for ourselves, as we visited Zona Norte escorted by a few machine gun armed guards. They walked us from strip club to strip club (some of which could be more categorized as brothels), and we passed a handful of prostitutes on the street– all of which claimed they were above 18, but it was hard to believe so. Our teacher wanted to make sure we were seeing all sides of TJ, even this alarming and eye-opening one. Ironically enough, the most unpleasant of clubs was the one most popular for American G.I.’s. After the walk-through, we even talked to the business owners and they told us, “how well they protected their employees”.
I arrived at that particular class thinking it wouldn’t so bad, maybe just a little weird. I left disturbed and horrified.
After that class, like a few others, we all would go out for a taco and a beer. We needed it.
I often felt awkward and sometimes guilty on each of these different trips. Each week at the end of class, we would take out our passports and get in line to cross back over. About 30 minutes later we would pass through immigration and an X-ray, go to our cars and drive back to comforts of our beach side apartments.
It was probably one of the best classes I’ve ever taken and I thought more university courses should be as interesting. But ironically, I finished the class still feeling like I didn’t know much about Tijuana at all. Yes, I had come every Tuesday for 4 months, but was everything I saw really as it was? It was only for a few hours each week that I got a small glimpse into Tijuana, and right as I thought I had something figured out, we would head back home. While the newspapers were still showing violence and advocating that people stay away, my Mexican classmates still went out in TJ every weekend with no fears. Was it really that dangerous? I still didn’t exactly know, besides, every class I was accompanied by an armed guard, chauffeured vans and a human rights activist with many connections inside the city. What I saw was still pretty sheltered.
This experience also didn’t answer my questions if the violence had spread into Baja, the area where my family and I spent so many vacations. Was it okay for Americans to start going back?
It’s been a few years since my class in Tijuana in 2009. Though my travels have recently been around Asia, I know how much more connected to Latin America I am and will always be. So when I came home for Christmas, and my Dad wanted to take a weekend somewhere, I jumped at the chance when he suggested Mexico.
Next: Part 2 – Going back to Baja and My Perceptions Today.
*Big thanks to John Gamboa for letting me use his photos from class*