I came back from a three-day weekend in Tijuana, and I’d like to report on it. It was part vacation and part community service.
My girlfriend, Tara O’Reilly, and I saw few other Americans. However, we felt very safe and had no problems. All the Mexicans we talked to were warm and helpful. Everything was less expensive on the Mexican side of the border, and we ate freely at food stands and restaurants. We used public transportation, went to dance clubs and had fun finding small cafes and used bookstores populated with local youth involved with the arts.
Besides a holiday, the purpose of our trip was to return to the community Tara lived in for five years in the 1980s. Colonia Panamericano was the former garbage dump of Tijuana where Tara lived. She had helped the Mexicans, who made their living scavenging through the refuse for recyclables and food, gain micro-financing for small businesses. Many of them squatted on the land and eventually won the right to own the land.
Twenty years later, Tara was pleased to see that the roads were paved and the community had electricity, running water and sewage systems. She only found one person still living there who she remembered.
Juana lived in a dump in Mexico City and later the Panamericano dump in Tijuana. She now owns her own home, has utilities and is mainly content with her life, but like people everywhere, complains about her neighbors.
My community service idea was to bring our iPhones and a portable Canon Selphy photo printer and take portraits of the poor kids and give the prints to them and their parents. As it turned out, the people in the community were not as destitute as I had imagined. They had good clothing, OK homes and were not that different from many communities on our side of the border.
We hung out in front of the local church, and as people left we offered to take their photos. As a former portrait photographer, I know how to arrange a photo with good lighting, composition and how to get people to smile. The people seemed thrilled to get the photos as others lined up to get their turn. They enjoyed the process of seeing the photos printed on the spot, one color at a time. The prints cost me about 30 cents each and took about one minute to come out. Some of the people may not have had photos of themselves, and others may have already had photos, but I like to think they were more amateurish and that they will prize these photos.
They seemed to understand that we were just there to give a little something away and enjoy meeting them. We had fun with them and shared a meal at the church fundraiser that was happening.
At first I was disappointed that there was not the great contrast I expected between a poor Mexican neighborhood and lower middle-class neighborhoods in SoCal. I guess I had envisioned myself as the great benevolent Gringo, swooping in for a day and giving them cherished keepsakes. In retrospect, maybe I was initially acting like the missionaries who came to California to “help” the Indians or Imperialistic America over the centuries.
Once I readjusted my expectations, I was glad to see that the people were not that different from us, and that everybody appreciates a decent portrait of a loved one — particularly in the age when most photos are in a digital format and prints are becoming scarce. It was to give and accept warmth from our brothers and sisters across the border.
A few more thoughts: We parked in a pay lot on the U.S. side of the border and walked across the border. About a mile away, we found a nice new hotel (Hotel Ticuan) for about $65 a night. I didn’t drink the tap water, and I didn’t get sick. There weren’t signs of a lot of cell phones like you see here — their scarcity was particularly noticeable with the youth.
I finally learned to pronounce the city correctly with three syllables — it’s Tijuana, not Tiajuana. And even though we had a good, safe visit, we saw in the local newspaper that there were some murders in another area of the city that weekend by drug cartel people killing other cartel people.
As we left the Panamericano community, one little boy said in Spanish “’que vuelven pronto,” or “come back soon.” I hope to take him up on that — and I suggest you consider it, too.
— Larry Nimmer is a Carpinteria resident.