An American flag made up of strips of fabric and set up on the Mexican side of the wall by artist Robert Marquez AKA Robenz, with the help of migrant caravaners months before, burns on Friday March 15, 2019, at Playas de Tijuana, the westernmost section of the US/Mexico border wall. Photo: Mabel Jimenez

Last fall I followed the news of the largest migrant caravan to travel north through Mexico. While Mexican immigration authorities did not make their journey any easier, it was encouraging to see everyday Mexican citizens supporting the caravan along its journey, providing food, shelter and general support.

My anticipation grew as the caravan got close to reaching Tijuana, the city where I grew up. I was excited to see how my hometown would support them as they reached the last part of their journey: the U.S.-Mexico border.

But my anticipation quickly turned to shame on Nov. 15, 2018 when I saw on the news a group of about 300 of my fellow Tijuanenses shouting at the newly arrived migrants from Central America, demanding that they go back to where they came from.

Earlier that day, Tijuana’s Mayor Juan Manuel Gastelum had stated: “Sure, there are some good people in the caravan, but some are very bad for the city.” In case there was any question as to who inspired his speech, Gastelum went out in public wearing a modified MAGA hat that read “Make Tijuana Great Again.”

The actions I saw coming from my hometown left me heartbroken. How could  Mexicans—knowing what it’s like to be the target of this hatred—use the same rhetoric against Central Americans?

It was about to get worse. On Sunday, Nov. 18, several dozen Tijuanenses gathered once again to protest against the arrival of Central American migrants, waving Mexican flags and holding signs saying “Mexico first,” and “No illegals.” Many in this crowd of Mexican nationalists covered their faces with bandanas. One of them was a man with a shaved head wearing a shirt reading “DefenSSores 1911,” a group inspired by Nazi ideologies.

A week later, I was shocked yet again at seeing news photos of American border patrol agents firing tear gas over the border wall at a crowd of migrants—which included children—gathered near the U.S.-Mexico border. I could not wrap my mind around it. I was looking at photos of familiar places that were the backdrop of my adolescence, but it felt like I was looking at photos of Syria or Palestine.

Knowing this was all happening in my hometown filled me with a sense of impotence. I happened to be planning a trip to the San Diego/Tijuana area to visit family, and I realized I had to, at the very least, bear witness to this historic crisis.

I started hearing about people who just went there and started volunteering, or doing donation drives. I figured I’d have to rent a car to drive to San Diego anyway, why not ask my network for some donations and see if we can fill the trunk?

Friends at Temo’s Cafe, Casa Bonampak, and Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts let me set up a box and a sign to collect donations from their customers. People dropped off children’s books, clothing and shoes, diapers and socks. The motherload (about 80 percent of the total donations) arrived at Casa Bonampak, where store owner Nancy Charraga let me store a van’s full worth of donations in the basement of the store.

I had thought that getting a significant amount of donations would be the hardest part, but with the unexpected volume of donations from the community came some unexpected challenges. I would need a space to sort and organize everything and store it for a few weeks.

The Calle 24 Latino Cultural District was at that point just moving into their new office at 24th and Capp. It was the perfect space for this and they graciously let me use it. Calle 24’s own John Mendoza was a huge help in getting the donations organized and I cannot thank him enough for his support through this.

Over the next few days, several volunteers helped me transport and organize donations. People donated diapers, canned food, medicine, toiletries, children’s books, clothes and shoes.

I contacted people who had recently been volunteering in Tijuana to get some tips. One group of volunteers I heard from tried to drive a van full of donations to Tijuana but were pulled over. Mexican customs officials questioned them and didn’t let them go for several hours. They paid a $400 fine without fully understanding why, but at least they got to keep the donations.

I rented a van and moved the donations from San Francisco to San Diego without any problems. But I realized I couldn’t risk crossing the international checkpoint in a van packed to the gills with boxes. Once I got to my parents home in San Diego, I split the load to take it to Tijuana in three separate trips to avoid being pulled in for inspection.

The first two times I crossed were without problem. But when I made the third and final trip, I was pulled over for inspection by a Mexican customs officer.

As soon as the agent started asking me questions, I became nervous even though I knew I wasn’t doing anything illegal. She asked me what was in the boxes. I told her they were donations, mostly clothes, that I was bringing to a church—technically true, but I didn’t volunteer that it was for the refugees from the caravan.

She asked if the clothes were new or used. I told her it was a mix. She asked me to estimate how much of each. She said if I was transporting a large amount of new clothing I would have to pay a customs duty, which made sense.

But if the clothes were used, it was a potential health hazard and I would have to pay a fee to get the items across. I could not understand how paying a fee solved anything if I was still allowed to take the potentially hazardous items into Mexico, but I didn’t ask the agent to explain the flimsy logic behind this hazard fee.

Since the donations had been moved and re-sorted so much, I could not remember how much of it might be used, and how much new. So the officer took a knife and started cutting open the boxes one by one. I had nothing to hide, but I felt the eyes of other travelers driving by, and wondered if they thought I was some drug trafficker about to get caught.

The officer found most of the clothes to be used. She asked me what I wanted to do. She never gave me an option that didn’t include paying money. She left and came back shortly telling me that if I wanted to move my boxes across, I would have to pay $2000 pesos, about $100 U.S. I felt immediate relief and gladly accepted the terms, knowing this was my last load and I wouldn’t have to go through this again.

Distributing the donations was a whole other challenge. When activists descended on Tijuana during the winter to help the caravan, all volunteers knew to go one of the two massive emergency shelters where thousands of refugees urgently needed donations.

But the time I arrived at the end of February, these large shelters had been closed. People had scattered throughout the roughly 20 local non-profit or church-run shelters in Tijuana. It was no longer so simple to figure out where to take things.

While in Tijuana I met David Vasquez, a young man from Guatemala who was very familiar with the caravans and Tijuana’s shelter system. I figured David might pass on some information or give me some tips. But he had a sincere interest in helping me distribute the donations to the right people, and he helped me move donations for the entire duration of my trip.

David sees himself more as a traveler than a migrant. He has volunteered at shelters near the Guatemala-Mexico border. When the caravans came through, he decided to join them. He’s not exactly desperate to enter the United States, but no one with a traveling spirit likes being told where they can’t go. When I met David in Tijuana he didn’t have a job—at least not a paying one. He often described himself as an independent volunteer, and he took his work seriously.

In the days leading up to my trip, I had felt anxiety over the whole thing. I’d never done something like this before. I was afraid I would not find my way, that I would fail somehow. It all seemed so daunting.

But doing this work as part of a team made all the difference. Traveling immediately feels safer when it’s two people instead of one. I would probably have figured things out on my own, but it was so much better to have another brain to bounce ideas off from.

We’d call shelters and ask what they most needed. Then based on location and what donations were loaded in the van that day, David would figure out an itinerary. A few times we got lost and I was glad I wasn’t alone. I want to thank David for his invaluable help during this journey.

Humanitarian journalism

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On the days leading up to the trip, friends asked me if I was planning on taking photos, or writing about it. I kept saying I didn’t know. I knew people in the shelters were weary of being photographed, and I wasn’t sure where the trip would take me.

There were also ethical issues to consider and power dynamics to keep in mind.

I’m bringing in donations to a vulnerable community, and I’m also asking to photograph or interview members of this community. How can I do so in a way that people don’t feel obligated to agree to photos in order to receive the donations? It was something that had to approached on a case-by-case basis.

In most instances, I would distribute the donations first, and once that was settled, I would ask people if they were available for an interview. I figured this way, with the donations already in hand, people would not feel so obligated to say yes to me.

In other cases I would ask people if they “had time” for an interview, this way if they wanted to decline, they had an easy out.

Because Haitian migrants fled due to a natural disaster, they didn’t have as many qualms about being photographed. But in the case of Central Americans who were trying to escape gang violence, there was more hesitation. When taking someone’s portrait, I always stated clearly that it was for a newspaper. If someone asked me not to take their photo, I always complied.

One afternoon I brought a donation of hand puppets to Movimiento Juventud 2000, a shelter for families. The children had been quietly watching a movie, but when I started handing out the toys, the mood of the whole place changed. It was a joy to see the children so excited. One of parents, a man from Mexico, approached me to thank me for “bringing some happiness and making a beautiful day” for the children. I asked the man if he would be willing to let me audio record his story, and he declined.

Though normally I don’t like hearing “no” when requesting an interview, in this particular case, I was actually glad he declined. I was glad that despite being grateful for the donation, he set his boundaries and didn’t feel an obligation to agree to something he didn’t want to do.

Journalists are told not to influence the stories they’re reporting on. We’re supposed to be unbiased, neutral. But El Tecolote has never claimed to be neutral, and neither have I.

On the other hand, we’re also told to write about “what you know,” and I know Tijuana. As a Tijuanense, and as a human being, I couldn’t imagine being there and not getting involved. And as a journalist, I couldn’t be there and not report.

In the end, I didn’t get every interview or photo I would have liked. But I did get a lot more access than I expected.

On March 14, a group of about 35 people breached the border fence near the Pacific Ocean in broad daylight. Given the amount of tourism and monitoring in this section of the wall, it’s a bold  move rarely attempted here.

The following day, a group of men freshly arrived from the caravans were hanging out at one of the overlooks at Playas de Tijuana near the wall. I struck up a conversation with one of them, a man from El Salvador, who gave his name only as Juan. He told me his sister and nephew had crossed into the United States through a hole in the fence just a few hours before our conversation.

Juan’s 10-year-old nephew was being targeted for recruitment by local gangs, who often use children to do drug deliveries or relay messages. Joining a gang certainly has its risks, but saying “no” to one can be a death sentence. So like so many others before, they fled.

As soon as they got to Tijuana they tried to process their application for U.S. asylum. But when they arrived to the San Ysidro port of entry, they met people who’d been waiting their turn since October and became discouraged.

“We want to enter the legal way to any country,” said Juan. “But the United States is not allowing that. If you get in, they send you back. They tell you to wait your turn … here in Mexico. How can we follow the process from here in Mexico?”

Many wait out their asylum process in Tijuana by staying at the local shelters, but these are now at capacity. People are more desperate than usual, sleeping in the streets and going without food.

“There’s no other option than to take plan B,” said Juan. His sister and nephew entered through a breach in the wall about 10 yards from where the waves reach at high tide. This section is made up of thick steel posts, with just enough space between each one so that only a very small child would squeeze through. A chain link fence reinforces the spaces between the posts.

Juan told me a group of people used wire cutters to open the chain link fence, then a car jack between the steel posts, forcing open up just enough space in between to get through. Juan saw this happening and told his sister and nephew about it. “This was the moment,” said Juan. “It was now or never.”

Due to a prior deportation order, Juan decided not to follow them and will instead try his luck in Mexico. His nephew gave him a kiss goodbye and ran off. But it all happened so fast, Juan didn’t get to say goodbye to his sister. All he could do was watch from Tijuana as they ran along the beach, fading into the distance. “It feels fatal, I don’t wish this on anybody,” said Juan.

Even being 2,700 miles away from the gangs who tried to recruit his nephew, Juan is paranoid, looking over his shoulder, and then at my voice recorder. “Things in El Salvador are so bad. You won’t show my face, right? There’s no cameras?”

After talking to Juan, I walk downhill along the wall to the beach. On the U.S. side, a welding crew repairs the hole where Juan’s sister and several others got through.

About 25 yards east of where the hole is being patched up, the wall is covered by a giant American flag made up of scraps of red, white and blue fabric. A few weeks ago, caravaners and deportees set it up together in homage of their shared American dream.

A man who I assume to be a local beach goer (since most Central American migrants aren’t six feet tall and don’t travel with swim trunks) walks up to the flag, produces a lighter and holds it at one of the corners. I hurry over as the flag quickly catches fire, but the man takes off before I can ask him why he did it.

I take photos of the burning flag, fascinated by this image. For some people, it’s hard to see an image of a burning flag and not interpret it as an anti-American message. But I can’t think of anything more anti-American than an immigration system that robs people of their freedom and imprisons their babies in cages—a system that punishes good samaritans who leave gallons of life saving water for migrants crossing the desert.

As I see the fire burn I don’t think about destruction, but of an urgent need for renewal.

We think that talking about immigration has to be a conversation about laws and politics. But an empty stomach is not political. Fear for your life is not political. This is much bigger than that. We need to stop asking what is the lawful thing to do, and start asking what is the compassionate thing to do?

We think of political conversations as difficult. But for those who wish to turn their backs on migrants and refugees, talking about politics is easier than confronting their own lack of compassion.

It’s time we stop talking about laws and politics, because it dilutes the conversation.

Laws change and political movements come and go. Compassion will always look the same.