30 November 2006

The other side of Dead End, USA

Animated monarch butterflies on the fence, tequila in plastic cups on the beach and an illegal immigration ploy going down right before my very eyes. While Shell Silverstein wonders where the sidewalk ends, I look to find meaning where the border wall runs into the sea.

It's a Thursday night, well after sunset, and I'm supposed to be warming the couch and keeping the television company. Instead, I'm in the back of a Mexican taxi, an aging Nissan which bears the scars of frequent sideswipes, stuttering my way through asking how much it costs to Las Playas. That's where I'm told Lui Velazquez Gallery resident artists will be projecting images onto the border fence this evening.

The cab clanks through the pockmarked Tijuana streets heading west, farther and farther from the most traveled set of revolving doors in the world. Away from those tired donkeys painted to look like zebras, the ceramic Bart Simpson figurines and the monstrous street-corner clubs on Revolución. Past homes, grand plaster palaces, littered shacks and stores whose signage lights up the dark streets with logos I never see on my side of the fence — Pemex, Comex, Oxxo, Ley, Mama Mia — which immediately increases the distance between "here" and "there," the familiar and the strange.

Suddenly the mobile neon slideshow comes to a stop, and we're back up against the same rusted train of panels we passed through minutes before. Here, below the lighthouse, beside the bullring, is where the wall becomes a series of poles that extend into the sea. I stick my hands through, fishing for nothing. On the other side, "my" side, exists the barren acreage of Border Field State Park, empty aside from a few picnic tables and bathrooms beside the beach. Immediately on this side lives an urban hive, spilling down from the hillsides and nearly onto the sand itself.

Tonight the beach is especially alive. A group of 20 or so stands amid a mess of laptops and cords, chattering, shuffling, waiting for someone to take the lead and begin. The more curious ones pet the fence as if it's alive. I'm handed a splash of tequila in a Dixie cup to thicken my skin against the nipping wind that rolls off the ocean. Then, someone flips on a projector and pushes play; the border fence instantly becomes a movie screen. We watch as a swarm of animated monarch butterflies begins to crash one by one against the windshield of a car. Nahomi Ximénez begins to read as each splatters against the glass with an unexpectedly solid thud.

"All the borders are invisible (thud). We have created them (thud). These limits are physical and emotional (thud). We have made such an effort in building limits that we have put bars on the sea (thud, thud, thud)." The falling monarchs continue to mark her words, one death at a time.

Off in the distance, while Nahomi finishes and another reader begins, a pack of several men emerges from the darkness. They silently scurry along the water's edge toward the barrier. One wears nothing except for his underwear; the rest carry their shoes. They move quickly, hunched over, closer and closer to the signs posted high on the fence that warn "Danger Objects Under Water," which they ignore altogether. As they struggle to twist through to the other side one limb at a time and I finally realize what I'm witnessing, a border patrol vehicle's headlights spring to life, flooding the dark beach and exposing their plot. The men, whose fate on this night outweighs the butterflies', retreat and disappear once again into the night on the Mexican side. I ponder the unlikelihood that the entire scene was staged.

A light within clicks: We spin different analogies to express living alongside a barrier such as this. Perhaps doing so enables us to cope with its effects. Nahomi, a Mexican-American visual artist who grew up along the border, sees the fence as a windshield that crushes butterflies as they migrate to the center of Mexico. For me, a Midwestern migrant who since the age of 10 has been obsessed with the lines humans use to separate themselves from each other, it's about as fascinating as the Berlin Wall. And a thousand times as stigmatizing because it's here, in front of my face, staring me down, barring me from where I just came. I kick some sand over to the other side.

The return trek to San Ysidro takes me to the end of that infamous line of strangers. As I wait my turn to pass through the turnstile into the world that is rightfully mine, or so I'm supposed to believe, I recall a headline I recently read over someone's shoulder: "The border is a ritual of humiliation." It possesses the power to mold, no matter what nationality is printed on your passport. It shifts your mind so you're able to see how an invisible line eventually becomes a rusted monster, separating something as simple as one beach into two realities. This imaginary line evolves into an epicenter, with two different worlds living back to back, shoved together, stupefied as to what to do with one another.

Mere minutes and only a handful of miles later, I return to my home. I sink into the couch, feast upon greasy pizza and watch "South Park" while poking around on MySpace. I can't help but feel like it's someone else's turn to do all this.


  1. I look back and marvel on how far you will go. Thank you for everything you will do for Tijuana, our beloved stepsister city.

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