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Day 8: Tijuana and San Diego

Tijuana's toxins
At the edge of America

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Tijuana's toxins

A LOCAL activist, Ana, joins me and Eric on our trip to Tijuana. Ana, a U.S. citizen with many family ties to Tijuana, assures us that crossing into Tijuana takes an easy five minutes by car--except in the unlikely case that we are met by the Mexican customs officers at the border crossing.

Coming northward is a different story. The wait is usually an hour, and it can be longer.

The port of entry to Tijuana looks more like a toll road stop than the entrance to another country. At any given time, it is staffed by three or four customs officers. Traffic signals are designed to give tourists a quick green light into Mexico.

Our plan is to meet with Carmen Valadez at Cosme Damian, the offices of Centro de Informacíon para Trabajadoras y Trabajadores (CITTAC, or the Center of Information for Workers). We find el Cosme, as Carmen refers to it, squeezed between a line of houses and car repair shops 10 minutes from la línea.

Mago, a female maquiladora worker and CITTAC organizer, invites us into a dim room adorned with political paraphernalia--a white paper maché elephant, bright murals, white flags and an old Zapatista protest sign.

This 20-year-old cooperative is run mainly by Carmen and Jaime Cota, two veteranos of activism, in support of maquiladora workers in Tijuana.

Upon our arrival, Carmen, a gracious women in her forties, gives us a tour of the office, which hosts many workshops and meetings with maquiladora workers--until recently, members of the Zapatistas' la otra campaña also worked here.

Cosme Damian also houses many organizations that support workers and other social justice projects in Tijuana, inside and outside the maquiladoras--such as Maclovio Rojas, a colonia of 1,000 families fighting to maintain possession of their settlement; the binational Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras; the Colectivo Chilpancingo that works with the Environmental Health Coalition on workers' safety and the impact of industrial pollution; and the San Diego Solidarity Network, a binational coalition to support maquiladora workers.

Despite the atrocious work conditions in the maquilas, the maquila zone is union-free--thanks to the repression meted out by both the state and multinational corporations that send their goods here for assembly. Corporate America's use of the maquilas took off with the passage of NAFTA, providing big profits. But ordinary Mexicans are paying a steep price.

Carmen takes us to Otay Mesa to visit the colonias. Otay Mesa sits atop a hill that overlooks the Tijuana River, infamous now for its toxic waters. The rains wash industrial pollutants down the hillside, fouling the once refreshing swimming holes remembered by older inhabitants of the colonias.

No one dares swim in the river today. The Metales y Derivados (MD) factory, for example, abandoned its car battery plant in 1997, leaving behind a slew of heavy metals, including 15,000 tons of lead.

Eight years later, the Colectivo Chilpancingo was formed with the support of the Environmental Health Coalition to fight MD's toxic legacy. They filed a lawsuit against the factory and against the government to demand the immediate cleanup of the site after the community reported severe health disorders.

After a year and a half, a covenant was signed by the government, the environment secretary and the Federal Environmental Agency (PROFEPA) for the cleanup of the site.

We drive through the industrial zone--past all the signs announcing job openings; past Sanyo; past Douglas Furniture, where Carmen says workers often lose fingers--to MD's former factory site to look for any signs of cleanup. Carmen explains that the community is pushing the PROFEPA into action because only a partial section has been cleaned.

"It's not enough," Carmen says as we walk into the abandoned battery plant. It's immediately obvious that she's right. The wind plasters the black plastic against the factory walls, which are showing signs of erosion. One of the walls is missing entirely, giving us easy access to the trail through the site to a perfect place to look out over the river valley below. I step past the bags, which at one time were the only things covering the batteries.

In the middle of the valley, a sprawling housing complex stands out from the surrounding residential streets. Carmen explains that this is housing for maquila workers, but that the apartments resemble cells more than homes.

Colonia Chilpancingo was once Tijuana's agricultural zone, located next to the waters of the Tijuana River. But since the passage of NAFTA, the area has been transformed into the border region's maquiladora hub, with fewer environmental protection laws and even less enforcement.

In fact, maquiladora owners are rarely inconvenienced by the entities that provide them services, such as water and electrical. Carmen says that the owners can often go months without paying for the services--something that individuals can't escape.

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At the edge of America

DRIVING NORTH along Interstate 5, just north of San Diego, it's not difficult to get mesmerized by the scenery. The picturesque beauty of the coastal towns and temperate weather is what attracts flocks of tourists to the California borderlands, on the far west edge of the country.

At the northernmost stretch of San Diego County lies Carlsbad, a town of 78,000, which boasts the juiciest strawberries around. Originally a dwelling of the Shoshone people, Carlsbad was ultimately carved out of the vast Mexican rancho of the Californio Don Juan María Marrón after the Anglo conquest.

The city is now an agro-suburb, with rows of luxury homes skirted by fields of strawberries, tomatoes and flowers (producing 90 percent of the world's flowering poinsettia plants, for instance) that stretch to the ocean.

Nearby the veneer of prosperity, tucked into a snaking canyon that would otherwise provide a scenic backdrop to the $800,000 homes (average price) of Carlsbad, lies another world: that of the migrant Mixtec worker.

Pushed out of the local housing market and into the canyon brush are migrant workers whose hands clear the fields of ripe harvests, but who are paid too little to find basic shelter.

We meet José Ramon at a local Albertson's, a starting point for a journey into the canyons. José is Mixtec. He did his time in the fields and now works at a community health clinic. He devotes his extra hours to helping his homeless paisanos secure clothes, food and medicines (and to just "be with them," he says solemnly).

Shortly after leaving the parking lot, we're driving through a carefully manicured neighborhood, lined with two-story homes and neatly trimmed lawns. I think that we must be stopping somewhere first, a prelude to the hike that lies ahead.

But no. Quietly and deliberately, José leads us between two of these houses, and we soon find ourselves following a drainage ditch, rather than approaching a porch.

The dry ditch, lined by seven-foot-tall backyard walls that jealously guard their private property, pours out onto a dirt path that segues into immense openness. We soon find ourselves at the top of the canyon. The cul-de-sac of homes had obscured fields, running as far as the eye can see to the west, and the untamed brush and trees of the canyons to the east.

As we stop to take it all in, José points to some indeterminate spot and says, "There they are." After focusing in vain for several seconds, we are able to make out the faint outlines of tarps among the trees.

Literally a stone's throw from the plush comfort of five-bedroom homes, some 300 farmworkers huddle in makeshift shanties, handmade constructions of plywood, plastic and cardboard.

As we move into the brush, we encounter the bustle of a hidden village. Mostly from Oaxaca, the Mixtec-speaking men and women eye us with concern, until they see the friendly face of their compañero José. Of the 4,000 Mixtecs in North County, San Diego, the poorest have had to seek refuge on the publicly held canyon lands, among the creosote bush and soapberry trees.

José tells us that the community has recently been on edge, as the anti-immigrant Minutemen have been making forays into the canyons to intimidate workers and tear apart their fragile dwellings.

As we walk, our guide narrates the history of the migrants. Many, he says, come from rural regions in Oaxaca and are unfamiliar with life in the city. As we pass various dwellings, José tells us that it used to be common to live in holes in the ground as a means to hide from the local authorities.

"We lived under the land, in holes that we made with wood and shovels that the boss lent us," says José. "We hid our houses every morning with dirt and covered the tracks with bushes." Now, the local authorities leave them alone since they are needed as workers on the farms and at other local businesses.

Why do they remain here? José explains that poverty wages keep them indigent. "Field work doesn't provide more than $200 to $250 per week, and most rents are above $1,200. This is very expensive. For them, it is impossible to pay that amount. They buy lunch, and they pay $2 to $3 a day for transportation to work.

"When they come from Oaxaca, they leave a debt with their families to pay their passage to come here. There are many challenges that they face, starting with the debt to the coyote of $1,000 to $1,500. After paying these debts off, there isn't much left of the $250 they earn a week."

We are soon introduced to Don Tiburcio (José inserts the term Don as a sign of respect). An older man, perhaps in his 50s, it is clear that the exposure is taking a toll on his health. Spots are developing around his eyes--they could be cancerous--but sufficient health care is as far out of reach as his distant homeland.

Don Tiburcio explains to us in weary Mixteco (through the Spanish translation of José) that his eyes have been sore for some time now. It is not uncommon, we are told, to send the workers into the fields immediately after spraying pesticides, rather than waiting for the plants and ground to absorb it.

He works in the fields all day and collects aluminum cans in his free time, all in order to sustain himself, a wife and a family back home. At this pace, he tells us with a look of concern, he will never get ahead. I'm amazed that he still manages to smile at us between sentences.

As we sit listening, his barely audible voice is suddenly interrupted by a fighter jet, tearing through the bright blue sky overhead. It is another surreal contrast--billions of dollars flow into several local military bases and the war industry yearly, while Don Tiburcio and his compatriots waste away under the elements. We are told the jets fly over an average of 30 to 40 times a day, ensuring that moments of peace are fleeting.

Keeping these workers in a state of absolute poverty has its benefits--for the growers, of course. José explains that the local growers have a habit of withholding 12 to 13 percent of their paychecks for "taxes," even though they have no Social Security cards and receive no "refunds" at the end of the year. It is likely that this "tax surplus" instead covers the bosses' leisure time on the "links"--as Carlsbad is also called the golf capital of the U.S.

Labor laws (or at least the enforcement of such laws) are elusive in these parts, so growers operate like feudal barons. They take advantage of the workers' vulnerability and find a hundred ways to squeeze more pennies from their pittances.

We learn that every time farmworker housing laws are proposed, the city votes them down. How could the city possibly require wealthy growers to ensure that workers have even their minimal housing needs met?

At the end of harvests, José tells us, it is not uncommon for growers to call the "INS/ICE and say that the workers are no longer needed, and the police come and they tell them that they do not want them to live here." Don Tiburcio and the other residents will likely have to leave at the end of this month, now that the harvest is coming to a close.

José's description of the lives of these migrant workers sounds eerily similar to the conditions described almost 70 years ago in a famous journalistic account of Depression-era farmworkers--Factories in the Field by Carey McWilliams. The powerful epigraph to the book, the poem "The Nomad Harvesters" by Marie De L. Welch, has stood the test of time.

The nomads had been the followers of flocks and herds,
Or the wilder men, the hunters, the raiders.
The harvesters had been the men of homes.

But ours is a land of nomad harvesters.
They till no ground, take no rest, are homed nowhere.
Travel with the warmth, rest in the warmth never;
Pick lettuce in the green season in the flats by the sea.
Lean, follow the ripening, homeless, send the harvest home;
Pick cherries in the amber valleys in tenderest summer.
Rest nowhere, share in no harvest;
Pick grapes in the red vineyards in the low blue hills.
Camp in the ditches at the edge of beauty.

They are a great band, they move in thousands;
Move and pause and move on.
They turn to the ripening, follow the peaks of seasons,
Gather the fruit and leave it and move on.
Ours is a land of nomad harvesters,
Men of no root, no ground, no house, no rest;
They follow the ripening, gather the ripeness,
Rest never, ripen never,
Move and pause and move on.

Conditions in the fields have changed little in the years since. Nevertheless, José has an unswerving optimism--especially in the wake of the immigrant rights protests of the spring.

"It was very important that the people themselves rose up," says José. "It was worth a lot of the grief because if we had not marched, we always would have been down and remained asleep. Now they know that there will be a response if they continue things in the same direction.

"I expect the situation for immigrants to be resolved because it's the least that we deserve. We have given a lot of our work and a lot of money to the government. It is a sum that they are not going to return to us.

"They should recognize that this is important, because immigration will not stop, even if they close the border with silver or gold. The people will cross over or under it. It's getting harder, and yet every day, people still arrive."

We walk back out of the canyon, leaving behind the shanty homes, and pick our way through the drainage ditch portal, emerging back in the gilded suburbs of Carlsbad. While the canyon-dwellers look towards an uncertain future, it is clear that the earth will not swallow them. Having fed America, the Mixtecos have become America, and a part of the landscape that is refusing to be unseen.

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