The bulbous heads of seaweed pop under my concrete feet like bubblewrap. Without warning, the question came to me: How pleasant would they feel popping under the sprint of someone fleeing torture, gang life, a destroyed field in the campo, for the undocumented unknown?
Ten miles behind our group of 14 loom the smog and high-rise of San Diego, a boring backdrop for us, an unattainable temptation for those we cautiously approach. There is nothing for miles on the US side at Border Field State Park in Tijuana. On the Mexican side, you hear mariachi bands, smell taco stands, and gawk at the hundreds of beach-goers dancing and smiling across the double fence at their United States counterparts. Couples and small children even step through the jagged wooden posts, stationed haphazardly in the sand like obelisks, marking the border. It's as if none of them know that US Border Patrol agents are analyzing their every move. Waiting just out of sight, I can see two bullet-proof jeeps equipped with sirens, a light house, the top of which I fantasize holds a sniper, and a concrete guard shack. It's as if none of them know, but we know they do. No one who crosses the obelisk line dares continue down the beach toward San Diego. Those who risk it seldom have fairy stories to tell.
It is a perfect Sunday in September on an LMU-sponsored "De Colores" trip. We have just entered the US after two days of walking alongside communities in TJ, a walk which covered us in sweat and concrete and salsa, and are ending our weekend at the State Park. On their side, I feel welcome, and confused. On my own, I feel misplaced. As we walk up the beach slope toward the light house, where our group leaders will talk about the changes in the border over the last two decades, my new friend Terese tells me she feels like the kid next door who can't play with the fun neighbors. We can't make out our neighbors' faces through the barbed wire fence and holed wall, but there are so many of them, wading in the ocean, sitting at the line in front of the fence drinking beer, frolicking in the carnival atmosphere, but mostly, I can sense, wonder what we're thinking, the tiny group of 14 estadounidenses surveying them like modern art from fifty feet and an entire world away.
The separation is amusing. Two twenty-foot fences, one steel and strong and the other haggard and piercing, come from the eastern hills and taper off into the wooden posts when they reach the sand, which is too unstable to support a fence. Nothing, I realize, conquers mother nature. Time and the forever ocean have presented engineers problems with enforcing the border, but efforts have increased exponentially since March 2009. The US Border Patrol hired a core of surveyors to create an artificial hill between TJ and SoCal, upsetting the river ecosystem of the area in the name of security. Whereas in 2008, since the days of Friendship Park, separated families and curious citizens from both countries could mingle at the posts, there is now a fifteen-foot "no-man's-land" between the old fence and the new steel fence. Any trespasser within this space, our leader informed us, is legally referred to as "clutter," and may be thrown away. A border patrol officer, we are informed, can get to any of the clutter, or any of us, within 15 seconds.
We do get a taste of the "action." I am headed back from the out-of-order bathrooms to our discussion when a patrol jeep tears around our group down the slope toward the wooden posts. I break into a jog to see the fuss as I see necks on both sides crane to witness the confrontation. A US photographer has wandered cluelessly toward the posts, snapping shots of the waving Mexicans on the other side. The jeep has reached him, and a beefy patrol officer issues a "warning," informing him of the new rule regarding the fifteen-foot gap. I imagine his confusion, as there is no official sign posted regarding no-man's-land. I imagine he knows that a few months ago families could embrace without the intervention of AK-47s.
Our group begins to hike back up the beach toward San Diego. I walk backwards, facing the fence, when I can, and I quickly fall behind. I cannot seem to take my eyes from them: not the wires or growing emptiness, but the figures beyond, slowly becoming black dots, falling behind, just like me.