TIJUANA, MEXICO –
“Imagine there’s no countries.
It isn’t hard to do.
Nothing to kill or die for.
And no religion, too…”
If I may express heresy, I’ve always found this song insipid. It’s my opinion that George Harrison was the only Beatle to write decent music after the group broke up. The rest: pretty much empty of poetry or intrigue, with lyrics that would be at home among the greeting cards at CVS.
It’s 5:57PM on a Thursday, and I’m returning from Tijuana after a day of research. Ten minutes ago, two long lines of pedestrians stretched around a bend on the sidewalk, and with neither signage nor staff to indicate which to take, I walked left and hoped I was right. Neither line has moved so far, and the July sun – earlier blazing, now fading – still generates enough heat and light that I seek shade. A flimsy metal overhang covers just part of the sidewalk. I have to choose whether to shield head or arms; I choose head, turn my back on the sun and lift my collar for good measure, grateful for sunglasses. All day long from Tijuana, I could see fog over San Diego, but it never made it across the border. Now the early evening air is the color of a shriveled orange.
Some of my temporary companions wheel duct-taped suitcases the size of small refrigerators, others carry nothing. One woman chats about her husband in the war, others are silent, stoic. One sees me taking notes, smiles and asks me “¿Reporter?” I say “Sí,“ and she responds with words I do not understand. My turn to smile.
“Imagine” pushes through a tinny speaker. My instinct is to shrug and think “banal,” but here, for the first time, in my life, I find it soothing:
“You may say I’m a dreamer,
But I’m not the only one.
I hope some day you’ll join us.
And the world will live as one.”
It’s soothing because here it fits. The world’s busiest border crossing (64 million people a year) seems to be functioning as intended. An evolving economy is filling the needs of its powerhouse neighbor; one economy thrives and the other at least doesn’t sink too far backward. Shops along the sidewalk sell Marlboro and El Jimador, Prilosec and Zyrtec, Zoloft and Viagra on the cheap. Storefronts offer bus passage to the Promised Land: San Diego, Santa Ana, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Las Vegas and a town appropriately named Goshen. Commerce, apparently, does help the world to live as one.
It’s true what they say about Tijuana. It throbs, pulses, often jostles, occasionally frightens and sometimes deceives, though it would be too simple to call Tijuana deceitful. Whether it’s here or in New York, a necklace that a street vendor sells for $5 is probably not gold. Yes, Mexico has problems from poverty of all different stripes to prostitution of all different stripes, but after my visit I can’t help thinking that it’s making its own way, at its own pace.
To our right, the San Ysidro entry station is the first building on the US side of the border, but its Spanish-style gables and turrets are a cruel tease. To enter the US, we must instead pass through the Border Station, in the dehumanizing corrugated concrete that typified federal architecture around the time if the Bicentennial. In the long, dimly lit entryway which terminates in a revolving door to America, a seal on a giant brass plaque reads “E Pluribus Unum.” Here the meaning of the phrase is clearer than ever, yet I’m pinpricked with sadness that this is the first thing the pluribus sees of our unum. Who could possibly feel welcomed by this?
Through the revolving door is a wide, drab hallway towards customs and immigration. Shower glass to the left reveals a haze of cars passing by one by one, lane after lane, red, black, gray, red, white, white, white, gray, black, halting for a moment or a minute and gliding on, some gratefully returning to what they’ve always known and others seeking it for the very first time. Black, white, red, black, gray, gray, black, red, white…
It’s 6:39, and finally I’m through. Just beyond the Border Station, a bright red trolley waits to take me back to San Diego, which calls itself “America’s Finest City.” As I board, I hear the hum of the 5 Freeway, forgotten and then remembered after just eight hours, and it makes me feel…
…I don’t know …