Notes from ChicanAztlan: Haitian Immigrants in Tijuana

In a city of immigrants, for many the Haitians are just the latest wave

By John Edward Rangel
Published on LatinoLA: February 28, 2017

Notes from ChicanAztlan: Haitian Immigrants in Tijuana

My work commute from Tijuana, Mexico to Pacific Beach, USA takes three hours and involves five buses and trolleys. All this is one way of course. Some folks might consider this a little too much but I'm a Chicano from East LA, who likes to ponder and people watch. And oh the things I see!

Some of the men were urinating, some had finished and others were about to start. All of them looked African and they had just stepped off a Mexican charter bus. I knew they had to be Haitian immigrants arriving in Tijuana.

I live on the far eastern edge of Tijuana, near a pivotal transportation hub where three major roads connect. Blvd Alberto Limon Padilla (I call it the Road to Tijuana), the Mexicali-Tijuana Federal Hwy 2D (I call it the toll road), and the Blvd 2000 (I call it home) which links mountainous eastern Tijuana to the Rosarito beach area. A beautifully scary loop of highway connects the three roads, with a large statue of a bighorn ram presiding over the location.

The 2D Hwy from Mexicali/Tecate and the Blvd 2000 from Rosarito/Popotla both join up at the loop with Blvd Padilla, which leads into the maquiladora (factory) section of Tijuana. Most of Blvd Padilla is urbanized which means if you get out of a vehicle and try to take a piss with your back to the road you will be facing house filled slopes. However, the very first section of Blvd Padilla is a place called Rancho Ontiveros and it remains undeveloped. A fence of barbed wire and white 4x4 posts separates private property from blvd. In an emergency, it is a pretty good spot to take a leak - I know.

As someone who has been following the Haitian influx to Tijuana I assumed that most of these men had probably come from Brazil by way of South then Central America. Some may have passed thru as many as ten countries, I remembered reading somewhere. They were fleeing the chaos created by man and mother-nature in their native Haiti in search of a better life. That much I knew. But the hardships and horrors, trials and tribulations that these poor human beings have suffered, in order to reach the doorstep of their destination (The USA), was beyond my comprehension.

If their joy upon arrival was any barometer of how diificult the journey was then it must have been ardous indeed. You see the east-west running Blvd Padilla has as its background eastern Tijuana. When these guys saw it and realized how close they were to "the promised land" wow, talk about emotion. Many pointed to the city up ahead in the distance, some had both hands raised skyward as if giving thanks to a higher power. Two guys urinating stood side by side, holding their package with one hand and giving high fives to each other with the opposite hand. All appeared to be laughing or smiling. All accept one.

He was on his knees, his back was arched and his neck twisted his face toward the bus I rode on. I felt like we were looking right at one another. I know I saw him but I don't think he saw me, or even the bus itself. His eyes were full of tears, they had to be, because his face appeared shiny with them. His anguished look displayed no joy at having successfully completed such a treacherous journey. This guy was hurting. What had this trek cost him? Or possibly who?

I have read enough accounts by Haitian immigrants to know that losing a loved one along the way is not uncommon. Had this poor crying soul left someone behind, in a shallow grave, along some jungle trail in South or Central America?

The United States of America is turning its back to the thousands of Haitians pouring into border cities like Tijuana, Mexicali and Nogales. Hundreds of them are accepting the cruel reality that if they do cross into the USA and seek asylum they will most likely be deported back to Haiti, so they are applying for work permits in Mexico.

Tijuanenses have reacted with mixed but mostly positive feelings. In a city of immigrants, for many the Haitians are just the latest wave. Some of the responses are humorous, "Keep the Haitians but get rid of the Sinaloans!" joked one city dweller. At least one has been opportunistic in a most positive way. Tijuana food reviewer Mathew Suarez, writes about a location in Tijuana that converted from serving basic Mexican food to a Haitian staple known as Haitian Lemon Chicken. By all accounts business is booming.

Pastors Gustavo Banda and Zayda Guillen of the templo Embajadores de Jesus in Tijuana have sheltered almost 500 immigrants since the influx began. At present they shelter 225 people of whom some eighty percent wish to stay in Tijuana and begin living normal lives. The pastors are now soliciting donations for construction material to begin building on property nearby. These downtrodden refugees, shunned by the nation they revered, are finding a home in Tijuana. They hope to start their own colonia(neighborhood). The area is already being referred to as Lil' Haiti.

As a 55-year-old, third generation, California-born Chicano, our family has its own immigration story. It is one of adversity and perseverance that includes death. I benefit today from the pathfinders and trailblazers in my family before me. The courage of ancestors I never knew has given me the freedom and education I now enjoy. I don't doubt that the descendants of the men I saw by the bus will someday say similar things about them. I wish them the best.

"Coffee's Ready, Gotta Go...!!!"

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