By Beryl Forman
This semester I was unable to register for any classes offered through SDSU’s department of City Planning, where I am working towards my masters degree. As to not get sidetracked from my academic pursuit, I opened my options up to what is being taught throughout the entire University.
A friend of mine offered a few recommendations, and the one that stood out was called Culture and Society of Tijuana, an entire class devoted to Tijuana!
As an Urban Planning student living in San Diego, Tijuana has captured my attention from the day I moved here over eight years ago.
I’ve had the opportunity to write a couple of research papers and interview important people about the history of planning between our border cities and Tijuana’s public spaces. To further my area of interest, it only seemed appropriate that I register for this class, even if it was an undergraduate course that didn’t count towards my major.
In going back and forth with Professor Victor Clark-Alfaro via email, I was warmly welcome to join the class. His syllabus outline covers topics related to the city’s complex culture, honing in on many subjects, including human smuggling, prostitution and human rights.
The third class was held in a room with computers and a large screen, so the students could interact with a guest speaker through a live video chat. It took some time to get all the communication tools running, but finally Nacho, a coyote and our guest speaker showed up on the screen. He didn’t have a presentation prepared, he simply instructed us to ask questions.
This unique nature of this opportunity took sometime to register, but all of a sudden I felt compelled to gather my questions. I even sent a text to a group of friends while I was sitting at the computer, in an effort to crowd source and seek others’ input. One of my friends who was born in Tijuana and lives in San Diego wanted to know if Nacho takes credit cards.
Student’s questions were answered in the order they were received through a live written chat-box, and regarding the credit card, the answer was no.
Above all, what I discovered from Nacho, who has been doing this work since the 1980’s, is that human smuggling is viewed an admirable occupation. Yes, there are many cases of sexual abuse, theft, and drug smuggling, but there is another side of the story that our class witnessed, that spoke to the necessity of human smuggling.
Mexicans have lived on either side of the border before the boundary was even established in 1848, with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Through times of economic prosperity, Mexicans have been encouraged to migrate to the United States, for the economic benefit of cheap labor, and during times of economic downtown, Mexicans are portrayed as illegal, un-welcomed guests. With this long history as border nations, the act of living on both sides of the border, and remaining united with family is not an option, it is a necessity.
While the words ‘human smuggling’ may sound criminal to us, for some Mexicans it is a regular procedure. While I couldn’t understand what Nacho said in Spanish, sometimes, the immediate smile on his face helped translate our questions with a clear demonstration of the pride he has for his work, and the people that he helps. He mentioned that his family members bless him with hugs, and that aside from the money that he earns in the process, he receives the most joy when the journey is complete and people are reconnected with their loved ones.
Some of Nacho’s answers provided little detail, but with the opportunity to pose as many questions as possible within the time frame of an hour and a half, I dug further until I had a good picture of the work he does, the people he serves and his process.
Initially, a class member asked how he crosses people into the United States, and he responded with a simple answer, that the easiest way is to walk them across. In my experience, walking across the border involves standing in a line, showing the border patrol agent my passport and within a short period of time, I’m back in the US.
Where exactly was Nacho walking across the border with undocumented Mexicans, and what does he consider easy?
Through further conversation, I realized that what Nacho meant by easy, was inherently less risky. Nacho mentioned that he brings with him a bottle of Tequila, so it occurred to me to ask him about other items that he carries with him during his trek. That is when he elaborated on the process of his work, which in fact takes five to seven days in total. He and his clients are not actually walking for 24 hours at a time. In fact, they often remain in one place for extended periods of time until the coast is clear, which is why Nacho advises his clients to travel with thick jackets, dark clothes, water, and food.
I imagined Nacho with group of people in the middle of desert with nothing to do but wait, and wondered what they talk about. I followed up by asking about the people that he helps cross, and if there are any stories that stand out in his mind. Aside from the story that he had just mentioned, where his group witnessed a person being tortured by a border patrol agent, and proceeded to throw rocks at the agent, he also shared a pleasant story.
Two elderly women who Nacho helped cross brought cheese from their hometown to share with their family in the U.S. During the journey, they actually were caught by a border patrol agent. The women went on and on about their cheese and the agent found them so funny that he actually let them go.
Prior to September 11, and the heightening of security at the border, Nacho was crossing an average of five to eight people every week. Now he is helping that many people in a month. No longer are Mexicans returning to their homeland on a regular basis for the Christmas holiday, weddings and funerals. It has become too risky. Instead, more Mexicans are migrating to the US, to reunite with their family and improve their economic standard to living.
I didn’t want to intrude by asking Nacho what else he does to make up for the loss of work, but I imagine that to make a living in an impoverished city like Tijuana, one must be creative and develop various skills in order to get by.
Aside from the many risks of crossing the border with a coyote, it is natural to believe that those who are crossing are being ripped off. The current price to cross the border with a coyote is $2,000.
What Nacho explained is that there are a group of people being paid throughout the process of the crossing, so in fact, the fee is being split is many directions. First there is a person, like Nacho who crosses people. Along the way, people are being paid to house undocumented migrants overnight. Then there are others that that are paid to transport their clients to cities such as Phoenix and Los Angeles.
There are various costs along the way including food and gas. This clear division of labor speaks to the value of the work of ‘human smugglers’ and their years of experience. In the end, Nacho only makes $400 per person.
I was surprised to find out that in most transactions, the coyote does not get paid until their client has safely made it across the border. Undocumented migrants normally do not have enough money to afford a coyote, so family members living in the U.S. pay the coyote directly upon arrival. While this may appear to be a less risky approach to working with a coyote, drug smugglers who also take similar routes to cross the border, take advantage of coyotes and undocumented migrants by holding them ransom.
As Nacho was answering his last few questions, I began to think about my own situation with my boyfriend who lived in the United States with an out of date working visa. We did very little traveling together because there are border patrol agents staged in every direction around San Diego. During the few times that we took the risk of heading north to Los Angeles and beyond, we both were very nervous. I always made a point of eating something while passing through the check point at Camp Pendleton that thankfully was never in operation, to convey a sense of confidence.
I tried to squeeze in a question about how Nacho handles that particular stretch of the trip, but the professor cut me short in an effort to wrap up the class by stating that Nacho had already answered my question. Although I don’t recall that, I suppose the answer to my question was of value, and that after an hour and a half of free advice, this one was going to cost me.
Beryl Forman is the Marketing Director for the El Cajon Blvd Business Improvement District, which includes North Park and City Heights. She is working on her Masters Degree at SDSU.