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Going There: A Conversation In San Diego About Life Around The U.S.-Mexico Border


Earlier this week, we took the program to San Diego, Calif., for the latest installment in our live events series we call Going There. Together with member station KPBS, we decided to go beyond borders, which is to say we took a deep look at the San Diego-Tijuana metro region, where crossing the border in either direction is fundamental to each city's economy and culture. We met people who cross daily, sometimes even twice a day, to go shopping, have lunch, go to the doctor or spend the day with a friend. One woman in San Diego - OK, she was our Uber driver - told us, we go down south all the time. It's just one more stoplight.

But even along the border, just as in the rest of the country, there are very different opinions about what that means. On stage in San Diego, our guests included Jacqueline Arellano, a drug and alcohol counselor who belongs to a group that calls itself the Border Angels. They are volunteers who coordinate water drops for people crossing the border through the mountains on foot. Jean Guerrero is the KPBS Fronteras reporter. She covers all aspects of daily life on the border. Terry Shigg is a U.S. Border Patrol agent. He's also a spokesperson for the union that represents the agents in San Diego. Alfonso Gonzalez is an attorney who has offices on both sides of the border. And Jorge Meraz, who hosts the travel show "Crossing South," explores Tijuana and Baja, Calif.

And to start our conversation about what people may not know about border life, he told us what's behind the explosion of hot new restaurants and shopping on the Mexico side of the border.

JORGE MERAZ: It's a confluence of circumstances that are coming together like the perfect storm because you have a new generation of Baja Californians who are world aware, bicultural and are bringing this knowledge to their city. You know, when the drug war happened in Baja and people - Americans stopped going, the businesses that used to cater to what they call very rudimentary - and forgive me, but the puke and beer crowd of college - you know, frat kids.

MARTIN: Basically the drunk and horny Americans.

MERAZ: Yes, exactly. When that crowd stopped going to Mexico all the businesses that catered to them just went bankrupt. So all of a sudden Mexicans were like, what are we going to do now? So, OK, we need to start catering for the local market. So - now, these weren't college kids. These were families. These were older folks, sophisticated people. So they started creating something new, a new environment for themselves. So they started creating, you know, a more creative food environment, craft beer, wineries. And by doing so, they created a better environment for foreigners to come to Baja from all over the world.

MARTIN: Why don't we go back and forth? Alfonso, why don't you - so what do people - what do you know growing up in this region that you think people perhaps in other parts of the U.S. and perhaps even Mexico don't know about life on the border?

ALFONSO GONZALEZ: So being in Tijuana is - of course, it's being in the most American city in Mexico. Somebody can go in the morning to the beach and watch a movie and then come back and might even go back again at night to have dinner with a friend. And yes, they went to another country twice in a day. And they had to switch languages. They had to behave differently. They have to adjust to a different culture and a different set of rules. And it was OK.

MARTIN: Jean, tell us - this is not just your life. It's also your work. You were telling us earlier that you've always been drawn to crossing the border because it means you're in a completely different universe, really.

JEAN GUERRERO, BYLINE: Yes. I really do think of the ports of entry like portals to a parallel world. I use the sci-fi metaphor seriously because, I mean, there's a reason that magical realism was born in Latin America. Things happen south of the border that don't happen anywhere else. I mean, when you cover Mexico, when you cover the border, that really becomes apparent to you.

The minute you cross you've got swirling streets and mismatched houses, and it's just so - it's so cool. And on the streets of downtown Tijuana you see things that you would never see in San Diego - donkeys that are painted like zebras, people breathing fire. So it's about seeing the connections and having this ability to travel between completely different places which is so cool. And I feel really lucky to cover the border.

MARTIN: Terry, do you ever talk to - do you have relatives in other part of the country? I know you moved around a lot growing up. So do you ever talk to relatives around the country about these things? Are they surprised by some of the things...


MARTIN: ...That you see in the course of your work?

SHIGG: Yes. I think the job that we do and the area that I do in particular, most people don't think about what that means. They go by what it is - the stereotype of what it is, which is someone who sits by a fence or someone who abuses someone. But they don't really see the whole picture or think about what actually goes into the life or the mentality or the psychology of someone that gets into that line of work, that has the pride and the really sense of honor to do something that they really believe that this is an important job for them to do.

MARTIN: All right, so let's go right there. What about that wall?

SHIGG: What do you want to know?


MARTIN: Do we need it? Why do we need it?


MARTIN: Because.

SHIGG: Because. And I think about this, and this question comes up quite a bit. So I was trying to think of a way - how do I express that? How many people came today in a horse-driven carriage? And just for the - those on radio, no one raised their hand. And the reason why we don't do that is because now we have something better. We have cars. We have airplanes. We have better modes of transportation.

That's what - to us, that's what a wall is. That's what a fence is. That's what a barrier is. It's evolution. It's a better way to do what we've been tasked to do. We have a job, and we do take it very seriously, that it is something that we do to protect not only the community and strangers, but we do to protect our families.

MARTIN: So, Jacqueline, you spend a lot of your time, as we mentioned, as a volunteer with Border Angels...


MARTIN: ...Leaving water and other supplies for people crossing the border on foot. I think a lot of people, particularly people who are listening, have probably never met somebody like you. So can you tell us what, you know...


MARTIN: What - can you just tell us what drew you to this work as simply as you can? And I also have to ask, you know, how do you respond to those who would ask you, do you see that you're helping people break the law?

ARELLANO: That's a really good question. And I do hear that, whether we're helping, whether we're encouraging people breaking the law. I even heard that our gallons of water were encouraging - were putting people at risk because they were going to cross assuming that there were going to be supplies. First of all, I want to say that what we do is completely legal. We're not aiding and abetting anybody. We are just simply leaving supplies where we have known migrants cross and, more importantly, migrants have died.

I am proud to be American. I'm very proud to be American because it symbolizes the sacrifices that my parents made. It's a close part of my history. I am a contributing member of society. So I'm proud to be American. But I also recognize I did absolutely nothing to gain that privilege. I was simply born in Los Angeles. And from that, you know, I have so much privilege that some of my direct family members didn't and don't.

And that was something that my parents repeated to us. You know, you're lucky. You're lucky. You've been spared. And whenever I am out in the desert and I see children's items, I see baby clothes, I feel that there but for the grace of God go I. And I feel that very directly, so I have a calling to be involved in this organization.


MARTIN: That was Jacqueline Arellano onstage with me in San Diego in a conversation we called Beyond Borders, also with me Jean Guerrero, Terry Shigg, Alfonso Gonzalez and Jorge Meraz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.