Family members huddle at the fence to talk to loved ones living across the border.
Family members huddle at the fence to talk to loved ones living across the border. Kainaz Amaria/NPR
While traveling in Arizona I met a businessman named Jaime Chamberlain, who described himself as a border citizen.
Chamberlain took some time to explain. He's a patriotic U.S. citizen. But he also described himself as Mexican. His family past stretches back into both countries, and his future depends on both. His company imports vegetables from across the border in Mexico. He has investments in both countries.
Jaime Chamberlain describes himself as a border citizen. His company imports vegetables from across the border in Mexico.
Jaime Chamberlain describes himself as a border citizen. His company imports vegetables from across the border in Mexico. Kainaz Amaria/NPR
Hundreds of miles away and on the opposite side of the border, I mentioned the phrase "border citizen" to Hector Osuna, a former mayor of Tijuana. Osuna immediately recognized himself. He's a Mexican citizen.
"I've lived all my life in Mexico, and I have kids that go to school every day to the U.S. They were born in the U.S.," he says. He has sent them to private schools that do not have a residency requirement.
"The idea of us doing that is that I want to erase the border in their minds," he said. "They're bicultural, binational; they don't feel there's a border. So they go and they feel comfortable in the U.S., and they come back to Mexico and feel comfortable in Mexico."
Chamberlain and Osuna — one from the U.S., one from Mexico, but each with a foot in the other's country — reminded me of the distinctive nature of the region we traveled this month. We drove from the mouth of the Rio Grande all the way to the Pacific: more than 1,900 miles as the border goes, and 2,428 miles by our odometer.
— Steve Inskeep
Tijuana is itself a creation of the border. The borderline was drawn here in 1848, as the United States completed its conquest of the present-day American Southwest. The border, along with the growth of San Diego and Los Angeles, gave Tijuana a reason to be.
Border security is ever-present here. The city has grown so close to the rusted U.S. border fence that it practically leans on it. The fence even cuts across the middle of Friendship Park, a circular plot of land that was laid out on the actual borderline as a symbol of the two nations' warm relations. Today the park might better be called the Friendship Half Circles.
For a few hours each weekend, people who cannot cross the border are allowed to approach that wall and peer through the heavy wire mesh at people on the far side.
One morning, a mother and father in Tijuana press against the fence to see their son for the first time in 15 years. "Oh, my heart!" the mother exclaims.
The son, who gives his name as Hector Razo, cannot easily risk a return to Mexico because he migrated illegally to the United States. He's been working, he says, currently as a painter.
"It's a lot of opportunities," Razo says, "and the life is really different, because my kids, they are really better."
His four children join him at the wall. They're in their teens and early 20s. They say they had attained a kind of permission to remain in the United States, as the Obama administration defers action against certain young people who admit to having entered the country illegally as children.
While Razo sought opportunity in the U.S., there has been economic growth in Tijuana.
In earlier decades, the city provided services that were forbidden in the United States. It prospered during Prohibition, both as an entertainment destination and as a way station for smugglers.
In more recent years the economy has diversified, though the city of about 1.3 million still relies on the border for growth.
It remains an entertainment center (though tourist areas suffered during drug-related violence of recent years). It is also a manufacturing center, home to foreign-owned assembly plants that tend to serve the U.S. market. High-tech firms are gaining a foothold in Tijuana. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports Friday on Morning Edition, they are working to fulfill the needs of tech giants in Silicon Valley.
Former Tijuana Mayor Hector Osuna, also an architect, is working on plans for a proposed medical center in Tijuana that would cater to the U.S. market. He says many Americans, especially Mexican-Americans, prefer the style in which they are treated by Mexican doctors.
Parts of Tijuana suggest its wealth. Modern glass buildings contain offices on some floors, a high-end restaurant on another floor, and a nightclub on yet another. There are neighborhoods filled with upscale restaurants, immaculate traffic circles and orderly streets: In Tijuana, unlike many cities in the world, cars actually come to a complete stop for pedestrians in crosswalks.
For all its growth, Tijuana can still be a hard place to live, with wages far lower than the United States. The city's informal neighborhoods spread across hillside and canyons. Many of the homes are perched precariously on steep slopes. Stacks of tires filled with sand or cement serve as the foundations.
Tijuana is a center for entertainment and manufacturing; it's also home to foreign-owned assembly plants that tend to serve the U.S. market.
Tijuana is a center for entertainment and manufacturing; it's also home to foreign-owned assembly plants that tend to serve the U.S. market. Kainaz Amaria/NPR
One such neighborhood is the site of a famous landmark in Tijuana, though the houses and streets are so tightly packed it can be difficult to find. It's a concrete statue of a nude woman, 55 feet high. She has one hand upraised like the Statue of Liberty.
The statue's creator, Armando Munoz, says he built it for Tijuana's centennial celebration in 1990. The figure, then, is a reminder of just how relatively young the city is — a fact that Munoz tried to represent in this idealized sculpture.
She can be imagined as the ultimate border citizen: youthful, expressive and forever looking upward toward the future.
Armando Munoz built this 55-foot statue for Tijuana's centennial celebration in 1990.
Armando Munoz built this 55-foot statue for Tijuana's centennial celebration in 1990. Kainaz Amaria/NPR