Monday, February 9, 2009

Fence Supplants 'Friendship' At U.S.-Mexico Border

February 9, 2009
NPR Day to Day
By Jason Beaubien

At the very western edge of the U.S.-Mexico border, there used to be a small plaza between San Diego and Tijuana called Friendship Park. The international border fence ran through the middle of it before dropping into the Pacific, and it was one of the few places on the border where people from Mexico and the U.S. could meet and talk across the frontier.

Now, it's a construction site.

The Department of Homeland Security is installing a secondary fence — essentially creating a no man's land where Friendship Park once stood. Massive yellow bulldozers, backhoes and earthmovers are tearing up what used to be the plaza.

Cross-Border Reunions

The park is just a stone's throw from the beach. The Mexico side sits next to a bullring and a series of small restaurants selling seafood and cold drinks.

On this particular weekday afternoon, Delfino Rodriguez is standing in Tijuana next to the 15-foot-high border fence, watching the heavy equipment push around huge piles of earth.

"[Friendship Park] was a very nice green park … and it's gone," he says with a laugh.

Rodriguez says that, especially on the weekends, people who were unable to cross the border would gather here to chat. Families would set up beach chairs on both sides of the fence. Lovers would clasp fingers through the mesh.

All that's over now, Rodriguez says.

Two weekends ago, he says, he was at the park and he saw a Mexican woman crying. She had come from San Quintin, in the south of Baja California.

"She traveled by herself to share a lunch with her husband, but her husband couldn't show up here. It wasn't allowed. So she was crying here," Rodriquez says.

U.S.: Illegal Activity In Park

The Department of Homeland Security is shutting down this meeting spot as part of a huge project to install more than 600 miles of fencing along the southern border with Mexico.

Here, federal contractors are installing triple fencing along the final three and a half miles of the boundary between San Diego and Tijuana. They're filling canyons with dirt and bulldozing land along the border to put in a high-speed access road.

Mike Fisher, the head of the U.S. Border Patrol in San Diego, says the decision to shut down all access to the fence at Friendship Park was a difficult one. But Fisher says it was necessary because smugglers were using the large crowds as cover for illegal activity, such as sales of fraudulent documents and narcotics smuggling.

"They'd have parties on both sides of the border and would throw soccer balls from one side to the other," Fisher says. "And the balls would contain narcotics."

Meeting Point And Cultural Venue

Friendship Park was dedicated in 1971 by then-first lady Patricia Nixon to celebrate the bonds between Mexico and the United States.

In addition to being a meeting point for family and friends, in recent years ad hoc cultural events used to happen here. There were cross-border concerts, Christmas celebrations and English-Spanish language classes through the fence.

And California being California, this may have been one of the few places in the world to have hosted "international yoga classes" with half the class in one country and half the class in another.

Civil Disobedience At Unique Spot On Border

Since last summer, John Fanestil, a United Methodist preacher, has been holding a weekly Mass at the park. Competing with the drone of Border Patrol helicopters, ice cream vendors and music from the cantinas on the Tijuana beachfront, Fanestil offers Communion through the fence.

On a recent Sunday, Fanestil and a couple dozen other people stepped over a flimsy, plastic construction barrier to hold this Mass at the border. Fanestil says he plans to continue the service as long as possible as an act of civil disobedience.

"The idea that they couldn't control illegal behavior, prevent undocumented crossings without building this massive wall I think is, on the face of it, absurd," Fanestil says.

He says a one-size-fits-all federal policy is wiping out a unique spot on the border.

On a recent weekday afternoon, the clash between U.S. policy and Mexico's twisted love affair with its northern neighbor plays out on this mesa by the Pacific.

On the San Diego side of the fence, construction crews are leveling the ground to put in a stronger barrier, while on the Tijuana side, three weathered old men in cowboy hats sing a song about crossing it.

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