Your view of the world is unique if you live in Imperial Beach, just five miles north of the Mexican border. If the street where you live is on a narrow corridor of land between the Pacific Ocean and the Tia Juana sloughs, you have a wide window on an ever changing panorama –almost 300 degrees on the compass. How could you not look?
2:00 a.m., October, 1969
I awaken to shouts in Spanish, peer out the window just as four men run around the corner of the house next door. They begin to mill uncertainly, as though searching for a way down the rocks to the beach. Is this some kind of attack, an invasion?
I race to my back yard. A border patrolman with shotgun and flashlight stands over a dozen illegal aliens, all hunkered down by the clothesline. “Bring ‘em on around here, Al!” the patrolman shouts. Al brings his group (the four who woke me). Along with the others, they shuffle silently out to the street. I feel a certain sympathy as they are herded into a van. Yet I say to myself, “Dammit, I don’t want strangers running all over my yard. There’s no such thing as private property anymore.”
Several months later
Yesterday the lifeguard jeep sped off to the south along the beach, while police cars raced to the southern end of First Street (now Seacoast Drive), which runs parallel to the shore.
Today I read in the paper that some Mexican women and children had tried to cross the mouth of the Tia Juana River where it joins the ocean south of Imperial Beach. The outgoing tide and the current were swift and strong. A ten-year-old girl has been swept out to sea. They haven’t found her.
4:00 a.m., Summer, 1971
I sit straight up from a deep sleep. It’s not a nightmare. Someone is in fact running across my roof. Yanking my way into a robe, I rush outside. I can hear shouts in the street. There I find two border patrolmen and about ten illegal aliens. I babble, “Someone has been running on top of my house! I’m afraid whoever it is might still be up there!”
A patrolman clambers onto my roof, searches, and assures me no one is there now. “You probably heard one of these guys trying to get away from us.” He smiles, and I marvel at the energy, the desperation it must have taken to make the leap from my neighbor’s patio wall to my low front-porch roof. “This is getting a bit thick,” I mutter to myself.
“Mom … “ My grown son wakens me at 1:00 a.m. He and his girl have been sitting on the rocks out front by the beach. He tells me a man and his wife, holding a baby, have walked straight up to him. They seem to think they have found their contact. The man speaks only Spanish and my son only recognizes the word “Coronado.” He is concerned the two will walk the ten miles to the city of Coronado, when he is pretty certain they are looking for Coronado here in town.
I can speak a little bent Spanish. Will I come out and translate? I put a coat over my nightgown, walk down on the beach. Lord. They could have walked out of a Diego Rivera painting. Both have classic, proud Indian faces. She wears a shawl over her head and he wears a chin-strapped sombrero. They have a stillness, an intensity about them, and a silent, locked-in strength.
I point out Coronado Avenue, and because it’s cool, I offer them another blanket for the baby. They decline with grave thanks and we watch as the three move slowly away in the dark.
How pathetically obvious they are. Eight of them, walking along the beach, spaced about fifty feet apart. Their haircuts are all wrong. There’s something about their posture. The feigned lighthearted gringo beach-walker pose doesn’t fit. Their casual air is too elaborate. Some carry beach toys like props, try to look interested in sea shells.
How do you saunter in a race against time? How do you keep from looking back to see if someone you care about is keeping up?
A boy of about twelve is having trouble keeping pace. But he doesn’t quite break into a run. He gains a little extra ground by skipping now and then. The awful, anxious need in the people is almost palpable. The need to make it, to be at the pickup spot in time.
A matronly woman toils along in the soft sand. She looks exhausted. I’ll bet she has never worn a bathing suit before in her life. Her lower legs, face, neck, hands are the color of mahogany. The rest of her skin not covered by the bathing suit is like ivory. She glances back anxiously at a grotesque youth who follows at some distance. His flaccid arms flail at his sides. He is grossly obese – pear-shaped, actually. He struggles along on useless, flapping appendages, which might have been feet had they not been so clubbed. The boy is literally walking on the ends of his ankles. He leans forward clumsily and strains for each step.
I wonder how far he has managed to walk like this? I find myself mentally urging him on. Go on, don’t weaken. Hurry. Make it. Palm Avenue isn’t very far. Then, Los Angeles.
But a jeep comes along and scoops them up one by one. And a hard-faced man waiting at the end of the street starts his engine and drives away. His camper is empty – this time. I stare out at the ocean. Why should I feel guilty?
6:30 a.m., Summer, 1975
I wish I had waited a half hour longer to raise the curtains to look out at the ocean. The beach is vacant – except for a thin, dark-haired man carrying a baby, who looks to be about three months old. He is heading north, fast. He carries the babe like a football. Shows no sign of caring, nor regard for the infant. It wears only a thin shirt and diaper.