The restaurant was a rambling wood affair with families crammed together and happily intent over their plates until that rumba line of black men – a half dozen of them – began to snake between the tables. That was when the diners looked up.
“Which way?” asked the first man, calling back over his shoulder.
“Over there — !” Someone behind him pointed. The leader took a left.
“—No, over there! Over there!” cried a third. The first man took a hard right.
What had the sight of six black men moving though the restaurant and talking loudly inspired? Watching the men throw their voices forward and speak loudly, the diners smiled. The men threw their voices forward not just to convey information, but also to announce themselves. And people at the tables seemed to understand this. Because the remarks were traded loudly, the diners were easily able to catch the feeling under the words. That feeling was joy.
“—Hey, man which way you goin’?”
“—No! Straight ahead! Go straight ahead!”
At last they reached the table that had been reserved for them. Most of the men did not know one another and had dressed as if for different events. They had little in common except for the color of their skin, the music of their voices, and the fact that they had each chosen to live here in another country.
The restaurant was called La Barca de Oro. Cooks tended the burners and ovens in the two open-air kitchens at either end of the restaurant.
My journey here had begun on “Juneteenth,” or June 19, the day African-Americans celebrate their freedom from slavery. (On that date in 1865, two and a half years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, slaves in Texas learned they were free. Texas was the last state to officially hold slaves.) On Juneteenth 1998, while mothers were mixing potato salad in Logan Heights, and fathers were letting the meat smoke through on the barbecue pits of National City, and kids in Valencia Park were eyeing the watermelons chilling in tubs filled with ice, I crossed the border into Mexico. I’d heard there might be some African-Americans living there.
In Tijuana, everywhere I looked the grass needed cutting and weeds needed pulling; walls could for some paint, and the cars and the streets they rumbled over could have stood repair. I’d discover in time that once past the traffic and tourists, in neighborhoods where Mexicans live and work (like Second Street between F and G, where La Barca de Oro sits) the city opens up like the pomegranates sold in the local markets – battered and bruised-looking on the outside, but inside ripe, the ruby pellets shimmering, the sweet juice that stains.
When I crossed the border that first day, I found myself in a steady straggle of adults and children who for the most part bore the moist look of tourists. It was early afternoon and there was little movement in the jam of cars coming into and leaving Tijuana. As a pedestrian, I was making good time. The only thing moving faster were the white-and-blue border buses. Churning past, they sent up a chalky dust that blanched the sky and powdered the buildings; the grass and trees looked as if a fungus were eating them.
Set on the table in front of the men were small bowls with radishes the size of plums, slices of green lime, cucumbers, and carrots. Chips were in bowls; so was the tick hot sauce, of a red so furious it looked volcanic. On the other side of the table, a round-faced man with a gold tooth was smiling. The man sitting next to him had his jaw clamped tight. The man on my left radiated calm.
“Well, are we what you expected?”
This came from the man on my right. He was large but carried the weight well. He might have passed for a Mexican with his light skin and black hair.
“What did you expect?” he asked again, glancing around the table. “Did you think we’d all be low-life bums?”
Actually, I had.
On that first visit in mid-June, every once in a while I would spot a brother on the street and explain that I was interested in meeting Americans living in Tijuana. I said I was hoping to learn what had brought them here and prompted them to stay. Two guys said they were here to cool out for the day. One man had come over for the gambling and was heading back across the border that evening. A couple of young men said they were on leave from Camp Pendleton. They eyed so hungrily the young women moving in the crowds that I guessed why they were here. One brother told me to get out of his face.
I came back again in July and a third time in August. At the pharmacies, the clothing and shoe stores, the markets in and around the tourist area of Avenida Revolucion, in pidgin-Spanish, I asked if there were any blacks from the United States that lived nearby. The store owners and cashiers shrugged and shook their heads; once or twice, I got pointed down a side street and was told a black might be living there. I knocked on doors that did not open; I spoke to men standing on street corners. There might have been some black people si!, from the United States, si!, but no, they no longer lived there. Where did they go? No one knew.
Back again in September, I asked myself where would I go if I lived here. What would I do? Which was how I found myself on Third Street, climbing the steep staircase of a two-story building that was painted pastel blue. Pasted on the walls were pictures of Mexican bodybuilders, petite men by American standards. The gym manager was cordial and spoke English. Yes, he knew a black man who came to work out. He had not seen him in a while, which meant he was due for a visit any day. He took my card and promised that if the man came in, he’d pass the card on. As it turned out, nobody called, but it did not matter because that same afternoon I walked two blocks farther to the Baja Gym.