Roberto Osegueira-Madrid stands with his hands around the metal bars. ¿Señora? ¿Señora? ¿Por favor?” He’s calling through to the inner courtyard. “I haven’t eaten for two days,” he says.
He calls again.
“Ejercito de Salvación,” reads the sign above the entrance. “Albergue Para Migrantes y Guarderia.” (Salvation Army. Shelter for Migrants and Day Care Center.)
This is in Tijuana’s Colonia Libertad, a part of town that’s scrubby but still a buzzing little community of churches, auto-repair shops, schools, and lots of eateries.
“I’m from Guadalajara,” Roberto says when I walk over. “In the States, I cleaned gardens, worked in construction when that was good. Then ICE picked me up and deported me, and I don’t have money to get down to Guadalajara. I am sleeping in the general hospital right now, a little space they made for me...excuse me. Señora! ¿Pan? ¿Algo...?”
Finally, a gal from the Salvation Army comes out with a brown paper bag filled with breads and cakes. She passes it through the bars to Roberto. He lunges into the bread. “I haven’t eaten for two days,” he says again.
So, a while later, I’m heading back the way I came. Getting dark. This time there’s a long, scraggly line outside the grill-gate entrance. Maybe 50 people. All men, from what I can see.
“You coming for food?” says Maurelio Guzman. He’s wearing a white T-shirt and jeans. He’s near the front of the line. “You need $1.30 to eat, more to stay the night.”
Figure I may as well eat with them. These are the same guys you see in the Tijuana River bed shouting up for you to toss down some money as you cross the pedestrian bridge. Deportees.
Maurelio says he has been stuck in Tijuana for two years now. “I was in Riverside for 28 years,” he says. “I have a family there. My wife and three children, 18, 16, 14.”
Another guy — Tony? — jangles his car keys. “I’ve got the keys. But the car? ICE just said, ‘It’s ours now.’ That was it.”
We stand around talking while we wait to get in. “I worked in Carlsbad for five years,” says Marco Cesar Valle. “I worked in a Chinese warehouse. They were good, decent employers. I also sold cell phones at a swap meet. I was driving back from L.A. when the Border Patrol had set up a checkpoint. San Clemente. That was it.”
“I spent my whole life in the U.S.,” says this guy Nick. “L.A. and Florida. Then one day I was just walking along and the ICE picked me up and dropped me off in Tijuana. This is a foreign country to me.”
We finally get to shuffle in, one person at a time going up to the guy at the desk, writing our name and paying our $1.30.
In the first big room behind, they’ve laid out long folding tables. You go to a servery and they hand you a bowl. Volunteer gal named Eliud scoops a ladleful of soup from a huge pot and piles a bean-and-cheese burrito on top.
“It’s sopa de verduras — vegetable soup — with corn and meat,” says Eliud. “I’m just a volunteer. This is my first night.”
So, I take my bowl to the table, then head for the end table where the knives, spoons, and baskets of french breads are. One of the guys from the line, Tony — he left two kids (ages eight and two) up in Washington — says a man in San Diego brings the bread down. So, I grab one of those and head back to a folding chair.
I squeeze two half-limes into the soup, mix it around. It’s not bad at all. Lots of different veggies swimming down in there. Plus chunks of beef. Yes, the burrito’s a bit tough at the more burned end, but if you dip it, it softens fine. With my chunk of bread, I’ve filled me up.
“That soup was really good tonight,” a guy says to Eliud.
“It wasn’t me. Tell Lidia,” says Eliud. “She’s the cook.”
Actually, there’s not much talk going on in the main room. Most guys are seriously eating and looking at the TV, set up high in the corner. You kinda realize: just to be off the street and watching television like ordinary people who are not in trouble, that must be something. When someone accidentally pulls the cord and the TV goes blank, the room erupts. He gets it back on, pronto.
They have a dessert of cantaloupe slices, but I’ve screwed around just a little too long. The guys are already crack-smacking the chairs to vertical and starting to haul the tables off to the side as I’m working the nice little sludge pile at the bottom of my bowl.
I pass one of the dormitories on the way out. Packed. Guys already in bunks, other guys on blankets on the concrete floor. “Longer you’ve been here, better the bed you get,” says Joaquín. He’s been coming here eight months.
As I’m on the way out, around 8:30, a lady drives up in an SUV. “El Mayor,” whispers someone.
Turns out it’s mayora — Salvation Army major — Gabriela Ambriz Medina. She’s the director. “We’ve been operating here since 1959,” she says. “Deportees have been coming for food and help since the very beginning. It’s not new.”
As the guys told me themselves, she says a lot of them have records. But as long as they weren’t in for violence, it’s okay for them to come eat and sleep.
“And as long as they’re not drunk,” she says.
And Roberto, who got the bag of bread earlier? No sign of him. Guess he didn’t have the $1.30. Lord. Could have at least given him that.
- The Place: Salvation Army Migrant Shelter, Aquiles Serdan #11585, Colonia Libertad (parte baja), Tijuana, 011.52.664.683-2694
- Dinner Hours: 7:30–8:30 p.m., daily
- Buses: Colonia Libertad, and taxis de ruta
- Nearest Bus/Taxi Stops: Outside
- Trolley to border: Blue Line
- Nearest Trolley Stop: San Ysidro