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.
Now shifting the child to both hands, the young man handles it like a package, away from him, awkward, indifferent. I want to rush across the sand with a blanket. I want to call someone. Who would I call? What would I say?
Afternoon, Fall, 1979
Three of my grown kids have just come in from the beach. It is clear that something has dampened their party spirit. They tell me they have just watched to young men and an older man and woman, obviously from south of the border – these days, who knows how far south?
They tell me the two young men were holding the woman up, supporting her, that her face was a blank, her eyes unseeing. That she looked to be in shock. “What did you do?” I asked.
“We just got talking and acted like we didn’t see them so they wouldn’t be scared or think we might be watching, might turn them in.”
Noon, Summer, 1980
As I stand fumbling at the combination lock on my garage door, which is near the street, I watch as a boy about six and a girl about five struggle to keep up with a youth who appears to be no more than sixteen or seventeen. He hurries from the south and is carrying a child who looks to be barely two. Occasionally, the youth glances anxiously over his shoulder.
The little ones seem breathless, look hot, sweaty, foot weary. As they all pass me, it wasn’t planned, but I hear myself saying quietly “Vaya con Dios.”
Every day we see more of them. I have come to think of them as refugees, not illegal aliens. They are humans and not alien to me.
The border patrol planes drone low overhead by day and night. The helicopters flush them like quail from the estuary. The green vans gather them. The men who drive these machines have a sad, hard, thankless, and sometimes dangerous job. They must feel as though they are pitching pebbles back to the top of an avalanche.
Every morning for about a week now I have seen groups of three to five, scuttling along – a dozen or more each day. They stay close to the big boulders out front of the houses. They keep their heads ducked low and run as fast as they are able in the soft sand. They are not trying to be subtle at all. Perhaps they think the Americans don’t awaken that early. Or else the need to make it to a pickup in time outweighs the need to look like long-time citizens.
June 4, 1981
All this last week I have seen groups of three and four, all black. Not brown-black, but black-black. I wonder if they have come from Haiti? Then they stopped coming. At least I haven’t seen any more lately.
But the wave of others from the south keeps coming. So many of them have an eerie ability to disappear almost before your eyes. At the Big Bear Market on Palm Avenue one stood ahead of me in line. His hair was unkempt, his clothes rugged and ragged, and he had about him that look. It isn’t only dress, posture, cultural, or ethnic differences. Perhaps it is their almost tangible tension.
This young man had put a sack of six oranges on the counter. Apparently, he thought the indicated price was for all six. But the cashier explained – in Spanish – the price was by the pound. The young man shrugged slightly, gave a small helpless laugh as though he could see the joke was on him. Nervously he dug into his pocket for more coins, paid, and left.
I watched him join three others like him who were sitting on a high curb near the liquor store at the corner of the shopping complex. That will be one and a half oranges per man, I calculated.
In the time it took me to put the groceries in the car and drive fifty feet, all four had disappeared. I drove around the block – not a trace.
A friend who jogs along Seacoast Drive every morning has described the same phenomenon. “You watch them a while going north along the street, then look up and they’ve vanished!”
It seems someone has been coaching them in ways to pose as gringo physical-fitness buffs. One of the more recent innovations is to wear jogging suits. It is almost as if someone has choreographed their act for them. Now and then they run in place, lifting their knees high, execute a few earnest jumping jacks and waist bends. They shoot out their fists, duck their heads in the fashion of a prizefighter. Another attempt at camouflage is to carry along a plastic garbage bag. Pick up an occasional beer can.
Some come with nothing but what they wear, which may only be a bathing suit. Others carry their shoes, wear trousers still wet from wading the mouth of the estuary. Rarely, they carry a small bag or purse or bundle.
December 1, 1981
It is a bitterly cold night. The border patrol helicopter has them in his spotlight. They are out in the middle of the estuary. I count ten figures moving slowly along under the beat of the wind from the rotors. It is midtide. I feel sure they must be in water and muck at least up to their knees.
December 15, 1981
I am putting up Christmas decorations in my window. But it is not the window that can be seen from the street. These Christmas lights will shine out on the darkened beach, where they will be seen by lonely travelers. And maybe the lights will bring a quick moment of pleasure, and I’m a damned fool, I tell myself.
January 12, 1982
The sun has just gone down, so it is still light, but the cold is piercing. A cutting wind has whipped the sea into angry whitecaps. I see a young woman, maybe eighteen or twenty. She is thin, looks to be about three months pregnant. She wears only a cotton blouse and denim skirt. She walks with her arm around the shoulders of a young man who is about her height, but thinner, much more frail. His hair is extremely short and he is quite pale. He wears a large bandage slanting over one eye. I think these are not casual beach strollers.
January 24, 1982
Several young men have gone by walking quickly to the north. I never call the border patrol, but even as I type this, a uniformed border patrolman has walked south along the sand. Now he comes back with two boys who look to be about seventeen – each carries a parcel. They are handcuffed together.
The boy on the right has his right hand cuffed to the right hand of the boy on his left, so he must either walk behind or carry his right arm across his body in front of him. There is a slight awkwardness until they sort themselves out.
Suddenly, I realize; I watch them, note their size and configuration, how they move, how many in a group, the same as I do the dolphins and whales and sea birds. They have become part of my environment. I wonder how long will it be before I become a part of theirs?