Photo by Robert Burroughs
The fence climbs dusty bluffs along Tijuana’s International Avenue, where it faces Dairy Mart Road on the U.S. side
The back-yard fence of San Diego County is seven miles long, frowning its way along an otherwise invisible line — the border with Mexico. Shoved up against the back walls of Tijuana, the fence is actually a swaybacked, tumbledown affair of heavy wire mesh, built during the Carter presidency and now rent with people-sized holes. It stops no one who tries to get through. Its holes were cut by people-smugglers with steel-snips or even opened by crash-launched cars on Tijuana’s frantic International Avenue. Hasty patching has been performed in some places by U.S. authorities using rusty metal grates from long-ago prefab airstrips in the South Pacific circa World War II.
The fence is actually a swaybacked, tumbledown affair of heavy wire mesh, built during the Carter presidency and now rent with people-sized holes
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Though tiny when compared to the entire 1952-mile length of the U.S.-Mexico border, this chain-link wall at San Diego marks off the border’s single most trafficked crossroads for illegal immigration. More undocumented immigrants pass through Tijuana than through any other point on the U.S. periphery. Upwards of 1000 Mexican citizens and others (Peruvians, Paraguayans, Poles, even a few mainland Chinese) mass each day along the Tijuana River bluffs at the fence.
The crowds have given birth to a subculture, connected to Tijuana’s underworld and living off the cramped pocketbooks of the migrants. Vendors at the fence sell everything from beer to wool jackets for chilly California nights.
Derelicts, drug addicts, and assorted others are also attracted because of a vacuum of law. No matter which side the police may come from when you stand at the fence, they can be dodged by simply stepping across to another country.
Like any subculture, the fence world has a language of its own, a slang that draws some of its elements from border Spanish or Mexican street-Spanish in general. But some of the terms are specific to the fence itself. So here is a sort of pocket dictionary to San Diego’s back fence, revealing the language of a sometimes hidden world.
Pollo: A pollo is an undocumented immigrant who is preparing to cross the border or is crossing the border. The term literally means “chicken.” It’s a bit condescending. Probably it wasn’t dreamed up by the polios themselves. More likely, when it first appeared more than a decade ago, this nickname was a creation of the people-smugglers who transport the polios. But now the term is well-known throughout Mexico, and the migrants even call themselves pollos. One female vendor at the border fence (ironically, she sells fried chicken) has a chant she uses to hawk her wares, as crowds of “chickens” flock by, waiting to cross into San Diego. She calls out cheerily in Spanish, “Hey, little chickens, what can we serve you?”
Pollero: A people-smuggler. He (rarely she) guides, drives, chaperones, or otherwise transports undocumented immigrants into the United States for a fee. Loosely, a pollero is a “herder of the chickens.” This term, too, may have come from the people-smugglers themselves, in self-mockng counterpoint to the swaggering, macho image of Mexico’s galleros, who are handlers of fighting roosters. The more lofty term that the smugglers use for themselves is guia, “guide.”
Bajapollo: A more sinister term. This is a border bandit, universally loathed along the fence, who preys on both undocumented immigrants and their smuggler-guides. Literally, a bajapollo is a “chopper-down of the chickens.” Also called a bajador. The bandits range from glue-sniffing kids off the streets of Tijuana to gang members from the U.S. side. Many of the bajapollos come from deep in the interior of Mexico — sociopaths who were drawn north to Tijuana’s relative prosperity along with the throngs of upstanding people who seek only to get across the border and find work.
The bandits, like everyone at the border, have their own rationales. One bajapollo was implored by his mistress (according to her) to stop his predatory and dangerous labors — to which pleading he replied: “Mira, mujer, la vida no es regalada.’’
That is, “Look, woman, nobody’s going to give me a living.” The bandit was harrumphing that he was just an ordinary working stiff. However, he did have the resources to support two cars and two families. He was eventually killed in a shootout.
Coyote: This nickname for people-smugglers is used more outside the smuggling culture than within it. Actually, a coyote is any kind of middleman or deliverer of opportunity for a fee. The pollero is a specialist — one of many kinds of coyotes who exist both in Mexico and south into Central America.
Migra: The U.S. Border Patrol or its agents. The migras of the migra sometimes fly in el mosco (“the fly,” meaning a Border Patrol helicopter).
El Swat: The anti-bandit patrol of the San Diego Police Department — generally welcomed by the polios and polleros because El Swat swats the bajapollos. It rarely or never arrests migrants or people-smugglers on immigration charges. Generally, El Swat has its hands full with more grisly crimes. The word is borrowed; the patrol is not part of the SDPD’s Special Weapons and Tactics team.
Cholos: Street punks or gang members who live along the border in Mexico or in the United States. Sometimes cholos are also border bandits. The cholos used to be called pachucos or low-riders. Sometimes the polleros throw rocks at the cholos, and the cholos attack the polleros, or both sides throw rocks at the border patrol. Some people say the term cholo came from a nickname for Soledad Prison.
Pocho: This is a person from Mexico who lives near the border — a Mexican who has become to some extent (in certain Mexican eyes) “denatured.” The word is not really very nice, though it’s often used, frequently by people saying it about themselves. Literally it means “rotted,” “discolored,” or “corrupt.” The Tijuana newspaper El Mexicano lamented last Memorial Day about a rowdy, festive, and allegedly destructive influx of Mexican-Americans on holiday. A headline, denouncing purported drunks from the United States, used the word pochos.
Gabacho: This is the border word for gringo. Strangely, it may derive from French (as does the word mariachi) it seems to come from the Pyrenees Mountains of Spain, referring to someone who speaks gavat — who speaks Spanish badly. But how did this word get to Tijuana, when most of Mexico simply says “gringo”? Good question.
Jalador: An apprentice people-smuggler. Literally, a “puller,” who stands on ridgetops watching for the border patrol. The border patrol agents call this kind of assistant a spotter. Other assistants in the Otay Mesa area, where the fence ends and the mesaland is smooth and open and smuggling is done in cars, are called “fence crews.” They open holes in the fence and smooth runways for easy crossing or throw rocks at border patrolmen as distractions. Fence crews can get pretty nasty, even though they’re sometimes quite young. One border patrolman has a steel plate in his skull from a thrown rock and has said he considers himself lucky at that.
El Bordo: This term refers not to the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico border, nor even to the seven-mile Tijuana fence, but only to a small stretch along that fence, a place where the border is formed by the concrete flood-control embankments of the Tijuana River, just west of the San Ysidro Port of Entry. In English, border regulars know el bordo as “the levee.” It was the main spot for illegal crossings until late last year, when the border patrol put up big stadium lights there. The action has now moved farther west, where the fence climbs dusty bluffs along Tijuana’s International Avenue, where it faces Dairy Mart Road on the U.S. side. The centers of the action are called the Gravel Pit (el ranchito) and the High Point (no equivalent Spanish name to speak of). A few years ago, the action was even farther east than el bordo, centered at “the soccer field” in the slum called Colonia Libertad. But other crossing spots became easier, and the bandits in Colonia Libertad became too dangerous for most immigrants to confront.
La Chota: The Mexican police. Crowds at the border fence try to gather on the U.S. side, since there is less fear of the U.S. Border Patrol than of shakedowns and bribe-taking by la chota. The most active people-smugglers pay regular impuestos (“taxes”) to the Mexican police to be left alone.
Los Retenes: The roadblocks that hamper immigrants on their highway journeys northward from southern and central Mexico. These roadblocks are run either by federates (the Mexican Federal Judicial Police), who customarily wear tight jeans and needle-toed boots, or by their unofficial assistants, the aspirinas (just like it sounds), who make a living off the power of tht federates. The roadblocks are supposed to be for stopping drug shipments carried by travelers and to help the federates pocket some of the $50 million a year that die U.S. sends Mexico as a “cooperating nation” in the drug war. But who’s going to bring marijuana bales in a suitcase? The roadblocks are famous for shaking nickels and dimes from frightened northbound immigrants on buses.
Macana: Police authorities on both sides of the border fence have roughed up the people at the fence on occasion. One of the major instruments for doing such roughing up is known in Spanish as la macana, “the hoe.” Much farther south, in Mexico’s sister nation of Nicaragua, where crowd control has been something more of, shall we say, a mainstream issue, this same instrument has a more poetic name. It’s an amansabolos — a “drunk tamer.” But in Tijuana it’s just a hoe. In English we know this cultivator of bumps and bruises as a billy club, a nightstick. A tap by a macana also has its special name at the border fence. If you get billyclubbed, you’ve received a macanazo.
El Condorito: Sometimes the bird symbolism of the fence culture (polio, pollero, bajapollo) can get a little spooky. At the border fence there are many birds of prey — as in the case of the single most notorious agent of the U.S. Border Patrol, known along the fence as El Condorito, the Little Condor. Though real condors are majestic eaters of dead flesh in the mountains of South America, El Condorito preys on the live “chickens” and their associates. He roughs them up or abuses them verbally. The nickname for this officer comes from a well-known Mexican comic book, in which El Condorito is a Donald Duck-type character who has adventures and gets into scrapes. The hated border patrol agent is said to resemble the funnylooking hero-bird in the comic book, with hunched shoulders, a big beak-like nose, and a shock of hair on a balding forehead — resembling the condor’s topknot. El Condorito isn’t typical of the entire border patrol, as fence-folk don’t hesitate to point out; they view him more as a renegade who acts on his own, a self-appointed vigilante.
Those most familiar with El Condorito say that he speaks fluent Spanish and seems to be Mexican-American — though his verbal abuse centers on the undesirability of Mexicans and Mexico. “Es pocho!” exclaimed one border-fence vendor whom El Condorito has allegedly abused. “Es pocho, cabron! ;Es de aca!” (“He’s a border Mexican! He’s a border Mexican, that rascal! His roots are over here!”) But the bird symbolism doesn’t stop with El Condorito. A small group of fellow agents sometimes accompanies him when he wreaks havoc (according to witnesses), and the best known of these colleagues also has a nickname. Said to be dark-haired, he’s known by the folk at the fence as El Tordo — “the blackbird.”
El Thinner: (Pronounced “TEEN-air”). In an underworld subculture where designer drug addiction is too expensive to afford unless you’re a successful bandit or smuggler, some of the regulars at the fence get high on whiffs of el thinner. It’s paint thinner, sometimes favored by those cute kid's who squeegee your windshield at Tijuana traffic lights. Another favorite brain-solvent is Resistol, an industrial-strength glue that comes in cans. You shove your whole face into the can. The fumes are like acid when their molecular components hit brain cells. The results are self-imposed cerebral palsy. The addicts keep coming, though. They gather at the fence, sometimes drifting north with other immigrants, because the fence accepts everyone.
Bridge Trolls: The border patrol gives this nickname to street punks at el bordo who guard a shaky series of boards on stones across the sewage-trickle of the Tijuana River. The river is so polluted that it eats away the undercarriages of vehicles that regularly splash through it. Some people-smugglers carry plastic garbage bags so they can wrap their legs if they have to cross the deep parts. Residents of San Ysidro condos just over the U.S. side of the border complain about immigrants using garden hoses and stripping naked on lawns in a rush to shed the river’s perfume. But the Bridge Trolls at el bordo have found a silver lining. Their bridge of boards is situated where a few naive immigrants are bound to wander through, though the chickens who are really streetwise don’t ply that route. To use the boards, you have to pay the Trolls. They hold out a can.
The Tin Man: This is*a border patrol nickname for a particular individual who sometimes sits among the broken glass and discarded horse syringes at el bordo, contemplating private concerns. The Tin Man stands out. His hands and face have been stained bright silver. On his face, the silver makes a blurred circle, about the size of a small saucer, encompassing nose and mouth. Highly specialized in his addiction to chemical vapors, the Tin Man passes his time with his face shoved into cans of silver paint.
El Fil: (Pronounced “feel”) When the pollos and polleros gather at night among their bonfires on the bluffs by the fence and the Coleman lanterns of the fried-chicken vendors growl and sputter softly, there is talk of a magical place — el fil. There, dreams become reality. There you get the cold cash to remit home from Western Union or some San Joaquin Valley post office. You can count on el fil — or at least you could, until the 1986 U.S. Immigration Reform and Control Act put a scare into some employers and cut down the market for undocumented labor. Nothing is certain anymore. But promise remains in el fil. The meaning of the term is generic. It refers to any place where the work is agricultural. Orchard, ranch, greenhouse, farm — they’re all el fil. You can guess the Anglo-Saxon root word. But there’s also a deeper meaning — a meaning some 8000 years old, as old as agrarian civilization. And as old as servitude. Like the soft voices around the bonfires by the fence at night:
“From where have you come, my brother?”
“I am from the Heights of Jalisco.”
“Ah, yes! The Heights! I recall them well! And where are you now bound?”
“I am going now to the Other Side. I am going to work in el fil. ”