A mile or two south of the border, two blocks east of Avenida Revolución on Avenida Negrete, stands the main Tijuana post office. It's a windowless concrete building unremarkable except for the flight of blue mosaic tile steps and the half dozen clipboard-carrying men standing on those steps. "We are called escribientes," says Javier Mejía Quezada, who is one of the six. The word translates to "writers."
On a sunny, breezy Friday in late June, the escribientes stand apart from each other on the blue steps. Mejía has taken up his position to the right side of the staircase on the bottom step. The 45-year-old father of three children — 26, 22, and 15 — wears pressed gray slacks and a brown knit guayabera. He is dark-skinned with a thin mustache and goatee on his round face. His quick, smiling eyes dart about and give animation to his speech. In his hand he carries a clipboard bearing an inch-thick stack of forms. "We fill out forms to send money," he explains. "We also fill out telegram forms for people. We write personal letters. We fill out postal money orders. Any kind of documents they might need inside, I keep them on my board."
Though they are not post office employees, Mejía and his cohorts do have first-hand knowledge of postal forms. "We're all former employees of the post office," he explains. "All of us. But we all work independently now."
Mejía's clients, he says, "are usually people who are migrating from Southern Mexico into Tijuana or the United States. And we get a lot of clients from the maquiladoras."
The forms are available free of cost inside the post office, but his clients, Mejía explains, pay him to fill them out because "Some don't know how to read or write. Some just don't know how to use the forms. Most of them come from places where they've never had to do this sort of thing. These are people who have worked on farms and in the fields. They've never sent money or even sent letters to anybody. So it's easier for them to use us. We fill out the forms for them, and we tell them how much it's going to cost. They're normally people who come for three months and then go back or come here for a season and then they go back."
As Mejía speaks, two men, evidently painters -- judging by their white-splotched work clothes and boots -- walk around him and approach another escribiente five or six steps above Mejía. With a few quick questions, the escribiente ascertains which form the two painters need and, after a few more questions, fills it out for them. No more than three minutes after they walked up, he hands them the filled-out form. They hand him a couple of coins and head into the post office.
Asked how much he and the other escribientes charge for their services, Mejía shakes his head. "No cobramos," he answers. "We don't charge. We work for whatever they want to give us. Sometimes they give us a quarter, sometimes just two pesos. Whatever they want to give us. Sometimes it's nothing, and that's fine. Other people give a little bit more, so it evens out."
Mejía makes from 60 pesos (about $6) up to about 130 pesos (about $13). "I can't make a living doing only this," he says. "I have a small grocery store as well."
Still, six days a week, Mejía rises early in his home near the Rodríguez dam -- 15 or so miles to the east -- in order to be on the blue steps, clipboard in hand, by 7:30. "Wednesdays or Thursdays I take off," he raises his voice slightly to be heard over the roar of midday traffic rumbling down Negrete. "Sundays and Mondays are the busiest. And the end of the month is always very busy because that's when people get paid, and they come here to send money back home. Ninety-eight percent of the time," he explains, "they are sending money. Very rarely is somebody receiving money here.
"The best thing about this work," Mejía responds when asked, "is the contact and conversations I have with a lot of very nice people. The worst part is that sometimes I have to deal with people who are very tense. Sometimes the traffic has put them in a bad mood. Sometimes they have money problems. Sometimes it's just the struggles of daily life. And very often they're sending money for very serious reasons. They might have a relative who is sick or who just died, and that's why they're sending money. You see, most of them have left their families in the south, and they're working here and sending money south to Oaxaca or Puebla. Sometimes people send money to churches back in their hometowns because the churches often coordinate community projects, either fixing up the church itself, or paving a street, or making a basketball court, or just helping the poor. These people have a very strong connection to where they came from. They never lose their roots."
Mejía's bright eyes grow even brighter, and a smile flickers across his face as he recalls an anecdote. "There was a lady that came walking up with a bucket. She said that she wanted to send 50,000. I thought, '50,000 pesos [$5000] is a lot of money for this old lady to be carrying around the city in a bucket.' But it wasn't 50,000 pesos, it was 50,000 dollars. And this lady was more than 80 years old. She had sold her house, and she was carrying around the money she had made on it in a bucket. I couldn't believe this old woman had traveled across town with $50,000 in a bucket."
At the request of the reporter he's speaking with, Mejía turns and invites the other escribientes to come tell their stories. But all five shake their heads and shrink into the shadows at the top of the blue stairs. Mejía turns back and, with a big grin, shrugs his shoulders. And when I try to give Mejía a few dollars for a tip, he lifts his hands back above his shoulders, palms forward, and shakes his head.
"It's for the time you lost while speaking to me."
"No gracias," Mejía responds. "Just shake my hand."