Puente El Chaparral is the bridge that goes over the smelly Tijuana River that thousands of pedestrian border-crossers and tourists use daily from downtown to the PedWest border. The access goes through a caged dark set of stairs usually inhabited by beggars, or four long slopes lined with pop-up shops that sell wallets, sombreros, candy, and trinkets. A couple of well dressed and very quiet Jehovah’s Witnesses usually stand at the end of a slope next to a rack of pamphlets in English and Spanish.
On the western side, there is a small plaza with a fountain, a small patch of green area, decaying curio shops, and empty farmacias.
On the eastern side, close to the border, is Plaza Viva Mexico, a barracks-like empty space of former tourist-trap bars, a modern fountain with no water, and more farmacias and curio shops. “Cerveza, my friend? Tacos? Free shot of tequila!” Jaladores (“pullers") in front of the bars attempt to entice anyone who walks by as early as nine in the morning.
“Aquí dandole!” yells Miguel Ángel “El Güero” Reynoso, selling his wares whenever I walk by him on the bridge on my way to work. “A darle duro! Animo!”
Miguel Ángel sits in a wheelchair with a wooden box on his lap containing candy, peanuts, gum, pepitorias (pumpkin seeds), alegrías (amaranth bars), and more. He wears a large straw hat, has a black money bag strapped to his chest, and a backpack tied to the back of his wheelchair. Pushing with one leg, Miguel Ángel rocks back and forth covering different areas of the bridge but usually stays in shaded areas.
“It’s been 20 years since I had the accident,” he says, referring to his missing left leg. “I was working construction here in Tijuana. I didn’t get expenses covered or anything. I was working independently. So, nothing….
“It’s been around ten years [on the bridge]. I’m from Morelia [in the state of Michoacán], but I’ve been in Tijuana for 30 years. I’m here from 11 a.m. or earlier until 3 or 4 in the afternoon or later. It depends.”
A popular character on the bridge, Miguel Ángel greets several other people with a fist bump as he talks to me.
“You can see that a lot of them are coming back,” he says, hopeful.
A few years back, hundreds of homeless, mostly drug addicts and deportees, lived under the bridge in houses made from garbage called ñongos. They were cleared out by the city in March of 2015 and the river area named El Bordo was constantly patrolled by police. Some of the homeless have returned in the past few months to inhabit El Bordo as patrolling in the area has diminished.
“Pues todo está mejor pero no está muy mejor ['Everything is better, but not that much better']. It’s a little bit calmer. Gracias a Díos, nothing bad has ever happened to me, and little by little I earn more money....
“I have a brother named Hugo del otro lado; he crossed illegally. I know he is doing well because I follow him on Facebook. Pero no hemos entablado [‘but we don’t really talk’]. I never thought about crossing. I like it here, en la mera frontera [‘right at the border’].”
“I have a sister as well. She’s cool. She was the one that helped me a lot after the accident. I’m completely independent now. I live in a neighborhood before Playas and get my candy from a friend who owns a candy store here nearby. He is cool as well and loans me candy when I need it.”
“Ey, que onda, Güero? Give me some peanuts and gum for my girlfriend.” A young couple, both Latinos, come up to Miguel Ángel speaking Spanish.
“What did I give you last time?” Miguel Ángel asks the girl. “Unos cacahuates,” she replies shyly.
“You owe me 50 pesos that you haven’t paid me. Add it all up and you guys owe me 80 pesos.”
Miguel Ángel gives them a pack of gum and a bag of chili-covered peanuts.
“Sí fío [‘Yes, I loan’]. I see those two often. They are good people. I know they will pay me. I have a lot of friends that walk on this bridge. Americans or Mexicans, or from all over the world, yo les vendo a todos [‘I sell to everyone’]....
“Look, here I have the manguitos enchilados.” Miguel Ángel knows the mango-chili gummies are my favorite. If I have a dollar or 20 pesos on me, I’ll buy gum or candy from him. If I don’t, I tell him I’ll get him next time.
“Todo bien, animo! Que Díos te bendiga. A darle!” yells Miguel Ángel as I walk away.