Photograph by Matthew Suárez
CNN reporter at Benito Juarez Field interviews an anti-migrant protester.
Chingue su madre todos esos Hondureños.” those were the first words I heard spoken over a loud speaking as I approached the area where the caravan of migrants arrived, Sunday, November 18th. The source of the abusive language was a fragile looking old woman wearing a red hoodie over her long dress. She wasn’t through. “Fck all those Hondurans,” she yelled in Spanish. “Go back to your fcking house. They are so fcked that they come over to fck someone else’s house.”
A few caravaners tried to swim around the border fence, with the usual result of being caught.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
Another woman wearing a blue tank top ripped the microphone from the old lady’s hands and yelled, “Estoy con ustedes hermanos Hondureños... I’m with you, my Honduran brothers. I love you my fellow humans. Patience, be patient, know that God’s love is with you.”
But the angry old woman ripped the microphone back and yelled, “All of you go fck each other, and all the dumbfcks that support them as well. To hell with you all!”
A migrant’s-eye view across the border from Playas.
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
A barricade of cops blocked the way to Benito Juárez Sports Field, where hundreds of migrants set up camp for the night on the baseball fields and inside an unfinished auditorium. The police were there to stop a frenzied crowd shouting “Mexico First!” and waving Mexican flags and demanding the immigrants get out of Tijuana.
A CNN reporter interviewed a young man with a picket sign that read “Mexico demands respect. Stop the way of illegal migrants.” Photographers, videographers, reporters, documentary filmmakers, people transmitting on Facebook live, and many more members of the press swarmed the city when the caravan arrived.
Migrant art by Joseph and Robenz inside the migrant shelter in “El Barretal.”
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
“It’s his day off, but I told him to get his ass down here because I am getting some incredible material,” said a videographer I ran into there. He was discussing a journalist friend we have in common. With so much mainstream media coverage and people shouting angry comments, I decided to drop the story and go home. But I could not escape the story. It follows me everywhere.
“No seas como un pinche Hondureño,” (Don’t be like a f*ucking Honduran) the street taqueros say when someone is slacking off. Taxi and Uber drivers voice complaints about business going down. It’s a heated daily discussion in Tijuana bars and breweries. And it’s all over the internet — thousands of articles and millions of comments.
Even the anarcho-punk-collective near the arch that serves free vegan food to anyone in need had to put up a sign that reads “no cameras/no photos/no press.”
I got several requests to be a fixer, a local assistant to a foreign journalist. I still didn’t want to touch it, until a Canadian reporter with whom I worked a year before messaged me with an offer. It turned out that all the media attention on the caravan had driven up the rates for good fixers.
With a hefty sum of fixer money in my pocket, I agreed to meet Tamsin, the Canadian reporter, at PedWest on Sunday morning (December 9th). We interviewed a Mexican Immigration agent that was standing near a booth, he wasn’t much help. “We can show you the list, but do not take pictures,” one of the volunteers in the booth told us.
The notebook showed a list of almost 6000 names of people and families asking for asylum. As Tamsin asked more questions and I translated, I found out the list was mostly composed of Mexican nationals and didn’t have many names from the caravan. The volunteer claimed that the list had names from all over the world including Honduras, El Salvador, Nigeria, Cameroon, Russia, and more.
We asked if there were any migrants in the vicinity from Honduras that were willing to share their stories for a report for Canadian news. A man sitting near the booth told us he was from Honduras. He said he wasn’t on the list because he didn’t have any sort of papers and without them he couldn’t sign up. When asked what his plans were for the future, he said he didn’t have any clear ones except to keep going back to the embassy and the border in hopes that things would resolve by themselves. He said he was staying in a shelter in Zona Norte that charges him 30 pesos ($1.50) a night and had been staying there for three months. He was not a part of the caravan.
A Mexican national, upon hearing about the reporter from Canada, wanted to share his story and asked if there were any jobs in Canada. He had spent more than 20 years in Santa Ana, California and was near the border because he had just dropped off his wife. He was deported a few years ago and his wife and children still live in Santa Ana, sending him money whenever they can so he can open a store in Tijuana. We left him with whatever information we could find online about getting a temporary job in Canada. (It didn’t look very promising.)
Both stories are similar to the ones that I have heard since moving here. They are stories that define what Tijuana is, a migrant city.
We moved on to a camp situated nearby under the new traffic bridge by the border. From other reports, I knew this was the camp that was doing a hunger strike. There were other reporters and photographers already interviewing people in the camp, we waited our turn to interview one of the migrants.
Selvin, a 34-year-old migrant from Honduras, told me the following: “The hunger strike works by weeks, a group of people, a dozen or more starve for a week. Then they recover and eat to survive. Then another group goes on strike for a week. Not sure how much longer I can do it, because it pains me,” Selvin rubbed his belly.
“I want to go to Canada,” he continued. “It has always been my objective. I want peace and stability, I did not move because of economic reasons. I do not like the US because there are shootings there all the time, and I know Trump doesn’t like us. I want to move to a mountain in Canada. I was almost there just a few years ago. And then they caught me. They deported me back. I was already in Seattle. I wanted to cross to Toronto and live on a mountain, work the fields, but they caught me and sent me back to Honduras. Now, I implore Mr. Trudeau to allow me into Canada.”
The migrants in the hunger strike encampment near the border directed us to go to Zona Norte to the main migrant shelter for more information. I walked with Tamsin through downtown Tijuana towards the shelter the the Benito Juarez Sports Field. As we walked, I pointed out spots where migrants camp or where they receive free food. The migrants were removed from the baseball field after the heavy rains and relocated the shelter southeast far away from the border to a place called “El Barretal.” But many migrants stayed behind and camped outside the sports complex.
“I’ve already been here,” said Tamsin as we approached Benito Juarez Sports Field. Turns out she had a different fixer the previous two days and had already covered the area and interviewed people there. Tamsin had also been to the other shelter far from the city and asked if we could go there again to look for some organizations to interview.
Tamsin spoke to her editor on the phone in our Uber on the way to El Barretal as the driver discussed the migrant situation with me. The shelter is located in the neighborhood Mariano Matamoros, past El Cerro Colorado — The Red Hell — far south and east of the city.
Mexican Federal police and army were at the entrance of the shelter. The scene was a hive of hectic activity — people going in and out (migrants, media, donors, well-wishers, volunteers, government agents, and more).
Inside the shelter, a couple of circus tents covered hundreds of camping tents where the migrants had been staying. More camping tents and canvas were set up on the roofs and in every corner possible. Large piles of garbage accumulated in open spaces and near the bathrooms. Reggaeton and pop music blasted loudly from a couple of modern speakers near one of the larger encampments. Children ran around the place, seemingly having fun. The men played cards and chain-smoked cigarettes. Families sorted through a pile of donated clothes. Others took the opportunity to set up individual cigarette shops or give haircuts out in the open.
The organizations that Tamsin was looking for weren’t there, and she had already interviewed migrants Friday and Saturday. I wasn’t much of a fixer, so instead, I tried to help by photographing the shelter and some migrants she had previously interviewed.
We spoke to Joseph, a 32-year-old artist of the migrant caravan who had a message for Canada. “They told us an archbishop came from Canada and that he was going to work with the government to take us over there. That’s why I painted that, hoping that my art will be seen and I can make it to Canada. I’m waiting with open arms for you,” exclaimed Joseph as he posed for a picture with a broad smile next to his painted canvas.
“I joined the caravan when it started,” said Joseph as he showed us painted canvases on the ground. “Back in Honduras, I couldn’t get a job. One of my daughters is sick and needs surgery. I was desperate, so I joined the caravan hoping to get a job doing anything and send some money back. We started painting art on canvas to show that we are good people. My fellow artist is not here right now, but he goes and collects paint as cheap as we can get it. We also go to fabric stores and ask them for leftovers. We work with what we can get.”
Of the canvases on the floor, the ones signed “Robenz” (his painting partner) clearly had much more artistic value. Joseph’s paintings were mostly flags with messages towards governments, while Robenz painted in an abstract cubist style with bright colors. Joseph told us Americans bought some art for $60 just the day before.
With most of the work done, we only had one last stop to round up the excursion, Playas de Tijuana, where the migrants first arrived and where many still stay.
We saw some drama going on when we arrived by the border wall that extends into the ocean. Nine migrants (four women and five children) had crossed the line through an opening in the fence near the water and surrendered to the Border Patrol. Though the wall has been reinforced and barbed wire mounted on the top, gaps in the fence still remain where children and small people can easily cross.
“We are thinking about it, but we are going to wait till later,” said a migrant woman from Honduras that was near the wall with her children as they tested how they could get through. Migrants from the caravan have attempted to swim around the wall in Playas, but Mexican nationals and migrants from other places have tried the same thing for years with little success.
More photographers and videographers were in the area capturing the scene. A camera drone hovered above us. One of the unknown reporters asked me if the drone belonged to the police. I shrugged and told them it was probably another videographer. More videographers with cameras and boom mics as if shooting a professional movie were directing migrants to pose near the wall and to look into the distance.
As the day neared its end, I took Tamsin to a nearby seafood restaurant before we parted ways. I told her it was distasteful for me to see all the press arriving in the city, solely focusing on one subject, and then leaving. “It is our duty to inform the people what is going on,” she said. “One of the women I interviewed told me that she wanted to attempt to climb the wall at night. And I thought, ‘This would be great material, I really want to cover it, but I don’t want to encourage it.’”