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If you’ve ever crossed the pedestrian bridge over the Tijuana River canal, you’ve no doubt seen dozens of people living among its garbage-strewn banks in makeshift ñongos – ramshackle structures built from trash and river detritus.


Some may have shouted to toss down money.

Maybe a few wanted cigarettes.

Probably you wondered, what in the world are you doing down there?

In order to answer this question, writer/filmmaker Charles Shaw teamed up with photographer/homeless advocate Chris Bava - a former heroin trafficker who moved to Tijuana in search of an ibogaine clinic to help him kick his own addiction – to better understand how so many people end up living in the canal’s squalid conditions.

What he found may surprise you.

Invisible to many locals, ignored by most tourists, and routinely abused by police, the “plastic people” are largely made up of deported immigrants who were deposited in Tijuana, regardless of their country of origin, and resorted to living in the vast gutter plagued by raw sewage, toxic chemicals, discarded needles, disease, and dangerous flash flooding.

Set to be released in June, Exile Nation: The Plastic People offers a harrowing look at the faces and stories of the Tijuana River canal and features a soundtrack by San Francisco-based producer Random Rab.

If you’d like to help with its release, you can contribute to the project’s IndieGoGo campaign, which aims to raise $10,000 by Saturday, March 9.


What drew your attention to the "plastic people"?

Charles Shaw: I never planned to make this film. I went to Tijuana in October of 2011 in search of a story about the Mexican Drug War, which by that time had claimed over 50,000 lives. What I found instead--stumbled across, really--was this whole other issue of the mass-deportation of Mexican-American immigrants. One look at the streets of Tijuana and you see that this is a serious problem.

There are nearly 400 people deported a day to Tijuana, and nearly 1000 people living in the sewers because they have no other place to go. Most are hunted down relentlessly by the police, or become fodder for the cartels. Their life expectancy drops precipitously the moment they step out of the Customs House and into the chaos of Downtown Tijuana.

Why did it strike a chord with you?

CS: Because most of the people I met had immigrated legally and spent their entire lives in the States, but had never become naturalized, for a myriad of reasons. They had families and jobs and lives, all which were ripped from them once their paths crossed with ICE and they were deported without any hope of return. Mostly, because it only takes a few moments to realize that these people, even if they had committed a crime, were punished twice, and their second punishment constitutes a life sentence to the streets of TJ, for however long that life lasts.

These are the North American versions of "Nationless Peoples," those with no country to claim them. They exist in limbo, falling between the cracks, and their plight is a literal crime against humanity.

What kind of impact do you hope this film makes?

CS: If I can humanize these people just a little bit, I might be able to awaken the compassion that is so desperately needed if there is any hope of helping them. So long as they remain a despised class, there's little hope of any change.

What can the "average person" do to help these people and, in the broader sense, reform these policies?

CS: Help fund the completion of our film, and support its release. Connect with local activist groups. Spread information among your family and friends. Read Colorlines magazine. And whatever you do, don't believe the propaganda.

Not all Immigrants are "stealing American jobs," "draining social services," or "avoiding taxes." Most just want a chance at a better life, the kind of life all of our ancestors dreamed of when they immigrated fifty or a hundred or two hundred years ago. We are all immigrants to this land, the only difference is that some of us have been here longer. But none of us came here "legally."

What legal right did the Europeans or the newly formed American republic have to steal the continent away from the Native Americans and the Mexicans? Remember, folks, we launched a war in 1837 called the Mexican-American War on a false pretense so that we could steal California from a newly formed Mexico still reeling from its own War of Independence.

The best thing you can do is become conscious and aware. This is happening all around us. Since Obama took office, nearly 3 million people have been deported at a rate of over 400,000 a year.

By any other measure, this is a pogrom.

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Chuck Levitin Feb. 26, 2013 @ 10:46 p.m.

"We are all immigrants to this land, the only difference is that some of us have been here longer. But none of us came here 'legally.'"

What? I think Charles Shaw has been sampling the drug inventory down in the Tijuana River channel.


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