“If you want real protection, build a friendship, not a wall,” says Daniel Watman, founder of Border Encuentro, a bi-national, non-profit interest group made up of U.S. and Mexican citizens who meet at the Tijuana and U.S. borders.
Watman started Border Encuentro (originally called Border Meet-up) in 2004. The meet-ups were intended to bring people together with the common goal of sharing interests and understanding.
Watman, a Modesto, Calif. native, who is not Latino, is an adjunct Spanish professor at several local San Diego universities. He came to Tijuana for the first time with his students as a day of Spanish immersion. Eventually, Watman became a Tijuana resident and made his loosely-organized “meet-ups” more official and more regular.
Video by Patrick Manning
The group meets about once a month on average at the U.S.-Tijuana border.
On the U.S. side, people meet at the Border Field House, next to the lighthouse, located in the Imperial Beach neighborhood of San Diego.
On the Mexican side, people meet at an area of Tijuana called Playas (beaches), near “Friendship Park,” an area of 370 acres originally extending to both sides of the border.
Pat Nixon dedicated the park in 1971 on a visit to Tijuana. At the time, the First Lady was famously quoted as saying about the border fence, “I hope there won’t be a fence here too long.”
Today a steel border wall has replaced the simple fence.
Until 2007, the groups from both sides could essentially meet at the fence—close enough to touch. But in 2008, a second fence was constructed about 150 feet behind the fence on the U.S. side, making the meetings more difficult and distant—creating what many call a “no man’s land."
The first time, the group initiated a “Sign Through” event—using telescopes and sign language to communicate with one another.
The Tijuana border fence stretches from California in the west to Texas in the east. The border is 1,969 miles long, and is the most frequently crossed international one in the world.
With groups of sometimes 50, and other times 300 people in attendance, Border Encuentro activities have included such diverse events as: planting native trees and succulents, practicing yoga, Fandango music concerts featuring musicians from Los Angeles to Veracruz, poetry slams, beach clean-ups, salsa lessons, building eco-kites from found trash, selling indigenous clothing, or signaling each other through telescopes using sign-language.
“I started the group as a friendship thing," Watman says. "I found out later that the Border Patrol didn’t really want people to meet here, though I’ve made friends with many of them, which is a huge help. The newest fence was completed in January of this year. It’s ugly, you can’t see through it, it’s huge and awful looking."
For many on both sides of the border, the fence and the notion of what it represents politically is a hot-button issue.
For some the adage "good fences make good neighbors" applies – and they believe the 700-mile fence could help channel undocumented immigrants to areas more easily patrolled by border agents helping to curb drug-smuggling and other threats.
Others believe the events of 9/11 gave the U.S. government the excuse to fortify and heighten the wall in the name of protecting the country from terrorism, when the real reason for the border is to keep Mexicans out of the United States.
“The wall is a symbol of U.S. power," says border photographer and Border Encuentro member, Maria Teresa Fernandez. "The wall creates separation and separating people creates false stereotypes; that’s what leads to violence and anger and maybe even terrorism."
The group plans to meet again next month and Watman says he’s hoping it will be another “Friendship Garden” planting event. Recently, Watman was struggling with the lack of ability to water the newly planted seedlings, and worried about their survival.
Yet, despite the bureaucratic challenges of double fences, no-man’s land, and distance, Watman stays determined about the need for communications between the two countries.
“The name Border Encuentro itself is the combining of an English word with a Spanish word—it’s what we’re about. Bringing people together and inviting open communication,” he said. “I believe this is the only way people can begin to understand each other.”
Rebekah Sager is a freelance writer based in San Diego.
Rebekah Sager is a writer/editor for Fox News Latino. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @rebekah_sager