Viendo El Gringo

July 20, 2003

Traffic crossing the border is light this morning, As usual, I get past the Mexican customs without being checked.  I suppose they figure that since I’m on a motorcycle, I’m bringing nothing across.  Or they’re more concerned with making sure their own citizens are paying the duty taxes on the stuff they’re bringing across from Walmart.

Just before the Border Highway spits to go to either Playas or Ensenada, I turn-off on a dirt road that is on a mesa just above Smuggler Gulch, a large canyon notorious for the smuggling of guns, drugs and migrants.  The road takes me to the reinforced steel wall where I’m going to install two more steel plate retablos.  Rather than hauling the plates, my tools and camera equipment up the hill in the migrant camp where I’m going to do the installation, I decide to ride the bike up the steep hill so I can park just at the edge of the camp.  But once I get to the top, there’s nowhere to put the bike and it begins to slide back down the hill.  Barely able to hold the bike up, I decide to lay it down.




There’s no way I can lift the bike up with all the gear on it.  I can see a U.S. Border Patrol agent sitting in his Ford Bronco watching through his binoculars from the other side and probably laughing.  As I pull the gear off the bike, a group of eight migrants emerges from a ravine just above the camp.  I throw my hands out.  “Un Gringo Loco.”  The migrants laugh and come over to see the problem I’ve gotten myself into.  Now, everyone, the Border Patrol agent who has probably explained what is going on over his radio, and the group of migrants are all watching me and wondering what’s going on.  Together, the migrants and I lift the bike, but I’m unable to start it.  At this moment, all I can think about is how I’m going to get this thing back across the border.  After bending the clutch lever back in place, I finally get the bike started and ride it back down to the flat area of the mesa where I started and should have stayed.



Site Nº 4, Tijuana, Baja California Norte, Mexico


While I park the bike, I notice the migrants bringing my bag with the Leica, large-format and video cameras, the tool bag and the case with the two steel plate retablos down the hill – 150 lbs. of stuff.  I feel terrible in explaining that I need to bring it all back up the hill.  Without hesitation, they lug the two bags and the case into the camp that’s hidden from the Border Patrol agent.  As we settle in, I can tell they’re curious about me and what I’m up to.  We haven’t really talked and they still have no idea why I’m there.  There’s a sense of anticipation and curiosity as I start preparing to do the installation.  As I open the case and the contents are revealed, they look at the plates with wonder and approval.  Together, we decide where to hang the plates on the border wall.  One of the migrants, Enrique, watches the bike down on the mesa, while another migrant, Jose, helps me drill the holes and rivet the plates in place on the wall.  I’m sure the Border Patrol agent is curious about what is going on, but never comes over to investigate even with all of the noise of the drilling and riveting.

As we share water after installing the plates on the wall, I realize that I can only have such an experience as this with them only here in this place.