As migrants arrive in Tijuana, some protest and some help

Written by

Tanya Aguiñiga grew up in Tijuana, just a few blocks away from the border and even as a little kid she was aware of the constant flow of people coming through her hometown.

“Some of my earliest memories are of migrants coming to our house asking if they could use the bathroom or if we had any food that they could have,” said Aguiñiga.

One time a whole family showed up at her house desperate to get into America.

“And so my dad helped this family get dressed in American clothes and then we packed them a picnic in an actual picnic basket.”

Tanya (far right) with her parents and sisters working at the San Ysidro border crossing. Photo courtesy of Tanya Aguiñiga. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

This was before the border fence had been built along the beach in Tijuana. So Tanya’s father told the family to walk north if anyone asked them any questions and to say they were from Coronado and were just having a picnic.

“It was just stuff that you do because nobody sacrifices everything and leaves everything behind because they want to.”

In 2016, her family was welcoming to the caravan of thousands of Haitian refugees who ended up in Tijuana that year. “My dad was really sad,” said Tanya, “because he’s a really big guy and all the Haitian refugees that arrived were very thin. And so all of his clothes that he wanted to donate to them didn’t fit.”

At the time,Tijuana was a welcoming place for refugees.. David Shirk, a political science professor who studies border issues at UC San Diego, said that Tijuana community opened its doors and hearts to the Haitian refugees, “and you see them everywhere and they’re thriving and they’ve really done a good job of integrating this this group of refugees into the city of Tijuana.”

Migrant caravans have been traveling north through Mexico for years. But the most recent group of Central Americans is different, in large part because president Trump made it a central issue in the midterm campaign. But it’s also getting a lot of coverage in Mexico. And much of the local coverage is negative.

Shirk said this backlash is unusual. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen any discussion of migrants being a burden to Mexico in such stark terms in the Mexican media.”

Today Tanya lives in East LA with her husband and daughter. She saw the news recently that the first wave of Central American migrants had arrived in Tijuana and were sleeping on the beach near her parents home. She also saw that local Mexicans were throwing rocks at them so Tanya made plans to come down with donations. “Then I called my dad and he said don’t come down here. We kicked them out already.”

Tanya’s mom also told her not to bother coming down because these migrants were the lowest of the low. They were ungrateful and violent and she doubted they would even accept her donations.

Her parents had done a complete 180. They had come to see the migrants as a threat.

Tanya was shocked. She said she yelled at her parents over the phone. “And then I got super, super upset because we were raised to help people that are less fortunate.”

Tanya collected donations—some clothes, tents and the last of her daughter’s Halloween candy—and headed to the border with a few friends. They arrived just as a protest was heating up. Dozens of police in riot gear placed themselves between the sports complex where the migrants are being housed and a large group of protesters shouting and waving Mexican flags.

Photo courtesy of AMBOS project. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

One of the protesters, Frank Zuniga, had a bullhorn in his hand and was visibly angry. Zuniga was born in Tijuana and still lives there. He said he believed that Donald Trump spoke the truth about the Central American caravan. This is an invasion said Zuniga, “a lotta people didn’t want to believe that but now we believe it.”

Zuniga also believed some of the conspiracy theories generated during the midterm election, specifically that the caravan was being funded by Democrats and left wing activists. He wanted Mexico to militarize it’s southern border the way the US has its southern border with Mexico.

Inside the sports complex, some of the migrants were camping out in tents, or sleepingthe ground on a baseball field. Many of the women and children had their own area inside a gymnasium. Conditions were deteriorating as more people showed up. As many as ten thousand are expected to arrive here in the coming weeks.

Tanya and her friends made their way through the complex handing out ziplock bags with crayons and pages from coloring books, tents and clothing. After they gave everything away they made their way back to the border.

It was getting late and Tanya didn’t have time to stop and see her parents. But she talked to them on the phone and told them about the caravan. She mentioned one woman in particular who she had given a pair of socks to. “And then this mom came and found us and then she said the socks are too big for my child and she gave it back to us.”

After hearing this story, Tanya’s mom started to question her belief that these migrants were ungrateful, that they were different than others who had come north before them. Tanya said her mom felt bad about having thought of them as dangerous and she now believes that the migrants are good people who are in dire need of help.

A week later Tanya’s mom called her to ask when she was coming back down to Tijuana. She said she needed a hand. They couldn’t get their Christmas decorations up because their house was full of stuff they had bought for the migrants.