A little help from some friends

The US/Mexico border has spawned a lot of anguished stories over the past few years, so I’m happy to report that something jolly took place at the very southwestern-most point of the continental United States the other day. Several hundred Americans and Mexicans gathered on the beach where the border meets the Pacific, and we practiced singing a song (the Beatles’s “A Little Help From My Friends”) together. The end result wasn’t the most polished choral effort in history. But surely it must rank among the most offbeat.

Back in early September, Steve and I had learned that ArtPower, the UCSD performing arts series, was sponsoring this special event featuring Choir! Choir! Choir! — a Toronto-based singing group run by two musicians who take the non-traditional approach of including anyone who wants to participate (usually for an admission fee, though the UCSD event was free). They often tour, teaching each audience an arrangement of a well-loved song. This time, however, they would be adding a twist: doing it with folks situated on both sides of the angsty international line.

We signed up immediately and heard the US crowd would be limited to 500; got word some registrants were put on a waiting list. A few weeks later, we learned of a change in plans: state park officials were suddenly demanding that ArtPower submit the names of all registrants in advance. They would not be able to drive into the park on their own but rather would need to be shuttled in from an outside location.

More directives trickled in: we would have to meet at Southwest High School, be checked in, and allow ourselves to be wristbanded. We could bring in no weapons; plastic replicas of weapons; knives of any size; explosives; fireworks; umbrellas; poles or sticks; laser lights or pointers; coolers; containers of any type (except for water bottles); aerosols; mace or pepper spray; camera tripods; sharp objects such as scissors or knitting needles; Leatherman or similar tools; bullhorns or similar “voice-enhancement devices;” noisemakers such as air horns, whistles, or drums; banners, signs, or placards; animals; or backpacks larger then 12x12x20.

Undeterred, Steve, our visiting friend Megan, and I headed for the high school around 1 pm Sunday (October 13). DSC05072.jpgDSC05074.jpgWe checked in, sizing up our fellow singers, a range of ages but mostly white folks who all looked like NPR listeners. Before long, our bus set off southward, and it didn’t take long to reach the park. We disembarked, trying to scope out what the heck we would be doing. In January of 2018, Steve and I attended another cross-border performance. That one was a percussion concert that we watched from the Tijuana side. For it, some of the US musicians were allowed inside “Friendship Park,” that no-man’s-land created inside the double American fencing built in the late 90s and early 2000s. Nowadays it’s only opened for special occasions.

But the inner park was locked.DSC05077.jpg Instead we were directed onto the beach, where we could see a small stage and a sound truck. DSC05079.jpgStern signs, police tape, and an intimidating roll of coiled razor wire prohibited us from approaching the barrier there. DSC05089.jpgBeyond it, a sea of beach umbrellas and people were barely visible. I’m pretty sure there was beer on that side. And tacos. Probably music too.

We, on the other hand, were herded into a metal enclosure, where we waited for the program to begin.DSC05083.jpg Up above  us, armed guards, some with dogs, looked down, stony-faced.DSC05093.jpg “This is kind of interesting,” commented the guy standing next to me. “I’ve been to the beach before. But never in a cage.”

If the setting on our side of the border had some grim elements, the activity, once it got started, included lots of laughs. Daveed Goldman, the Choir! Choir! Choir! director leading the American contingent, is quite a comedian (as well as a competent guitar-player). His cohort who was working the Mexican side, Nobu Adilman, seemed a bit stricter a task master. Both guys wore microphones, so we could hear everything said by each. The Mexican wannabe choraleers yelled and applauded when they were introduced, and of course we responded in turn. (There seemed to be a lot more of them.) We waved our sheets of lyrics at each other in the distance, and that made the fence and the distance between us feel a bit less dreary.

The actual song practice was more serious than I expected. We gringos sang the first lines —What would you think if I sang out of tune? — and the Mexicans sang back in Spanish: Levantarte y marcharte, quizás? (Would you stand up and walk out on me?). We practiced certain sections again and again. At first, the Mexicans’ voices sounded faint and distant, but over the course of the next hour we all grew louder and more confident. By the final run-throughs, I think everyone was singing more or less together. There were nice harmonic flourishes. The final cheers were robust.

From time to time throughout the experience Daveed chastised American participants for holding up their cell phones and recording what was going on. “We are recording all of this for Youtube — and we will do a better job!” he bellowed. “You should be living in the moment.” I’m not sure when the official Choir! Choir! Choir! video will be posted to the group’s Youtube site. When it is, I’ll add a link here. In the meantime, here’s a link to some video shot on the Mexican side of the border. I expect the final Choir! Choir! Choir! product will look more polished than it felt when we were singing it. But I bet it won’t feel as depressing and uplifting and fun as it did in person there.



On the big beautiful wall

“Is San Diego a border city?” Derrik Chinn asked the 25 of us who set off with him on his Tijuana tour bus last Saturday morning. My first thought, like many of my fellow passengers, was sure. We live on the line separating the US from Mexico, as a glance at any map will confirm. But Derrik pressed, and we had to agree that many San Diegans rarely give a thought to the actual, physical geopolitical boundary.  In contrast, Derrik pointed out that if you asked any Mexican the same question about Tijuana, he or she would think you were crazy. In Tijuana, no one’s unaware of their proximity to la linea. Derrik wasn’t moralizing. I think his point was just to remind us that for different folks, the border can feel very different.

For a clearer understanding of the past and current physical barrier between San Diego and Mexico, Derek developed his new tour; he calls it “Against the Wall.” He was giving it for the first time Saturday. A former Union-Tribune staffer, Derek moved to Tijuana 10 years ago and eventually started an offbeat tour company (Turista Libre). Steve and I have gone on several of his outings over the years and found them all to be exceptional, but the wall tour was the best yet.

We met at the Pedwest border crossing. It just opened 6 months ago, and Steve and I hadn’t had an opportunity to cross there yet. We were impressed by not just its pristine condition but also by how much closer it delivers visitors on foot to Tijuana’s commercial center.

Once across, we boarded Derrik’s vehicle, which he rents out during the week to serve as a TJ city bus.bus boarding

Our first stop was in the far northeastern part of the city, beyond the Otay Mesa border crossing. We had to bump for a bit down a dirt road through a largely industrial area to arrive at the area offering the best views of the prototypes for President Trump’s “big, beautiful wall” that were built last fall. Access to them on the north side of the border is strictly limited. But from the south, their 30-foot height makes them easy to see.

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The guy on the right with a camera was a journalist from a Tijuana paper, documenting the rare phenomenon of American tourists in this part of town.
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Jill Holslin, an American artist who’s been living in the neighborhood and documenting developments there, spoke to us briefly. She says people cross fairly routinely here, though we saw no sign of such activity in progress.
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Locals have piled up tires, like the ones you can see Steve standing on just down the way.

The prototypes make the area north of the border look like a theater set. Jill says some folks have suggested they be left in place permanently, as a sort of a monument.  Other art work was unfolding in the moment. A number of folks were using the corrugated iron as a canvas.

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Some were creating more generic statements…
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…while others were more pointedly protests, like this reference to the thousands of Mexicans who served in the US military and since have been refused the legal US residency they were promised.

It was all very interesting, but we had to hustle back on the bus and drive to the beach. We were trying to get there in time for an extraordinary event taking place on both sides of the fence: a special binational percussion performance by about 70 American and Mexican musicians.

We arrived late and found the concert in progress at full volume. A wild cacophony of drums and other booming instruments were crashing and thumping.012918 border tour10

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Several individuals had hand-held sirens that gave the tumult an apocalyptic undertone.

I found it hard to tell at first if the players were organized, but soon we realized that many musicians were following a printed score.

sheet musicGradually, the riotous sounds gave way to muted waves of chimes, gongs, and cymbals.012918 border tour13


We could hear some musicians playing on the north side of the barrier, but it was hard to see much, other than the presence of a half-dozen or so percussionists in the no-man’s-land known, ironically, as Friendship Park. (The Border Patrol only allows a handful of folks to enter it at any time. Most of the American spectators had to stay on the far side of the second fence there.)

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We could make out the shape of several Border Patrol trucks watching the musicians.

But on the Mexican side, we mingled with a jolly crowd. 012918 border tour14

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Again, it was tempting to linger, but Derrik herded us back on the bus again. Our next destination was the wonderful Telefonica gastropark, near the center of town. We stayed for more than an hour (three tacos and a craft beer were included in the tour price.) That place is worthy of a blog post all its own. But I’ll gloss over it now, to jump to our final border interaction of the day: another of the little-appreciated 276 “border monuments” that extend all the way from the Pacific Ocean to Ciudad Juarez.

Like most of the monuments, Monument 254 is made of metal, and like all of the monuments it stands on US soil. Both countries long ago agreed to share the annual maintenance work.

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That’s why there’s a door in the wall — so the Americans can come through to do their share of the upkeep, periodically.

This monument was in Colonia Libertad, an old neighborhood just west of the fence surrounding Tijuana’s international airport. 012918 border tour17

People’s houses, lower middle-class-looking to my eye, crowd up close to the border fence here. As we strolled along, roosters crowed and snatches of norteño music floated by on the breeze. A few locals ambled past us, but not many. It seemed a time to be home relaxing, near sundown on a Saturday with perfect weather in January.

Most of us eventually drifted east along the fence for a while, in the direction of the airport. Across the street stands a bigger public artwork, a giant border monument. If the meaning of the crosses sticking out of it was unclear… 012918 border tour19

…the ones affixed to the actual fence left no doubt.

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They mark the passing of some of the individuals who have died, trying to make their way north.

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For all of us on the tour, though, that passage was both safe and easy. We boarded the bus, were dropped off next to the pedestrian crossing, and by-passed the long line (at least those of us with SENTRI passes did). The immigration officer didn’t ask me if I had anything to declare. Had he done so, I could have told him about the hunk of excellent sun-dried-tomato-studded cheese I bought at the gastropark. And the richer mental picture I acquired of the border next door.

Art in the calle

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The sold-out event pulled together 35 tourists, transported in two buses. We were in the smaller one, which was adorned with art of its own.

Last Saturday, Steve and I participated in another of Derrik Chinn’s Turista Libre tours — this one focusing on Tijuana’s street art. In some ways it was very different from the wacky Lucha Libre tour we took last summer. But there were also similarities. Derrik’s outings are as far from the canned Standard City Tour as one can imagine. They feel almost impromptu — a little chaotic, a lot genuine. They don’t always follow the script. Saturday’s event had been billed as winding up around 6 p.m., while in fact we didn’t actually get back to the border till 8. We never did reach Anulacion, a downtown building that supposedly has been tranformed into “a monumental work of minimalist sculpture.” Still, we covered an awful lot of ground.

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Panca, expounding on the bus

Sharing the guiding duties with Derrik for the day were the artists Paola Villasenor (aka Panca) and Once Cero Dos, a sweetly earnest young man who explained that his nom d’aerosol can was inspired by his passion for the Mexican Day of the Dead (which takes place on 11/02 — once cero dos in Spanish). We saw a number of the duo’s works — in a makeshift temporary gallery thrown up a partially completed house designed by rising architectural star Jorge Gracia, in an inner courtyard of the diviest of TJ dive bars, in Panca’s Zona Norte penthouse, and — of course — on the street.

Panca, who spent the most time on our bus, could have an alternate career as a stand-up comic. Her riffs were a highlight, as was our quick stop for tacos at Los Paisas (off Boulevard Aguascalientes and recently hailed by Anthony Bourdain). Most of all, I appreciated the chance to see things I’d have a hard time finding on my own.

Some of the images from our adventure:

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Both Panca and Once Cero Dos painted murals on the wall of this contemporary mansion, on the road to the Tijuana playas. The owner commissioned them to do the work (for free). More often, the street artists appropriate their canvases without getting formal permission.
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A mural by the artist known as El Norte, one of many painted on a very long fence near Tijuana’s long-distance bus terminal.
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Another mural from that same fence.
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Here tour leader Derrik Chinn captures another form of street art — on the back of a passerby near that wall near the bus terminal.
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A major work by Once Cero Dos. He got permission from this owner to paint it. The graffiti reflects tensions between Tijuana’s resident tagger community and the street artists. Once Cero Dos told us the tags don’t make him angry. “That’s just the way it is on the street.”
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Another work by Panca, on a building just off Revolucion.
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Once, posing next to one of his pieces, executed on a door in downtown Tijuana.
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La Pueblita is an amazingly derelict storefront on Revolucion — with an amazingly lively scene in its inner courtyard. When our group of 35 gringo tourists trooped in, the young Tijuanenses looked stunned but remained affable.
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Yet another work by Panca.
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The view from the rooftop deck of Panca’s penthouse apartment. With a bit of artistic philosophy to temper the view.