TIJUANA – They admit their mistakes. And now they see tough work as a second opportunity, and a hope that someday they will be able to rejoin their families.
The more than 50,000 motorists who pass through the San Ysidro border crossing daily encounter an army of vendor selling tourist trinkets.
What the crossers don’t know is the circumstances that brought these workers there.
Many were deported from the United States and arrived in the city without knowing anyone, without a roof over their head nor any money to contact their family.
Many in their shoes found refuge in alcohol and drugs, sleeping under bridges in the streets next to avenida Internacional, steps away from the border. Many planned to make their way back to the United States somehow.
But others have found work in a place they know will be their new home, where they can occasionally see their loved ones.
Cuauhtémoc Meza Pérez, 35, is one of them. The native of Sinaloa was deported six months ago and now spends his days selling items to the motorists traveling through the border crossing.
“It’s difficult to get here and begin from zero,” said the one-time resident of Vista.
The man had everything he could ask for, family, friends, his own business cleaning cars, which gave him enough income to maintain his North County household.
He committed some misdemeanors and one day was detected by immigration authorities, Meza said. Agents told him that if he agreed to voluntarily leave the country he could avoid going to prison, and so he agreed to leave, he said.
Meza said what hurts the most was leaving his children – ages 10, 11 and 14 – with his parents. He’s got one of his kid’s names, in fact, tattooed on his neck.
“It was hard to find work,” he recalled. “The first thing people think when you’re deported is that you’re a convict or drug addict. But they don’t see that many of us want to get ahead, to do things right.”
Now, everything is much harder for him. He’s seen a drop in sales at the border since he arrived just months ago. He makes $20 “on a good day.”
“People ask me why I like bread and coffee so much.
That’s not the case. At times, it’s the only thing I can afford.”
The left side of the San Ysidro border crossing has become an oasis of deported workers. An estimated 50 per cent of the dozens who work there lived in the United States.
Their ability to speak English has helped them get that work.
“The Americans are surprised to hear me. They tell me, ‘Oh, you speak English?’ I laugh and respond, ‘Oh, you too.’”
The workers’ greatest challenge is drivers’ rejection of even hearing their pitch.
“We have had to chase away the people who wash cars because drivers generally close their windows to them and that hurts us because they don’t listen to what we have to sell,” Meza said.
The long border waits don’t translate to greater sales, he said, because generally it’s the same people who cross every day.
“These people don’t buy our things, rather it’s tourism, particularly Mexicans. Americans don’t buy like they used to,” he added.
Samuel Vargas, 23, admits he did not pay his traffic fines in the United States. He, too, was detected by immigration authorities and agreed to voluntarily leave the country just two months ago.
The Guerrero native quickly made friends in Tijuana and they helped him get a job.
“There is a lot of support here (border crossing) because there’s so many who have passed through the same situation. We give each other a hand at work.”
In San Diego he did maintenance work while he studied. He attended elementary, middle school and high school there and was about to enroll at a community college when he was deported.
Now, he’s committed to making a life in Tijuana. He acknowledges that he does not make what he used to in the United States, but does not see that as a pretext to descend into vice.
“I have to start from the bottom to climb to where I used to be,” Vargas said.
“A lot of people get into drugs because they are so stressed at not seeing their families, they ruin their lives. Others wash cars or find another way to get any money,” he continued.
“I want to establish myself here, make a good life in Tijuana.”
Jonathan Rodríguez left for a party late one night in San Diego, a trip that led to his being detected by immigration authorities, he said. Now, after a long search, he found a job selling stickers at the border.
“‘We told you not to go out in the street,’ that’s that last thing my family told me,” the 25-year-old recalled.
Rodríguez arrived illegally in the United States when he was two years old in the arms of his grandfather. That’s the only life he ever knew.
“It was difficult to live in Tijuana when you don’t have a job,” he said.
His family visits him occasionally and they are proud to see how he’s been able to get ahead on his own.
“At first I washed cars, but then I met a young man who sold stickers, and they gave me a space to work here,” he added.
Mexican immigration authorities said that 120,000 people were deported through the San Ysidro border crossing last year.
Those interviewed wanted to make clear that “deported” is not synonymous with being a criminal. They own up to their mistakes and are willing to start from scratch, nursing a dream that perhaps one day they will be able to rejoin their families north of the border.