Photographer Maria Teresa Fernandez walking along border fence in Playas de Tijuana, Mexico.
The act of adding a new layer of fortifications to the U.S./Mexico boundary has become an executive branch tradition, akin to the legacy gift of a presidential library, as every commander-in-chief since Jimmy Carter has, quietly or with pronouncement, plied something to the border complex. Carter’s founding contribution was a chain link fence that was quickly dubbed “Carter’s Curtain.”
In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton ordered a wall to be built on the boundary between Tijuana and San Diego as part of an enforcement effort called Operation Gatekeeper. The wall comprises corrugated iron sheets that had been repurposed from mobile landing strips. These had been deployed in oversees conflicts, some say they were used in Vietnam, which lends a metaphorical layer to the concept of militarizing the border.
No one would describe Clinton’s addition as “beautiful.” The sheets soon oxidized into one long stripe of rust across the landscape. Due to the undulating foothills and canyon lands, it resembles a woebegone roller coaster careening off into the interior. As an image, it’s become iconic, but it was never effective. The corrugations were set horizontally, making it easy for border-crossers to get foot- and hand-holds and pop right over. Smugglers used welding equipment to cut garage door-sized holes and drive right through. The wall has been deconstructed, mended and augmented, and continues to morph and change, as though it were alive. At some point government workers cut thin, rectangular holes in the bottoms of the iron sheets. Supposedly these holes were made for the sake of wildlife, so critters could pass freely (nothing as big as a bobcat or cougar could pass through). Most border dwellers believe the holes were really cut so agents could see the knees and shins of potential crossers.
One day, photographer Maria Teresa Fernandez and I discussed the suspect viability of these wildlife portals as we hiked along the Operation Gatekeeper wall to the top of a small rise known as Bunker Hill. This was on the Mexican side, west of downtown Tijuana, and within sight of the Pacific Ocean. Continue reading →
I can’t say what an honor it is to see The Coyote’s Bicycle nominated as a finalist for the California Book Awards, one of oldest and most prestigious awards in the country, and the first to recognize the talent of my hero, John Steinbeck. Many thanks to the Commonwealth Club of California.
For most of my career, I’ve written for publications that are dominated by photography. While writing The Coyote’s Bicycle, I wanted to recreate the rarified worlds I’d discovered, in words only. I realize this can be a futile task, because we are such visual creatures. And in the end, it’s fun to see images of people and places behind the story. So I’ve decided to start publishing shots from the years of research it took to get this tale. I think people who’ve read the book will get more out of them, but hopefully the unique atmosphere of our southern border finds wider interest:
The phenomenon of thousands of car tires that wash across the Tijuana River, from Mexico into the United States, first brought me to the Tijuana River Valley. The interesting thing about this migration is, these aren’t Mexican tires at all, but tires bought new and used by Americans. That is Los Laureles Canyon, Mexico, in the background. These are tires that came to rest in the U.S.
The Tijuana River Valley abuts the Pacific Ocean, where one broad beach is divided by the U.S. and Mexico. This fact causes all manner of strange things to wash up. (That’s the bullring of Playas de Tijuana in the background. To the right of the frame can be found Tijuana Sloughs, the little-known birthplace of big-wave surfing.)
This is the fence built under President Clinton’s “Operation Gatekeeper” in the 1990s. It is constructed of temporary runway panels used in foreign conflicts. Migrants who cross over, under and through this boundary often etch their names and the date into the steel.
The Secure Fence Act of 2007 mandated multiple walls, fences and roads to be built next to the old one, which you can see to the right of Tijuana’s International Road.
The walls and fences are joined by Border Patrol agents in trucks, jeeps and on quads, who monitor everything that moves. Technology like drones, infrared cameras, laser trip-wires, and seismic sensors also aid to enforcement of the boundary.
So, you can see how I found it strange when I went to report on car tires, but discovered that locals were actually swamped with bicycles, bikes that were being used to cross the most fortified five-mile stretch of our 2000-mile border.
And these ownerless bikes were piling up . . .
. . . day after day.
The people who rode the bikes were nowhere to be seen.
But that doesn’t mean, that they weren’t watching . . .
Last April, I traveled to Papua New Guinea to profile the work of Medevac pilot Mark Palm and his family. In an area with few permanent roads, great distances and lots of water, the Palms help patients from remote villages get to medical care. During the trip, tribal tensions ran high, revealing what’s at stake.
When someone in this riverside village requires medical attention, an aid worker must run for thirty minutes and then climb a tree before he can find cell phone reception. Hopefully, Medevac pilot Mark Palm can be found at the other end of the line. Photo Chachi
West Coast cities do way too little to treat or effectively manage street runoff caused by average winter storms. As one source put it, we basically use the same technology for managing runoff that the Romans did: pipes and ditches that get polluted water to the ocean as fast as possible. This means gas, oil, heavy metals, insecticides, pesticides, viruses, and bacteria from animal and human waste are making their way to our beaches unabated. According to the Los Angeles Times, even super-bugs normally associated with hospitals are making their way into the system. Ocean use and tourism are some of the biggest economic drivers in the state of California. But swimmers and surfers are getting sick, some are even dying. As I found in my research, there are relatively cheap and effective infrastructure solutions that cities could put in place right now. The question is: why accept the current the 72 hour ban on ocean use after a storm? Why not work towards an ocean environment that is healthy most of the time? Read more about in my Surfer magazine article “Contagion Present.”