08 October 2012

The re-opening of Friendship Park

Photo courtesy Jill Marie Holslin (www.attheedges.com)

I wrote and covered this story for Fronteras Desk over the weekend.  I wasn't sure how it would turn out, but I really like it.

— San Diego's Friendship Park, or Border Field State Park, is tucked into the extreme southwest corner of the United States and the extreme northwest of Mexico, with fields on the U.S. side, the city of Tijuana on the other, and the blue Pacific Ocean to the west. The park itself is tiny, bisected neatly through the middle by the border wall.

Friendship Park used to be one of the very few places along the United States-Mexico border where people could meet face-to-face. First, there was no border marker, and then there was just a fence and a monument; for years after that, only a chain link fence separated the two sides, which allowed visitors in each country to speak together, pray, sing, or just hold hands across the border. Gardeners on the U.S. side planted flowers at the fence, and a gardener in Tijuana helped water them.

That changed after Sept. 11, 2001. In the intervening years border security became tighter, and more fences went up. Finally, in 2009, Homeland Security closed down Friendship Park entirely, saying they needed to construct a new fence to discourage drugs and weapons smugglers before it re-opened.
Whether or not it would ever be accessible to the public again was a matter of debate. While it was possible to ask Border Patrol agents to open the primary gate so people could go up to the fence, those requests were not always granted. At one point, Homeland Security agreed to re-open the park, but with a third fence keeping people several feet away from the actual border.

Now, after negotiation and public pressure from activist groups, the public can once again enter the park and talk to people directly through the fence -– although it has changed. The tattered chain link has become a thick, dense mesh that is difficult to see through. Instead of holding hands, people can just barely touch the tips of their fingers through openings in the steel wire.
A view of Tijuana through the U.S. side of the border fence at Friendship Park.
A view of Tijuana through the U.S. side of the border fence at Friendship Park.

People on the Mexican side of the border, out for a morning stroll, stopped to chat with the small group of people on the San Diego side of the border. Closer to the ocean, a man in Tijuana named German Castañada, visible only as a shadowy figure, leaned into the fence, hands cupped against his face, to talk quietly to his two young children and their mother on the San Diego side.

“I haven't seen my kids in three years,” Castañada said. “I got kicked out of the country.” He said he had been in the United States since he was 4 years old.

“If I would have known, I would have tried to fix my papers. I don't have anybody over here, technically -– my whole family's out there.”

Castañada said because he was deported, he has to wait at least a decade to reapply for a visa, with no guarantee it will be granted.

Architect Jim Brown, who headed the redesign of the park to allow people to meet face-to-face without compromising border security, is a member of a group called Friends of Friendship Park, which successfully petitioned for its re-opening. Brown said the park is designed for flexibility, so that if border security is ever eased the fences can be scaled back for greater access.
German Castañada, who cannot return to the United States after his deportation, meets with his family at Friendship Park.
Jill Marie Holslin (attheedges.com)
German Castañada, who cannot return to the United States after his deportation, meets with his family at Friendship Park.

“We make no claims that this is a beautiful park,” Brown said. “It's a horrendous park in some ways. But it's a symbol, a really important symbol, of friendship between the citizens of two countries.”

For people like German Castañada, whose children can only see him as a shadowy figure behind a fence, it's not the same as making a life with his family -– but as Castañada said, it's better than nothing.