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When First Lady Pat Nixon inaugurated Friendship Park in 1971, she said, “I hope there won’t be a fence here too long.” Instead, the fencing and wire has gotten more intense. But it hasn’t stopped a steady stream of cross-border gardening ventures, yoga classes, prayer services and fleeting pinky touches.
Friendship Park, tucked away at the most southwestern point of the United States, is a place of mixed feelings. The beach on which it is situated is one of great natural beauty, bisected by the border fence. It is a place for people to meet and speak with loved ones through the international border, but it’s also a place that they are reminded that they cannot touch, except for the very tips of their fingers pressed through densely woven wire — a necessary addition to what once was just widely spaced slats, say border agents, so that people can’t pass drugs back and forth.
“Aquí es donde rebotan los sueños” is scrawled on a slat on the other side, the Playas side, facing north: “Here is where dreams are bounced back.” The other side — the Imperial Beach side — is free from graffiti, slung with lights and observation towers and studded with Border Patrol agents above the estuary and the park.
To go to Friendship Park on a Sunday, during the few hours each week that it’s open and people are permitted to go to the fence on the U.S. side, is to see laughter and tears, as families meet, press fingertips, trade updates and enjoy being almost face-to-face. Invariably, someone will remark on the way it was in 1971, when the border wall was just a few strings of barbed wire, and the park was officially inaugurated by then-First Lady Pat Nixon.
“I hope there won’t be a fence here too long,” she said at the time.
Nixon’s famous visit, in which she dedicated the park, took place 45 years ago this week. An anniversary celebration is scheduled at Friendship Park this Saturday at noon.
In 2009, thanks to the Secure Fence Act, Friendship Park was shut down and triple-reinforced. Activists pushed — successfully — to reopen the park in 2012. The slats replaced the barbed wire. A secondary gate blocked access to the wall itself. Border agents patrolled the area, keeping people from going straight up to the fence itself.
Architect Jim Brown proposed an alternative that would allow people access to the border monument, to the beach, and to the wall itself. He was partly successful; while the border monument is now on Mexico’s side of the wall, people can hike through the Tijuana River Estuary trails on the U.S. side and meet loved ones — or strangers — through the border during set times (Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.).
“I thought, I wanted to design a binational city,” Brown said from his office in Barrio Logan. “We’re neighbors. It’s essential to our security that we remain friends, and not give in to the rhetoric that the governments are pushing. That’s really the impetus behind this.”
Brown is part of Friends of Friendship Park, a group that supports a truly binational park open to all, a meeting place for two countries. Activists are now petitioning to allow people to touch in the park, as they once could.
I spoke with Brown, along with some of the others involved with Friendship Park, for its anniversary. Throughout the interviews, we’ve included photos of scenes along the border at Friendship Park over the last decade or so. All photos by David Maung.
Brown: “The thing that really rankles us is the inability to touch in Friendship Park, the fingertips … the Border Patrol gave us two choices. They said, you can either stand five feet away from the fence — we’ll put up a little guardrail, and then we can keep the main border open with gaps so you can see faces pretty clearly, or if you want to get close, we’re going to put a mesh on it but you can stand right against the fence with your face right there, if you want. Those are your two choices. And we chose a combination: mesh at the monument and the open area at the garden. And we continued to negotiate.
In the meantime, we have grown to really detest the mesh, because you can’t see a damn thing. We didn’t really fully grasp the implications of not being able to see through the mesh. It’s thicker than we imagined. It’s really powerful to be close to your loved one. So we’re fed up with both now and launching the Let Them Hug campaign. We’re asking Border Patrol to allow us a certain amount of time on each Saturday and Sunday to be able to embrace at the end. Under supervision, whatever — but to let people hug.”
Jill Holslin, a Tijuana-based writer and border activist, chronicles projects in the region on her blog, attheedges.com. She’s also a lecturer and a photographer who focuses on street art in the San Diego-Tijuana region.
Holslin: “It is really important for people to know that for many years, people could still touch and hug each other through the bars of the border wall at Friendship Park. And now they can’t. It wasn’t perfect before, obviously, but it was all the contact some people had with each other. We know a married couple who would meet up at the wall and kiss and hug through the bars — touching is a form of bonding that can make or break a relationship. And the research is clear — we all know the negative effects of broken families and broken homes on children, how it provokes depression, desperation. And so, meeting and touching is incredibly important for people.
Families would meet up at the beach or the wall every week and bring food and have a picnic with their loved ones on the other side. People were allowed to come up to the wall and put their arms through the bars and hug each other — father who hasn’t seen his daughter in more than 10 years. A sister who is dying of cancer and wants to hug her brother. But the Border Patrol has been cracking down on hugging. They will come over and kick people out of the park if they are hugging through the bars. So all we have asked for is that Border Patrol let people talk, have some privacy, and be able to hug each other when they are in the park on Saturdays and Sundays. That’s what the Let Them Hug campaign is pushing for. If the public got involved and demanded that Border Patrol allow people to have this basic right, it just might happen.”
Daniel Watman is a Spanish teacher who works between Tijuana and San Diego. He created Border Encuentro, which arranges binational activities — such as music and dance classes — around and through the wall. He also created a binational garden that grows through the border, filled with native plants and flowers.
Watman: “My involvement started in 2005 with a group of my Spanish-language students and friends in Tijuana who united through the fence for a language/cultural exchange on the beach. That led to the creation of a project called Border Encuentro, where I tried to find common interests that people have on both sides of the border to create events that would result in friends across the border.
We did more language exchanges, yoga classes, poetry readings, salsa dancing lessons and other gatherings through the fence in `06, `07, `08 including the planting of the binational friendship garden of native plants in March of 2007. The garden is now a part of the park. With the increased militarization of the border, including the installation of the secondary border wall in April of 2009, the garden faced several challenges to its existence — as did the Encuentro events …
Because of these militarized restrictions on the U.S. side, activity at the garden has increased in a lopsided way, with new programs forming on the Mexican side, including native plant workshops, kites made of trash and the installation of four raised food beds to help migrants on the Mexican side living in the nearby canyon. I oversee these activities and organize volunteers and help harvest and serve salads most Sundays to complement the food served by the Border Church to the needy. The beds are also open to the public for people to eat the vegetables on the Mexican side.”
Pedro Rios is the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S./Mexico border program director, and chair of the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium, a coalition of groups that advocate for humane immigration reform and public education about immigration.
Rios: “Friendship Park is a unique place for the symbolism it holds in the larger question about immigration enforcement and reform. Here is where families gather on weekends to meet with their loved ones, many of whom have been deported and separated from their families. A metal meshed-fence between the gathered families serves as a reminder that their reunion is incomplete and inhumane. This is the absolute depiction of what it means to say that the current immigration system is broken. Families here cry and express sadness, and though many are appreciative they have an opportunity to meet with their loved ones under the existing conditions, it’s a testament to how U.S. policymakers have failed to address complex immigration questions …
There is a lot of beauty, though, at Friendship Park. I define that beauty as what people are able to bring forward in spite of so many challenges. Those who visit Friendship Park for the first time do so with trepidation, they are cautious, now knowing if Border Patrol agents will question their status. But their courage and determination to see their loved ones on the other side, through the meshed fence, humanizes what might otherwise be a difficult situation. It is a truly emotional experience that forces one to question how astray policymakers have gone to accept the current conditions at Friendship Park as something normal.”
Border Patrol Agent Francisco Alvarado is a familiar face to those who spend time on the U.S. side of the border. The San Diego native has the title border community liaison agent, and is generally the person who oversees meetings through the wall at the park.
Alvarado: “My experience has been mostly positive, as our mission at Friendship Circle is to reunite families.
Our philosophy is based off increasing community engagement. This, along with our Border Community Liaison Program — which is based on community policing — is vital in making our communities safer, increasing transparency and leveraging the assistance of community against criminal organizations.
The border is vastly different throughout the southwest. I can’t speak for other Border Patrol sectors; however, I can tell you there is a similar location on the northern border known as Peace Park.
The San Diego sector has historically been the model sector for the nation, and Friendship Circle is just another example of our efforts to message the U.S. Border Patrol mission to the public. Our sector has made huge strides working with the community and non-government organizations like the Border Angels, American Friends Service Committee, Alliance San Diego and the Friends of Friendship Park.”