If you walk across the US/Mexico border into Tijuana, you will likely cross a large pedestrian bridge moving from the border to a tourist-y downtown section of Tijuana. As you walk across the bridge, you cross the Tijuana River which, at this spot, is a concrete channel with a deep vein down the middle and slowly sloping walls. The channel is large enough that cars could drive along the river on either side of the vein – a massive concrete basin that, both times I’ve walked across, sits mostly empty – a little water but nothing else.
But it wasn’t always empty.
At some point the concrete river bed was a living, breathing neighborhood, called El Bordo. The population of El Bordo was largely men and women deported from the US into Tijuana. Most were not from Tijuana and may have never been in the city before. Some were not Mexican, some didn’t speak Spanish. But they made a home in the concrete channel of the Tijuana River. There was no where else to go.
Sometimes community pops up in the most unlikely spaces.
It wasn’t the best neighborhood in Tijuana. There was crime and drug use. Many residents could not find work. The channel served as a concrete quarantine for those who made their home there. There was not much hope. The word ñongos was used to describe the area – a problem, a blight. Those who lived in los ñongos were the unseen, the walking dead. Some called them ghosts.
Samuel Pérez waged peace on behalf of the ghosts living in El Bordo first by seeing them and immersing in their lives. He walked their streets, he heard their stories, he took seriously their hopes and dreams. He recognized that no vision for flourishing in Tijuana could overlook El Bordo. Samuel’s work and passion involves agriculture and environmental sustainability, so he worked with the neighbors in El Bordo to construct dozens of raised garden beds in the middle of this concrete city. He saw humanity in their faces and advocated on their behalf.
The ghosts were beginning to breathe.
Samuel described the transformation of some of these neighbors – “they were becoming like humans again.”
My heart raced as I heard Samuel’s story, a story of resurrection happening in this place I was standing.
He did not belabor the point, because despite the miraculous recovery of life Samuel witnessed, the story took a sad turn. El Bordo was cleared out by la policía, possibly because El Bordo was impacting the flow of tourist dollars from the US into Mexico. What good could come out of El Bordo?
Samuel said he did not know where the former-ghosts were now living; the garden beds had been destroyed. What was once a community beginning to breathe again now existed as a stark and empty concrete channel.
God have mercy.
May we become the people who learn to see ghosts.
May we become the people who speak in valleys of dry bones.
May we see breath enter dust and begin to breathe.
May we witness not only to the resurrection of Jesus but the resurrection of the world.
May we witness resurrection in the neighborhoods that have gone unseen.
May we witness resurrection in the neighborhoods that we call home.