Border Story: Part One

I called an Uber. It was 3pm. I had exactly 3 hours. I went out to the sidewalk in front of the hotel with my backpack full of bronzed children’s shoes. I sat down on the curb and smoked a cigarette while I waited for my ride. The Uber app signaled that I should be looking for a silver Jeep Cherokee.

I was a little nervous as I climbed into the back seat, “I’m trying to get to the Border” I said. I had no idea how to get there. I just wanted to get as close as I could. International Friendship Park maybe? Or Border Beach? Or?

My drivers name was Ursula. Bear. She was from Mexico. Her hair was lightened and her eyes blue. Nobody could ever tell she was Mexican she told me with a thick accent.

It was only 17 miles to the California/Mexico border, but Google Maps said it would take 53 minutes. That was almost an hour and I only had 3.

I told her about my work. The Bronze Shoes Installation Project.

I told her about making the shoes, using them as a creative form of direct action by hanging them anywhere I could where people would see them. How they were for both of us. A reminder for me and a promise to her, that the children separated from their families at the border are precious and I won’t forget about them. The work was an outlet of my experience and compassion. Standing against injustice and celebrating the interconnectedness of humanity.

For most of the ride we talked about the children and Trump and his racist policies. We talked about respect and how the meaning plays out differently in her culture and mine. Growing up I was taught that respect means I admire a person because of their abilities, and achievements, or position. It is something to be earned. I must respect my elders. Respect authority. Respect someone who is more impressive than me. Respect white men.

In Mexican culture, the mere virtue of being human deserves respect.

Ursula bypassed the interstate. She turned left and right on street names that must sometimes be whispered and we ended up just beyond the backyard of a neighborhood I knew held many secrets.

The Border Field State park. Desert. Dirt. Brush. Earth. Concrete. Fences. Barbed wire. The only other cars parked there were a cheap family sized sedan, and a giant silver SUV. There were very few reasons a person would come to this park. Having a picnic was not one of them.

I handed her a twenty dollar bill and asked if she had a ten. She didn’t. She said she would just wait for me. It would take longer to get an Uber out here than in the city. I hadn’t even thought of that. I didn’t have much time, less than an hour. I thanked her and hurried up a dirt road in the direction of the border fence. I walked past a security mirror atop a long pole. It was huge. I looked around to see what it could see. Nothing but dessert. If I didn’t look at it maybe it wouldn’t see me. I kept going, feeling it’s stare.

A small group of people stood at a wide turn in the road staring at a border patrol jeep as it peeled out and sped off up the hill. Another Patrol truck with a double cab followed it. I stopped and hung some shoes on a tree branch alongside the road.

I approached the 4 people and followed their anxious gaze. The truck had stopped just a few hundred yards further up the hill and parked facing them. The passenger door was open and the driver stood behind it speaking to someone inside. They stood stunned. Silent.

I was full of hurried, expectant, unknowing, naked energy. I had come here to hang the Bronze Shoes. I wanted to witness that fence stretching far out into the ocean. I wanted to hang shoes on it to send a message. The message said “I see you, and I am fighting for you.”

“Do you know where the ocean is?” I asked. I imagined it being just around the corner. The taller of them turned and looked at me like it was the strangest question ever asked.

“It’s that way, but it’s a long way, maybe 10 miles. Too far to walk.” He squinted as he pointed in one direction but moved his arm slightly as if he had suddenly thought of something. I didn’t think it was that way, I could feel the cool ocean breeze coming from the other direction. I turned to walk away and there was Ursula. She waved.

She said she didn’t feel safe by herself back there, or letting me go alone.

“This is really creepy” I said. She nodded. It was so quiet, except for the loud silence of the border fence in the distance. We could see two white border patrol trucks parked, nestled right up against it not far apart.

“That guy said the ocean is that way?” I said.

Ursula laughed, “He’s lying.”

They weren’t paying any attention to us at all or where we were going.

“Let’s get out of here.”

We turned and headed back towards the “Park” entrance. On the way I saw a bicycle locked to a ladder that was attached to the side of what looked like a tall chimney.

I pushed my way through the sticker bushes. I could tell the bike had been there a long time. It was dusty and the material on the seat had been worn away by the weather. Someone had never made it to their stashed escape vehicle. I hung some shoes on the handlebars even though no one would probably ever see them.

We passed the bubble security mirror.

“You could hang some on that?” Ursula offered with a nervous chuckle. I eyed it suspiciously backing away.

“No, that’s ok.”

We hadn’t been walking very quickly and when we crossed the parking area I saw from the corner of my eye, the three men had caught up and approached their vehicles. The man I had asked directions from got into his car slowly, his head down. The other two hopped into the SUV and drove away.

The gate to the actual entrance of Border View State Park was closed to motor vehicles. The pay station looked like it was straight out of an apocalyptic movie. In fact the whole place did.

As I twisted shoes onto the large sign describing this unwelcoming place, Ursula decided she should take my picture.

“I hate getting my picture taken,” I said. “but I suppose.”

We began walking down a paved road that reflected the hot sun. I was thirsty.

“What a story I will have,” I said “My Uber driver takes me to the border.’”

“I will have a good story too.” she said with a smile.

She wasn’t going to walk on any of the smaller paths she told me, because there were tarantulas and snakes out there. “The people who take those paths are very brave.”

They are incredibly brave I said.

After walking a short distance in silence I heard,

“Watch out for your little friend!”

I stopped short and looked down to see a baby rattlesnake hurrying angrily across our path. A tiny symbol of power, transformation, and the earth. A connection to humanity itself.

“Hi little guy.” I said as I snapped his picture repeatedly, like a one woman paparazzi. There were tons of rattlesnakes where I grew up I told Ursula.

“What happened!?” She asked.

“Nothing.” I said. “My uncle used to kill them and mount their skin and rattle under resin. Then he would hang them on his wall. It was stupid.”

“What does it do?” She asked.

“It rattles. You know, when you wiggle it” I shook my hand in the air like I was holding the tail of a rattlesnake. “It’s so you can hear them before you get too close. They use it to scare someone or something away they don’t trust.”

We went left at a slight fork in the road. The right required walking through crushed brush, dead grass, sticker bushes. A path for the brave. The bend in the road led down a long straight stretch, a 15 mph sign hidden low in the yellow grass. The Border fence was in the distance…. the arbitrary line. It wasn’t imaginary though. It physically existed. The space on either side defined it.

Ursula pointed and said, “That’s where my aunt lives. See, right there on the other side where that building is. It takes me an hour to get there every time I visit though.”

It had taken us an hour to get here, and from where we were standing it would probably take an hour to get to her aunts as well. But a different kind of an hour.

We walked a little further, I could smell the ocean. I skipped ahead and yelled, “I can see it! I see the ocean!” I pointed and she laughed.

“It will still take us a while to reach it.” she told me. I stood on my tiptoes as if that would bring the ocean closer. I looked down the road. I looked at where I could see the ocean. At the end of the road was the border fence.

“You shouldn’t hang your shoes here.” Ursula said. “No one will see them and they’ll get taken down by the Border Patrol anyway.”

She was right. I squinted towards the horizon and looked down at my phone for the time. I didn’t have much left.

I turned dolefully and started walking back towards the car. As we passed the fork in the road a Border Agent was coming out of the path on his horse. The horse was rearing and prancing, pawing at the ground.

“He’s just messing around.” Ursula said. “Cmon lets’ go.”

I smiled and turned back the way we had come. A rattlesnake. His horse was stomping at a rattlesnake on a path for the brave.

In the car Ursula told me we should go to the Barrio Logan. I didn’t think I had enough time. Everything seemed so far away. I google mapped it. It would only take us 15 minutes. I put in the distance from the Barrio to the hotel. 15 minutes.

“Ok we can do it!” I said. I would have about 5 minutes to spare.

Time made me anxious the whole way. She was looking for a very specific street. We went around block after block Ursula muttering “Where is it? I know it’s here….”

Finally, we found it.

The Barrio Logan was an artistic industrial area with Mexican roots. We had driven past Chicano Park, dozens of murals depicting the community’s past activism, and colorful images of Frida Kahlo and Che Guevara.

She parked and I grabbed the last two bundles of shoes. I checked the time. I had 4 minutes.

We ran across the street and I frantically looked for places to hang them. There was a sign sculpture that read The Barrio. I hurriedly twisted the wire around the bottom.

“Where now?” I asked.

She pointed towards a plaza, “Maybe over there?” I felt like I couldn’t take many more steps away from the car. Every second counted. I cautiously moved forward. There was a small square kiosk with a map on it just as you entered the plaza.

“You could hang them on that?”

“Ok.”

As I was taking a picture of the shoes, I noticed we were in the plaza of a Mercado. I lived on the same corner as a Mercado in Portland. “It’s a Mercado!” I yelled and skipped a little. “I live right next to a Mercado!”

As soon as I finished, Ursula put up her hand and high-fived me with a huge smile.

“That was awesome!” She said.

It was pretty awesome.

We made it back to the hotel one minute after 6.

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My library is an archive of longings. ~ Susan Sontag

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Aimee Sitarz

Aimee Sitarz

My library is an archive of longings. ~ Susan Sontag

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