Thursday, December 7

The expansion of the wall between the United States and Mexico threatens the historic Parque de la Amistad

After an hour and a half drive, Dan Watson he ended up just 60 meters from his house. Watman traveled to the US side of Parque de la Amistad, a binational park located on the western edge of the US-Mexico border. For decades, families from both sides of the border have gathered in this space to reconnect with their loved ones, among the native flora in the public garden that Watman manages.

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Through the two walls that protect the border, you can see his house in Playas de Tijuana, in Mexico. Despite this, the truth is that crossing the border from Tijuana to San Diego usually takes between 90 minutes and four hours.

“The root systems of some of the native plants in the park are up to 30 feet deep,” explains Watman, as live music from the food festival across the border in Tijuana plays in the background. He points to a toyon bush, the largest plant in the Binational Friendship Garden of Native Plants. “It probably has roots on both sides,” he adds with a smile.

Watman is a longtime member of Friends of Friendship Park, a coalition that includes environmentalists, developers and immigrant rights activists who advocate for public access to the historic border park. This month, the group announced that it had learned that US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas had approved plans to replace the two existing walls with new ones that will be as tall as the roots of the plant’s roots are deep. park.

The group has explained that the new 9-meter structures would extend the walls that extend to the east and were built during the presidency of Donald Trump. The current president, Joe Biden, promised during his campaign that if he won he would stop the advance of the border wall. Activists stress that the new walls could further limit public access to the park, restricting visits to the Watman Garden or the wall.

Watman has been surprised that the Biden Administration has backed down. On the other hand, he is not surprised that the Parque de la Amistad has to face a new difficulty: “Although it does not surprise me, considering everything I have seen and how in the last fifteen years there has been a commitment to a gradual closure, I do not Stop being disappointing.”

half a century of history

Friendship Park was inaugurated more than 50 years ago by then First Lady Pat Nixon. In a speech at the groundbreaking event for Border Field State Park, he referred to the portion of the park that borders the border as “the beginning of an international friendship park.”

For a time, the only visible signs of a border in the park were a rope and a barbed wire and later a metal fence. Families from both sides of the border gathered for picnics in the park. In 1988, a local couple got married in this space. It was a place for families separated by the border to meet so that grandparents living in Mexico could meet their American grandchildren.

Watman organized his first cross-border cultural exchange event in the early 2000s. He invited volunteer lifeguards from Tijuana and students from a San Diego community college to meet on the beach at Parque de la Amistad. He recalls that each of the groups was presented with prejudices about the other. “But all those ideas vanished when they met through the fence. It was almost as if the fence motivated them to want to get to know each other more, to transcend that barrier,” he notes.

That was the first of many experiences. Later came yoga classes, salsa dance classes, poetry recitals and, finally, the garden with native plants. “I decided that my contribution to a better world was going to be trying to make friends across borders,” she explains.

Watman has tended the garden for years, even as border security tightened. As of 2011, two walls had been built, a bollard-style fence closer to Mexico and a white fence with thinner slats closer to the United States. Friendship Park was caught between the two. The Friends of Friendship Park negotiated with the United States Customs and Border Protection Office the installation of a pedestrian gate to allow access to this no man’s land. Through it, visitors could approach the three points that today make up the Friendship Park: the Binational Garden, the monument erected as a border landmark after the war between Mexico and the United States, and a small undeveloped beach.

A church on the border

robert vivaranother active member of the Amigos del Parque de la Amistad coalition, first visited the park in 2014, after being deported from the United States to Mexico.

At the time, he was battling depression and anxiety as he found himself stuck in a country he hadn’t lived in since he was six years old. “He was a bit lost. He wasn’t sure what was going to become of my life. So I started looking for what to do,” he recalls. Her search for him led her to volunteer at various organizations, including one for deported veterans, and at the Iglesia de la Frontera, a binational communion service held there.

“At first it was very difficult for me to go to Parque de la Amistad. I couldn’t look over the border wall into San Diego; it was too painful,” he recounts. But he kept going, she said. Every Sunday he would arrive early, help unload the chairs, install the sound system and translate when necessary: ​​“Something started to change inside me: this desperation, this anxiety, this depression, with which I lived every day, began to change. diminish. The more involved I got with this project, the less pain there was.”

bittersweet sensations

Like the binational garden, the border church has gone through many comings and goings. When American visitors could pass through the pedestrian gate, they would gather by the monument. That section of the wall has mesh lining big enough to go through a little finger and people touched pinkies during the Rite of Peace. They were then allowed to walk along a marked path to the garden, where visitors could see their loved ones more clearly through the bollard fence. Vivar remembers one time that his son and his two granddaughters met him at the wall. He explains that this reunion “gave him hope.”

Live account that in 2019 the border church invited members of the local muslim community to hold what he called “a border mosque”. US Representative Rashida Tlaib attended. Vivar recalls that, on that occasion, he stated that “from Palestine to Mexico, these walls must disappear.” And he adds: “It is true, they must disappear. But not only the physical barriers, but the barriers in our hearts. If we can get rid of the latter, the physical ones will easily disappear.”

Seeing how families gathered on the other side of the wall over the years was a bittersweet feeling for Vivar, and he began to want to be permanently reunited with his loved ones. This finally happened when he was allowed to return to the United States in 2021, on Veterans Day.

The walls have no reason to be

In 2020, access to Parque de la Amistad and the pedestrian gate were closed. Since then, a US Border Patrol truck has been parked in front of her, ready to sound its siren if anyone gets too close. Vehicle access to this part of Border Field State Park is only open on weekends. During the week, visitors have to walk 2.4 kilometers from the park entrance.

Since then, Watman has not been allowed to tend the garden on the American side, which has dried out and become overgrown. On the Mexican side, he and his team of volunteers have grown native plants that flourish, established raised beds and organized educational events. “The Kumeyaay people have been coming here for 8,000 years, and this border has been here for about 170 years, like the blink of an eye… So we have organized indigenous plant workshops and invited the Kumeyaay elders to the garden,” Watman said. .

Campaigners are concerned that the new sections of fencing could further restrict access. In a statement issued earlier this month, they say Customs and Border Protection officials told them the new walls do not provide for a pedestrian entrance.

In a statement sent to Guardian, Customs and Border Protection said the agency recognized the value of having a secure meeting space on both sides of the border: “Following the completion of the San Diego Circle of Friendship project, including the replacement of a secondary barrier with a pedestrian gate in this area, we will identify opportunities to provide public access once it is operationally safe to do so. While these opportunities will continue to be based on other US Border Patrol operational requirements, the new wall construction project will not preclude potential future access opportunities at this location.”

“We are a community”

Watman points out that “the Circle of Friendship” refers to the area surrounding the monument, but not to the binational garden. Even if the new plans include a gate, he adds, there is no guarantee it will be open, and there is no way for the community to negotiate their access to this public land: “A gate is not a park.”

Vivar affirms that the plan “profanes the aesthetics of the park, desecrates it completely.” “Nothing justifies the construction of two nine-meter walls,” he laments.

The Friends of Friendship Park are asking Customs and Border Protection to stop work until the organizations meet on July 27. “It is very important that the public, the interested parties, have an opinion about what is happening in the park,” says Vivar. “Border walls or not, we are a community. And people on both sides of the border, there may be a fence that divides us, but the fences in our hearts are being broken every day. And they’re not going to stop us from having that relationship,” he says.

Watman assures that there is little they can do to prevent him from going to the garden: “Not while they continue to expand the walls; he would be much more likely to stop coming if the walls came down. As long as there are walls and the border policy of the United States is limited to the strict application of the laws, there has to be someone who promotes other aspects that are also part of security, such as cross-border friendship.”

Translation of Emma Reverter