TIJUANA – Monday, July 31, 2006 | The diplomat arrives in Tijuana’s airport for the first time in the late 1970s. No taxis are waiting. Rain is pouring. The dirt streets are muddy. He has no way to get to San Diego.
So he takes a bus partway, then walks the rain-soaked roads. His suit gets filthy. This is not the reception he expected.
Oscar Romo, in his late 20s and documenting immigration and the border for UNESCO, the United Nation’s educational agency, reaches the border and crosses into San Diego, all wide streets, paved and clean.
The mess is gone.
In a lifetime of travel along the 1,951-mile U.S.-Mexico border, Romo says no place seems as remarkable as those cross-border cities did on that winter day. The contrast between two countries, two economies, two peoples was all symbolically embodied in two roads.
A paved street in San Diego.
A muddy path in Tijuana.
Thirty years later, Romo is driving through Tijuana and is stopped at a red light. Yes, he says, this is where he walked so many years ago.
He is now 58, showing gray around his temples, and working as the coastal training program coordinator for the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve. He is in Tijuana to meet with local planners about an effort to bring sewer service to a local neighborhood called San Bernardo.
His meeting has its roots in that winter day. Those muddy roads that thwarted him then still cut through poor colonias like San Bernardo. They are an indicator of poverty that breeds health problems in Tijuana and environmental problems in San Diego.
At the stoplight, Romo gestures at the sprawling development just beyond the windshield. Old ranches are gone, replaced by an exhaust-choked road and a sea of plastic business signs – indicators of a burgeoning economy fueled by globalization: Pemex gas station. A bank. A Chinese restaurant. Graffiti-stained buildings disappear into the potholed, four-lane-wide distance.
This is Tijuana, where development has outpaced infrastructure, where the wide gap between haves and have-nots is blatantly evident not far from this paved road. There, in colonias and squatter camps, roofs are tin or tarp-covered. Streets are dusty in summer, muddy in winter. Potholes are filled with stones. Walls are old garage doors. Average daily wages are about $8.
Romo is fascinated by this, even now.
“This place has magic,” he says. “It’s not just the economy or the culture.”
He points to Tijuana’s topography. The city looms above San Diego. This is one reason Romo works to prevent Mexican pollution – raw sewage, tires, silt – from sweeping down through Mexico’s border canyons and into the Tijuana estuary. Forty acres of the 2,500-acre salt marsh were lost to that erosion last year.
“Everything that happens here ends up there,” he says.
In the United States. In the estuary. On San Diego’s beaches.
“It’s kind of the revenge,” he says.
In a Tijuana neighborhood where some chain their cars to posts for safekeeping at night, where many residents are simply trying to survive and many homes lack windows, Romo has a goal: “I want them to have sunlight coming in.”
San Bernardo. The 800-home colonia sits in Los Laureles Canyon, a place Romo calls the crudest example of Mexican poverty. Sick dogs roam trash-covered ditches. Paved roads disappear. Winter rainfalls – like the one that turned Romo’s suit muddy in the 1970s – carve fresh gullies in the road and send the sediment washing into the Tijuana estuary, which sits in southern San Diego.
Romo has a vision for this neighborhood. He wants to build 40 environmentally friendly homes made partially from bamboo. He points to homes in the areas surrounding San Bernardo as the root of many Mexican social problems.
Many homes are little more than scraps sculpted into shelter. Others built by U.S. volunteers look like dollhouses on the outside, Romo says, but are too warm in summer, too cold in winter. They lack plumbing. One common pipe leads out.
Sewage drains into the street, which flows into the canyon, into the Tijuana River, across the border and onto southern San Diego beaches – forcing frequent closures.
“That dwelling is not healthy,” he says. Perhaps, he says, those homes explain why Tijuana schoolchildren are always playing in the street.
Romo will travel to Veracruz later this year to check on a bamboo supply. He wants to bring back enough to begin growing it near Tecate in Valle de las Palmas, an area devastated by sand extraction. Then construction will begin on those 40 homes.
They’ll be served by a paved street – one lined with pervious pavers, blocks of stone that allow water to drain through, unlike asphalt. When it rains, the runoff will soak into the ground rather than drain into the surrounding waters.
He sees cross-border benefits. For San Diego: Less sediment will course down into the estuary. For Tijuana: Ground-water aquifers can be recharged, allowing trees and plants to grow.
The project got an early boost. Romo found out the land was owned by the city. While many neighborhoods around it are illegal squatter settlements, this tract was legitimately owned. Romo went to a contact in the Tijuana government – a man he calls Jorge – to ask for permission to build on the land.
This is what Romo, a native of the central Mexico city of Aguascalientes, is known for. Getting projects done. Adeptly navigating the Mexican government – from the president to the city council to Jorge. That’s Jorge Hank Rhon, Tijuana’s mayor.
His job experiences have helped make those connections. He teaches a class about sustainable development at University of California, San Diego. And he has served as vice president of Tijuana’s chamber of commerce.
“Oscar is very, very good at understanding how to move the Mexican political system forward to make something happen,” says Serge Dedina, executive director of Wildcoast, an Imperial Beach-based environmental group. “It’s something only Mexicans can do, and it’s something you have to be very, very good at.”
Mike McCoy, vice president of the Southwest Wetlands Interpretive Association, which employs Romo, puts it another way: “He understands how Mexico thinks.”
Romo, who lives in the Chula Vista neighborhood of Eastlake, hopes the San Bernardo effort will set an example for projects to follow. The paving project, he hopes, will help him convince Tijuana city officials to begin using pervious pavers throughout the city.
“It’s a long process,” he says. “And what they need is an example.”
A better way, he says.
Homes that are comfortable. Environmentally friendly. Inexpensive.
It starts in San Bernardo. One road, and 40 homes.