Gaby Villavicencio is always on the move. Her office is full of crucifixes, photographs and other knick-knacks collected from her travels. And then there’s the trip just to get to her office.
Villavicencio is among the hundreds who make the daily trek across the U.S.-Mexico border to work. She travels everyday to Kearney Mesa, where she works as a researcher for San Diego State University’s Aventura de los Niños program. For a side job cleaning offices, Villavicencio also drives during weekdays to Pacific Beach and Mission Valley. On an average day, she racks up to 70 miles a day. But to her, the long travel is worth it with cheaper rent in Tijuana.
Ten years ago, Villavicencio sometimes had to wake up at four o’clock in the morning so that she could drive from her home in Tijuana to her workplace in San Diego. The wait took 45 minutes to about two hours. Nowadays, Villavicencio uses a SENTRI pass, which allows prescreened commuters through a separate lane, cutting down travel time.
After the 20 years of crossing “the line,” Villavicencio shares how fights, irate drivers and tough immigration officers produce a tense daily commute through the border.
What was your daily routine like crossing the San Diego-Tijuana border?
My life is different now because I have a Fast Pass. Ten years ago, I had an awful time, sometimes I would have to be at work by 7 a.m., so I have to wake up at 4 in the morning, then I have to take a shower, and then take my car to the line at the border. The line would be two hours or 45 minutes, it depends on the day. When you cross the border, you’re very nervous, mad at everybody and then you start your work tense.
What has changed from that time?
I had my permission to work here 10 years ago, and now I’m an American citizen, when you’re a citizen, you work here, You can apply for a SENTRI (Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection) pass.
A little bit has changed. From the city you go to the line, it takes 15 minutes. Then it takes 35 or 40 minutes to cross the line. From there to this office it takes me another 20 minutes. So it’s more than an hour altogether.
Do you always go by car or do you sometimes take the trolley?
I have my own car. Some years ago, they stole my car in TJ and I had to take the trolley. When I would come to work here, it would take me two hours to get to this office. The [public transportation] here in San Diego is not really good. It’s good from (the) trolley until the station, and then you say, “now what?” You have to take a bus and another bus. From downtown to this office takes me two hours.
What do you listen to in your car or what do you do to keep yourself busy while waiting?
I used to smoke. That’s what I do, smoke and listen to music or the news. I listen to a Mexican radio station, there’s a program that makes me laugh. The music is very, very Mexican. They have very old music – it’s the show “La Chula y el Chon.” Then when I drive for work, I listen to the news. There are a lot of political problems in Mexico, so I listen to that.
Why do you choose to live in TJ, to commute daily? You could’ve chosen to live closer to work why travel that far?
Well I choose TJ to live because here, it’s too expensive. I studied as a graphic designer and when I finished my degree, I worked in Mexico and the money was not enough. Then, I decided to move to L.A., but I was not legal. I had a passport but I didn’t have permission to work. So I lived in L.A. and then I decided to move again to San Diego.
But then I asked myself, why San Diego? I have a house in Tijuana. I pay rent, but the difference is $300 for rent there and here it’s $1,200 or $800. So I decided to move to Tijuana. That’s the difference. You pay less rent and you work here, everything is better.
What’s the process that you had to go through to get that SENTRI pass?
You go to the office and they give you a list of documents. When you have everything, they call you and tell you that you have to come in and bring the papers. They check everything – all that goes through the FBI. They check everything about you and your life. Then they tell you to bring the car really clean, no tinting in the window and you have to pay. I know that now, it takes more than a year to get it – to apply and everything else.
We (daily commuters) are a lot now. You can see the line for the SENTRI. It’s not really fast nowadays because you have to wait, show your card. It takes 30 minutes, which is not so bad.
What is it like crossing the border everyday?
When you are in the line there are the people from immigration. I have seen many things from these guys. They think that you are bad people. They tell you, “don’t move!” even though you have everything correct, you have your information, but why do they do it like that? Before you would stay there for two hours and you can see many things around it. After 9/11, these guys are worse. They check your car if they want, any car. They open your car, check your tires and the bottom. They have reasons to do that but sometimes they know which cars to stop.
What are some of the things that you’ve seen while crossing the border?
I remembered I had problems, not with immigration, but with other people in the line. One time, a guy started bumping my car, and he [was] reversing and we fought. (At the border) you are nervous, you are mad. Some guys at the back want to cross the border in a hurry and they’re honking the horn. One time I saw a car pulled over because of drugs. I saw people having sex in a car. I saw very bad fights. Everybody is just stressed. There’s no “Oh good morning!” nothing like that. Once you cross the border, you breathe a sigh of relief.
Where do you live with in TJ and with who?
I live with my mother and sister. We have a new house in January, so we’re working more. I have two jobs now. [The house] is nice and it’s not as much as a house in California, but there is more pressure for us [financially].
What’s you’re other job?
I clean three offices. It’s not a lot of money, it makes me less stressed because sometimes there’s just not enough money.
What do you think are some of the biggest problems associated with the border?
I understand the kind of border this is. This border is the busiest, it’s the biggest and everybody wants to come in from Central America, Mexico. Everyone wants to cross. The problem is why they want to come to the U.S. It’s because they want money. The biggest problem is political, the countries are low income and everyone wants to come in.
Another problem is that it’s more expensive here. Most people come into the country, they live there, but now people are moving back. There are more who work in San Diego and live in Tijuana. We pay less rent.
So you know a lot of people who cross the border everyday.
Oh yes, I know people who have permission to work or they’re in the process. I know people who want to go through Juarez. I know a lot.
So you go through a long commute during the day, what time do you get home?
I finish at 9:30 – it depends on the time I start. Sometimes it takes a lot to finish, sometimes not. Last night, I started at 7 p.m. and it only took me two hours. It never takes me more than that. Going back home is pretty hard. My last stop is the Sports Arena and it’s about 35 minutes to get to the border. Sometimes I go to a friend’s house and we do dinner or it depends.
Do you also go to San Diego during the weekends or just the weekdays?
I come to SD to visit friends and families, we go to reunions, parties, or we come here to go shopping. My mom likes shopping at Wal-Mart, when she wants to shop for clothes she likes TJ Max. Sometimes we have breakfast, go to church and spend the day here. We always cross the border.
Gas prices have gone up drastically over the past few years/months, is it still worth it to commute everyday?
It takes me like 70 miles to do everything – from home to my office and then go back to house. I fill my tank every 2 days and a half. It’s really too much. My car is big, a Ford Explorer, but it is good for me.
I sense that you like being in your car?
I love it. I have my CDs; I love to drive in my job, there are always a lot of things to do. But some people like my cousins they hate crossing the border. I invite them, oh I’m going to have a party, but they say no. They think only of the line. They don’t like it. They don’t want anything to do with it. They always ask me, “Why do you cross the border everyday?”
Is it worth it?
It’s part of my life. I don’t want to keep track of every dollar. I’m doing ok, I like driving, and it’s not bad for me. Some people say, no I don’t want to drive, my car’s going to be run down. I don’t do that. But maybe it’s also because I’ve been doing it for 20 years.
– Interview by MARNETTE FEDERIS