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When I was a kid, Cartolandia (Cardboardland), a squatter slum of more than 25,000 people dominated the first view of Tijuana as you crossed the border at San Ysidro. Cardboard, plywood, and garbage houses occupied the Tijuana River only adding to the hardened image of Tijuana as Sin City.
My father, a novelist turned filmmaker, made one of his first documentaries while in the graduate film program at SDSU, on the conditions at Cartolandia. I’ll never erase the memory of my three-year old little brother Nicky being carted around the colonia while my dad made his film.
President Luis Echeverria, Mexico’s successor to crazed strongman Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, paved the way for the razing of Cartolandia in the 1970s during the development of the Zona Rio and the construction of the Tijuana River concrete channel. After being evicted, the residents picked up their belongings and moved east in the river valley to a new Cartolandia. During the winter of 1980, more than 100 of the residents of the new cardboard colonia died when the Mexican government opened the gates of Rodriguez Dam one night after severe rains. Over 25 bodies washed up in Coronado and Imperial Beach.
Today, the Cartolandias of Tijuana are harder to find than they were back in the 70s. But they still exist and blot the fantasy of Tijuana’s industrial progress and modernity. These shantytowns link our neighbor to the south with their counterparts in Nairobi, Rio de Janiero, Manila, Lima and Lagos whose concentrated wealth in the hands of corrupt elites cannot hide the stain of human misery.
Mexico’s fastest growing city can’t begin to provide adequate housing for the middle class let alone its poorest residents. So they build shantytowns in the canyons that ring the city and in the flood-prone watershed of the Alomar River.
One of these colonias is located at the southern edge of Colonia Chilpancingo in eastern Tijuana, below the maquiladora zone, east of the Otay Mesa border crossing. In the middle of the river that cuts through the neighborhood, are the pipes and gullies that spew out toxic sewage and waste from the maquiladoras above into the cardboard, blue-tarp, plywood and garbage shanties that house Tijuana’s poorest people.
I toured the colonia on an overcast morning recently. Even after years spent among the rural and urban poor of Mexico, Peru, Morocco and El Salvador, the poverty of this suburb of Chilpancingo still shocked me. What did not surprise me however, was how thousands of residents have made normal lives out of unimaginable conditions in order to make life as bearable as possible. Mothers and their children navigated through the toxic mud with huge bags of laundry on their way to the streets of Chilpancingo to do the wash. A family carrying their belongings in travel bags carefully picked their way across the sewage gully by hopping along a shaky stone pathway. A makeshift plywood footbridge offered a dry route across the waste-filled river. Children were everywhere playing in yards filled with ornamental plants, chickens and ducks. Packs of dogs wandered the streets. A large hawk sat on an electrical post on a hillside above the colonia.
The entire colonia sits on an old landfill. Water trucks drove through the mud streets. A couple of cowboys on horseback crossed the way across the river (there are farms nearby). One of the horses became nervous around a passing truck, rearing its front legs, almost knocking me into the sewage gully. Electricity is hijacked from utility poles by dozens of colorful wires that are strung along to each house. A new subdivision of town homes advertising security and tranquility abuts the north side of the colonia. New gated communities are pushing informal settlements further east to even more danger-prone canyons south of Tijuana.
As I surveyed the colonia, a young mother dragged her stroller through the mud across the river. She did not pay attention as the stroller tipped over and her newborn dangled upside down held in place by a safety strap. I ran over and up righted the stroller and the baby. The mother managed to quickly unhook her child from the stroller and clutched him to her breast. She then tramped through the mud clutching her baby, while I lifted the stroller above the mud and carried it to safety. A colleague grabbed her giant sack of laundry back to the dirt entry road into the colonia from Chilpancingo.
Just another day in Tijuana.
With the Associated Press headline last week, “Sewage Deal Along the Border Hits the Rocks” about Bajagua’s ongoing implosion spanning the globe in over 150 media outlets in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, France, Germany and the U.K., and the beaches of Imperial Beach closed for weeks, the fact remains that no centralized sewage treatment plant will ever solve the problem of cross border beach closures caused by colonias like the one in the Alomar. Because no $700 million sewage plant, no matter how hard its Rancho Santa Fe owners and North County lobbyists argue it will, can ever address the human suffering and the environmental tragedy of the garbage colonia set in the Alomar River that connects the residents of Imperial Beach and Coronado to the poorest people in Tijuana.
Our political failure to treat the symptoms of the environmental crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border is a moral and social failure as well. It exposes how far we have directed our political system to only respond to the needs of the wealthy and powerful. For those of us in the nonprofit community, our job as environmental stewards and guardians of the public trust is not to help the powerful make a profit at the expense of the poor, but to advocate for and organize those who have no power. Those who fail to speak up and address the human suffering that the privatization of public services along the U.S.-Mexico border will only exacerbate, are as complicit in this miscarriage of justice as those who profit from it.