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Standing on the beach at the southern rim of the country, a small group huddled around her, Norma Villegas peered through a set of binoculars. She fixed her gaze on two women, standing side by side. One was gesturing sign language.
“This is Lourdes Ramirez,” Villegas said, translating what she saw through the binoculars. “She likes music.”
A couple of hundred feet away, across two fences and a forbidden zone that now separates the United States from its neighbor, stood Ramirez, on a paved platform atop a raised mound of Mexican earth. She spoke to Carla Izaguirre, whose hands relayed her words for the people on the other side.
In the United States, the message received, Villegas set down her binoculars and raised her hands. Across the border, Izaguirre lowered her eyes onto a tripod-mounted monocular and looked.
Villegas started gesturing, slowly.
She introduced one of the women standing beside her. “This is Nicole Ramos,” Villegas said aloud, translating her hands for the rest of the group. “She likes to eat.”
Villegas raised her binoculars. A pause. “Eat what?” came the response from abroad.
“Food!” Ramos said, chuckling. “Food,” Villegas relayed. Another pause.
“Are you happy in San Diego?” Ramirez asked.
“My body is here, but my heart is there in Tijuana,” Ramos said.
“But are you happy?”
“Yes,” Ramos said. “Are you happy?” Another pause. A kite grounded on Mexican sand caught American wind, precariously close to becoming contraband.
“Of course!” Ramirez said.
San Diego’s border fence has grown longer, taller, and thicker in recent months. At Friendship Park in Imperial Beach, where two edges once met, a second wall on the U.S. side now blocks access to one of the few sites along the border where friends and families separated by the fence have for years convened to chat, share lunch, or graze cheeks and fingers through its mesh.
Loved ones still come to Friendship Park, but since February, they can’t touch. Though they can shout across the gap between the fences they call “no-man’s land,” they can’t converse.
To wall supporters, the contact is an unfortunate casualty of necessary border enforcement. Migrants will still find their way across, opponents say.
A group of activists says communication will, too.
They’ve tried, with some difficulty, to keep the cross-border conversation going. They call communication a natural phenomenon, not bounded by international boundaries. Like border smugglers, they have gotten creative to maintain the flow.
Where members of the Border Meetup Group once hosted language exchanges and poetry readings at the fence, they now build giant sound disks on either side to transmit their voices. Where they once planted a bi-national garden, they now translate from English, to American sign language, to Mexican sign language, to Spanish, and back.
It would seem an unusual degree of trouble. Families visiting Friendship Park, now separated by several yards more, have settled for using cell phones and walkie-talkies as they linger for hours, looking at each other across the gap.
“We wanted there to be not just communication, but a theme,” said Daniel Watman, the group’s coordinator, who received a master’s in Spanish linguistics from San Diego State University.
“If we were just to use walkie-talkies, that would be cool,” he said. “But we wanted to break not only the border barrier but also the language barrier.”
That barrier appeared to fall Saturday.
Adrian Posadas teaches sign language in Tijuana. He arrived wearing a T-shirt that read, in Spanish, “If God is so powerful, why doesn’t he speak my language?”
After introducing myself to him with Villega’s assistance, I learned we shared first names. He is 28, and likes the beach. He asked if I liked animals. I told him I was a vegetarian. We exchanged e-mail addresses.
“My English is not very good, but I understand it better than I speak,” Posadas wrote a couple of days later. “That Saturday I felt closer because I didn’t feel the language barrier so strong. I didn’t have to worry about the pronunciation or my listening, I just had to see the hands expressions. Some things I communicated not for a specific sign, but with simple mimicry.”
“It would be interesting doing more things like these,” he wrote, “and see how far we could get for communicate us and try to erase the psychologic borders that limit us for work together.”
We made plans to speak by telephone this week.
“One of the best ways to get to know someone across the border is to speak with them,” said Meetup member Paloma Patterson. “The whole point of Dan’s program is to make friends.”
Watman hoped to connect not only the hearing, but also the non-hearing. In Tijuana, the deaf often live on the fringes of society.
“The deaf community is a little like the indigenous community in Mexico,” Watman said. “It’s hard to say if it’s blatant discrimination, but there’s definitely an attitude that they’re kind of sub-par.”
With the help of Izaguirre, who speaks both Mexican and American sign language, deaf Tijuana residents have spoken with English speakers, both hearing and non-hearing.
As a journalist, I conducted my first interview in sign language. My self-consciousness over the Spanish I’m constantly trying to improve disappeared.
I asked in English. Villegas gestured my questions to Izaguirre, who on the Mexican side, translated to Spanish for Salvador Zepeda Hernandez.
Hernandez lived in the United States for 21 years before getting caught up in a workplace raid. He was detained for three months before finally being deported a month ago. His wife and three children still live in East Los Angeles.
His wife owes bills, and can’t afford to pay a smuggler to get him across, he said. She can’t afford to travel to see him at the fence.
He’s now living in Tijuana, waiting for his 17-year-old son — a U.S.-born citizen — to turn 18 and petition for his father’s papers. He said he’d had little to eat or drink over the last two days.
I asked what he thought of speaking to a reporter through sign language.
“It’s nice,” he said.
“Tijuana is dangerous. It’s friendly here,” he said, across no-man’s land and the newest fence that separated us.
The irony appeared lost in translation.