Tijuana Neighborhood : La Libertad: Aliens' Last Mexico Stop

Times Staff Writer

On their way to a new life, tens of thousands of Mexican migrants pass through the place that they call Liberty.

The neighborhood known as Colonia Libertad rises like a teeming, swollen island of life from the sun-baked earth of the border. For several miles, the fetid arroyos, sagging dwellings and smoldering trash dumps that mark the community's northern boundary also delineate an international border negotiated more than a century ago, when it was largely an unpopulated stretch of mountain and desert.

Today, that border is illegally traversed daily by hundreds. It is the border that has defined Colonia Libertad, providing a reason for the very existence of Tijuana's oldest and best-known residential neighborhood, now the densely packed home to about 200,000.

Rapid Development

The streets of Colonia Libertad embody Tijuana's rapid development from an isolated backwater to a sprawling metropolis with a population estimated at 1.2 million. Colonia Libertad is a neighborhood--a self-contained city, really--whose evolution vividly underscores the forces of Mexican migration and reflects the long history of Mexican labor in the United States.

There are really two distinct groups in Colonia Libertad--stable residents who moved to Tijuana years ago and settled here, and the more transient migrants who are merely passing through on their way to the United States.

For many so-called pollos, or chickens, as the recent migrants from Mexico's interior and elsewhere in Latin America are known here, La Libertad is a staging area, a place to make contact with a pollero, or smuggler, and catch some rest before attempting the often-hazardous crossing into the United States. The smuggling business and its various offshoots--providing food, clothing and shelter to those heading north--is a thriving industry here.

Refuge for Exiles

But, many migrants have elected to settle in La Libertad; others return here after working for a time in the United States. The community has served as a refuge for Mexico's exiles from both south and north. The neighborhood's location, in the hills just east of downtown, provides residents a dual benefit: the peace of mind and inexpensiveness of life in Mexico, and quick access to jobs, goods and services in the United States.

La Libertad has functioned as a kind of migrant ghetto, a place where many have found a better life but others have had their dreams shattered.

"People come here from the south, and they think they're going to find dollars in the streets," said Pilar Medina, an 18-year resident who came with her husband from the Mexican interior 18 years ago. "We thought the same things when we came here. But we learned."

Nowadays, when there is barely a free plot in Colonia Libertad, homeless migrants arriving in Tijuana are forced to settle in newer and poorer neighborhoods and squatter colonies on the city outskirts--new Colonias Libertades in the making. But Libertad remains at the core of the migratory flow.

The area known as La Libertad was formerly the site of a 1920s-era race track, where abandoned stables and quarters provided the rough homes for the early settlers. The first residents were workers in Tijuana's casinos, cantinas and other establishments catering to U.S. tourists thirsting for a good time in Prohibition-era America.

In the 1930s, numerous Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, including many who had been born in the Los Angeles area, fled growing discrimination, threats of deportation and hard economic times in the United States and were repatriated in La Libertad. Later, the community was populated by thousands of so-called braceros, Mexican farm laborers who worked in the United States as part of a legal program that lasted until the mid-1960s.

Links to U.S.

Links to the United States remain strong. Some residents boast of sons who have served in Vietnam and elsewhere with the U.S. military. Many could live legally in the United States, but they prefer the lower costs and the easier pace of life in Mexico.

These days, Colonia Libertad is a mixture of comparative working-class affluence and the urban poverty endemic in Mexico.

Despite its high crime, pervasive poverty and the shortage of many basic services, Colonia Libertad is actually considered better off than some Tijuana neighborhoods, largely because many residents have earned good money--by Mexican standards--while working in the United States.

Harsh scenes of need--rough dwellings fashioned of scrap wood and tin--often exist on the same streets as well-tended, palm-shaded homes graced with elegant shrubs of bright bougainvillea. Few streets are paved.

"It's not beautiful here," said Othon Martinez, a shopkeeper who settled in the neighborhood after spending more than a decade in the United States, "but we're at home in La Libertad. We are Mexicans."

Francisco Fierro Navarro, 80, is one of the longest continuous residents of Colonia Libertad. Born in pre-revolutionary northern Mexico to a peasant family that strongly supported Gen. Pancho Villa, Fierro spent almost a decade working in the Los Angeles area during the late 1920s and early 1930s before returning to Mexico.

"In those days, all these hills were empty; there was nothing. You could hear the coyotes howling at night," said Fierro, a vital, alert man seated in the living room of his comfortable family home, an apartment above his family shop. "The hills were full of rabbits. There were no streets."

Neighborhood Fixtures

For almost 40 years, Fierro's tortilla factory and, later, general store have been fixtures on the same corner in the bustling commercial center of Colonia Libertad.

"In those days, you didn't need any papers to cross" into the United States, Fierro said. "You just paid $8, got a medical exam, and that was that."

Once, when walking in Los Angeles, Fierro said he saw a small shop with a catchy name: La Luz del Dia, The Light of the Day. He remembered that name, and when he opened his store in Tijuana, he painted the title in big blue letters out front. The name remains.

"I worked in a restaurant in Beverly Hills where I saw Charlie Chaplin, Dolores del Rio and many other artists," Fierro said. "I love the United States. I have many nieces and nephews there. I desire only the best for the United States."

Spurred to return to Mexico by the Great Depression, Fierro settled in then-isolated Colonia Libertad in 1936, at a time when squatters were claiming land in the area. He has thrived as a merchant here, counting two college graduates and an architect among his 10 children.

From his window, he can see the constant traffic of migrants heading north. Fierro, like most residents of the independent-minded community, empathizes with their plight.

"These people are working people; they've had to leave their homes because of hunger," he said. "They don't want to hurt anyone; they only want to work. Others, who are no good, come here to rob these poor people. . . . The day that people are paid well in Mexico, no one will want to leave here."

Verses on Injustices

In his spare time, Fierro, despite his lack of formal education, pens deeply felt poems in a school notebook. Most of his verses deal with perceived injustices in Mexico. Loosely translated, one verse concludes:

The noble soldier/would be content/

Working the land/cultivating the wheat/

Producing bread/so that he would not be forced/

By hunger and misery/to kill his brothers of blood.

"I love my colonia . I love to see progress here," Fierro said. "You know, Libertad is a very beautiful word. . . . I will die in this colonia. And I will be buried here too."

Half a mile or so from Fierro's shop, the potholed streets of Colonia Libertad descend toward the border. The relative prosperity of downtown Libertad, with its rows of shops and occasional factories, soon gives way to a much bleaker landscape.

The border that divides the two worlds is mostly an invisible line, though the spot is marked by sporadic rusted fences and stone obelisks. Nonetheless, the contrast at the border is striking: While Colonia Libertad is literally bursting with life, the U.S. side is largely barren, seemingly lifeless except for occasional U.S. Border Patrol agents peering through binoculars at the omnipresent clusters of undocumented workers negotiating the rugged paths that head north.

The border here is not a salubrious place. Crime is high. Trash fires burn at irregular intervals, scarring the chaparral black and emitting a cloying soot that hangs in the air. Junked cars and garbage mar the chaparral. Broken glass shimmers in the afternoon sun.

Amid it all, there are scores of children, their presence somewhat incongruous in this foreboding place. They ride roller skates down the dusty hills. They play amid the heaps of trash. They use homemade slingshots to hunt rabbits. They fight and laugh and do the things children do everywhere, although ingenuity and improvisation count more here.

'Made It Myself'

"I made it myself," said 10-year-old Ricardo Chavez Lopez, the proud owner of a kite fashioned with a plastic trash bag, bamboo sticks and rags.

Rene Moreno, 11, a resident of Carlsbad, Calif., was visiting relatives in Colonia Libertad.

"We have lots of things to do here," he said in English. "Sometimes you stay out all night; sometimes there's firecrackers. Sometimes they set a tire on fire. . . . It's fun to watch the Border Patrol chasing them (aliens). They run all over the place like chickens."

From his cluttered office near downtown Tijuana, Jose Luis Perez Canchola can look out his window to the hilly neighborhood--Colonia Libertad--where he lived the early years of his life in the 1940s. Perez Canchola, a sometime politician who runs the independent Center of Migratory Studies and Information in Tijuana, retains the kind of fascination for his home community that many first-generation Americans display for the ethnic enclaves where they once lived.

"It was the kind of place where people would live on the same street with others from their same hometown in Michoacan, or Jalisco, wherever," said Perez Canchola, naming Mexican interior states that have traditionally been the homes of migrants to northern Mexico and the United States.

In many ways, Perez Canchola's case is representative of the many families who settled La Libertad between the 1940s and 1960s, when thousands of so-called braceros came north to do seasonal work in the United States under a now-defunct program.

Family on the Move

His father was a bracero from Michoacan who settled in Colonia Libertad in 1942 and retained a home there despite moving his family constantly throughout the Southwestern United States as he shifted jobs. While Jose Luis was born in Tijuana, a brother was born in Texas and a sister in California.

He remembers the toughs known as pachucos, many of whom had previously lived in Los Angeles and once enforced a violent gang code that remains a part of Colonia Libertad's tough image. It was said that the pachucos, known by their swaggering life style and distinctive clothing called zoot suits, would not allow boys from other neighborhoods to date girls from Libertad.

But Perez Canchola and others say the kind of violence committed in La Libertad by today's gang members is much worse, aggravated by drug use and the enormous profits to be made from smuggling.

"It's much cruder today," Perez Canchola said. "I know people who have lived in Colonia Libertad for 25 years, and they want to sell their land because they're tired of it."

Zenaida Mendes Ramon does not betray any sentimentality about her hometown in the Mexican interior state of Oaxaca. No, she said, she's not interested in going back; life is better in Colonia Libertad.

"There, life was very hard," said Mendes, 25, standing in a dirt garden in front of her simple house here. "In Oaxaca, the women have to walk miles to gather wood for cooking. They work in the fields. They have to make tortillas from corn. No, it's much better here."

She and her husband moved to La Libertad from Oaxaca five years ago. They are among the tens of thousands of Mixtec Indians who have abandoned the poverty of their traditional communities for a chance at a better life in northern Mexico or the United States. After doing fieldwork as an undocumented laborer in the United States for two years, her husband had saved enough to purchase a simple house here for $4,000 five years ago.

Buy Drinking Water

Their home, painted bright blue, is modest but typical of poorer dwellings in the neighborhood. A stream carrying raw sewage flows by their front yard, raising their concern for the health of their three young children. Burning trash often smolders in the unpaved road directly out front. There is no indoor running water. Like most other residents of Colonia Libertad, they must buy drinking water in containers from a truck that passes each day.

Yet they count themselves lucky.

"I wouldn't go back to live in Oaxaca," said Mendes' husband, Aquileo Galicia Morales, 26, who was tending their small garden, shirtless on a hot day. "There's no work there. It's hard for people to live. Half of the people from my village are working on the other side (the United States) now. They work in fields, in restaurants, all over. It's sad for my village; there are only women and old people there now."

Next week, he is planning to return to San Diego County to find work picking vegetables and planting strawberries for two or three months, something he has done for eight years.

"I want my children to have the opportunity to do things I never could do," said Galicia, voicing the age-old migrant's desire. "I don't want them to have to do farm work, as I have had to do."

He returns to tending his garden, putting it in order in anticipation of his upcoming trip to the north.

As dusk approaches, the crowds build in the area known as la tierra de nadie-- no man's land, a swath of rugged canyon beginning in Colonia Libertad and stretching northward into the United States. Huddled groups of men and women begin to stir, their eyes betraying a feeling of uneasiness. They emit a collective din that seems to hover in the air. Vendors hawk clothing, tacos, soup--it is a market like those at major bus stops and train stations throughout Latin America. The sense of expectation rises to almost a fever pitch as the sun plunges over the Pacific.

"Buy a sweater for the trip, young one!" cried a vendor, eager to make her sales before the relative safety of daylight ends.

This area, referred to as "the soccer field" by the U.S. Border Patrol, is very much the culmination of Colonia Libertad, the final stop in Mexico for thousands who have come here expressly to cross the border. The canyon area is temporarily ceded to the migrants by U.S. immigration officers, who prefer to maintain the high ground.

Border Patrol Warning

Regresense a su tierra, Mexicanos! "Return to your country, Mexicans!" comes the surreal voice from a Border Patrol helicopter hovering above.

Here, groups of migrants--men, women, children--gather nightly with their guides or smugglers. Also among the crowd are the so-called asaltapollos-- thieves who attempt to rob the aliens as they make their trek to the north. Besides the danger of losing their money to thieves, the migrants also fear Mexican police officials, who have frequently been accused of extorting them.

"I'm going to Napa," said Roberto Quintero, a strapping 25-year-old from Sinaloa who has made the trip many times before. "I know a Frenchman who has vineyards there. He always finds me work. . . . I can earn as much as $10 an hour there. . . . Afterwards, I'm going to pick apples in Washington."

The last traces of sunlight grow dimmer and a faint chill cools the air as Quintero and his companions head north. Meanwhile, on the broken streets of Colonia Libertad, dozens of men and women are quickening their pace to the north, making their way to a new life through the place they call Liberty.

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