Border Bucks : Tijuana Vendors Tread a Fine Line to Make a Living

Times Staff Writer

“Con todo? " Francisca Gutierrez de Garnica asked the hefty man standing on the other side of the fence. “With everything?”

It was yet another taco transaction in Tijuana. But this slice of business was different, a singular snip of international commerce that embodies the entrepreneurial spirit and binational character of the U.S.-Mexico border region.

The fence through which De Garnica, the taco vendor, handed her tasty rolled delicacy was none other than the 10-foot-high barrier separating the United States from Mexico. Her client was an undocumented migrant waiting just inside U.S. territory in anticipation of nightfall and his trek farther north, into the U.S. interior, where, he hoped, a job awaited him.

Muy saboroso ,” he said after having passed his payment of 1,500 pesos--about 60 cents--through the chain-link fence that separates north from south. “Very tasty.”

Basic International Trade

It is international trade at its most basic and fundamental, a microcosm of the booming commerce that characterizes the border zone.


The international boundary line winds for almost 2,000 miles, through harsh desert, jagged mountains, semi-tropical flatlands and fast-growing cities. Vendors and other free-lance business people are everywhere trying to make a buck. Operating from elaborate stands or with only simple coolers and boxes, the merchants peddle items from beer to clothing, from burritos to doughnuts, cigarettes to sodas. Other entrepreneurs act as guides and smugglers, while still others lift customers across the shallow waters of the Rio Grande or erect home-made bridges on the Tijuana River, charging minimal tolls. There is money to be made.

Following their clients--the hundreds of thousands of people who travel to the international frontier each year attempting to enter the United States without papers--the merchants set up shop on either side of the border, often crisscrossing the line and, in the case of several taco vendors here, often selling through the border fence to those waiting on the other side.

Their business rises and falls with the undocumented traffic: Many speak of the booming days of 1985-86, before the revision in U.S. immigration laws, when there were so many more customers.

Alas, many of the longtime undocumented border-crossers have become legal via the amnesty program, and now go back and forth through the legitimate ports of entry, bypassing the informal crossing points--and diverting business from sundry border sales people.

“A few years ago, I used to sell six kilos of meat a day,” said Rosario Valenzuela de Ortiz, who, with her husband, sells tacos from Mexican territory alongside De Garnica’s stand and the hole in the border fence.

“Now,” continued De Ortiz, known as la guera, or blondie, because of the color of her hair, “now maybe I sell four or five kilos on a good day.”

The drop-off in business, she said, prompted her to switch her principal sales item last August from burritos to tacos, as the latter are less expensive and seem to sell better. “For some reason, they stopped buying the burritos,” De Ortiz explained with a shrug as she tended an array of tortillas on her charcoal grill, where a kettle of boiling water was also perched, ready for hot chocolate and instant coffee mixes. Nearby bowls held beans, homemade red chili, chopped onions and fresh cilantro, all transported daily by van from the family home a few miles away.

De Garnica, who works alongside De Ortiz, has it somewhat easier. Her home is just 20 yards from the fence, so she and her children transport everything on foot. She began selling food directly from her home, she said, and then moved up to be closer to the action.

On a recent evening, near the two transnational taco stands, Julio, a shy 10-year-old, was pacing just inside U.S. territory, peddling packages of chewing gum, individual cigarettes and shots of tequila, the latter dispensed from a bottle hidden inside his tattered sweater. Just on the other side of the fence, his father sold beer from a cooler, another generational link in the border business chain.

“The vendors serve a very specific market,” noted Rosio Barajas Escamilla, an economist at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a research institution here. “With the economic situation in Mexico, a lot of the vendors at the border probably do a little better economically than the people in regular jobs.”

Indeed, surveys by El Colegio indicate that full-time vendors at street food stands--even more prevalent in Tijuana than strip shows and bars--typically earn two or three times the official minimum wage of $4 to $5 a day. Mexico’s economic crisis has forced many wage-earners to seek alternative ways of making a living and, along the border, that sometimes means setting up food stands at popular crossings, be they legal or illegal entry points.

This peculiar borderland service industry, of course, is dwarfed by the multibillion-dollar commerce--including assembly plants, tourism, the import-export of foodstuffs, raw materials and manufactured goods--that dominate the region. But, for the undocumented immigrants, the food sellers provide amenities and a final touch of home, helping to ease this critical juncture in the stressful and sometimes hazardous passage from Latin America into a nation many still find bewildering.

‘We Get Hungry’

“We have to wait here so long, of course we get hungry,” said Jose Martinez, a 30-year-old native of the Mexican state of Guerrero who was standing just inside U.S. territory, not far from several taco stands. “If they weren’t selling here, we’d have to walk back into Mexico to find food, or not eat anything.”

And, Martinez noted, there is another concern: Returning to Mexico means the risk of being shaken down by Tijuana and Baja California policemen, who are notorious for extorting money from migrants. “They take everything you have,” noted Martinez, who was surrounded by a group of migrants as he spoke. Perched on a hill above, uniformed U.S. border guards eyed the group warily.

The taco sales site favored by Francisca de Garnica and Rosario de Ortiz is a well-traveled spot perhaps half a mile east of the giant port of entry at San Ysidro. The spot is on a windy bluff--Rosario Ortiz refers to it as Cuatro Vientos, or Four Winds--that affords expansive views of Tijuana, the border and, stretching to the west, the Pacific Ocean. Dust in food is a constant problem, especially when U.S. Border Patrol vehicles make their frequent rounds, kicking up the earth, and, in particular, when the patrol’s helicopters pay low-flying visits.

Little Violence Seen

Although the border can be a dangerous place, the two women said they have witnessed little violence in the four years each has been selling food there. A few hundred yards to the south, a cross on the Mexican side marks the spot where a man was killed several months ago, residents said, although no one seemed to know exactly what had transpired.

Being in Mexico provides the vendors with a clear advantage, affording them protection from U.S. immigration authorities. Agents frequently patch the holes in the border barriers, but their handiwork is quickly undone by resourceful border crossers and their guides and smugglers.

As for undocumented vendors just inside U.S. territory, Marshall L. Mehlos, assistant chief Border Patrol agent, said that authorities usually warn them to return to Mexico before taking them into custody. In some popular crossing areas, notably the region known in San Diego as the soccer field, or, in Tijuana, as Canon Zapata, the vendors have erected quasi-permanent stands and exhibit little fear of la migra.

Violation of Statutes

Although merchants selling tacos from Mexican territory aren’t violating U.S. immigration laws, those vending them through the fence are clearly in violation of some federal statutes, notably those requiring documentation for merchandise sold in international trade. “Nothing should be just passed across the border,” said Bobbie Cassidy, a senior inspector with the U.S. Customs Service in San Diego.

And then, noted Cassidy, there are also assorted Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration laws. Not to mention county and city of San Diego ordinances regarding sales of foodstuffs. But no one recalls any enforcement of such regulations.

The fact is, U.S. law enforcement is barely a worry for the border taco vendors. They’ve watched on hundreds of occasions as the vehicles of la migra have arrived in clouds of dust, sending their clients scurrying back across the fence. Francisca de Garnica, for one, says she has no desire to join the legions headed north.

“I’m content here,” said Gutierrez, a 42-year-old mother of eight, many of whose children work alongside her at the stand and whose husband sells ceramic items to tourists at the official crossing point. “We earn enough to live, and we’re never lacking something to eat.”