Teachable moments at a border symbol


I tried to give my kids a “teachable moment” when we drove through Tijuana this summer. But in the end, I was the one who got schooled.

I figured it’s a dad’s responsibility to pass on certain lessons about the way the world works. So I showed my boys, ages 10 and 12, the fence that divides the United States from Mexico.

That steel barrier cuts an unnaturally straight line across a river, a canyon and a hillside or two. Its mere size makes a statement -- the way it seems to disappear into the Pacific and over a mountaintop, as far as the eye can see.


Seeing the border fence, I figured, would teach my kids a lesson about inequality and what it means to be born on one side and not another. They might see, with a bit more clarity, the privilege that comes with being citizens of the United States of America.

I also was carrying on a Tobar family tradition.

When I was a boy of 5 or 6, my father took me to Tijuana. We reached a spot where you could see a shantytown of tin that stretched for hundreds of yards -- or, at least, that’s how I remember it four decades later.

He stopped the car to show me “what poverty looks like.” Spoken in Spanish by him, the words carried extra weight. Pobreza. He had been poor in Guatemala. It was as if he were saying: Our story begins in a place like this.

We were a happy Los Angeles family then. We owned a new, sky-blue Volkswagen Beetle and lots of books in English. We were not poor, in any sense of the word.

In the coming years, I started to forget my Spanish, but I always remembered the meaning of “pobreza.” Probably it made me study a little harder. I guess that was the point.

Of course, trying to teach your kids lessons about “where we come from” is a long, proud American tradition. It’s why Angelenos take their kids to weekend Mandarin schools or classes in Irish folk dance or to museums that tell of the horrors of the Shoah.

Even the president of the United States can feel the pull of a history many generations distant. When Barack Obama visited Africa in July, he did something thousands of black Americans have done -- he took his daughters to see the fort where thousands of enslaved people passed through “the Door of No Return.”

The fence at Tijuana isn’t exactly a “Door of No Return.” But it is a symbol of the great social distance between Latin America and the United States. And it’s just a few hours’ drive away.

But replicating my father’s teachable Tijuana moment with my own kids wasn’t easy.

For starters, Tijuana is a much scarier place now than it used to be. Drug cartels and gangland shootouts: The news doesn’t encourage you to take a family vacation there.

Once, you could walk up to the fence on the U.S. side at Border Field State Park. Then Homeland Security started building a second, sturdier fence there earlier this year, shutting off access to the picnic benches and the border monument.

I gave up on visiting the fence for a while. Then last month, my wife insisted we vacation in Baja California. The fence, seen from the Mexican side, became a “scenic” stop on the way to Ensenada.

We caught our first glimpses of it while driving through Tijuana.

As many a parent can testify, it’s hard to impress a 10- or 12-year-old boy with anything that’s not computer-generated. My sons, however, looked momentarily awe-struck.

“Where does it go to?” they asked.

“To the ocean,” I said.

I explained how people used to cross easily before the fence was built. Finally it just got too crazy, and the United States built first one set of barriers and then another.

I wanted to stop at the beach where the fence ends, but we couldn’t, because we needed to get to Ensenada before dark.

We spent four days in Ensenada -- a very pleasant trip, I’m happy to report. I did have to explain why there were Mexican soldiers with machine guns at assorted highway checkpoints. That was another kind of teachable moment I hadn’t quite expected.

On our return trip north, we finally stopped at the Playas de Tijuana beach and walked down to the sand at the place where the fence reaches the Pacific. My sons had lots of questions.

“Can’t you just swim around it?”

“No,” I said. I pointed to some poles on the other side. “See those cameras? The Border Patrol will see you right away.”

There were three men with backpacks sitting on the bluff nearby. One of them had binoculars and was watching a helicopter patrolling in the distance.

“When you’re in Mexico City you don’t feel like you’re in a prison,” my wife said later. We had lived in Mexico’s capital for three years. “But when you get to that fence, you feel like it is a prison. Like you can’t leave.”

My kids won’t understand everything about the fence until they’re older, I think. There on the beach, they saw it mostly as a geographical curiosity.

“Look, papa,” my oldest said as he stuck his toes under the steel. “I’m standing in two countries at the same time.”

We soon joined the long line of cars waiting to cross back into the United States. I had all of our passports. But I was suddenly nervous. Maybe we look like a bunch of immigrants, I thought.

When we reached the border, I told the agent inside the booth, “We’re Americans!” I said it too loudly, and he looked up at me and smiled.

“Americans?” he said with mock surprise. “That’s great!”

He asked where had we traveled. I flattened out the Spanish vowels of “Ensenada” so that I would sound like the native English speaker I am. En-suh-na-duh. I said it with a bit of a drawl, in fact.

Moments later as we accelerated away from the border on Interstate 5, my wife was laughing. “All of a sudden,” she said, “you’re Mister Gringo.”

Obviously, even with a U.S. passport in my hand, I still have this little voice in my head telling me they might not let me back into my own country. It’s silly, I know. But it has everything to do with being the son of immigrants in an age when fences are being built to keep other immigrants out.

On my trip to the border, I learned that the fence is in my brain. And that it can take hold of my tongue.

This is as it should be.

We shouldn’t forget the fence is there. It’s a statement in steel about the rule of law. It’s a reminder that millions of people continue to live among us who can be tossed back across at any moment. The fence is a symbol of the divisions that run deep in the California cities we call home and in the collective California psyche.

I’m pretty sure my sons will always remember the day they touched it.