In 2012 I completed a book of essays called Geography of the Heart: Essays en la Frontera.  Below I have included some excerpts.

Geography of the Heart:

Essays en la Frontera

Yolanda Santiago Venegas

© 2012

I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am, also, much more than that.  So are we all.–Baldwin Notes of a Native Son



I was raised in the flutter of the U.S.-Mexico border. Even before I knew of places without borders and people who don’t constantly go from one world into another, the child in me was able to, at the very young age of eight, stand outside and think this is extraordinary.  My mother placed great value on our education, it was, as she saw it, our ticket to life, and so I always knew that I would one day stand outside this world and write about it.

I did not know that I would also write from it.  That the political geography of this place where I grew up–each trip across the U.S.-Mexico border–and every real, imagined, and feared encounter with those policing it was teaching me how to see.  When you grow up on the border, crossing it is the pendulum that structures your life.  You are en la linea or going to la linea or coming from la linea.  You and everyone you know and care for is constantly crossing back and forth; or trying to cross back and forth; or wishing they could cross back and forth.  And it seems to me now that each border crossing was teaching me something.  That, as Eudora Welty said of her summer family outings, each crossing was a whole unto itself, a story, not only in form, but in the direction it took, in the movement to Mexico from the U.S.; to the U.S. from Mexico.  Each crossing changing something in my life, revealing something to me, shifting the way I understood my reality.  And though I was not aware of it at the time, as I look back on them now, I see how particular border crossings changed the direction of my life, or made a particular revelation, or gave birth to some kind of clandestine yearning at work for years before finally being uncovered–like an underground narco-tunnel.  “But with the passage of time,” writes Eudora Welty of her family trips, “I could look back on them and see them bringing me news, discoveries, premonitions, promises–I still can; they still do.”1  Amen.

I began writing about the border as soon as I began to make sense in writing, and everything I have ever written, regardless of the subject, is ultimately about my experiences growing up on the edges of this no man’s land.  Officially no man’s land is actually only a corridor from sixty to ninety feet wide running along the U.S. side of the international border fence, yet the name is used to describe the whole South San Diego Bay area where I grew up.  According to local historians no man’s land was created during the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution as a way to give U.S. military troops a corridor they could use to patrol the Southern border.  It makes sense to have this no man’s land because, if private property were allowed to run up against the fence, the border patrol, military, and all other government agents wouldn’t have access to what some call a troublesome border.  Yet while a no man’s land may have been useful during the Mexican Revolutionary period, and while the U.S. Border Patrol agency claims the corridor is crucial to securing our borders, what it means today is that once people step into that strip of limbo, they have absolutely no rights as citizens or humans since they are essentially in no country.

Before the 1990’s when the technologies of the ‘War on Terror’ were transferred to border security, before underground pressure sensors, infrared night vision goggles and doppler planes made it nearly impossible to make it safely to the other side, the area was one of the main entry points for immigrants crossing into the U.S. illegally.  This means, there were border patrol agents everywhere and at all hours of the day and night: hovering over us in helicopters, riding through our neighborhood in their jeeps and SUVs; or, weather permitting, riding their dirt bikes and off-road three-wheelers through our street. The surrounding hills wear the scars of their relentless struggle to “keep our borders safe.”

My mother was a single parent and, like so many other South Bay residents, we lived there because it was where we could afford to live.  Rent is cheapest along the edges of no man’s land because many San Diegans believe what they see on the news, that there really are hordes of potentially violent Mexicans spilling over the border.  And, if you believe the negative portrayals in the local news, then you think the most dangerous part of the trek into the U.S. for the “hordes of Mexicans” is making it through the streams and wetlands of the Tijuana River bottom.  The news stories tell you that everything bad that can possibly happen in a bad place happens there: narcos use the area to disappear (or dump) their low-level runners when they become a risk; immigrants crossing by foot at night are killed by their own coyotes or by river thieves for the few hundred dollars they may be hiding sewn into their clothes; young girls from Guatemala and El Salvador are raped by gangs of coyotes, or sometimes, by the migra, who pose as their rescuers.2  Many of these things do happen, there is violence because it is an international boundary between two countries with a huge income disparity, yet the point is that the local media has a big part in creating the places that scare you–and as the essays in this book show–once there is fear, all kinds of improbable things are possible.

Growing up, instead of having a city park, we had this vast river bottom on the south side of our street.  And while the Tijuana River bottom is a dreaded place for many, we found inexplicable comfort in being able to gaze into Mexico as we pleased.  When I was twelve and my sister ten, we got our hands on a red Honda 150 motorcycle and, although it was a street bike, we would ride it up and down the dirt roads of the Tijuana River bottom all the way to the Tijuana River Estuary in Imperial Beach.  We were supposed to stay on the edge of the river bottom and never wander deep into the middle, where there were hidden quick-sand lagoons and chaparral dwellings used by the coyotes to wait out the migra, yet we rode that bike so fast, we figured we could outrun any danger lurking in the deep.  Since it is a sandy river bottom, sometimes the bike would get stuck in a wash and the person on the back would have to get off and push and push, all the while keeping an eye on our backs, aware that we were prey.  The ride was exhausting, as we were either gutting it, going as fast as the bike would go or getting stuck.  Our ride would end when we reached the beach in a place called Border Field Park.  In the spring, after the rains thickened the willow streamside forests and washed out our usual dirt roads, my sister and I could always find Border Field Park by looking for the obelisk monument on top of Monument Mesa.

I had the privilege of a generation of mentors and writers of color who guided me as I learned how to read, write, and think.  The theories and mentoring of Gloria Anzaldúa, Norma Alarcón, and José David Saldívar; the fiction and nonfiction of Ana Castillo; and Joy Haryo’s maps to the next world were my compass as I began to make sense of my own reality and the possibilities (or lack thereof) within.  Yet this came later, at the University of California.  The first writers who stirred me and helped me understand the power of language were the English writers I read when I first learned to read at Southwestern Community College.  People like Bertrand Russell and George Orwell.  People whom I had nothing in common with and whose ideas and ways of thinking were so alien to me that I had to reread them several times before “getting it.”  When I did “get it,” it was a bolt of lightning: Emotional manipulation through storytelling was something I knew–an integral part of how you survive in the borderlands–yet I had never imagined I could do it through writing!  In the end, I suppose, the most important influence in my life is the fact that I was born a woman on the U.S.-Mexico border and was forced to find my place in two realities, to continually attempt to reconcile the borders within and without.  (Attempt, by the way, is the best one can hope for).

The Far Southwest

The U.S.-Mexican Border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds

–Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera


Border Field State Park is on a mesa at the southern end of San Diego Bay.  In 1849, immediately after the U.S.-Mexican War, this range of bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean became the initial point of the boundary line dividing the newly expanded United States from Mexico–a boundary that completed the country’s westward continental expansion, making Manifest Destiny a reality.1  Until 2009 when public access to Border Field Park was closed and construction of the triple border fence began, Mexican families divided by the international border used the park to meet loved ones.  On weekends they would picnic a few feet from the border fence, part of the family on the Mexican side; part on the U.S. side, while lovers embraced each other through steel bars.  It was common then to see couples clinching through the fence kissing or at times arguing.  If there was a fight, it might have gone something like this: He wants to join the Marine Corps in order to obtain U.S. citizenship as quickly as possible, marry her, and legalize her status.  The recruiter at Southwest High School assures him the whole legalization of spouse process will take at most four months.  Once he signs up she could be in the United States legally months after they marry.  They could then begin their life together.  They both want to go to college.  She stands up and pushes him back away from Mexico and into the U.S.  She tells him what she’s told him every time he brings up the plan.  She doesn’t want him to take that risk, first, because she knows who makes up the frontlines in Afghanistan (her first cousin was given U.S. citizenship posthumously), and second, because of the principle of the thing: They are both hard working, decent, young adults and he should not have to offer his body and life in order for them to have a life together.  Tired of the same argument, she shakes away from him and stomps off, into Mexico.  “Emilia! Emilia!”  His hands grip the fence posts each time he yells.

Or.  A girl runs from Mexico into the U.S. to kiss her father, then hurries back to Mexico and her mother as the Border Patrol SUV launches toward the park.  With the Border Patrol approaching, teenagers on the Mexican side of the fence begin a game using the border fence posts as a hopscotch course, one step into the U.S., one step back to Mexico, into the U.S., back to Mexico, Mexico, U.S., Mexico-U.S., as the Border Patrol agent steps out of the SUV.  Border Patrol agents keep constant watch from the hilltop above, yet this is a public beach, and they know it is the place where families who can’t otherwise see each other meet, so they usually turn a blind eye when children slip from Mexico to the U.S. and back again as they play.

In 1971, the park was renamed “Friendship Park,” in a dedication ceremony presided by former first lady Pat Nixon.  The New York Times reported her saying, “I hate to see a fence anywhere” as she stepped into Mexico to shake hands with Mexican officials, “our friends” on the other side.  In renaming the park, U.S. park officials sought to de-emphasize “border” and emphasize “friendship” between the two countries, yet really, the way I see it, it could  just as well have been renamed “Family Dis-unification Park,” “Operation Gatekeeper Park,” or better yet, “Manifest Destiny Park.”

Even before the triple border fence, the park was never a popular destination for South San Diego Bay residents.  To get to it, you have to drive through a river bottom area often closed during winter due to flooding.

Last Thanksgiving break I decided to take a drive to Border Field Park as a way to get the kids out of the house.  My mother lives in San Ysidro, on a street bordering the Tijuana river bottom.  I drove from her house west towards Hollister and turned left.  My kids like to stop by the horse stables around Hollister and pet the horses.  As I drove around the river bottom trying to find the entrance to Border Field park through dirt roads lined with the willow trees and chaparral common to river sheds in the far Southwest, I was tailed for ten minutes, then pulled over by two Border Patrol agents in a white U.S. Border Patrol jeep.  The agents were young, most likely very recent graduates of the Border Patrol Academy.  I had my two daughters (ages four and eight) and their cousin (age four) strapped in the back seat.  The agents approached my car with their hands over their gun holsters and asked me for ID.  They then asked me to step out of the car and one of them proceeded to search the trunk.  As one searched, the other asked me what I was doing, where I lived, where I was coming from, where I was going.  I could tell these were scripted questions, out of the manual from operation X, the operation mode they are trained to enter when they encounter a suspect pretending to be… Pretending to be what, I wondered, a mother driving around hoping the kids will fall asleep?

I was jerked out of my “Gees these guys are annoying mode” by the sweat beginning to drip down the young man’s temples.  He was still holding my driver’s license and because of this I noticed his hands were shaking.  Suddenly, instead of being annoyed by a migra, I saw a young boy from somewhere in Middle America scared to death.  I imagined him as a single-mother’s pride, a young man from a broken working-class home trying to reach the American dream.  Maybe this was his ticket to college: how he would some day get the degree he needed to do some good.  Maybe become a teacher or a counselor and help other kids from single-parent homes.  The drops of sweat on his temples, the fear in his eyes, a fear he was trying to hide with a firm stare, shifted me into compassionate mode.  I decided to be as cooperative as possible.

“I was just trying to find Border Field Park,” I said.  They exchanged an “Is she crazy or what?” glance, then, after twenty minutes, satisfied that I wasn’t hiding people, weapons, or drugs, let me go.  As I drove off, I wondered about their fear of patrolling in a place that to me is a walk or a short drive through the greenery beyond my mother’s front yard.  Despite the uniform, weapons, and severe look, they are often scared to death young adults, children really, in their mind serving their country in our national and international war zones.  The American myth of upward mobility through a college education, a carrot hanging above them as they step out of the Border Patrol jeep into an unknown canyon in the middle of the night or out of the armored car in the middle of a mine-filled desert.  If a mother driving her children for a walk in the park is the suspected smuggler here, who is the suspected terrorist over there?  If they are that scared of me, how do they respond in a situation when the “suspect” is one of the many border parasites who really have no respect for life?

Other than the migra, whose job it is to patrol the area and a few daring mountain bikers, the other people who visit Border Field Park are historical enthusiasts; they go there to see the first U.S.-Mexico boundary marker monument.  The monument, a fourteen-feet-tall white marble obelisk, was designed by a company in New York specializing in marmol monuments and shipped around Cape Hope to San Diego.  It is composed of five separate pieces, together weighing over four tons.  When the monument arrived at the port of San Diego, it took 175 U.S. military personnel to transport it to its current location on Monument Mesa.  It is one of seven monuments erected by the Joint United States and Mexican Boundary Commission assigned to survey and mark the boundary line from the Pacific Coast to the other end of the U.S.-Mexico border on the Gila River in the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1887 a U.S. survey team reviewing the original border markers ordered the monument restored.  The monument was in bad shape, they said, with pieces chipped off and scribbling all over it.  If you read the Border Field Park website, it will tell you that the vandalism was due to the great popularity of the monument.  The official story is that pieces were chipped off as souvenirs, yet Michael Pallamary, who has surveyed the border for over 30 years, writes that one of the greatest challenges border surveyors face is vandalism and, when possible, total destruction of border boundary markers.  In an essay reflecting on his experiences surveying the U.S.-Mexico boundary, Pallamary writes, “One of the most important elements of rural land surveying is the establishment of durable monuments, particularly in a region historically opposed to the placement of survey markers.”2  This makes me think that while the damage to the monument the 1887 commission found could have been due to tourists’ eagerness to take a chip of Manifest Destiny with them, it could just as well have been local residents taking their axe and pick at this public memory of their defeat.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in 1848 at the end of the U.S. Mexican War, stipulated that a joint U.S.-Mexico survey commission should collaborate to demarcate the boundary line between the two countries.  The Mexican and U.S. government had to move quickly to select a commission since the treaty required that the survey of the new international border should begin one year from the signing of the Treaty on February 2, 1848.  The team started their survey of the new international line in early July of 1849, months after the date stipulated in the treaty.  The delay was in part due to the fact that the Gold Rush had hit California at about the same time and this made securing passage on a ship and purchasing the needed supplies much harder.  The prices for basic necessities skyrocketed with the Gold Rush.

Mexico assigned their most experienced surveyors and engineers to the joint commission.  General Pedro García Conde, one of the most respected engineers and cartographers, was appointed as Mexican commissioner.  García Conde requested that José Salazar Ylarregui, a professor of geodesy in the Colegio de Minería, serve as chief surveyor.  As first assistant, the Mexican survey team included Francisco Jiménez, a professor of mechanics and Francisco Martínez de Chivero, a professor of fortifications.

The men assigned to the Mexican survey team where among the most experienced and distinguished cartographers and engineers in Mexico.  The business of cartography and surveying Northern Mexico was tied to the mining industry, so it is not surprising that these men were Mexico’s leading scientists.  They were the founders and professors of the Colegio de Minería, the university in Mexico charged with training the experts of the booming mining industry.  They were the elite of Mexican science; men who lived for their maps and charts.3

The U.S. commission was a more mixed group of civilian and military members.  President James Polk assigned John B Weller, a former Ohio Congressman, war hero of the U.S.-Mexican War, and unsuccessful candidate for governor, to head the commission.  Andrew Gray, who had worked to survey the boundary in Texas, was appointed U.S. Surveyor; and William Emory the chief astronomer, head of the Commission’s Topographical Scientific Corps, and officer in command of the military escort.  Of these men Emory had been attached to military operations in the Southwest and had the most experience in the area.

Locating the precise point dividing the two countries on this mesa hanging over the Pacific coastline was the first task of the joint U.S.-Mexico Survey Commission.  Once they located the southernmost point of San Diego Bay, they could “run the line” from that point on the Pacific the 1969 miles across the Southwest to the Gulf of Mexico.  As soon as the formal introductions were completed the Mexican surveyor, Salazar Ylarregui, and the American surveyor, William Emory, met to calibrate their chronometer and compasses and began their survey to determine the southernmost part of San Diego Bay.

The controversies began immediately.  Since there were no maps of the Southwest when The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, treaty negotiators had to rely on the maps of the Spanish explorers.  For the San Diego Bay region, they were instructed to use a map drawn by Don Juan Pantoja in 1782.  The problem was that between 1782 and 1849 the topography of San Diego Bay had shifted dramatically.  Rivers, salt marches, and other peculiar features in the map had changed.  The Mexican surveyor, Salazar Ylarregui, thought the southernmost point of the port was farther north, while the American survey team argued that because the Pantoja map was attached to the treaty, they were bound by the representations on that map.  William Gray, the American surveyor, solved the controversy by proposing that as the southernmost point they use a range of bluffs bordering low salt flats, which were clearly identifiable on the Pantoja map.4

Another difficulty faced by the survey commission was the contradictory guidelines within the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.  The guidelines for establishing the California boundary in the treaty were inconsistent.  First, the treaty said the line used to divide Upper and Lower California during the Mexican period from 1820-1851 should be used, then it stated that a straight line should be drawn from the Gila River to the shores on the Pacific.

There were also differences in the surveying methods used by the U.S. and American survey teams.  While the treaty stipulated that the topographical engineers demarcate the new international boundary “with due precision,” the immediate problem was that there was a Mexican and an American way to determine due precision.  Both commissioners generally used the same means for surveying and marking the boundary line: they established astronomical observations at various points to determine the latitude and longitude of their position.  Yet Emory emphasized astronomical determinations, while Conde preferred the more accurate and costly method of triangulation. Disagreements between the U.S. and Mexican members of the boundary commission started in 1848, with the first boundary marker on this mesa spilling into the Pacific, and continued six years and 1969 miles later, when they placed the last of 259 boundary markers about fifteen miles west of El Paso Texas, at the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez border.

“Where exactly do we throw the line?”  “Where does the U.S. end and Mexico begin?  Where does Mexico end and the U.S. begin?  These are questions this land remembers.  Questions to live by.

Once the commission established that the initial point on the Pacific was this range of hills at the southern end of the salt marshes, they held something like a “here the new boundary line commences” ceremony and buried a hermetically-sealed bottle enclosed with a sworn statement in English and Spanish stating that, “The demarcation of boundary between the United States and Mexican Republic shall commence at this point…”5 That bottle remains buried at the base of the border monument.  Local historian Charles Hughes found a newspaper article about the ceremony in The Illustrated London News that reported, “during these ceremonies the countenances of the Mexican Commissioners exhibited a remarkable degree of gravity: they did not forget that they were affixing the last seal to the treaty for the dismemberment of their Republic.”

García Conde and Ylarregui knew the Southwest better than any of the Mexican treaty negotiators.  Unlike most Mexicanos, they had ridden through and mapped greater Mexico.  In fact, they knew more about the land that would become the U.S. Southwest than most Mexican or U.S. officials.  Only native people who lived in the land since the beginning of time knew more about the far Southwest than them.  After losing 1.2 million miles or over half of their territory, or what today comprises the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico and the greater part of Texas, Nevada, Colorado, and Utah, they were outraged that the winners would still find a way to wiggle the boundary line farther south in their favor.

My grandmother’s family was living in the area when the survey commission established the new U.S.-Mexico boundary line.  In 1848, my grandmother’s great grandparents, José Maria Contreras and Lugarda de Contreras, were cattle ranchers living along the Tijuana River Valley.  At the end of the U.S.-Mexican War they were in the prime of their lives, 27 and 26 years old.  I do not know which side they rooted for.  The area is arid desert, and there were few settlements, so those who came to settle were either foreign adventurers in search of a way to make a fortune, ex-soldiers who took the government’s offer of land for military service, or poor Mexicanos with nowhere else to go.  The population then was a mix of local natives, Yaquis and other native Southwest people displaced by the U.S. and Mexican governments, mainland Mexicanos, and foreigners.  Some of the foreigners who eventually moved to the border area were people who initially came to Southern Baja and left after copper mines and other foreign ventures began to dwindle.

During the Mexican period, my great great grandparents ran a ranch just above the boundary between Alta and Baja California.  If the joint commission had decided to use the Alta California-Baja California boundary marker recognized during the Mexican period, their ranch would have been included in the United States. Yet because the commission relied on the Pantoja map, the new boundary split not only their grazing fields, but their family lands, mountains, rivers, and skies.

Because the U.S.-Mexico border came to them, they were given the option to become citizens of either the United States or Mexico.  The family was split, as some of them stayed in Tijuana Mexico, while others went to San Diego on the U.S. side.  They would never recuperate from the choice of that nonchoice.  Each side always wondering if they had made the right choice, with everything good or bad always bound to that nonchoice choice.  And then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, they had to pass down the nonchoice choice to each succeeding generation, so that everything good and bad remains bound to that nonchoice choice.

Jose Maria Contreras and Lugarda de Contreras died in 1895, within three months of each other.  They were buried in the cemetery in Old Town, San Diego, where all the other original settlers of the area were buried.  It was the only cemetery in town.  Then in 1968 the city of San Diego, in collaboration with the state of California Office for Historic Preservation, decided to “move” the remains of Jose and Lugarda from the cemetery in Old Town to a new Pioneer Cemetery on a secluded hilltop a few miles away.  Today, their gravestones sit on a mound in my aunt Gracie’s back yard.  She and her father were reading the Sunday paper one day when they came across the public announcement in the San Diego Union that anyone who had relatives buried in the Old Town cemetery was welcome to pick up their gravestones, since the remains were about to be relocated in the effort to develop historic Old Town into one of the city’s premier tourist attractions.

Although families were assured all the remains were collected into the new communal ‘pioneer grave,’ as a ten-year-old school child, compulsively guided through historic Old Town by the school system, all I could think about was that I had to find a way to not walk though the Victorian replicas built where the cemetery once stood, for fear of walking over my great-great-grandparents.

If you visit Border Field Park today and stand on the cliff where the U.S. Boundary Commission established that initial boundary point and follow the new triple border fence west, you will be struck by just how far into the Pacific Ocean the recently reconstructed triple border fence actually goes.  When you see this, you may ask, why does the U.S.-Mexico border fence need to go that far?  Certainly its purpose is not to keep potential border crossers out, since all they have to do is wait for the tide to change and they can easily swim across.  You will wonder if perhaps it goes that far to discourage wild Mexican teenagers trying to surf their way into the land of milk and honey?  Some have been caught trying this.  The answer is actually much more simple: It goes that far because everything in this no man’s land goes that far and farther.

1 One Writer’s Beginnings, 68.

2 Coyotes are people smugglers, they guide illegal immigrants into the U.S.; narcos are drug pushers involved in narcotrafico or drug-smuggling operations; migra is the U.S. Border Patrol agency or a border patrol agent.

1 Charles Hughes, ““La Mojonera.”

2 Michael Pallamary, “The Unforgiving Boundary,” 4.

3 Joseph Richard Werne The Imaginary Line.

4 Hughes, “La Mojonera.”

5 Werne, 136.




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