The Salvador familly with a stuffed animal at the shelter in Tijuana. Photo by Mimi Pollack

Saturday, May 15, was Teacher’s Day in Mexico, a day when teachers are celebrated all over the country.  As a retired teacher, it was the perfect day for me to travel to Tijuana to deliver food and supplies to a migrant shelter.

I met my friends Alba Orr, who is retired from Grossmont College, and Juan Martin Sajche, a Spanish teacher at Morse High School, at 9 a.m. that morning. We filled two cars with large bags of stuffed animals, snacks, mandarin oranges, juice boxes, and school supplies thanks to many generous donors.

Getting there and getting home was a lesson in patience. It took us an hour to cross into Mexico with cars cutting in, honking, and visible frustration. When we finally got to the line, we sailed through. If we had known we weren’t going to be stopped, we might have brought even more as there were a few bags left in my garage,

We drove through the streets of Tijuana and arrived at the shelter. There were steep steps up to the entrance of Leticia Herrera’s Pro Amore Day shelter, which is built on a canyon in a poorer part of the city.

Although numbers fluctuate, the shelter has between 120 and 170 people at any time. I saw families, single mothers, and unaccompanied minors. There were many children and teens. The migrants I spoke to were from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. They were escaping gang violence, death threats, and poverty.

Because we were late in arriving at the shelter, Sharon Katz, a very talented South African musician who lives in Tijuana, came to our rescue. She had agreed to give a mini-concert and play her guitar and sing for everyone, so she started early and kept everyone entertained as they clapped hands and sang with her. 

What struck me was how at ease everyone was. The place truly felt like a big family and a refuge. Yes, there was a little chaos, but that is to be expected.

After the music stopped, we set up a table with the stuffed animals, snacks and supplies. Everyone lined up and the kids’ eyes lit up as they chose the toys and snacks. There was plenty for everyone, and even a few adults asked if they could have a stuffed animal.

Herrera told me that when they have a surplus of food and supplies, they give it to the makeshift migrant camp, set up right at the border, called El Chaparral. People there live in tents as they wait for their number to come up for an opportunity to speak with an immigration official.

It was time to head back to San Diego. But on the way, we had to feed a few of the many stray dogs. We paid a friendly shop owner sitting on his steps and he brought out dog food for us.  There was a fairly nice looking German shepherd who was scared to death of people and cars, but we managed to feed him.

What really angered us were the so-called purebred puppies several men were carrying around and selling at the border lines. I was told they vanish when the Mexican police come around.

I always get lost in Tijuana and this day was no exception. We were not able to find the entrance to the Ready Lanes and had to get into the general line and wait two and a half hours to cross back into San Diego.   

The lines were knee deep in vendors, and we started chatting with them. Some were friendly and talked quite a bit, even if we didn’t buy. But others seemed desperate. My friend Alba bought a beautiful blanket from Oaxaca and we both bought tamales.

There was a group of Haitian vendors and one woman told me in French that she had been in Tijuana for 10 months. Many Haitians have settled there and they make their living in various ways, including selling at the border lines. These are migrants who could not get asylum, so they now have a community in Tijuana.

Going to Tijuana with stuffed animals, snacks and supplies was both soul satisfying and sad. We vowed to go back again soon to help.

Mimi Pollack is a former English as a Second Language teacher and a freelance writer.

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