Human migration is a global phenomenon that has become a defining feature of life in the 21st century – per the United Nations, “An estimated 244 million people currently live outside their country of origin, many having moved for a variety of reasons in which the search for protection and the search for opportunity are inextricably entwined.” To contend with migratory flows, the United States federal government, under Presidential administrations of both parties, has worked across several decades to “harden” the US-Mexico border. Despite these efforts, growing numbers of people of Mexican and Central American ancestry are now found in cities and towns throughout the United States, demanding ever greater language and cross-cultural competencies of leaders and institutions. And for all the popular portrayals in the news and social media, the overwhelming preponderance of human encounters along the US-Mexico border continue to be characterized by fundamental human values like family, work, friendship and communion.
These values are powerfully on display at three historic sites in San Diego and Tijuana, sites that function as important sites of pilgrimage in the US-Mexico borderlands.
Chicano Park was established on April 22, 1970, when local activists demanded that land under the Coronado Bridge be donated to the community. Over time, the bridge’s pillars became a canvas for the artistic expression of Chicano culture. Chicano Park, now the largest outdoor mural park in the nation, has received international recognition as a major public art site for its commanding mural paintings of the past and present struggle of Mexican and Chicano history. The park has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2016. Chicano Park receives many thousands of visitors throughout the year, culminating in the annual anniversary event (Chicano Park Day), typically attended by up to 15,000 people.
La Plaza “El Chaparral” is adjacent to the Garita El Chaparral, the pedestrian crossing of the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the busiest land border crossing in the world. Tens of thousands of people cross through the Garita El Chaparral each day while commuting to work from Tijuana to San Diego. Thousands also arrive annually at La Plaza “El Chaparral” to seek asylum in the United States.
Friendship Park is the historic binational meeting place overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the US-Mexico border. At the park’s center stands a stone monument first established at the end of the U.S.-Mexico War to demarcate the new international boundary. The monument’s base sits half in the United States and half in Mexico, symbolizing the international friendship called for in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. On August 18, 1971, then-First Lady Pat Nixon inaugurated the surrounding area in the U.S. as California’s Border Field State Park, expressing hope that the site would someday be home to an “International Friendship Park.” This location has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974. Thousands of people visit the Mexican side of Friendship Park each weekend. Thousands more visit each year and from both sides of the border to visit with their loved ones “through the wall.”
Each of these sites receives thousands of visitors annually. What do we have to learn from the people who visit these historic locations, and from the local leaders who serve as “curators” and “custodians” of them?