Friendship Park Communion Continues
Yesterday I drove from midtown San Diego a half an hour south to Border Field State Park to observe an activist and community ritual that has been happening every Sunday for the last 6 months. John Fanestil and other San Diegans meet in a parking lot a mile north of the Mexican/U.S. border and then walk to the beach, then down it to the sand-embedded border wall, and then up a short hill to the top of a mesa where the historic Friendship Park has been located as a monument to international relations since the early 70s.
There they meet a group assembled on the Mexican side and then Fanestil, Methodist pastor, executive director of San Diego Foundation For Change, and a former Rhodes Scholar, leads a communion service, dipping tortillas into wine and blessing each participant, slipping the sacrament through the tiny spaces in the fence for those on the south side.
In addition to this relatively recent weekly ritual, Friendship Park has for decades been a unique spot for people on both sides of the border to get together. Families separated by the vagaries of immigration policy and the physical consequences of economics and politics were able to at least hold hands and speak face to face through the bars and mesh of the wall.
But with the new additions to border infrastructure mandated by the 2006 Secure Fence Act, the fate of Friendship Park and the surrounding area has been in doubt. Just down the road, Smuggler's Gulch, a massive canyon, has been filled in with millions of cubic feet of dirt as part of the Department of Homeland Security's efforts to curb unauthorized entry and trafficking, and a triple fence is on its way to the ocean from there. For the last months of 2008, the U.S. Border Patrol had been hinting that they were willing to make a compromise with the public and put a gate in the secondary fences, in order to continue to provide visitors with a way to use Friendship Park.
However, on January 6, two weeks ago, the agency announced suddenly that they would not be making any such accomodations, and that in fact the entire park would be demolished and off-limits. They allege that contraband trafficking through the wall is too difficult for them to control. Outraged community members led by Fanestil pledged to continue their weekly symbolic demonstration. On the following Sunday when they showed up, they were told be one USCBP official at the entrance to the monument that they were no longer allowed in. They entered anyway, accompanied by reporters, and agents seemed reluctant to make any arrests or take other action "with all the cameras around."
Yesterday, prepared for even more trouble, I took the walk with Fanestil, 20 or so other activists, human rights observers, and fellow media (from a local NBC affiliate, NPR, AP, and a documentary crew from HBO, as well as various other area and independent journalists). Perhaps again because of the protective gaze of reporters, agents seemed even less willing to create a cconfrontation, and they stayed out of the immediate vicinity, though watchful from a distance, and there was no contact or communication with them. Around the small cement circle of the monument and park, a swath of graded dirt and plastic orange fencing scarred the area and marked it as a site of transition.
It's uncertain how long the Sunday ceremony will be able to go on. Will DHS continue its destruction of this historic and socially valuable site? In a way I wish I could stay here in San Diego and return every week, in order to see what will happen with my own eyes and lens.
But instead, this project dictates that I must take to the road again and head east in search of other stories and other hotspots along this imaginary line we call the border. Today I drive 2 hours out to the Imperial Valley, hoping to meet and talk with members of that community about their lives in their part of this 2000-mile long, 100 mile or so wide region of the borderlands.
Coming Soon: Video footage from Friendship Park, and an interview with a San Diegan electro-pop musician and activist whose songs are an effort to counteract the climate of xenophobia and cross-border tension - as soon as I have a chance to sit down with my tapes and edit.