Experiences in Tijuana: An Undergraduate Perspective

By Oswaldo Martinez

Edited by Ricardo Tomas Light

October 29, 2016
PC: Connor Harron

PC: Connor Harron

Since the day I was born I have feared the unknown. Distrust of strangers, different regions, and borders has been a safety mechanism of my generation. This uneasiness reverberates throughout many Chicano communities in Los Angeles. For the better half of my life, this fear arrested my ambition for travel outside of the United States. Despite this, however, my parents have made sure to introduce my brother and me to their homeland and remind us of our Mexican heritage. Tijuana soon became a familiar place in my adolescence. Now, as a senior at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), I would be returning to volunteer with Create Purpose, an after-school education and child-centered development program for children at the Niños De La Promesa orphanage.

The Tijuana I remember was a second home to me growing up. It was a foreign urban landscape. One where stray dogs roamed the streets, where taquerias could be seen on every corner and many roads were merely dirt and gravel. The growing influence of globalization was unmistakable long before Uber came to Tijuana. The City had yet to be reached by Google maps and Yelp. I have always enjoyed spending time with my relatives in Tijuana, eating amazing authentic tacos, or waking up in the morning to shop at the corner store. There was a normality to Tijuana. It wasn’t the scary mythological city I heard about as an American. Once I looked beyond the tattered surface of the City and realized that people aren’t so different from one place to another, Tijuana it felt natural to me. This was not the same Tijuana we hear about in the states. This was not a Tijuana to be feared.

Now at 21, I would be traveling to Tijuana for a different purpose along with two friends, Connor Harron, a doctorate student of Social Ecology and organizer of our trip, and Ricardo Light, a graduate student of Urban Planning. We would be meeting with Nicolas Sandoval, founder of Create Purpose, as representatives of UCI, to assist the orphanage with their Urban Agriculture program.

Crossing the border, after a long hiatus from Mexico, challenged me to overcome my fears of traveling once again. Having only childhood memories of Tijuana, I was unsure of what changes to expect upon entering the city that I had come to love. Connor, who has made countless trips to this modern day Tijuana for research, discussed some of these changes during our drive south from Irvine. According to him, Chicano and Mexican college graduates must take ownership of ability to improve the lives of those who lack the same opportunities. They can pave the way for social change, retrofitting infrastructure, new businesses, vibrant nightlife, and augmented tourist experiences.

PC: Connor Harron

PC: Connor Harron

Tijuana is becoming an economically prosperous metropolis through the process of gentrification. I found the idea of Mexican Hipsters quite humorous, but if there’s anything that my travels have taught me, it’s that ideas spread rapidly in today’s world. This is especially the case in a border town. Many parts of Tijuana are still underdeveloped, particularly some residential areas, which are built on heavily eroded landscapes. Much of the City, however, felt like an extension of San Diego. This left me quite confused. Economic and aesthetic health is good for a community, but is it costing us our cultural identity?

We arrived at the orphanage early in the morning to begin work. Nicolas and Edith, newlyweds, welcomed us with open arms. Slowly, they helped to erode pre-existing fears and establish a comfortable environment for us to work in. The explosive passion and deep regard for the children that our new friends demonstrated were contagious. Leading a relatively young NGO, it was clear that Nicolas was still developing his capacities as a leader for his promising work. Permaculture farms, like Nicolas’ Urban Agriculture program, have the capacity to evolve into commercial projects as a means of establishing self-sustaining communities. Coming from a business background, he taught me the value of blending sustainability with business & development. In that sense, I viewed him as a mentor, and my cynicism in the new Tijuana was fading away.

The garden was designed in a shape of a circular labyrinth. It was our collective job to perform a Double Excavation in order to replenish the existing soil. We dug trenches following a preset pattern set by blueprints from the garden’s master plan. We added a foot of nutritious soil mixed with water, compost, and manure before covering the last foot with topsoil. Additional compost was added to the surface before it was watered and covered by tarps. The modifications optimized on increased porosity, which would properly aerate the soil and allow for water to infiltrate to depth, while minimizing losses due to evapotranspiration. It is moments like these that I cherish more than anything. Meeting new people and learning from their experiences has catalyzed my personal growth and maturity in my own journey to become a leader in sustainability.

PC: Connor Harron

PC: Connor Harron

At the orphanage, I made the acquaintance of Lizeth and Ottoniel, volunteering on behalf of Consciencia Plena, or Complete Conscience, an organization based in Tijuana that serves to empower its members through training to lead happier lives. Lizeth of Oceanside, 14, makes frequent trips with her mom to Tijuana on the weekends to spend time with Consciencia, whom she considers to be her second family. Ottoniel, a middle-aged Mexican man, teaches secondary school Chemistry. He briefed me on the positive impacts that the organization has had on him. These experiences, coupled with prior experiences with people from distinct parts of the world, have taught me a new meaning of happiness. Looking back on the countless stories I’ve heard on my travels across Latin America and Australia, I am reminded of the importance of valuing family and friends over material possessions. This recurring theme continues as I venture to new places and challenge my fears of opening myself to new philosophies and cultures. Liz exhibits wisdom beyond her years, for she has come to appreciate a Mexico that many Americans fail to acknowledge.

People make experiences memorable. This became clear to me as I saw the children enter the garden with bright enthusiasm, hoping to offer a hand, and relieve us of our labor. “Quiero ayudar!” yelled, Kevin, one of the orphans, as he offered to take the pickaxe off my hands. To my disbelief, the boys beat the ground with the strength of fully-grown men. Those without tools worked on watering duty and would occasionally spray us with water out of sheer excitement (it wasn’t always clear if it was accidental or not, nor did it really matter to anyone). Our day’s work was finished in no time. We marveled at the new labyrinth we had created. I left the orphanage feeling both admirations for the children and certain that Nicolas’s vision will become a reality.

We spent our last day with Nicolas and Edith enjoying some delicious hand-roasted Coffee and Mexican dishes, discussing potential opportunities to continue the partnership between UCI and Create Purpose after Connor moves to Costa Rica. Observing the economic and social benefits of this program, I realized that UCI must reinforce its ties to Nicolas. Create Purpose launched this program 6 months ago and are in the process of transforming the lives of these children as a means of fighting malnutrition and giving them the skill sets they need to succeed. As a University dedicated to project-based research, we can learn from the social and economic benefits of such programs, and work to improve them to establish other organizations to follow similar models for an urban landscape.

Perhaps, through this vision, Tijuana may become more than just an extension of San Diego. I would love nothing more than to witness these children grow up and give back to their communities. That vision, if brought to completion, will expand the prosperity of the city to impoverished communities, without compromising the identity of the Tijuana I have to come love as another home.

PC: Connor Harron

PC: Connor Harron


About the Author

Oswaldo Martinez is a senior training in Earth System Science. Following his experience with SERES in Guatemala, he sought further opportunities to work with the Global Sustainability Resource Center (GSRC) at UC Irvine. Oswaldo was given the opportunity to work with fellow SISL alumni to mentor new generations of freshmen and transfers during the summer. He has interned with the Campus As a Living Lab Program under the guidance of Fernando Maldonado and Matthew Garrambone, studying and practicing agriculture at the Arroyo Vista Gardens. His interest in water drew him to work with Dr. Dave Feldman, Dr. Stanley Grant, and UCI Water PIRE, who gave the opportunity to travel to Melbourne, Australia to research green infrastructure and water policies implemented in Melbourne as a response to Millennium Drought. Oswaldo is currently in his last year at UCI, preparing for the next steps after college. He plans to continue studying water policy and agriculture in order to volunteer for Peace Corps after graduating.