Not having any contacts in the area, we turned to couchsurfing.org to look for a free place to stay and an easy way to meet a Presidio resident. Our luck could not have been better: 2 of the 3 listings for Presidio were people who worked in the immigration field at the Mexican Consulate in Presidio and they were roommates.
|Mexican Consulate employees: Jerry, Erick and Maximiliana|
We spent a significant amount of time with one of our hosts, Erick Hernandez. He drove us all over Presidio and Ojinaga and the surrounding area and introduced us to relevant people on both sides of the border.
Presidio has a population of around 5,000, a large percentage of whom work for Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement or other authority stationed on the border (ATF, DEA, etc.). The town feels very small, though when we arrived it took us quite a while to find one of the three restaurants, not because it is a large area, but because so many stores and restaurants were no longer in business. Ojinaga, just on the other side of the river, is a bustling city, home to 22,000 people and 4 small maquilas. Ojinaga and its residents have felt very few effects of the drug war, and border city Presidio has not had a murder since 1999 (debunk the spillover violence myth!). Ojinaga declares itself to be the most "unspoiled" border town which retains a strong Mexican rural culture.
The first full day we were there, we spent most the day in Ojinaga. Erick brought us over and our first stop was Mexican immigration at the foot of the bridge. We talked with some folks about deportees and migrants in the area only to learn that Presidio/OJ is not a major crossing point and very few people are even deported through this port. However, last year US immigration officials began busing in 40-80 people per day from Arizona to be deported through Ojinaga, and immediately the Mexican immigration authorities and Mexican Consulate put pressure on DHS to stop these deportations because the city had no infrastructure in place to accommodate the deportees. Fortunately, they did stop and now the city sees just a few deportees per day, if any.
From the bridge we went to the two Ojinaga shelters which can house deportees or migrants. The first was a DIF shelter (DIF is the Mexican equvalent of Child Protective Services) which houses unaccompanied minors caught crossing in the area until a family member is contacted. The second shelter was for adults and was not exclusively for migrants, instead it served as a rehabilitation center of sorts that trained people in technical skills so they could make it on their own. Unfortunately, we were not able to talk to people who ran either shelter.
|Dormitory of the DIF shelter|
That about concluded the immigration portion of our tour of Ojinaga--not a lot of services offered, but not a lot of need. Next, we went to the plaza, saw the cathedral and walked around town a bit, enjoying amazing bread from a great local bakery that bakes in a mesquite wood burning oven.
|Amazing panaderia La Francesa! See the wood burning oven in the wall?|
|Bakery employee cutting out donuts|
|Los Conchos river near the Port of Entry|
Erick then drove us about 30 miles out of town to another part of the Conchos river--this time where it has carved a huge canyon in the mountains. We made it just in time to get a good glimpse into the canyon and watch the sun set.
|Los Conchos river about 30 miles from the border as it carves canyons into the rocky hills|
After the lovely scenic tour, we dove into Ojinaga culture and had a delicious dinner of tacos and enjoyed some drinks and karoke. Eric and I realized we knew almost all the words to one of our favorites: Vicente Fernandez's Estos Celos. It was a great day.
"...jamás aprenderé vivir sin ti..."
We hung out the next few days in Presidio, often with staff of the Consulate who were very interested in our trip and eager to tell us the work they do in the community. Interestingly enough, one of our host Erick's primary tasks is to find ways to bridge the two cities of Presidio and Ojinaga and he was proud to tell us about binational events he has organized--one of which was a health fair that included a binational bicycle ride and a day of games right on the river front including a tug of war across the river! It was awesome to see that the Consulate not only does the usual administrative tasks regarding passports, visas, etc., but also seeks to create a single binational community.
It was only on the morning of our departure that we realized why the asthetics of the Presidio/Ojinaga border area were so pleasing: there is no wall! We have seen sections of the border without walls, but within cities there is often two or three walls, so this was really new. Of course, the border is a river at this point so that is a deterrent, and there is a large swath of open land on both sides of the river which makes visibility really high, but I was still really surprised to not see a fence. Not only was there not a wall, but the river was not in a concrete canal like it is in El Paso to keep it from changing course. Instead, here it just looked like a beautiful, natural river. We can only hope that all the border can look this welcoming someday.
|No fence on the Rio Grande/Bravo, U.S in the foreground, Ojinaga on the far side of the river|
|Looking north at the Chinati Mountains, Mexico on the left, U.S. on the right|