July 28, 2006

Border Teens - Riding the Line

Filed under: First Person, Feature Articles, Reporters' Blogs — Karl-Erik Stromsta @ 1:55 pm

Text & photos by Karl-Erik Stromsta

Helen Brady and Bielcka Ramirez live just a few miles apart – practically neighbors by L.A. standards. Yet the two teenagers have never met, and they likely never will. Helen lives on the Arizona border, in Naco; Bielcka lives on the other side, in Mexico.

For most Americans, “the border” is an abstraction. For Helen and Bielcka it is painfully real: The horizon-riding corrugated steel barrier – rusted in spots, barbed in others – separating their two nations.

Helen is training with the Border Patrol. Bielcka lives in fear of the corrupt Mexican police. Being a teenager is difficult enough. Being a teenager on the edge of a nation is downright bewildering.

Click to read the full story, as it appeared in L.A. Weekly.

June 28, 2006

First Time at the Border: An Odd Game

Filed under: First Person, Reporters' Blogs — Diana Day @ 8:02 am

By Diana Day

The long fence to the sea
The long fence to the sea at Border Fields State Park in San Diego County — the most Southwestern point in the U.S.
A man slips through the fence to try out the water State side.
A man slips through the fence to try out the water State side
An obelisk marker on the US-Mexico border
An obelisk marker on the U.S.-Mexico border, a light house on the Tijuana side.

“What an odd game,” said Shawna, my reporting colleague.

We were looking at a man slipping through an opening in the boards of the fence that divides the United States from Mexico. The two of us were standing up high on a bluff overlooking the beach at Border Fields State Park in San Diego County — the most Southwestern point in the U.S.

Once across, the man dipped his foot into the water.

We looked back at our guide, Damon Foreman, the Public Information Officer from the local Customs and Border Protection sector office, to see his reaction to the intrusion down below on the beach.

Agent Foreman was unimpressed. He explained that a border breach has to be intentional, substantial for him to make a move. A man sampling the U.S. ocean waters with his toe is therefore not actionable.

We looked back at the beach. Mission accomplished, the man disappeared back between the boards into Mexico.

To our left, on top of the bluff, there were people milling around the fence on the Mexico side, Tijuana’s empty bull ring behind them.

There, on the other side of the obelisk marking the border, a young couple strolled along the fence, holding hands and looking wistful. I imagined that one of them was planning to cross over that night and that their sad walk was a farewell.

With my intruder’s camera dangling from my neck, I climbed back into the comfortable air-conditioned Border Patrol vehicle.

Suddenly, I remembered a weekend getaway a few years ago in Rosarito Beach, not far from the very border where I was now standing: for breakfast one of those mornings, my husband and I ate scrambled eggs with chorizo and fresh flour tortillas, possibly one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten. Because of that weekend, I’ll never, ever be able to listen to mariachi music without tearing up.

The memory made me realize that this was my first trip to the border as a non-tourist.

I glanced back toward the opening in the beach border fence where the chubby man had ventured through to try out the forbidden waters. I couldn’t help feeling bad, knowing that I’d easily head home to my husband and children as soon as my day’s work was over.

June 27, 2006

12-Gauge Shells and Chocolate Donuts

Filed under: First Person, Reporters' Blogs — Karl-Erik Stromsta @ 3:42 pm

By Karl-Erik Stromsta

Shell casings

Things had been difficult at times. We’d all been a little whiny, sure. A little overly sensitive. But things had also been difficult.

During the course of two trips to Southern Arizona for our interminable “Teen Life On the Border” story, we had put up with (in no particular order): self-righteous teenagers; unctuous PR hacks; long-winded religionistas; evasive Border Patrol agents; equipment with an infatuation for breaking; the barbarous Arizona sun; cornea-clawing dust storms; patchy cell-phone service; laughable hotel Wi-Fi; thousands of miles in a cramped rental car; and more than half a dozen gut-busting trips to “family fun” chain restaurants, complete with kitschy bric-a-brac and thousand-calorie hamburgers.

But hey, at least no one had pulled a gun on us, right?

Cut to our last day in Arizona, and what was to be our final – and perhaps most crucial – interview:

It was 6 a.m. and we’d been up since before dawn shooting sunrise B-roll at the border fence. We were exhausted. We bought a box of chocolate Entenmann donuts and picked up our 14-year-old interviewee. Sweetly, she suggested we head down to the river behind her neighbor’s house to set up our equipment. The lights and colors were flawless down there, making the people on camera glow.

Things started smoothly. We were getting what we needed. Sound bites were falling like low-hanging fruit. Then, 18 minutes in, the staccato crackle of gunfire.

Our interviewee blushed. “Oh, that’s just Amos,” she said. “My neighbor.”

“He must be hunting, right?” we asked anxiously.

The interview recommenced – only to be interrupted by gunfire a second time. Closer – just beyond the trees.

We (quickly) wrapped up the interview and (quickly) marched back to our Kia minivan, which suddenly seemed like it had walls made of origami paper. And then we saw them: Outside the driver’s door on the dirt slept four shotgun shells, still warm, coiled like desert adders. Waiting for us. The message couldn’t have been clearer if it were a severed horse’s head: It’s time for you folks to clear out. Time to get out of Arizona and head home.

Message received, loud and clear. Aisle seat, please.

The next time I heard gunfire (or was it a car backfiring?) outside my L.A. apartment, I couldn’t help but smile. Everything in its right place. And at least when people fire guns in Koreatown they have the decency to clean up their shells.

Who ARE You?

Filed under: First Person, Reporters' Blogs — David Eisenberg @ 1:31 pm

By David Eisenberg

Just another afternoon in the last 10 feet of the United States

“Ring Ring”

I answered my cell phone in the shadow of the border fence … yet again. My team and I were shooting b-roll at Border Fields State Park in San Diego - the Southwesternmost point in the United States.

“Hey, what are you up to?” my friend asked when I picked up.

“Oh, the usual. Hanging out at the fence. Chattin’ up the Border Patrol,” I replied.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time at the border - working on stories in Southern Arizona and San Diego. And by ‘at the border’ I mean, quite literally, ‘At The Border’ - spending hours upon hours within sight of the boundary fence. My friends have become rightly puzzled.

“Who ARE you? - This isn’t normal,” she continued, “You haven’t taken up … you know … smuggling … anything or anyone have you?”

“No,” I replied, “…Not yet, anyway.”

The stadium housing Tijuana’s immense bull ring loomed over me, just a single city block and one fairly insubstantial chain-link fence away from where I stood.

“Good,” she laughed, not quite joking. “I was just checking - call me when you’re on your way home.”

“I will,” I said and hung up.

Just another afternoon in the last 10 feet of the United States.

June 26, 2006

Two Cities, Two Families

Filed under: First Person, Reporters' Blogs — Leo Juarez @ 10:53 pm

By Leo Juarez

On location in San Bernardino
On location in San Bernardino

When we set out to do a story about two cities (Maywood and San Bernardino, Calif.) on opposite sides of the immigration debate, it was relatively easy to get the “talking heads” — city officials, community activists, etc.

The real challenge was finding those who had the biggest stake in this debate — ordinary undocumented residents (or illegal immigrants … whichever terminology you prefer). But we knew from the beginning that it was through their perspective that we needed to tell our story.

It took us several weeks, but we finally found two families who were willing share their hopes and fears with us on camera, though they had nothing to gain from doing so. Simply having the time to gain the trust of these folks is one of the advantages of this initiative.

And while it’s true that the recent immigrant movement has emboldened those who are accustomed to life in the shadows, it still humbles me that these two families stuck their necks out for our sake — or, more accurately, for the sake of our story.

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