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Tijuana Neighborhood : La Libertad: Aliens' Last Mexico Stop

September 07, 1986|PATRICK McDONNELL | Times Staff Writer

TIJUANA — On their way to a new life, tens of thousands of Mexican migrants pass through the place that they call Liberty.

The neighborhood known as Colonia Libertad rises like a teeming, swollen island of life from the sun-baked earth of the border. For several miles, the fetid arroyos, sagging dwellings and smoldering trash dumps that mark the community's northern boundary also delineate an international border negotiated more than a century ago, when it was largely an unpopulated stretch of mountain and desert.

Today, that border is illegally traversed daily by hundreds. It is the border that has defined Colonia Libertad, providing a reason for the very existence of Tijuana's oldest and best-known residential neighborhood, now the densely packed home to about 200,000.

Rapid Development

The streets of Colonia Libertad embody Tijuana's rapid development from an isolated backwater to a sprawling metropolis with a population estimated at 1.2 million. Colonia Libertad is a neighborhood--a self-contained city, really--whose evolution vividly underscores the forces of Mexican migration and reflects the long history of Mexican labor in the United States.

There are really two distinct groups in Colonia Libertad--stable residents who moved to Tijuana years ago and settled here, and the more transient migrants who are merely passing through on their way to the United States.

For many so-called pollos, or chickens, as the recent migrants from Mexico's interior and elsewhere in Latin America are known here, La Libertad is a staging area, a place to make contact with a pollero, or smuggler, and catch some rest before attempting the often-hazardous crossing into the United States. The smuggling business and its various offshoots--providing food, clothing and shelter to those heading north--is a thriving industry here.

Refuge for Exiles

But, many migrants have elected to settle in La Libertad; others return here after working for a time in the United States. The community has served as a refuge for Mexico's exiles from both south and north. The neighborhood's location, in the hills just east of downtown, provides residents a dual benefit: the peace of mind and inexpensiveness of life in Mexico, and quick access to jobs, goods and services in the United States.

La Libertad has functioned as a kind of migrant ghetto, a place where many have found a better life but others have had their dreams shattered.

"People come here from the south, and they think they're going to find dollars in the streets," said Pilar Medina, an 18-year resident who came with her husband from the Mexican interior 18 years ago. "We thought the same things when we came here. But we learned."

Nowadays, when there is barely a free plot in Colonia Libertad, homeless migrants arriving in Tijuana are forced to settle in newer and poorer neighborhoods and squatter colonies on the city outskirts--new Colonias Libertades in the making. But Libertad remains at the core of the migratory flow.

The area known as La Libertad was formerly the site of a 1920s-era race track, where abandoned stables and quarters provided the rough homes for the early settlers. The first residents were workers in Tijuana's casinos, cantinas and other establishments catering to U.S. tourists thirsting for a good time in Prohibition-era America.

In the 1930s, numerous Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, including many who had been born in the Los Angeles area, fled growing discrimination, threats of deportation and hard economic times in the United States and were repatriated in La Libertad. Later, the community was populated by thousands of so-called braceros, Mexican farm laborers who worked in the United States as part of a legal program that lasted until the mid-1960s.

Links to U.S.

Links to the United States remain strong. Some residents boast of sons who have served in Vietnam and elsewhere with the U.S. military. Many could live legally in the United States, but they prefer the lower costs and the easier pace of life in Mexico.

These days, Colonia Libertad is a mixture of comparative working-class affluence and the urban poverty endemic in Mexico.

Despite its high crime, pervasive poverty and the shortage of many basic services, Colonia Libertad is actually considered better off than some Tijuana neighborhoods, largely because many residents have earned good money--by Mexican standards--while working in the United States.

Harsh scenes of need--rough dwellings fashioned of scrap wood and tin--often exist on the same streets as well-tended, palm-shaded homes graced with elegant shrubs of bright bougainvillea. Few streets are paved.

"It's not beautiful here," said Othon Martinez, a shopkeeper who settled in the neighborhood after spending more than a decade in the United States, "but we're at home in La Libertad. We are Mexicans."

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