TIJUANA — "Con todo? " Francisca Gutierrez de Garnica asked the hefty man standing on the other side of the fence. "With everything?"
It was yet another taco transaction in Tijuana. But this slice of business was different, a singular snip of international commerce that embodies the entrepreneurial spirit and binational character of the U.S.-Mexican border.
The fence through which Gutierrez, the taco vendor, handed her tasty rolled delicacy was none other than the 10-foot-high barrier separating the United States from Mexico. Her client was an undocumented migrant waiting just inside U.S. territory in anticipation of nightfall and his trek farther north, into the U.S. interior, where, he hoped, a job awaited him.
"\o7 Muy sabroso\f7 " he said of his quick repast, after having passed his payment of 1,500 pesos--about 60 cents--through the chain-link barrier that separates north from south. "Very tasty."
It is international trade at its most basic and fundamental, a microcosm of the booming commerce that characterizes the border zone.
As the international boundary line winds for almost 2,000 miles, through harsh desert, jagged mountains, semitropical flatlands and fast-growing cities, vendors and
other free-lance entrepreneurs are everywhere, trying to make a buck. Operating from elaborate stands or with only simple coolers and boxes, the merchants peddle items from beer to clothing, from burritos to doughnuts, cigarettes to sodas. Other entrepreneurs act as guides and smugglers, while still others lift customers across the shallow waters of the Rio Grande or erect home-made bridges on the Tijuana River, charging minimal tolls. There is money to be made.
Following their clients--the hundreds of thousands of people who travel to the international frontier each year trying to enter the United States without papers--the merchants set up shop on each side of the border, often crisscrossing the line, and, in the case of several taco vendors in Tijuana, often selling through the border fence to those waiting on the other side.
Their business rises and falls with the undocumented traffic: Many speak of the booming days of 1985-86, before the revision in U.S. immigration laws, when there were so many more customers, all potential taco consumers. Alas, many of the long-time undocumented border crossers have become legal via the amnesty program, and now go back and forth through the legitimate ports of entry, bypassing the informal crossing points--and diverting business from sundry border sales persons.
"A few years ago, I used to sell 6 kilos of meat a day," said Rosario Valenzuela de Ortiz, who, with her husband, sells tacos from Mexican territory, alongside De Garnica's stand and the hole in the border fence. "Now," said De Ortiz, known as \o7 la guera, \f7 or blondie, because of her hair color, "Now, maybe I sell 4 or 5 kilos on a good day."
The drop-off in business, she said, prompted her to switch her principal sales item last August from burritos to tacos, as the latter are cheaper and seem to sell better.
"For some reason, they stopped buying the burritos," De Ortiz explained with a shrug as she tended an array of tortillas being heated on her charcoal grill, where a kettle of boiling water was also perched, ready for hot chocolate and instant coffee mixes. Nearby bowls held beans, homemade red chili, chopped onions and fresh cilantro, all transported daily by van from the family home a few miles away.
De Garnica, who works alongside De Ortiz, has it somewhat easier. Her home is just 20 yards from the fence, so she and her children transport everything on foot. She began selling food directly from her home, she said, then moved up to be closer to the action.
On a recent evening, near the two international taco stands, Julio, a shy 10-year-old, was pacing just inside U.S. territory, selling packages of chewing gum, individual cigarettes and shots of tequila, the latter dispensed from a bottle hidden inside his tattered sweater. Just on the other side of the fence, his father sold beer from a cooler, another generational link in the border business chain.
"The vendors serve a very specific market," noted Rosio Barajas Escamilla, an economist at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a research institution in Tijuana. "With the economic situation in Mexico, a lot of the vendors at the border probably do a little better economically than the people in regular jobs."
Indeed, surveys by El Colegio indicate that full-time vendors at street food stands--even more prevalent in Tijuana than strip shows and bars catering to blue-eyed teenie-boppers--typically earn two to three times the official minimum wage of $4 to $5 a day. Mexico's economic crisis has forced many wage-earners to seek alternate ways of making a living, and, along the border, that sometimes means setting up food stands at popular international crossings, be they legal or illegal entry points.