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The Cliff Dwellers

High above the Pacific, Jose de Jesus Torres and his friends live at the mercy of the sea as they wait for another opportunity to enter the U.S.

September 06, 2004|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

TIJUANA — A life capsized has stranded Jose de Jesus Torres atop these craggy cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Waves crash and dolphins dance as this modern-day cliff dweller waits for another opportunity to cross the U.S. border.

Torres spends his days slinging a fishing line into the frothy sea. His friend, Orlando Bernal, sits on a rock reading a dogeared Bible. Walking atop a 30-foot wall of rocks and sand on a recent day, Torres pointed to a desolate beach far below.

"This is my backyard," he said. Then Torres turned to look at the rugged coastline stretching north to the border. "And this is my frontyard."

Torres and his friends are floaters -- like possibly thousands of others biding their time in Tijuana -- waiting until the summer cools to arrange border crossings over the mountains or across the desert. Though a thriving lodging industry caters to Tijuana's gente de paso -- people passing through -- those without money usually end up living on the streets and in alleys or sometimes on the cliffs offering views of the San Diego skyline.

Earlier this summer, Torres and Bernal were deported from California, where they lived for more than a decade and had earned enough money as construction and restaurant workers for one-bedroom apartments and hamburgers, with enough left over to send to relatives in Mexico.

Now they live at the mercy of the sea along this scenic but dangerous stretch of coast just south of Tijuana, called El Vigia, which local fishermen and residents say has long provided a refuge for those with nowhere else to go. The area is cut off from the city by steep walls of wave-battered boulders and dirt streets patrolled by stray dogs.

By night, the friends lie under the stars on a rock shelf above the ocean, lulled to sleep by the lapping surf and the howls of sea lions. Some nights they string their blankets as makeshift tents. By day, they fish or scour the caverns that pock the cliffs, searching for mussels or crabs.

The men, whose beards have grown long and scruffy, leave solitary footprints in the sand. They watch the frolicking dolphins and fall asleep under pink sunsets.

But the setting is precarious. One slip on the jagged rocks could send a man tumbling to his death.

And the men are always hungry. Torres, a 29-year-old who shields his face from the sun with a blue cap, has shed 20 pounds since he started fishing for food using a line weighted with spark plugs.

When a row of fins suddenly pierces the greenish-blue waters, he knows lunch will have to wait. "The dolphins are also hungry and also have to eat," he said.

"Hopefully, they'll swim away soon and leave some fish for us."

Tijuana can be an inhospitable place for migrants unless they can afford housing or pay human smuggling rings to put them up at three-star hotels or fleabag motels in the red-light district.

Recent deportees from the U.S. are especially vulnerable. Their clothes are often dirty and frayed and police often consider them vagrants or criminals. Many don't have the Mexican identification documents necessary to qualify for jobs.

"They're strangers in their own country," said Victor Clark Alfaro, director of Tijuana's Binational Center for Human Rights. "Without ID, they can't work. They don't know anybody and, culturally, they are more familiar with the U.S."

Torres, who speaks fluent English, said he, Bernal and another cliff-dwelling friend, Felipe Gonzalez, moved to the coast in part to escape police harassment. Torres said he had lived in the U.S. for 10 years, most recently working at a construction job in San Diego, when he was arrested for drinking in public. The next thing he knew, he was deported to Tijuana, a city he barely knew.

He assumes his girlfriend took all of his belongings, which included a 1979 Cadillac. "I lost everything I had just for one beer," said Torres, whose hometown is Guadalajara.

Torres tried hiking back to California through the mountains north of Tecate, but was caught twice by U.S. Border Patrol agents.

He found a refuge on the cliffs, where he met Bernal, 30, and Gonzalez, 44. Bernal said he had been deported from San Francisco after being arrested for driving while intoxicated. Gonzalez said he had left the U.S. to visit his ailing sister in his home state of Guerrero.

Like Torres, both men had lived in America for more than five years and could not find work in Tijuana because they didn't have their Mexican identification documents. To obtain the IDs, they would have to travel to their home cities in Mexico's interior, which they could not afford to do.

They have found construction work around Tijuana, but it usually doesn't last more than a few days.

Waiting to cross, their lives now turn on the tides.

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