Friendship Park -- A Link Between Two Countries -- Opens Again
Friendship Park used to be one of the very few places along the United States-Mexico border where people could meet face-to-face. First, there was no border marker, and then there was just a fence and a monument; for years after that, only a chain link fence separated the two sides, which allowed visitors in each country to speak together, pray, sing, or just hold hands across the border. Gardeners on the U.S. side planted flowers at the fence, and a gardener in Tijuana helped water them.
That changed after Sept. 11, 2001. In the intervening years border security became tighter, and more fences went up. Finally, in 2009, Homeland Security closed down Friendship Park entirely, saying they needed to construct a new fence to discourage drugs and weapons smugglers before it re-opened.
Whether or not it would ever be accessible to the public again was a matter of debate. While it was possible to ask Border Patrol agents to open the primary gate so people could go up to the fence, those requests were not always granted. At one point, Homeland Security agreed to re-open the park, but with a third fence keeping people several feet away from the actual border.
Now, after negotiation and public pressure from activist groups, the public can once again enter the park and talk to people directly through the fence -– although it has changed. The tattered chain link has become a thick, dense mesh that is difficult to see through. Instead of holding hands, people can just barely touch the tips of their fingers through openings in the steel wire.
“I haven't seen my kids in three years,” Castañada said. “I got kicked out of the country.” He said he had been in the United States since he was 4 years old.
“If I would have known, I would have tried to fix my papers. I don't have anybody over here, technically -– my whole family's out there.”
Castañada said because he was deported, he has to wait at least a decade to reapply for a visa, with no guarantee it will be granted.
Architect Jim Brown, who headed the redesign of the park to allow people to meet face-to-face without compromising border security, is a member of a group called Friends of Friendship Park, which successfully petitioned for its re-opening. Brown said the park is designed for flexibility, so that if border security is ever eased the fences can be scaled back for greater access.
For people like German Castañada, whose children can only see him as a shadowy figure behind a fence, it's not the same as making a life with his family -– but as Castañada said, it's better than nothing.