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Black At The Border

 October 14, 2020 at 8:31 AM PDT

NATSOUND FROM BLM PROTEST IN TIJUANA The words “Asma, no puedo respirar” — or “Asthma, I can’t breathe” — were stenciled on a sign at Tijuana’s first...and so far only….Black Lives Matter protest back in June. They were some of the last words a Haitian migrant called out before dying in police custody in Tijuana in January. I CAN’T BREATH AUDIO “I can’t breath! I can’t breath!” A few months later, George Flloyd said those same words before he died after a officer in Minneapolis pinned him to the ground by putting his knee on his neck. And when activists in Mexico saw the huge protests in response to his killing spread across the U.S. and other parts of the world, it pushed them to confront racism and police brutality in their own community. I CAN’T BREATH AUDIO FADE OUT “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” In many ways, Mexico is waaaay behind the U.S. and other parts of the world when it comes to racial justice. But groups of people across the country are working hard to change that…. BEAT From KPBS and PRX, this is Port of Entry. I’m Alan Lilienthal and every other week, we tell stories about our lives here at the U.S.-Mexico border. Today we launch a series on politics and race with a story about how the Black Lives Matter movement is crossing the border. It’s a story about the intersection of migrant rights and Black rights and some of the people who are birthing the Black Lives Matter movement in Tijuana as we speak. Midroll 1BEAT So, we gotta step back……...take a minute to understand Mexico’s Black history so we can better understand just how far we’ve come to get this Black Lives Matters moment in Tijuana. For a long, long time….Mexico’s black population has been mostly ignored…made virtually invisible by the federal government… A government that...for centuries...refused to recognize it… BEAT Honestly, not a lot of Mexicans even know we have a sizable Black population included at one point... I left Mexico City for the US when I was 8 so I didn’t get taught Mexican demographics or history in school, but I would go back a lot to visit family, and my mental model of what Mexico looked like definitely didn’t include Black Mexicans. Even walking down the street in Mexico...if I were to see a black person, I would just assume they were visiting from somewhere else. I don't think my parents, who grew up in Mexico their whole lives, even knew any Black people until we moved to America. It’s just different in Mexico. Whereas people in the U.S. identify with their race a Mexico, we just all call ourselves Mexican. There are distinctions we make, like guero and morenita, but even though those are direct comments on skin tone, it’s normalized...most Mexicans just don’t consider it racism. Racism just hasn’t been confronted in Mexico in any big way yet. But things are slowly starting to change. BEAT For the first time ever this year, people in Mexico could actually put a little check mark next to a box that says “afromexicano” on the census. It’s 2020...that’s so wild...I can’t believe it’s taken this long. The fact that Black people in Mexico are finally being the federal government... it’s a pretty big deal. Black Lives Matter Jorge Clip 18 Well, it's huge. This is Jorge Gonzalez. Black Lives Matter Jorge It's About Recognition It's about data. It's about visibility. It's about recognition. Radio sounds Black Lives Matter Jorge Clip 18 I, I remember just, uh, what, uh, like in February I was hearing it on the radio. In San Diego lots of local radio stations have transmitters right across the border in Mexico… so they’re required to run all kinds of official campaigns Black Lives Matter Jorge Clip 18 Right here locally. If you were flipping through the radio stations here, you would, they would say “if you consider yourself an Afro-Mexican; count yourself.” Radio sounds So...Jorge’s been studying black history in Mexico since the early 2000s. He’s a researcher who also serves as the director of the Afro-Mexican department at the World Beat cultural center in San Diego. But even he says he knew nothing about the afromexicanos who have been in Mexico for centuries … until he went to undergrad at UC Davis. Black Lives Matter Jorge Clip 9 So we, we ended up going to a black community in Oaxaca..., you know, I'm thinking here, here's, it's going to be another, like just darker skin, dark community, like Cubans, you know, uh, But they were very, you know, the phenotype were very black, you know, it was a very black community and there was other folks who were not as black. So you saw all shades of it. Right. And their accent was different. You know, their cooking was different. It all honestly felt like, you know, you were somewhere, I don't know if it would be equal to, but it felt like it was a, an African village, you know, somewhere in West Africa. Uh, and then the priest was black, who we were meeting, uh, and he was from Trinidad. So my whole world and understanding of Mexico, Mexico history right then and there right. Was flipped. Right. I completely felt like ignorant. I had no clue whatsoever. And, and they just brought a lot of question marks just in anything moving forward from there. And I was just super curious, Black Lives Matter Jorge Clip 8 And right then and there, like, I just knew what I wanted to do and what I wanted to research. Jorge says the fact that I didn’t know about Mexico’s black population isn't at all surprising… Apparently, I’m on the same page as most Mexicans...and in fact, he says it was very much by design. VIVAMEXICONATSOUND Viva Mexico! Viva Mexico! Viva Mexico! Viva Mexico! BEAT See...the national strategy in Mexico is based on an integrationist theory… Black Lives Matter Jorge Clip 20 No Vocab On Race To create one identity, one people, and not have an alternative reality to that, not have a conversation about racism. So in Mexico, what's happened for the past, you know, 200- 300 years is we don't. There isn't a vocabulary to speak on racism. BEAT For decades, the Mexican federal government has essentially pushed everyone who lives in Mexico to just see themselves purely as Mexicans….urging everyone to consider themselves mestizo, or “mixed blood” with European and indigenious roots. It was a move meant to bring the country together… To unify us under one umbrella…. And it mostly worked. Black Lives Matter Jorge Clip 24 I think the majority of Mexicans do and they just don't know. Right. They, they fall under just, I am Mexicans category and it has to do with a lot of the, the fact that history hasn't done, you know, history hasn't been told correctly…. Honestly, if you ask Mexicans if we think racism is a problem in Mexico, a lot of us will say no. Instead, the conversation almost always turns to class as a social problem somehow disconnected from race and discrimination. BEAT Black Lives Matter Jorge Clip 21 Think of it as Class they tend to talk about it as based on class, you know, uh, is based on where you stand. But you know, we know when you try to apply for a job it says you have to be white. You know, to be able to apply for a job, you can't have curly hair to apply for a job. Like it's literally on the job description and that's an issue. BEAT It is an issue... you can actually advertise a job in Mexico and say that applicants are not allowed to have curly hair…. Black Lives Matter Jorge Clip 21 Think of it as Class and here in this country, that wouldn't fly. Right. Um, but there isn't policies in place to prevent that from happen, but it is….. systematic racism is there, oh yeah. BEAT So, Black people have been in Mexico since the very beginning. Many of the earliest Black settlers were brought over in the 1500s as slaves by Spanish Conquistadores. And right away, the Black and Indegenious populations of Mexico got along. Black Lives Matter Jorge Clip 17 When I talk about Black Mexicans, it's really black and indigenous. You know, uh, the black population there have been mixing with the indigenous population since the beginnings, right? By the early 1800s, slavery was abolished in Mexico. But it took awhile for the laws to actually stick. It wasn’t until 1829, when President Vicente Guerrero, an indegenous/Afromexicano himself, started seriously enforcing anti-slavery laws. When slavery was abolished in the U.S., some Black people did flee to Mexico looking for a better life...growing the Black population a little bit. An unofficial survey in 2015 showed a Black population of 1.4 million, or 1.2 percent of the Mexican population. This year’s census will have a better count of the country’s afromexicano population, but it’s been delayed by the we won't have those numbers for a while. The majority of Black people in Mexico live in Costa Chica, a coastal area of Guerrero...but Veracruz, Mexico City and now Tijuana and Mexicali have some pockets of Black Mexicans, too. BEAT For Jorge, the Black Lives Matters movement in Mexico….or at least the recognition of Mexico’s Black population that’s helped lead up to this moment….it’s something he actually predicted would happen. For his 2012 grad school thesis, he wrote that by the year 2020, things might come to a head in Mexico. He sent us his 300-page-plus thesis and it’s right there on page 111. He basically says Afromexicanos will finally be counted in the 2020 Mexican census. But the fact that Afromexicanos have been left out of the census for so long… It means Black people in Mexico are still fighting for the basic acknowledgement that they even exist. BEAT Black Lives Matter Jorge Clip 21 Think of it as Class ... some of the folks from Costa Chica, they can't even travel out of the region because they will get deported. They, because they won't believe their, their national identity. They have them sing the, uh, the national Anthem to prove their Mexican-ness. Is that, that's funny as that sounds and many have been deported to Honduras as many have been deported to Guatemala...and this continues to happen. So as a result, they don't leave their region. The issue of race in Mexico has become more prominent in recent years… And it's not just because of the Black people who’ve always been in Mexico and are tired of being ignored… There’s a of a new wave of Black migrants who’ve started showing up in Mexico. And just like the Black people stolen from their countries centuries ago and brought to Mexico against their will, many of the Black people coming to Mexico now….their journeys here are also filled with pain and suffering. And they don’t all necessarily want to be in Mexico either...but they’re stuck because they can’t get across the border into the U.S. So now...history is at risk of repeating itself. Mexico’s new afromexicanos could become as hidden as Mexico’s existing afromexicanos….unless the Black Lives Matter movement takes hold. In Tijuana, everything shifted a few years ago when Black migrants from Haiti, Cameroon, Ghana and other counties started showing up here by the thousands…. News Clip: BEAT FADE TO SILENCE Meet J. Black Lives J. Clip 4 Hello J. is a divorced mother of five who makes her living as a nurse. Black Lives J. Clip 2 I like this job. I like to, I like to help people. She used to work in a pharmacy in Cameroon. But the pharmacy was burned to the ground. The African country has been grappling with conflict and violence since separatists declared independence from the government in 2017. Things are so bad there that hundreds of thousands of Cameroonians have been forced to flee the country since. We’re not using J.’s full name, by the way, because she worries about the safety of her children, who are still in Cameroon. Plus, she says she doesn’t want anything to hurt her chances of possibly getting asylum in the U.S. or maybe Canada one day. And...we weren’t able to fact check her story, but there are many similar stories from Cameroon migrants about the abuses they suffered in their country. Some have gone on record calling what’s happening genocide. BEAT So...after that pharmacy fire, J. continued her work treating people and getting them the medications they needed by opening an office inside her own home. But one day in 2018, a man showed up at her house, forced his way inside, and made her treat his gunshot wound. Black Lives J. Clip 3 that man put the gun in my head telling me I know you….i know everything about your family in know about me. It’s hard to hear, but she says he held a gun to her head and said he’d kill her and her family if she didn’t help him. So, to keep herself and her family safe, she did. And from there, her life was thrown into complete chaos. This is where J.’s story gets really devastating. We talk about sexual assault and abuse, so this is a head’s up in case you need it. BEAT Not long after J. was forced to treat that man, she says soldiers from the military showed up at her door. They were furious and started beating her, asking her where the man was hiding..they called him a terrorist and accused her of being on his side. Black Lives J. Clip 5 You see me? I'm scared. I'm scared because that people come there is no one to understand beat me...begin to beat me. Say the truth. take the gun, put like that. The blood. Beat me like... J. says she was forced into a truck and taken to a house that had been made into a makeshift prison. She says it was kept pitch black the entire time she was held there. She lost track of time and all she remembers is being raped….repeatedly. Black Lives J. Clip 6 Come.. Begin to rape me ...maybe two people after two people I see three, after three. i see four. I'm here like that ….i tell the millitary shot me. I want to die. I need you shot me, because I don't know why...why I don't do it. Why do you treat me like that? As J. told me her story through a patchy zoom connection, I could see tears streaming down her face. BEAT With the help of a stranger, J. eventually escaped, and that’s when she decided to head to the United States to apply for refugee stat us. She gathered her passport, left her young children with her ex husband, kissed them all goodbye and fled. BEAT J. flew to Ecuador...a country that doesn’t require a tourist visa for people from Cameroon. Then she started her long journey to the U.S. She walked and took buses through Columbia, the Panama jungle….through Central America and then into Chiapas Mexico. She ended up settling down in Tapachula, Mexico, a city just north of the Guatemalan border. It was 2019 and she stayed for about 8 months...she thought maybe she’d stay for good...but before too long, she realized she had to move on. She had a job at a restaurant, but her boss fired her when customers started complaining, saying they didn’t want to eat with a Black person in the room. Black Lives J. Clip 7 He tell me, I'm sorry. I do my best but…. There's no one that want the black work… J. has deeply sad stories about the racism and discrimination she faced on her journey. When she left Tapachula she made her way through parts of Southern and Central Mexico. She says people there would put their shirts up over their faces when she walked by...seemingly afraid to breathe the same air as a Black woman. She says immigrant shelters refused to give her and other Black migrants the same food they gave everyone else. And she says many Mexican men she came across treated her like a prostitute. Black Lives J. Clip 8 I don't know, because I learned it in Spanish little little little. Every time you pass, the Mexican man turning..quanto, quanto, quanto? The first time, I’m smiling. I don’t know they insult...insult me. J. started calling Mexico… evil... Black Lives J. Clip 1 My vision is changed about Mexico because I look at Mexico like the devil country. Now I'm sorry to tell that. I'm sorry, but it's true...i look at mexico like the devil. The devil place. BEAT J. headed for the U.S. border, more determined than ever to find a safe place where she could restart her life and finally send for her children… They’re currently living with their dad back in Cameroon. She was desperate to find a place to call home and she thought the U.S….or maybe even Canada had to be that place. But then...Tijuana stopped her in her tracks. The city showed her something she wasn’t expecting. Black Lives J. Clip 9 i love tijuana too much ok? because Tijuana give me freedom. Tijuana show me love J. arrived here at the border in March, and quickly found her way to Espacio Migrante...a migrant shelter in downtown Tijuana. And now, just a few short months later, she calls the people in the shelter her family. The shelter staff helped J. find a job, gave her a place to stay and….for the first time since leaving her country two years ago...she says she felt welcomed and wanted. Black Lives J. Clip 9 The Tijuana people show me love, prove me. I am important. I'm really important. Like everybody...... I love tijuana, I love Tijuana I'm thinking it's my country, yeah yeah. BEAT Tijuana has a long history of welcoming waves of migrants. We’re a border town. It’s literally how we got built. And yeah...the city is a lot more progressive when it comes to race, especially when compared to more traditional parts of Mexico...but we’re far from perfect. In fact, some of our issues were laid bare a few years ago...when a different wave of migrants started showing up at our border. NEWS Clip Protesters in Tijuana...sent a clear message...we don’t want you here... More on that unexpected reaction... and what it tells us about racism towards Black people in Mexico… when we come back. Stay with me. MIDROLL 2 Before we get to the 2018 Central American caravans, let’s step back real quick to 2016. BEAT After a devastating hurricane in Haiti that year, thousands of Haitians migrated to the border in hopes of claiming asylum in the U.S....but many of them discovered a broken asylum system and ended up getting trapped at the border instead. And...I’m generalizing here….but Tijuana as a whole was just super welcoming to the new Haitian arrivals. NEWS CLIP Dozens of news articles and documentaries talk about how the city opened up more shelters, gave Haitians jobs and otherwise treated their arrival like the humanitarian crisis it was. But then, two years later, when the caravans of Central American migrants started showing up…. they were not met with those same open arms. NEWS CLIP At the end: No tenemos...Mexico, Mexico...Mexico... I was honestly pretty shocked by those very angry, public reactions to the caravans. People across Tijuana were complaining about the migrants….calling them criminals, saying it was an invasion and otherwise treating the Central American migrants like they didn’t belong. A migrants’ rights activist told me a big part of the problem was that the U.S. has tightened its asylum system under the Trump administration. So when it became clear that most migrants were in Tijuana for good rather than just passing through...something’s like something broke. And that anti-immigrant sentiment that came with the started trickling down and impacting the Haitian migrants, too. BEAT FADE Black Lives Matters TJ Denis Clip 1 Okay. Um, hi, good afternoon. Um, I am Denise and from Haiti. I was born in Haiti. My family is growing up in Haiti…. When I talked to Jean Denis Louis, he was sitting on his bed in his apartment in Tijuana. His 10-month-old baby girl was busy climbing all over him as we spoke. Denis Clip: sounds of Baby In Haiti, Denis made a life as a traditional dance instructor and performer and his wife ran a restaurant in the city. Life was hard but Ok. But sustaining their OK life eventually got too hard. Haiti was still reeling from the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that struck in 2010….so when Hurricane Matthew hit in 2016, it was just totally devastating. Denis and thousands of other Haitians packed their bags and headed first to Brazil, then to the U.S. border. Some of the Haitians' journeys were difficult and dangerous and involved long treacherous hikes through jungles without clean drinking water. But Denis was lucky to have enough money to fly directly from Haiti to Tijuana. He planned to declare asylum in the U.S., But when he got to the border, everyone he talked to told him he’d be detained and deported if he tried. Black Lives Matters TJ Denis Clip 1 ...I choose Mexico because I don't, I don't want to go to prison. I don't want to present and stay here in Mexico. Cause I don't want to, I don't want the girl and the prison Denis instead got a permit that allowed him to work and live in Mexico. His wife came a few years later and when they had a baby, all three of them got permanent residency here. BEAT Denis says Tijuana has been mostly good to him. But he has had his share of struggles. At one of his first jobs in the city, his boss refused to pay him his full salary knowing full well he’d have a hard time as a migrant taking any legal recourse… And recently, his classmates at a local university cut him out of a group project and he ended up not getting the credit he deserved. He says he’s often made aware of his status as a second-class citizen in Mexico through lots of microaggressions that add up over time. Denis says racism and discrmination are in Tijuana...and everywhere in Mexico. But the worst part, he says, is that most Mexicans won’t admit it. Denis 8 ….Mexico doesn’t want to confront it’s racism…. Denis 13 Here in Mexico there is a racism more dangerous than anywhere in the world. Because it's hidden, it’s under the table. Black Lives Matters Protest Nat Chanting. Crowds. When migrants and activists in Tijuana saw the Black Lives Matter movement happening in San Diego and other cities across the globe, they got inspired to bring the movement to the border. Activists in Tijuana actually worked with Black Lives Matter leaders in San Diego to make it happen. One of the goals was to bring attention to the Haitian migrant who died in police custody in January -- police still haven’t even released the man’s name. It’s risky for migrants to get out on the streets and protest for their rights, especially in the middle of a global pandemic. Not to mention the fact that many of them don’t have legal status, and are at risk of deportation by Mexican immigration officials. But...they were willing to take that risk. And at noon on Saturday June 14, Denis, J. and about 50 other people showed up at El Chaparral, a plaza near the San Ysidro Port of Entry...where migrants go to sign up for asylum. From there, they marched to Plaza Santa Cecilia, the same plaza where the Haitian migrant died in police custody earlier this year. BLACK LIVES MATTERS TIJUANA PROTEST SOUND At the protest, J. chanted and danced and then grabbed a microphone hooked up to a large speaker. She wanted to share her story because, like Denis, she says not enough people are talking about Mexico’s racism problem. Black Lives J. Clip 10 I do it.I'm there. Yes, of course. I can do it. I had to organize the game first. Black slash martyrs. You're in Tijuana. They come on the speech. Yes. I make my speech, Black Lives J. Clip 11 NEW I protest because my people suffer too much... long time, long, long time and we want to stop it. Okay. We want to say enough is enough. Alan Q for J Clip From Google Drive Alan: You’ve suffered so much and you’ve been though so much. What gives you strength? What keeps you going? J.: My children. Love of my children. Just that. Love of my children. Denis 7 I participated 100% in the organization and all actions because, you know why? For her. Just like J, Denis says he was willing to get out on the streets, in the middle of a pandemic, not for himself, but for his kid. He says he wants to start the work now to help make a better world… for her. Denis 7 I am 35, Im not worth anything. I’m not worth anything. But the person who will need freedom to live and walk all over the world is her. Denis 15 It’s not work that we’re gonna have results today. It’s work that we have to do step by step by step. Step by step step by step. This is so. Denis 20 My hope is that people who are racist change, and respect each other. Nothing else. always. That always. BEAT FADE Black Lives Matter Jorge clip 15 Ignored Far Too Long So, yeah, Mexico... has ignored this issue for far too long. Researcher Jorge Gonzales again… Black Lives Matter Clip 16 Jorge First Time President Visited In fact, the first time a governor ever visited Costa Chica….it's a 200 mile region in Mexico, uh, was in 2011. And the first time a president ever visited the region to recognize the black population or just visited the region was, was actually this year. And that's historical, BEAT Before the pandemic hit, Jorge was scheduled to give a talk about afromexicanos at the downtown San Diego public library. It got canceled, but he ended up doing an online talk later. CLIP FROM ONLINE TALK In it, he walked people through the black history of Mexico and ended by telling the dozens of people who attended virtually about just how far the country has come in order to get to this point….where Black Lives Matter protests are spreading to Tijuana, Mexico City and other parts of the country… But he also reminded listeners of just how far the country still has to go… CLIP FROM ONLINE TALK The pandemic means that the Black rights movement isn’t as visible in Mexico as it might be without the threat of the virus hanging in the air. But Jorge says there are more conversations about race happening in Mexico now than ever before, and a lot of it is happening online. Black Lives Matter Jorge Clip 19 So it's a new day, I guess, for Mexico to really understand that our makeup is not just indigenous and European, but it's also heavily black. BEATS Jorge isn't just intellectually interested in Black Mexicans….for him, it’s personal. His wife is a Black American woman. And they have two biracial kids. Black Lives Matter Jorge Clip 28 Black and Brown Unity my kids are, are, uh, Blaxicans. You know, they're not afromexicans, but they're blaxians….Um, my wife is black. Black Lives Matter Jorge Clip 31 You know, I often hear Mexican saying, Oh, look at the Negritos like, you know, little black people. I'm like, no, no, you don't say that. You know, you gotta stop there. Um, but that, that is again, you know, not being aware, there's not a language to say that is racist, that you're being racist at the moment, BEAT The pandemic is keeping Joge from crossing the border to see the movement there up close...but he’s not sitting it out on this side of the border. A few months back, Jorge and his wife started a deep discussion with their kids about what’s happening in the country and across the world….they put up a Black Lives Matters sign in their yard and took them to a protest for kids. Black Lives Matter Jorge Clip 29 Beautiful Children you know, of course keeping our distance and all of that, but we got them excited about it and we had to explain to them why it mattered, you know? So, so yeah, I think their, their complexion being black Mexican kids, um, it's something beautiful that here at the house we celebrate. To get involved with the Black Lives Matter movement in Tijuana, connect with the Espacio Migrante page on Facebook or go to espaciomigrante dot org. Espacio Migrante is a migrant rights nonprofit and shelter in Tijuana and we honestly could not have made this episode without the shelter’s director, Paulina Olvera Canez. Ebony Bailey, a board member of Espacio Migrante, helped us with this episode as well. Her documentary film “Life Between Borders” is about Black migrants in Tijuana and you can watch it online..We also want to thank Wendy Frye and the San Diego Union-Tribune for letting us use some of their footage of the Black Lives Matter protest in Tijuana. Next time on the podcast… Voter Both Sides Olivia Clip 7 Something that I really like about voting in Mexico is that it is on a weekend when a lot of people can go. it's hard for me to understand why here in America, people have to like take time off or earn less money that day to go and vote. A story about people who can vote on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border and what they're doing with their votes this year. Port of Entry is written and produced by Kinsee Morlan. Emily Jankowski is our director of sound design. Curtis Fox edits the show. Lisa Morissette is operations manager. John Decker is director of programming. Port of Entry is made possible (in part) by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people."I’m Alan Lilienthal. Thanks for listening.

This is “Port of Entry,” where we tell cross-border stories that connect us. From KPBS and PRX, our debut episode launches a series on race and politics with a story about how the Black Lives Matter movement is crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s a story about the intersection of migrant rights and Black rights and introduces some of the people behind the Black Lives Matter movement in Tijuana.