(Re)Claiming Space

It’s my penultimate day in Tijuana but my last day of doing things. Tomorrow I fly to Mexico City, I can’t believe how quickly time is passing but at the same time leaving the UK feels like a long time ago.

In the past 48hours I have been meeting with activists and organisations. We meet in the Women’s Institute a concrete building with a brilliant and bustling team who amongst many things help support vulnerable women. There we meet a diverse collection of people ranging from psychologists who help support women who have experienced domestic violence to Trans-Activists who in many ways help support transwomen across the city.

Yesterday I was invited to listen to a meeting aiming to create a document / agreement on how shelters and organisations can specifically help migrants / displaced LGBTQQI people. These people face unique problems, often they are turned away from religious shelters and/or gendered shelters because they are seen as being ‘other’. There is little or no space for them, in lots of ways. I spoke to the brilliant Rubi Juarez who is the director of Centro de Atencion Integral a Personas Trans and she said that often the transwomen who arrive here don’t know the difference between being transgender and being a gay man who is transvestite. One of her organisations job is to help empower these transwomen and help them understand themselves better. Her organisation is helping transwoman claim their space. Damn right.

Rubi recently received a call from her friend who is a journalist in the south of Mexico about 30 transwomen on their way to Tijuana. There is nowhere to shelter them and Rubi has already offered her apartment to 5 other transwomen fleeing from another part of South America. All the activists and organisations are hugely pragmatic (they must be) – they agree first the 30 transwomen arriving need blankets. Blankets. Me and Ximena have been cold in our hotel rooms and have asked for additional blankets on top of the one already in our room. Oh, the absurdity of these two situations placed next to each other.

It is interesting though I suppose not surprising how important data and statistics are when you are working with migrants and displaced people. Numbers help understanding the scale of the situation, numbers help understand where the organisations need to focus their resources and social security numbers help people officially exist. Officially exist, without a number you are invisible and I sense there are many invisible people in Tijuana.

The number isn’t known but approximately (and mostly likely more than) 50,000 people arrived in Tijuana after the earthquake in Haiti. Can you imagine 10% of the population of Edinburgh arriving, not speaking the language with no basic items seeking both shelter and work. I receive conflicting information about whether or not there are enough jobs in this city to support these people. It echo’s problems we are facing in Europe but to make too much of a comparison is to lessen the nuance of both situations.

During the latter part of my time Tijuana I have been joined by joyful Gerardo who is helping translate for me as Ximena has returned to Mexico City to be in rehearsals for her play that opens next week. My Spanish is very poor / non-existent; I can understand more than I can speak but still, that’s barely anything. I am embarrassed by my lack of the language and of course have made several self-promises to enrol in classes on my return to the UK. Me and Gerardo have interesting conversations about language and gendered language. In my second meeting people are corrected about the language they use to describe LGBTQQI people. It’s about words but also all of this is beyond words.

To write a little blog about it at times feels juvenile, to lessen or simplify the experience. I have kept my blogs very simple and straightforward because the emotional impact of these sights and sounds and conversations is yet to catch up with me. I thought that I would write poetry or maybe little vignettes of scenes but at the moment I have no space for poetry, only people. I suppose this is where I should write that people are their own type of poetry but I don’t feel like being romantic about the human race – it lessens the sheer animal instinct to survive, the bravery it takes for these people to experience these problems.

During the past few days I have also met with artists and students so they can share their experiences about what it means to be an artist in Tijuana. These conversations are short and I worry my questions are too simple. To be honest I am rather saturated with thought and latterly I am finding it much more useful to just listen / watch rather than provoke. These artists talk with passion and pain about their city and their country. I loved listening to them and wish I could have individually gone for coffee with all of them – I barely scratch the surface. There are many conversations about the identity of Tijuana – does it have one? Does it have many? Has it been poisoned by America?

The one thing everyone agrees on is that the next generation of artists looks hugely exciting. One person said to me that the young people are reclaiming the city from the swell of violence they experienced in 2007-2009 due to Cartels (gangs). Reclaiming spaces. Everyone is quietly optimistic about the future and I hold onto that like a life raft.

My final questions in our first meeting at the Women’s Institute was how do the activists deal with hearing traumatic stories on a daily basis, one reply was – I go and scream at the mountains.

I smile. It feels fitting. In many ways the geographical location of Tijuana is to blame for its unique and complicated problems. A border city. A bursting city. A beautiful city.

I think when I get home to the UK I will go and scream at the mountains and think of Tijuana, think of us all.

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