Group “Border Encuentro” holds cross border communication events
Playas de Tijuana, Mexico – Separated by a 150-foot divide and two international border fences, Daniel Watman in San Diego and Fernando Ruiz in Tijuana, Mexico, had a conversation in a park next to the Pacific Ocean.
Watman probably couldn’t see the 16-year-old Ruiz’ teenage acne and Ruiz no doubt couldn’t see Watman’s brown eyes, but with the aid of two parabolic sound reflectors, one in Mexico and the other in the United States, the two conversed as if they were sitting at the same picnic table.
“Do you have to shout much? Is it hard to hear? No? Then it’s working pretty well, huh?” said Ruiz excitedly to Watman as he stood chatting into a 12-foot wide satellite dish covered with foil aimed across the divide at Watman.
“Everything I said he could hear clearly and well pronounced, just like he was next to me,” said Ruiz a high school student in Tijuana. “I got to meet Daniel over there on the other side!” he exclaimed.
For six years the Border Encuentro group, which was started by Watman, has been organizing binational events at the U.S.-Mexico border fence between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, with theme related events like salsa classes, poetry readings, yoga sessions and language exchanges, all conducted on both sides of the steel mesh fence separating the two countries.
The events were rooted in the idea of raising awareness about barriers in communication between the two countries and to bring people together around common themes.
Held at Friendship Park, a circular area in Mexico and the U.S. bisected by the international border and dedicated to fostering better U.S.-Mexico relations, the events drew anywhere from several dozen to several hundred people.
The area was also well know for years as a place where friends and family who were unable to cross the border in either direction could visit on both sides of the fence.
But, in February 2009, the U.S. government made a widely protested move and restricted all public access to the border to make way for construction of a secondary border fence that would run through the park.
Far fewer people come to the park these days for their binational visits and those who do must be content with shouting across the divide or using walkie talkie radios.
The Border Encuentro group has also had to change it’s activities.
“The new separation makes it more challenging but at the same time it’s brought up some ideas that we wouldn’t have had before like the parabolic dishes and the sign language,” said Watman.
In response to the border closure the group has held three cross border sign language sessions with signers interpreting for others through scopes. They have twice experimented with parabolic sound reflectors that concentrate and direct a person’s voice over a distance.
“We have the same purpose now as before,” said Watman. What we de is “more than symbolic because people are able to communicate and make friends,” he said.
“When the barriers are there and people don’t have the opportunity to know each other it can lead to stereotypes and a lot of ignorance,” said Watman. “That kind of ignorance can lead to violence and misunderstanding. When you get to know someone on an individual basis then all those stereotypes can just disappear and you get to know the person.”
Irene Torres, a volunteer who came out to help assemble and hold the parabolic dish on the Mexico side, agrees with Watman.
“Difficulties and problems start when there isn’t communication. There’s nothing like being united to keep harmony and move forward together,” said Torres as she held up one side of the parabolic in a light ocean breeze.
“They thought of doing something like this parabolic that we’re holding here to communicate. It’s kind of like we’re uniting two countries,” added Torres.
Watman and Ruiz, the high school student, had never met before and probably would never meet again but for Watman the important part was open dialog and foster new ideas.
“I think he (Ruiz) went home with some inspiration and a positive attitude,” said Watman. “I got the impression he’s a positive person and liked how people make creative efforts to get to know each other. I think he saw this as a contribution and that was encouraging to him.”