How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

The legacy of a border road sign

Immigration Debate Reaches Crescendo Ahead Of Bush Speech

Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images


A sign warning motorists to beware of people crossing the highway is seen on Interstate 5, just north of the U.S.-Mexico border in San Ysidro, California in 2006.


Driving back and forth between Los Angeles and San Diego when I moved south several years ago, these old road signs along Interstate 5 began to catch my eye on a regular basis. The signs, illustrated by Caltrans artist John Hood, date back to the early 1990s, when the California-Mexico border was the nation's biggest funnel for illegal immigration traffic headed north, and human smugglers were hustling their charges across the freeway to evade checkpoints - all too often with tragic results. Pretty soon, I began seeing the image everywhere: on T-shirts, on coffee mugs, on little mini-road signs with the characters carrying surfboards. The more I searched, the more interpretations I found: murals, political cartoons, wallpaper, book covers, the cover of a punk CD, a bogus magazine cover, a metal sculpture, etc. Political interpretations I've seen have run the gamut between the characters outfitted as Pilgrims and the characters followed by a guy toting an AK-47.

The image has become a Rorschach test for how people feel about illegal immigration and immigrants in general. Some, particularly second-generation Latinos, have claimed it as a symbol of ethnic identity. Anti-illegal immigration activists, meanwhile, have used it as a call to arms.

And for those who actually crossed the freeway at the behest of a smuggler one terrifying night years ago - well, one man I spoke with who did that in the late 1980s told me that seeing the image years later, on a t-shirt in a gift store, brought back memories he'd rather forget. He found nothing amusing about it. "I lived it," he said. "So, when I see these things, they make me sad."

I wrote about the road sign a few years ago. Today, most of the original signs are gone - including the most visible ones on Interstate 5 near the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint in Camp Pendleton, near San Clemente. So I was pleased to recently see that its legacy remains alive and well in this great roundup of interpretations posted earlier this month by the OC Weekly's Gustavo Arellano.

The recent post piqued my interest in the road sign again, which brings me to my point: Have you seen an interesting interpretation of the sign, political, artistic or otherwise, and what does it mean to you? Please send it along with your thoughts. Mil gracias.

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