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LA artists take a symbolic surf across US-Mexico border




Los Angeles-based artist Diego Palacios enlisted the help of non-profit Echo Park art space Machine Project to hold a day of surfing at the U.S.-Mexico border. August 12th, 2017.
Los Angeles-based artist Diego Palacios enlisted the help of non-profit Echo Park art space Machine Project to hold a day of surfing at the U.S.-Mexico border. August 12th, 2017.
KPCC/Libby Denkmann

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Ignore the 18-foot-high border wall jutting up from the sand, and this could be any other Southern California day at the beach.

Los Angeles-based artist Diego Palacios is standing near the wall – really a steel fence dividing the shore into north and south portions. It extends a couple hundred feet into the water, cutting through the surf break.

“My buddy just surfed across the border there," he said. "That was awesome.”

On this Saturday at Border Field State Park, in the southwest corner of the continental United States, about 10 people are paddling surf boards past the barrier.

They’re greeted beyond the wall, in the open ocean, by a handful of surfers from the Mexico side of the beach.

Surfer Jessica Enriquez said she and her partner drove down from Pacific Beach in San Diego. She joined the group bobbing up and down on their boards in a loose circle, some bowing their heads.

“We had a moment of silence and honored people who have lost their lives or struggled trying to come into the country through the sea,” she said.

Enriquez is wearing a wetsuit against the chilly Pacific waters. She said she wants this trip to make a statement.

“It seems ridiculous that there’s an invisible border right there that you can paddle to and fro. And the border doesn’t make sense," Enriquez said. "Because migration is inevitable.”

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A "No Trespassing" sign warns beach-goers at Border Field State Park in San Diego from wandering too close to the fence separating the U.S. and Mexico. August 12th, 2017.
KPCC/Libby Denkmann

Between two identities

There's been a heated national dialogue about borders and walls over the last year, stemming from President Donald Trump's pledge to build a physical barrier across the entire 1,900-mile stretch.  

As many Southern Californians know, hundreds of miles of the U.S.-Mexico border are already fenced off.

That includes the boundary between San Diego and Tijuana, where a steel fence coated with rust proofing juts into the ocean, in an effort to stop illegal crossings and smuggling in the water.

To orchestrate a symbolic surf trip here, Palacios enlisted the help of Machine Project, a non-profit experimental arts space in Echo Park.

He said he wanted to memorialize immigrants around the world who've been lost at sea. The project, "Surf Border," is meant to explore the meaning of borders, including how international barriers keep people apart.

Palacios first surfed the border three years ago. He started from the Tijuana side that day, and conditions were rough. He said he was fighting a strong South-to-North current.

“I started off in Mexico and there was this very real danger of being pushed too far into the United States," he said. Palacios worried, "I couldn’t fight the current to get back.”

Palacios was literally being pulled into one country, while paddling furiously to stay in another.

He recalled feeling “adrenaline from the fear. And it was also adrenaline from doing something, that for me as a Mexican American, who’s had to struggle with being between your Mexican culture and your adopted American culture, is something that was exhilarating in that moment.”

Palacios decided he wanted to share the experience with others and highlight what he calls the "absurdist" qualities of the border space.

Sofia Benito is Machine Project’s summer intern. She's about to start her junior year as an art history major at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

For Benito, a dual U.S.-Mexico citizen, the border evokes strong feelings, she said.

“My mind at least goes into a commemorative, or an introspective mode, where I’m really thinking about people who have tried to cross the border," she said. "It’s like a heaviness in my chest. And I think people might experience it differently, but that’s what I’m here to have conversations about.”

Short distance, large divide

The morning of Surf Border, Machine Project members set up two base camps: one on either side of the wall. The tents are just a about a hundred yards apart, but there’s a world of difference between them.

In the U.S., around a half-dozen U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officers watch every move of the small group of surfers and supporters from the hillside above the beach.

Occasionally, a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle zooms down the slope so an agent can warn a beachgoer or photographer about getting too close to the fence.

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents talk with participants in the
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents talk with participants in the "Surf Border" event at Border Field State Park in San Diego on August 12th, 2017.
KPCC/Libby Denkmann

Looking north, the city of Imperial Beach is visible in the distance, across miles of empty shoreline.

It’s nothing like the Mexican side of the fence, starting with the real estate. Playas de Tijuana is bustling with businesses and apartment buildings built right up to the border.

Machine Project’s Operations Manager, Camila Sobral, sends a voice memo from the group’s Tijuana camp, on a beach crowded with picnicking families, musicians, and food vendors.

“It’s crazy just seeing these surfers go across with no problem," she said. "Surfers launching from the U.S. side and surfers launching from the Mexican side, they’re all surfing the same water, and they’re all able to move just as freely.”

The border patrol officers keeping a lookout today aren’t authorized to speak on the record. But a communications officer with the California Border Patrol confirmed the agency got a heads up from Machine Project about their plan to surf the border.

One agent keeping an eye on the day's activities said surfers here sometimes get carried over the invisible international boundary by waves and currents. He said in general, as long as they don’t make landfall or have contact with someone from the other side, there shouldn’t be a problem. No handshakes or high fives are allowed, to prevent the possible transfer of contraband.

But as the afternoon wears on, there does seem to be a problem. Three Jet Skis carrying CBP officers appear near the surfers.

Diego Palacios was approached. “They told us to stay on this side of the wall," he said.

There's also a warning if the surfers do not follow the rules. "They [said they] would take our surf boards for exchanging goods,” Palacios said. "I think if anything those kinds of restrictions accentuate the absurdity of keeping people apart.”

L.A. artist Diego Palacios heads out to surf at the border between the U.S. and Mexico on August 12th, 2017. The Beach at Border Field State Park in San Diego, CA is located in the farthest Southwest corner of the United States, separated from Playas de Tijuana by an 18-foot high fence.
L.A. artist Diego Palacios heads out to surf at the border between the U.S. and Mexico on August 12th, 2017. The Beach at Border Field State Park in San Diego, CA is located in the farthest Southwest corner of the United States, separated from Playas de Tijuana by an 18-foot high fence.
KPCC/Libby Denkmann