Working the line: street vendors at the US-Mexico border – photo essay

Working the line: street vendors at the US-Mexico border – photo essay

The sun rises on a Saturday morning in Tijuana, Mexico. The city comes to life as shops open and late-night revellers straggle home. But at the San Ysidro border crossing, the primary link to California and the US, traffic is already backed up to the city centre a mile away.

Taking advantage of the early gridlock, vendors “work the line” – moving from car to car, offering newspapers, coffee and pastries to the morning commuters. The stream of potential customers will continue all day and well into the night, fuelling a unique mobile marketplace that operates here year round, offering everything from religious sculptures and shoes to dogs and prescription drugs.

The San Ysidro port of entry between Tijuana and San Diego is the busiest land border crossing in the world, with an average of 135,000 people passing through each day. The port is a vital connection between two growing cities that are separated by politics but inextricably linked by history, culture and economics.

People cross for a variety of reasons – work, family, travel or even medical treatment. For daily commuters the international border is just another traffic jam, albeit one that has grown in recent decades as the US has tightened security.

A side effect of increased inspection on the US side means wait times have extended dramatically over the years, and can be as long as five hours during peak periods. This means more potential customers, which has in turn seen more people working the line. This is apparent in the mix of vendors, who come from across Mexico, South America and beyond.

The diversity of vendors, beggars and hustlers walking among the cars is striking: Tijuana natives who have worked the line for decades, indigenous children juggling for tips and Haitian refugees stuck in immigration limbo selling fruit juice. Alongside them are American addicts who have relocated for a cheaper fix and recently deported people from the US – the deportados – who range from displaced Salvadoran families to those recently uprooted from several decades of life there.

Some people work the line out of desperation while others do it part-time for extra cash. However it is widely accepted that the line is a place where anyone can make money if they work hard.

Wendy Hernandez, a 19-year-old student, explains that she likes the flexibility of working here. “I work in the line to pay for school. Every day, Monday to Sunday, usually after school from one-thirty to eight. A lot of guys in line can be disrespectful but I like working here, mainly because of the money.”

Wendy Hernandez serves agua fresca, a popular Mexican fruit drink; right: papier-mache skulls for celebrating the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead on sale at one of the streetside shops, and a Mennonite boy sells cheese

By noon the line is in full swing, with people walking around despite the 30C (86F) heat. It is clear this is a closeknit community. Everyone seems to have family and friends working nearby, and vendors socialise as much as they sell.

Sitting at one of the streetside shops selling artesanías – handmade arts and crafts that depict everything from Catholic saints to Marvel superheroes – 47-year-old Nacho Ruiz says he would not want to be anywhere else. “All of my life I’ve worked the line, more than 30 years, I was practically born here,” he says. “It’s a great job for me, I have lots of family nearby. I wouldn’t leave the line for anything.”

This closeness becomes apparent when a commotion breaks out. A pair of eight-year-old girls run over yelling that a man has been trying to force them into his van. Two men immediately jump up and head over. After a brief exchange they start taking turns punching him in the face. Most bystanders pretend not to notice, accustomed to this sort of “street justice”. By the end of the ordeal the driver has moved ahead in line and the two men are back at the shop, wiping the blood off of their tattooed hands before going back to selling blankets and paintings.

When asked later the men say this is how things are done, since the line community is essentially self-regulating. Carlos Bueno, one of the local shop workers explains: “We take care of our business, we take care of our people. When something wrong is happening we deal with it.

“Some people that cross think they’re better than us, so if we don’t take care of each other no one else will.”

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