Repairing shelters and giving migrants hope are components of both Castro’s job and his passion.
By Mariah Castañeda
Situated on the Mexican-Border, or “La Frontera”, 45 year old Hugo Castro hustles in the basement of a ramshackle building. Wielding a pickaxe, he tears into the soft, dark earth, creating little mounds. Hopefully he can install wooden reinforcements from the scrap wood he ripped apart moments ago, and finish structural repairs before the owner fills the basement with cement.
Repairing shelters and giving migrants hope are components of both Castro’s job, and his passion.
He does his crude construction work at around 8 in the morning, when the majority of inhabitants sleep on hard cement in the floor above.
This building in Playas Vista, Tijuana, is a shelter for deportees sent out of the United States. Roughly twenty men live in a home constructed from a hodgepodge of materials, from cement and brick, to plaster and flimsy plywood.
A single touch could cause a small wall to come tumbling down.
On the upper floor, a soggy heap of trash sits a few feet away from a yellow paperback that reads in bold, red letters, “Murphy’s Law” — anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
One of the latest installments at the Playas Vista shelter is a new restaurant nearby, which will employ deportees living in the shelter. Castro hopes that working will help the shelter’s inhabitants gain a little more independence and hope.
“Don’t lose faith. It [crossing the border] is possible, [ work ] meanwhile you [the deportees] wait to cross the border.”
Castro is a board member for Border Angels, an organization that advocates for migrants’ issues from both sides of the border. Hose mainly works south of the border. The northern “Angels” attempt to prevent desert deaths by hosting monthly “water drops”, trekking the same desert many migrants cross in order to enter the United States. Along the way, they leave behind water and supplies. While the Border Angels in the United States has a San Diego office, and organizes monthly events to assist migrants, the Border Angels in Mexico appears substantially more rugged. Castro often fills up his car with donated goods to transport to each shelter.
Castro tries to attend the monthly water drops as much as he can, however, he is one of only two “Angeles de la Frontera” board members living in Mexico. Unlike his colleagues in the north, Castro does not operate from an office, and his mission differs from directly assisting migrants crossing the desert. Rather, he assists and tries to garner support for those trapped in Tijuana —deportees from the United States and refugees. These deportees are mostly comprised of Haitians displaced by the notorious 2010 earthquake, and other migrants crossing from South and Central America.
Castro assists thirty-two shelters throughout Tijuana and Mexicali, Mexico, and as a migrant and human rights activist, is one of the most prominent figures of Border Angels south of the border, well acquainted with local and international reporters alike.
Powerfully built, his broad shoulders fill the bulk of his dark leather jacket, while his jeans are covered in mud and cement splatters from repairing one shelter and trudging through a muddy path to get to another. His brows are strong, and tensely furrow when talking about something that particularly angers him.
The Playas de Tijuana shelter is one of roughly three dozen that Castro assists. The inhabitants of these shelters range from Haitian refugees, deportees from the United States, to migrants from Central America fleeing violence and economic instability. Many shelters cater to specific kinds of migrants; some are designated for Haitian refugees, others serve recent deportees.
Many times, groups weren’t all that clear cut as migrants from different countries seeked refuge from the rough streets of Tijuana.
The people running the shelters in Tijuana aim to house and separate the inhabitants from the streets by means of brick, wood, pilaster or tent fabric. Shelter dwellers subsist on donated canned goods, oatmeal and oil.
Keeping migrants alive and well is a top priority; strengthening trapped migrants for their futures is another goal. Some migrants will decide to play it safe and try their luck creating a livelihood in Tijuana. Others will attempt to cross the treacherous American border.
The shelter in Playas Vista faces the Pacific Ocean. Loud music from neighboring parties drifts across the sand and surf into the early hours of the morning on weekends.
Next to the sand is an old boardwalk, across is a sidewalk that separates the sand and water from the shelter.
The shelter is a vivid structure. Pink, red, yellow, and mint paint all mingle on the exterior. One side is painted all red. Blue geometric shapes grace a white background on the northern face. The side facing the ocean is a light mint color, with concrete seats jutting out of the sides.
Grey bricks with inch thick spaces build up one wall, while rotting wood and plaster comprise others. On the top floor, the toilet dubiously sits in a room that can be described as a wooden box missing a side, exposing the porcelain seat.
About 10 men sleep shoulder-to-shoulder in one room, their bodies heaving under the few blankets that they share.
Castro hopes that reinforcing the rickety shelter will help him sleep better at night, since he will be spending his nights at this Playa Vista shelter, due to recent changes in his living arrangements. The night before, he slept a mere two hours due to rats scurrying around the floor.
Castro believes the best form of revenge is to make fun of someone. He wishes to someday orchestrate a play in Washington D.C., mocking President Donald J. Trump right smack in front of the White House.
“Comedy is a way of making fun of someone. It’s revenge.”
He then talked about the native Mexicans that made fun of the Spaniards— what could they do but to laugh at the people that conquered them? For Castro, revenge was in laughter.
Castro’s new roommates differ greatly in migrant experiences; not everyone is native to Mexico. Victor Nahim Boyia Cabrera, 27, is originally from Honduras; he hopes to prepare a visa to enter the United States through Tijuana. Should he obtain it, he will cross the border.
According to the International Crisis Group, Honduras is one of the most violent countries in the Western Hemisphere, clocking in at about 57 murders per 100,000 people in 2015, second to El Salvador which held a record high with 103 murders per 100,000 in 2015. Young adults are most at risk for being killed in gang related homicides.
Due to the dangerous conditions in the Northern Triangle of Central America —Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras— many young people flee to Mexico and the United States. The struggles of young migrants typically do not lessen after they leave home, often becoming targets of kidnapping and sex trafficking. Still, despite the difficult journey, many from Central America still make it to the United States and Mexico.
Mexico reportedly “returned” 166,000 Central Americans in 2015.
The United States deported 75,000 in the same year.
Vanessa Moreno, another one of Castro’s shelter mates, shares her own unique story. The 47 year old transgender woman spent nearly three decades in Orange County after immigrating to the United State from Michoacan, Mexico at age 14 — a journey over 1,500 6 miles long.
Moreno graduated from Acacia High School, later finding employment as a convalescent home worker by day, drag queen by night.
Her life in Orange County came to an abrupt end in 2012, when Moreno was deported.
According to the Pew Research Center, the United States deported roughly 418,000 undocumented immigrants in 2012, deporting roughly 218,000 non-criminals and 200,000 criminals.
While Castro sets off to reinforce the shelter, Moreno sifts through the trash heap on the upper floor with her bare hands, brushing through with her large digits. She stops and stares at a packet of false eyelashes, casting it aside after realizing the packet contains only a single lash. Moreno snatches up a tube of toothpaste, dubiously wrapped in a plastic bag.
“It’s good, we can use it,” she says. “It’s covered.”
The shelter for deportees in Playas Vista often runs low on supplies. Vanessa rummages through trash encased in mud and water, searching for any items that can be used later. An old Carl’s Jr. Large plastic cup is as good as any other cup.
After Moreno is done with her search, she washes her hands with bleach and gets ready for work.
Although the men at the shelter use “her” and “she” when referring to Moreno, she tries to retain many of her masculine attributes, fearing the danger that comes with being a transgender woman in Tijuana.
Moreno’s face is tanned, with two tattooed slopes mirroring each other on her forehead, and her lower eyelids are permanently lined. She wears a beanie, covering her head and half of her eyebrows; her movements are graceful and fluid.
Although Moreno misses her sister Lucy, she avoids calling her sister’s cell phone, despite knowing Lucy’s number by heart. Moreno always says she has no family, fearing what could happen if the “wrong” people discovered that she has family members in the affluent South Orange County.
“I’m doing everything by myself. I have to do everything by myself,” Moreno sighs.
Moreno finds work as an eyebrow threader on the sidewalk of the Playas Vista beach. She carries a bag of cotton balls, a spool of thread, a mirror, and a bottle of antiseptic onto a concrete ledge outside the shelter. Three elderly ladies join her, each wanting to get their eyebrows threaded. Moreno likes her new job, mostly because she enjoys getting to know her customers. She says she meets folks from all over the world at her makeshift eyebrow salon.
A few yards away from Moreno, Hugo Castro has just finished reinforcing the shelter, with help from Cabrera and another man.
Long before the Salinas native joined Border Angels in 2009, Castro was incarcerated for trying to smuggle 9 kilograms of marijuana across the border in 2001. During his imprisonment, Castro saw the ills of the for-profit prison system first hand. Many men in prison had little to no health care, some becoming deathly ill. Castro himself nearly died after contracting a bladder infection. He began to advocate for the rights of those in prison with him, constantly sending letters to parole officers. He also obtained his associate’s degree from Taft College in 2003 behind bars, before transferring to San Diego State University. He graduated in 2006.
Castro became involved with Border Angels at the urging of his former college professor, the late Rogelio Reyes, a former member. A fire was ignited within Castro, and he began to rally for the rights of those south of the border. In December 2013, Castro moved to Tijuana where he organized an Occupy the Border movement, where he and other activists protested the practice of imprisoning deportees that did not have adequate Mexican identification. When ten deportees were brought to Mexico, according to Castro, seven of the ten would be imprisoned for not having the correct identification by the Mexican police. He was subsequently arrested for protesting.
Still advocating for the better treatment of migrants, Castro shifted his focus to the shelters in Tijuana, which house migrants from all over the world.
The border stands about 75 feet from the Playas Vista shelter. Unlike the highly militarized American side, this side of the border is decorated with murals and messages in both English and Spanish. Playas Vista is home to the only section of the border where two people standing on either side can touch by interlocking fingers through holes in the barrier.
Two large murals depict such linked fingers on the border.
Despite the emotional artwork on the Playas border, it serves as a tourist attraction to some; many families and groups take selfies in front of “La Frontera” with smartphones.
A few other families, however, wait for their loved ones on the American side of the border.
A woman clutching a toddler chats with a figure on the other side of the barrier for hours, while her older child entertains himself with an aluminum top and a string.
Castro begins to make his way to another shelter, a sanctuary housing Haitian refugees. Unlike the Playas Vista shelter, this refuge is inland, passing through downtown Tijuana into a hilly road. Once he arrives at a large pale sanctuary, he kneels down and uses a rag left outside the building to clean his muddy boots before entering.
About 400 Haitians sing worship hymns in a giant sanctuary hall. Their mattresses lie about haphazardly, plush blankets strewn across. Their condition is dire, and they have little access to food, subsisting on meager rations.
Sadly enough, the refugees at this sanctuary might be considered the lucky ones. With wide walls and a roof, this sanctuary boasts far more than another shelter, which offers but a sulking, blue tarp that hangs above meter-high dome tents.
The Haitian sanctuary is fairly new, built roughly a year and a half ago. Running water was introduced the Christmas of 2016, after Border Angels pressured the local government into installing the necessary structures.
Castro always thinks that Christmas seems to be a good time to push humane causes on politicians.
Castro visits this particular shelter about twice a week, while also regularly visiting the other shelters within Tijuana and Mexicali. Speaking about the homeless living in Tijuana, Castro claims that many of them are actually deportees from the United States. With nowhere else to go, and unable to maintain a steady job, deportees sometimes struggle to rebuild a life in Mexico— their minds are still stuck north of the border.
On his way back from the Haitian shelter, Castro stops by a canal. On the muddy concrete banks, divided by three grey pillars, human belongings can be seen peeking out of the filth. There is a dark silhouette of a rail-thin person, their back and arms outstretched forward to shake out a soggy piece of fabric.
Castro curtly explains the difference between American and Mexican river dwellers.
“Here it’s worse.The rivers in America are cleaner.”
With the foul stench that permeates certain parts of Tijuana due to the intermittent raw sewage spills plaguing the coast, it would’ve been hard to argue otherwise.