Part 2 of 2
By Pablo J. Sáinz
Historian and writer Barbara Zaragoza’s new book, San Ysidro and the Tijuana River Valley, was just released, and it helps bring light to San Ysidro’s rich history.
In part one of this interview, Zaragoza gave an overview of the social and political history of San Ysidro, which historically has been neglected by all levels of government. The more than 200 vintage photographs included in the book, which is part of Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series, detail the struggles residents had to go through to make their voices heard.
In part two, the historian takes a look at the environmental importance of the Tijuana River Valley, and she gives her insights on what the future might hold for San Ysidro and this vibrant border community.
La Prensa San Diego: In the book you highlight the environmental importance of the Tijuana River Valley. Do you think residents of San Ysidro in particular and of San Diego in general see beyond it being an international border and see the importance of this area in terms of environmental issues?
Barbara Zaragoza: I received wonderful help with the environmental history from the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve and their staff. I also was able to interview Mike McCoy who helped establish the reserve in the 1970’s alongside his wife, Patricia McCoy. He showed me one heart-breaking picture of a deer trying to forage for food, but the boundary fence wouldn’t allow him to pass.
Mike and Patricia fought hard to make sure the Tijuana Estuary wouldn’t be turned into an upscale marina. Thanks to their work, the Tijuana Estuary is the largest coastal wetland in Southern California not crossed by a freeway. It is also part of the Pacific Flyway and home to many endangered species.
Two big issues arise regarding the border and environmental concerns. The first is that the constant construction on the border wall means that the ecology in the region suffers. It is unknown how many plants and animals have been destroyed or displaced due to construction along this estuary eco-system.
The second environmental problem is sewage. Tijuana now exists exclusively on the Mexican side, 300 feet above sea level. Through my research, I found that the sewage run-off from Tijuana has been an issue since the 1930’s. At different times, Tijuana sewage has contaminated farms and even the drinking water of San Ysidro. More recently, we are aware of how Tijuana sewage has contaminated our beaches, from Imperial Beach to Coronado and even further North.
When you visit the border, you can see that construction has taken place along American territory that is approximately 3 feet from the actual boundary line. In this way, the U.S. can make unilateral decisions on border construction. This also means the U.S. and Mexico do not necessarily work cooperatively on their boundary issues.
Sewage is an issue that effect us all because, historically, it runs off into our oceans, our food and our drinking water.
LPS: How was the research and picture compilation process?
BZ: Obtaining the pictures could have been a difficult process, but in this region people are incredibly warm and welcoming. I received such a wonderful response from people who, like me, love San Ysidro. I started at Casa Familiar and the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce. They provided me with a knowledge of their history and names of people I could talk to. Each person I spoke to had someone else for me to call. I met scores of delightful people who were willing to share not only their photos, but their personal histories as they related to San Ysidro. I was so grateful and touched.
LPS: What are your ties to San Ysidro and the Tijuana River Valley? Were you familiar with the community before starting working on the book?
BZ: I lived in Otay Mesa for 5 years and my children were enrolled in the San Ysidro School District, so I was very familiar with the community. I then moved to Naples, Italy for three years due to my husband’s work. When we returned to the States, we moved to Chula Vista, but I kept going back to San Ysidro because it felt more like Naples, which helped me through my culture shock of living in the U.S. again.
Naples is a frenetic, bustling city where people are very passionate. Their children and their families come first. San Ysidro is similar. I love the international flavor of the area. There’s an added charm to San Ysidro as well: residents place more value on grassroots movements and a concern for their fellow community members.
When Arcadia Publishing gave me the opportunity to write a photographic history of the area, I was thrilled. It meant meeting the people, making friends and spending loads of time in San Ysidro. What could be better than that?
LPS: In the book you include lots of pictures from “old timers” who remember when everybody knew everybody in San Ysidro. How has this changed today?
BZ: In a way, the “everybody knows everybody” feel of San Ysidro hasn’t changed. It’s still there. There are some very well known and active San Ysidro community members that you will meet again and again if you stay long enough. The San Ysidro Women’s Club, for example, is still very active in the community. Andrea Skorepa and the employees at Casa Familiar advocate for the community at many events. Adolfo Ocampo is the friendly branch librarian at the San Ysidro Public Library, Tommy Cuen runs the Feed Store and Alicia Jimenez is always over at Hearts & Hands. If you hang around San Ysidro long enough, you’ll see the same faces over and over again. It will feel like a small town.
But the population growth over the last several decades means you can’t possibly know everyone anymore. In the 1930’s and 1940’s the population was a mere few hundred people. During the 1960’s, suburban housing construction meant that the population exploded into the thousands. It was no longer possible to know everyone in the town. San Ysidro has a city feel nowadays.
Back when many of the Old Timers I spoke with lived in San Ysidro, they remembered living on acres of land with chickens, rabbits and horses. That’s definitely not the San Ysidro we know today with two freeways, a trolley station and a frenetic port of entry.
LPS: Will you be presenting the book in San Diego soon?
BZ: Yes! I will be speaking at the San Ysidro Women’s Club in September and at the Chula Vista Genealogical Society in February. I’ll be going to smaller gatherings, such as Los Amigos, too. I’m hoping to do an event at The Front. I welcome giving talks or joining groups for discussion.
Generally, though, this is the kind of book where I want to hand deliver it and speak with the people who provided me with photos or talk with people who have a passion for San Ysidro and the Tijuana River Valley the way I do.
LPS: Besides being home to the port of entry, what can we highlight about the San Ysidro of today?
BZ: For me, San Ysidro is a vibrant district of San Diego, like Hillcrest, La Jolla, College Park, etc. It’s a district with its own flavor.
Of course, everybody wants to come to San Ysidro for the Las Americas Outlet malls and, by all means, it’s fun to shop there. The flee market is fun, too. But the East side of the border is far more interesting, in my opinion. Try to find the once washed away Boundary Monument #255. It’s still there by the Trolley Station. Also, don’t forget to go into San Ysidro Boulevard for either the local food, such La Bodega market or the flautas at Mi Tierra. If you’re like me and enjoy history, architecture and off-the-beaten track sights, definitely go to the historic San Ysidro Public Library, The Front Art Gallery, the Civic Center (which is in the heart of Little Landers), the Feed Store and El Toreador. Also, the Tijuana River Valley has Suzie’s Farms, which offers camps for kids, tours of the farm, yoga classes and an annual equinox dinner. County Parks has hiking trails along the border. Friendship Park on the weekends is also a moving experience. That’s where you can see the marble monument #258.
LPS: This year, San Ysidro is celebrating 105 years since its founding. What do you think about the future of San Ysidro?
BZ: My book, hopefully, is just the beginning of historical research for San Ysidro and the Tijuana River Valley. I continue my research because I see a renaissance happening at the border (as you can see from my above recommendations of places to visit, which only scratches the surface). We are at the cusp of San Ysidro becoming a tourist destination and I want to ride that swelling wave.
I foresee an incredible amount of revitalization taking place in San Ysidro over the course of the next two decades. The grass roots activism within the community demands it. People are working hard to get local, state and federal representatives to hear their many voices that say: We want our neighborhood to be a world class gateway between the U.S. and Mexico.
LPS: Anything you’d like to add?
BZ: Since my research and enthusiasm for the region continues, I’ve set up the website Friends of San Ysidro as a way to build the San Ysidro archival photographic collection and document more personal histories. If any of your readers would like to contribute, please feel free to contact me with your valuable histories at www.friendsofsanysidro.org.