When San Francisco photojournalist Mabel Jiménez heard the news earlier this year about migrants stuck at the U.S.-Mexico border trying to survive, the first thing she decided to do was assist the struggle before proceeding to document the lives involved.
“I grew up in Tijuana and my mom had asked me to go for family reasons,” she said, explaining her decision to travel with donations from contacts and friends, along with her cameras. “I said I’m going to bring some supplies to the border. I thought, maybe I’ll fill a trunk,” she said, though in the end she “filled a nine-passenger van and drove it from San Francisco to San Diego.”
Jiménez was well aware the donation of much-needed supplies could be perceived as an exchange for photographs and stories among people at the border living under extreme conditions, presenting her with a potential ethical dilemma. But, as she put it: “There are situations, and this situation in particular, feels to me more unethical to not bring something.”
The photos she took while visiting the border resulted eventually in her solo exhibit “Tijuana: The Refugee Struggle At The Border,” which is now on view at the City College of San Francisco Journalism Department’s Front Page Gallery. The exhibition compiles 20 harrowing and tender visions of generally unseen migrant communities such as refugees from Haiti and Central America and LGBTQ folks living in shelters. Each photograph represents an intentional interaction with her subjects, with the added dimension that U.S.-born Jiménez had returned to the border town of her youth.
“People are coming from all over the world – Russia, Ghana, Cameroon, Jamaica – on their way to the U.S.,” said Jiménez. When turned away from the U.S., they search for shelter in Mexico’s border towns. “Now even Mexico is starting to reject them,” said Jiménez.
“We think about the border as keeping everyone away from the U.S., but Mexico is talking to Guatemala to enforce the same way,” she said of the American-style border patrolling adopted by Mexico. “You’re seeing immigration detention centers in Mexico way worse than the ones in the U.S., maybe for different reasons but it’s happening there too,” she said. According to Jiménez, there are about 25 small shelters scattered around Tijuana. Her images and careful reporting style capture the stories within the larger story of migration, revealing its intersecting communities of immigrants.
“I knew there was a large Haitian community there that’s been coming since the earthquake in 2010 that displaced a lot of people,” Jiménez explained. “At first people went to nearby South American countries, Brazil and Venezuela, and worked construction for the Olympics in Brazil, but when the stadiums were built, they tried to come to the U.S. At first they were allowed in but some were deported due to changes in the law. Others got to Tijuana and couldn’t get through.”
A church community noticed the influx of Black migrants and offered its land. The area is now referred to as Little Haiti.
“There are not a lot of Black people in Mexico; they were noticed. ‘Who are these folks who clearly aren’t African Americans visiting Mexico?’” Jiménez tells the story of the particular complications for Haitian workers with her images, as she does with the stories of LGBTQ migrants who have sheltered together. The Casa de Luz is one such shelter that welcomes women, children, as well as people who identify as LGBTQ.
“The shelters are set up for men, women and children and families,” Jiménez explained of the mostly church-run and nonprofit communities. “There are different contingents in caravans, even within the caravans, there are women traveling alone, LGBT folks, and one group that tends to pair up are LGBT and single moms with kids who make their own families.”
“There is some lack of acceptance of the LGBT community and there is no government shelter system in place,” she said, adding that there are private shelters catering to LGBTQ folks, but they are few and they come with risks. “One shelter a year-and-a-half ago was broken into and set on fire.” As a precaution, “At least one doesn’t tell you their location, there’s no sign outside.”
In her reporting, Jiménez was mindful of the stages and levels of trauma from which migrants suffer.
“First there’s the trauma in your country of origin that forces you to leave. Then there’s the trauma in the traveling: You see people fall off a train or run over. So there’s the trauma of the voyage and the trauma of arriving: Where do we sleep and where do we eat? And we don’t have Mexican work permits so we can’t get jobs,” she said.
“Everything had to be slow paced,” Jiménez said of her process, explaining that she is not a fan of photojournalists who parachute into high-trauma regions or personal spaces for photo opportunities.
“I took 1000 photos in two weeks in Tijuana because you can’t just go click click click,” she said. By way of comparison, “I took photos at an event yesterday and took 1000 photos in four hours,” she said of the work she does for San Francisco’s Calle 24 Latino Cultural District.
Though she was in Tijuana for a relatively short stay, she was able to gain the trust of her subjects.
“I had to specify, ‘I’m with the press and you could end up in a newspaper in the U.S., are you comfortable with that?’ A couple of people didn’t want to be photographed. One shelter with a lot of children asked me not to take any photos inside. Generally, you want people to say ‘yes,’ but it gave me reassurance that people felt comfortable enough to say ‘no,’” she said. “With every interaction, you have to check in with your ethics and yourself.”
Jiménez refers to what she calls the privilege of her U.S. citizenship and her ability to fluidly cross the border, though she doesn’t buy into the idea that U.S. citizenship is a free ticket to the good life.
“I see a lot of people working really hard. When you witness that, it starts to feel like the world is random. I didn’t do anything better, I’m not more skilled than anyone else. It’s what you’re born into,” she said. “If it was the roll of the dice, I could be undocumented, living in fear. I guess I have a little bit of survivor’s guilt.”
Jiménez was born in 1982 in California. “It was a particularly bad year for the Mexican economy,” she said. “My parents lived in Tijuana and used their passport and visitor’s visa to cross the border, went to a hospital, and I was born.” Returning to Tijuana, Jiménez lived there through high school until she thought it was time for her to experience the world (her parents also live in California now).
“My parents erroneously thought I could lose my citizenship if I didn’t do something in the U.S. and encouraged me to do a ‘whatever’ job.” She ended up working with the California Conservation Corps (CCC).
“They take you places and plant trees and also collect needles on the side of the road, a little of this and that,” she said of her memory of her decision to sign on. “I was crossing the border everyday to go to work in San Diego, and learned that CCC had satellite opportunities. I wanted to know what else was out there so I picked the place furthest away from San Diego and that was Humboldt County.”
But after seven years in the beautiful but unurban and homogenous wild, she craved a more active and inclusive experience and applied to San Francisco State University to study photojournalism.
“In Humboldt it was slow moving and in San Francisco there is so much going on, so much media and still, there are more stories to be told. What is it they say…You have a front row seat to history.”
She found work as photo editor at the bilingual community newspaper El Tecolote where she worked for seven years, covering Latino life from a Bay Area perspective. It’s where she filed her story on the border earlier this year. She continues to participate in community panel discussions and present to university classrooms, most recently at San Jose State, where she shared her images and experience of the migrant camps. Department Chair of Journalism at City College of San Francisco, Juan Gonzales, invited her to show the work at CCSF Journalism’s Front Page Gallery, opening Oct. 18 and running until Nov. 8.
“We were real proud Mabel agreed to put on her first solo show with us and I think the public will be amazed. She really captures the essence of the people in terms of what they’re going through and the general issue of refugees and the border,” said Gonzales. “She’s from the border and knew what to expect. That works in her favor.”
“I wanted to stay longer. I just went there and came back. It was a drop in the bucket. There are people down there sacrificing everything to give people a better life,” she said, grateful for her own circumstances, albeit in San Francisco’s notoriously tight housing market. “I can’t complain. I have a place to stay, hot food, comforts and clean sheets.”
She’s hoping the stories and images she’s returned with will assist others in understanding the true nature of the migrant struggle at the border.
“People are so thankful for a 50-cent bar of soap: they said it changed their whole week,” she said. “I’m trying not to let that feeling wear off. There’s so much work to be done.”
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