Creative Nonfiction Features


The infamous wall, photo courtesy of Reyna Huff

Sirens. Bright lights. A car horn. My roommates and I crowd around the window, heads bumping as we peer through the blinds. First responders gather in the parking lot outside our dorm. 

“Do you think they’re trying to rescue someone from the cliffs?” 

Our dorm is located on the edge of the water; students are pretty good at navigating the cliffs, but still, accidents happen.  

“It’s almost midnight. If someone was out there this late it can’t be anything good.”

“I’m going outside to see if anyone knows what’s going on.”

My remaining roommate and I snap our heads up, hearing what sounds like a plane overhead. Lights shine over the water from up above. We watch a small aircraft fly up the coast, then back towards our dorm, bright lights scanning. 

“Do you think they’re looking for a body?”

Oh, God. I stare out the window, unable to tell where the sea begins and the black sky ends. Jesus, please let them find them. My roommate barges back into the room, interrupting our stoic silence. 

“You won’t believe what it is. Apparently there are boats dropping off migrants from Tijuana in the water; police think they’re swimming to shore and climbing up the cliffs. That’s why they were searching the water and waiting in the parking lot.”

We don’t live far from the San Diego-Tijuana border. It’s a risky plan, but it could work.

 I wish I could take back my prayers. 

. . . 

“Hola, ¿tienes un minuto para responder a nuestras preguntas?” 

I sit quietly as Nate explains our immigration policy research project to a migrant. We’ve been at the migrant home for about thirty minutes, a small group of college students asking migrants if they want to answer some questions for research. Many don’t, and it’s understandable. Talking means you have to relive the trauma. But some do want to share their stories, like the woman seated in front of me. 

“She’s from Guerrero. She’s traveling with her husband and kids.”

I scribble this down under the “demographics” section of the survey. 

“She says she had to leave because her entire extended family was being killed by criminal organizations.” 

I write it down; the words look bare on the page.

I wish I could write down the look on her face. 

“She expected it to be hard. She knew she would have to sleep outside gas stations and go hungry, but she is still shocked by how much she has to fear for her safety. She’s especially worried about her kids.” 

I glance up at the woman; she gives me a weak smile. She sits with her legs crossed, arms folded delicately in her lap, her daughter hanging from the crook of her elbow. The girl stands up to tug on the bright pink fabric of her mom’s t-shirt. She strokes the girl’s hair absentmindedly, and continues her story.  

I get back from our Tijuana trip around midnight. My homework stares at me, books strewn across my desk. I have pages and pages of reading to do. I pick up the first book, I and Thou by Martin Buber.

A human being becomes a whole not in virtue of a relation to himself but rather in virtue of an authentic relationship with all other human beings. 

I can’t understand what the man in front of me is saying. He’s Haitian; I don’t think Spanish is his first language. The mask he’s wearing muffles an already quiet voice. Nate is talking to him eagerly, answering questions that I must have missed. My eyes wander over his tent; I smile at his wife sitting inside and wrapped up in blankets. She nods every so often, and sometimes she interjects to correct her husband or add something to the story. 

What they don’t tell you about migrant camps is that there is actually quite a lot going on. Life is happening. People are going back and forth from their tents to the bathrooms and some back rooms where I think there might be food. Tired adults stand in line to wash dirty dishes in the sink. There are people sleeping, but I don’t know how they are managing it. Kids are everywhere, shouting, playing tag, sprawled on the ground coloring with crayons, refusing to be wrangled by parents. The air is hot and humid, thick with the sound of chatting. A girl taps me on the shoulder, showing me a drawing of a unicorn that she made. 

“Wow, ¡Qué bonita!”

She scampers away to show her crowd of friends. 

“Reyna, can you write this down?”

I snap back into the interview Nate is conducting, ready to do my duty as scribe. 

“He’s traveling with his pregnant wife. A few weeks ago, they were walking down the street and bullets just started firing everywhere.”  

​​ The director of the migrant home answers our questions about changes in policy. 

“Whenever American policy shifts, whether it is good or bad, we just have to pause. The change never goes into effect immediately. Mostly, everything just stops.”

I wonder how long this pause will last. Most of the people I talked to had submitted their papers months ago, some had been waiting for years. I wonder what the point of our research is. 

We walk along the beach until we reach the infamous wall. It’s actually two walls, with a space in between that military personnel drive through every so often. 

The spot we’ve reached is called Friendship Park. There are families having picnics, and people selling elotes and agua frescas from carts. The wall extends into the ocean, just in case. As we walk, I stop to take pictures of the artwork painted on the Tijuana side. There are pictures of bright yellow suns and giant pink hearts, crosses and rainbows littering the walls. People have signed their names, or stopped to write messages in Spanish. They’ve even planted little gardens along the wall, and we walk past an old man seated on a bench strumming his guitar. Someone had hung up a cardboard sign; it reads: Let us see our families. No walls, just hugs.  

The US side has no flowers, no murals, no people singing or children playing. Just barbed wire. 

But I look at the ground on either side of the wall, and it’s all the same. It’s just dirt. Brown and dry, some spots have started to crack in the heat. Dirt on one side of the metal bars, dirt on the other. 


I don’t know if the police ever found any of the migrants on the cliffs. We stood at the window for about 20 minutes, waiting to see what would happen. The sirens died down, the aircraft stopped flying, and bright lights no longer shone into our window. Soon we were tucked in warm cozy beds, murmuring a quick prayer or two before falling into a dreamless sleep. People talked about what happened the next day, but after a week or two had gone by we forgot all about it, easily pulled back into the business of our lives. 


Love is the responsibility of an I for a You

 – Martin Buber

Written By: Reyna Huff