Life in a Tijuana commuter’s shoes

A rattling noise came from somewhere inside the hood of a 2001 silver Ford Focus as Angel Zamora, a 39-year-old junior transfer student from Vincennes University, drove off campus around 4:30 p.m. after finishing classes for the day.

As Zamora merged onto the 5-South and started his journey home to Tijuana, he tightly gripped his steering wheel while chewing on an orange Halls cough drop.

“My steering wheel is really tight; I think the power steering fluid is running out again,” said Zamora. He made plans to work on his car during the weekend.

Zamora started school at PLNU in the spring of 2013, after serving in the Navy for 14 years. Before joining the Navy, Zamora spent the beginning of his life in Monterrey, Mexico, after moving there from his hometown of Houston, Texas, when he was 6 months old..

“When I was a freshman in high school, my uncle told me that I needed to decide where I wanted to live because I would be turning 18 soon,” said Zamora.

His family in Texas offered him a place to stay and finish high school, so he decided to move back to the United States when he was 15.

“I knew I needed to learn English and going to the United States would help me,” said Zamora. “That first year was hard for me, because when I was in all English classes and not ESL classes, I would get lost.”

Around 5:15 p.m., Zamora made a stop in Otay Mesa, where his U.S. P.O. Box is. As he exited the freeway, rosary beads swung back and forth from its place on the rearview mirror. A lot of people cross the border everyday to come to shops like the ones close to Zamora’s P.O. Box.

“Even though it’s cheaper to buy some things in Mexico, a lot of people come to the U.S. because the quality of products are so much better,” said Zamora. His P.O. Box is one of hundreds of little, gold locked doors that line the inside of a white room. Zamora opened his box and found a single slip of paper informing him that rent on his mailbox was due.

“I share the mailbox with my uncle. It costs $90.00 a year to share a mailbox, and $70.00 a year for one person to have a mailbox,” said Zamora.

After checking his mailbox, Zamora got gas at a 7-Eleven around 5:30 p.m.

“I always go to this gas station,” said Zamora. “It’s right by the border and it’s cheaper to get gas in the U.S. since gas prices are going up in Mexico because of higher taxes.”

Before getting gas, Zamora bought some power steering fluid, because the bottle he has ran out. He uses half of the bottle, then puts the rest in his trunk.

“I’ll probably use the rest tomorrow morning,” said Zamora.

Before leaving the station, Zamora popped in a classical music CD.

“I always listen to classical music while going home; it calms me down when I drive,” said Zamora.

Zamora lives in Tijuana with his wife, Miriam and two adopted children, Evelyn, 12, and Luis,15. Zamora met his wife in 1998 when he went to a club in Tijuana with some friends while he was in the Navy. He corresponded with her by mail for five years until they decided to marry in Mexico in 2006. Zamora adopted his children when they were young and has been their only father figure.

“I love my kids, and I want them to know I’ll always be there for them,” said Zamora. “It’s important for me to be there for my kids, because my dad wasn’t there for me as a kid.”

As Zamora drove toward the border, a helicopter hovered in the distance. “There’s always at least one helicopter flying around the border, patrolling,” said Zamora.

Around 6:06 p.m., the cars merged into the two lanes that cross the Otay Mesa border into Tijuana. Yellow signs posted on the side of the road say,

“Mexico only, prepare to stop.” The car slowly moved toward the border, stopping at a red light and then moving forward at a green, passing by white security cameras and into Mexico around 6:29 p.m.

The streets were rough and the car bounced, hitting random potholes as it approached a stoplight. As the car got closer to his home, vehicles zoomed through intersections with broken streetlights and missing stop signs.

“There was a stop sign there, but it fell down one day and no one replaced it,” said Zamora.

Around 7:15 p.m. Zamora parked his car on the dusty road in front of his house. Rottweilers peaked over the balcony of a neighbor’s house across the street, barking, while loud hip-hop music from a Zumba class is played nearby. Zamora unlocked the security door on the metal fence that blocked off the front of his house from the street. When Zamora walked through the main door, his daughter, Evelyn, greeted him and showed him a picture she drew at school that day. His son, Luis, said hello while playing a game on the computer.

Zamora and his family live in Mexico because he hasn’t been able to get them their visas or citizenship yet.

“It would cost me around $1,200 to get all of them their papers,” said Zamora. “I tried once, but was denied because I don’t have enough income yet.”
Even though his goal is to finish school and get a steady job, he has fears like most young graduates about finding a job. Some of these fears could delay the process of his family coming to the U.S.

“It’s scary not knowing what I’ll do in a year after I graduate,” said Zamora. “I don’t have a choice to work a part-time job.”

Around 9:15 p.m. Zamora’s wife, Miriam, came home from visiting a relative that lives next door. Evelyn, a seventh grader, ate a hot dog and fries while watching Tron with Spanish subtitles. Even though she’s happy her dad is going to school and learning something he loves, she’s sad when he’s gone.

“When he gets home late I worry that something has happened to him,” said Evelyn. “Only seeing my dad a little bit is really hard.”
Luis, a freshman in high school, expressed similar fears, but is also excited for the opportunities the family will have if they are able to move to the U.S.

“I’m inspired by my dad going to school, but I know that I will have to work hard now to go to school when I’m older,” said Luis. “I’m scared that if we move to the U.S. that I won’t know any English, but I’m excited for a better education and opportunities.”

Education is really important to Zamora and he hopes that because of his education, his family will have a better life.

“The things that Angel is studying now helps the kids,” said Miriam. “He is a good example to them.”

The most difficult thing about Zamora studying in the U.S. is that Miriam worries about him driving so much, but the family is really positive about his education.

“It’s good that he is studying to work in something he loves, because it’s his dream,” said Miriam. “We always try to see the good in things, because everything happens for a reason.”

The family goes to bed around 10:30 or 11:00 p.m. at night and Zamora wakes up at 4:30 a.m. the next morning to get ready for school and be out the door by 5:00 a.m. Before he leaves, he wakes up Evelyn so that she can take a shower before school.

On the way to the border, Zamora picked up his father in-law so that he could drop him off in Otay Mesa at the Honeywell factory where he works.

“I usually bring my father in-law to work on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, because I have to be to school for my 8:30 a.m. history class,” said Zamora. “But on Tuesday and Thursday I don’t have class until 9:30 a.m. so he takes the bus.”

As Zamora waited for his father in-law to come out of his house, he put the other half of the bottle of power steering fluid in his car and then took off. The car bumped along a dark part of the highway 200, where all the streetlights were out.

“These lights have been off for a while and the newspaper is always reporting on dead bodies being found here,” said Zamora. “The houses up in the hills and the lack of lights make it a perfect place to dump a body and it’s usually gang related or drug related activities.”
Around 5:32 a.m. the car approached the border line and a woman walked up to the car and handed Zamora a newspaper.

“I keep a tab for how much I owe her and when I get to around 100 pesos, I pay her,” said Zamora.

Crossing the border took a lot less time because of recent construction on the San Ysidro border.

“Ever since the San Ysidro border expanded, cars that used to cross at the Otay Mesa border are crossing at San Ysidro,” said Zamora. “It makes my commute across the border a lot faster, it’s the 5 or the 805 freeways that slow me down.”

Around 5:55 a.m. the car crossed the border and Zamora dropped his father-in-law off at work and waved goodbye.
Depending on the day or how he feels, Zamora will take the 5 freeway or the 805 freeway.

“I used to take the 5 freeway to school everyday, but then I randomly figured out I could take the 805 too,” said Zamora. “I don’t like using a GPS, sometimes you have to take a chance and get lost, but it’s okay, because that’s how you learn.”

As Zamora drove by downtown San Diego around 6:32 a.m., the sun rose and hit the top of the Central Library out his left window. The traffic wasn’t too bad, so he made it to school by 6:47 a.m.

“I don’t have class until 8:30 a.m.,” said Zamora. “So I’m going read the paper I got at the border and maybe take a nap until class.”


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