It was here [in El Mapa] that just last week—last Tuesday, February 12th—police seized the tents, clothing, and blankets of El Mapa’s residents, piled them high in the southeast corners of the park, and set them aflame in a fire so hot and massive that the blackened, soot-covered street lamp shines only a faint light on the camp at night.
In Tijuana, Mexico, a streetlight looms over the southeast end of the El Mapa park. The casing around the bulb is charred and black. Past the streetlight, and half as tall, is a fence whose rungs catch trash that has been thrown from cars racing down the Vía Internacional. Since winter, the El Mapa park has been lined with tents, occupied with precisely the hodge-podge composition of life that public spaces across the world have been designed to drive out, or extinguish. Mexican deportees, Central American refugees from the migrant caravans, and homeless residents of Tijuana live in the park despite constant harassment from police and extortion from street-level gangs. It was here that just last week—last Tuesday, February 12th—police seized the tents, clothing, and blankets of El Mapa’s residents, piled them high in the southeast corners of the park, and set them aflame in a fire so hot and massive that the blackened, soot-covered street lamp shines only a faint light on the camp at night. The next day, only a few tents and a handful of people remained in the park.
“We go to the fire department and tell them, but they laugh,” one man says, pointing to the bright red building one lot down from El Mapa. The words on the building read “Central Bomberos”, the central Tijuana fire department.
The night of fires was followed by a day of high winds and then rain. Ashes are scattered across the paving stones and form black streaks on the nearest line of tents. Another man sweeps a broom across the ground, tenderly picking up the trash that has drifted in from the highway. What is left of his clothing and blankets hang on the fence to dry. “I lived in Virginia for almost twenty years,” he says. “That was home.”
A woman’s heaving coughs reverberate from a tarp-covered tent. A medic taps on the tent and peeks in to offer medicine, “This should help. You can take it once a day with water.” She says that there is no more water, and she’s right. The medic asks her what happened to the water tank that people brought in January. “The police took it when they set the fires,” she says.
A few days later, there are more tents in the park. A man is hammering flat the nails of a wooden pallet with a paving stone pried from the small plaza. He is building a foundation for his tent to keep it out of the puddles that formed with the last rain, and other people are starting to do the same. There is another fire burning at El Mapa, its embers spread across the park: “We began this together, and we will end it together.”