by Stuart Richardson

It is said to be the most traversed border in the world. Each day, some 130,000 travelers cross the U.S.-Mexico border at Tijuana. Many are American consumers in search of cheap goods in the Mexican border city. Others–around 70,000–are so-called “trans-border workers” whose livelihoods depend on the ease of access they have to foreign employment opportunities.

Among the long lines of automobiles that snake across the border at Tijuana, is yet another, much smaller, handful of people crossing from the U.S. to Mexico. They are deportees, a couple dozen each day. They pass over this international boundary purportedly for the last time. Here, their past life ends and a new, uncertain future begins.

The meaning of illegal immigration is often lost in the rhetoric that surrounds the issue in this part of the world. An illegal alien is nameless. His or her personal history is bundled up in a shroud of criminality and registered as just another statistic: one more deportee to Mexico, one more talking point for a cable news pundit.

In Tijuana, returnees are no less faceless. They are left to recompose lives now cleaved across an international border. In a country with almost no safety net–save for the charitable work of a few nonprofits–deportees face daunting challenges upon their return. Each deportee’s story, however, does not go completely ignored, for in the chaos of a recent deportation, one photojournalistic duo is extending a microphone to those forgotten by both their native and adoptive countries to give their version of events.

Alza la Voz (Spanish for “Raise your voice”) is an ongoing project developed by photojournalists Analucía Partida Borrego and Thomas Delalandre. For the past eight months, the pair has lived and worked in Tijuana documenting the lives of recent deportees from the United States to unravel and humanize illegal immigration. Unlike other documentary projects on immigration, which are numerous in northern Mexico, Alza la Voz seeks deeper insight into the personal side of deportation. Partida and Delalandre simply proffer a microphone. Their subjects provide the stories.

Alza la Voz’s history is as varied as their interviewees’. In fact, Partida, whose idea it was to form the project, did not begin her work in Tijuana but rather in the far reaches of Mexico’s rural and unruly South. In 2013, Partida was working in the state of Oaxaca on assignment for the European Union, assessing the progress of EU-financed development projects. Partida’s trip to Oaxaca coincided with a severe government crackdown on protesters who were demonstrating against educational reforms in the region. The ongoing political strife piqued Partida’s interest as she traveled, and on an all-too familiar whim, she decided to investigate the local response to the reforms herself.

Partida’s trek through the highlands hit a stumbling block early on when she “got terribly lost” and wound up in a small village that she would “have never found otherwise.” Even here, among the dense, lush foliage of the Oaxacan hills, political turmoil had weaseled its way in. Upon her arrival, Partida learned of the recent arrest of a local man who had dared to speak out against the government, an otherwise inflammatory scandal that was obscured by the village’s rurality.

The stories of harassment and oppression that community members shared touched Partida, and like Biblical Saul, so too did the scales fall from her eyes as she wandered through this remote countryside.

“That’s when I realized that there are a lot of people like [the political prisoner] that just go unheard,” she said. “There are so many reasons that people are silenced everyday, and we hear their stories.” Not long after, Alza la Voz was born.

Since 2013, Partida and Delalandre (who joined the project shortly after its founding) have traveled throughout Mexico collecting the stories of those who have been marginalized for reasons of ethnic identity, gender, socioeconomic status, and political persuasion. From the political prisoner’s village, the duo made its way to an indigenous community where domestic violence was a perennial but often overlooked ill. Together, they formed community-based support groups for women who suffered abuse at home. While these groups became meaningful, safe spaces for forging solidarity among often silenced wives, Partida and Delalandre soon realized that their impact was limited due to their inability to disseminate the stories they had collected. Any attempt to publish these accounts could potentially endanger their acquaintances and themselves. In southern Mexico, drug cartels and government officials often target journalists and human rights activists, a problem for Partida and Delalandre, who were guilty of being both.

The team’s decision to move to Tijuana was ultimately one of necessity but also preference. According to Partida, Tijuana is one of several places in northern Mexico where journalists can work with little fear of harassment, although she also notes that the local government still attempts to delegitimize journalists at times. Partida had spent most of her childhood in the Tijuana-San Diego area, so the issue of immigration factored strongly in her own upbringing and the life of her community. With this move, Alza la Voz would have more opportunities to record and, more important, report on social inequities in familiar environs.  

Alza la Voz has now been operating out of Tijuana for eight months, a period of time during which the city has undergone significant change. In addition to the regular flow of deportees from the United States, the number of asylum seekers to the U.S. has dramatically risen since the beginning of 2016, filling already bursting shelters. As human trafficking is largely ignored in Tijuana, it is nearly impossible to discern the total population of migrants who are now residing in Tijuana, but during two weeks in June alone, over 1,000 Mexican and foreign migrants arrived in the city. This wave has not yet abated.

Several migration corridors to the United States pass through Tijuana. In 2015, the United States granted asylum to 69,933 individuals. Of these refugees, eight percent obtained permanent residence in California. Daily, migrants arrive from the far reaches of the globe. “They are coming mostly from Haiti, from Nigeria, from Ghana, but also from Armenia, from Russia, from Pakistan, from Afghanistan,” Partida reports. Each migrant’s reason for abandoning his or her home country for the United States is unique. But these weathered travelers’ journeys all terminate at the San Ysidro port of entry, where they must wait for days–if not weeks–to have U.S. authorities register and judge their asylum applications.

“Tijuana is in a crisis right now,” warns Partida. Shelters are unable to support the mass influxes of refugees in addition to the steady stream of recent deportees. (This is true in San Diego as well, where some churches have opened their doors to recent arrivals.) In September, Mexican and American migration officials temporarily suspended issuing entry documents to Haitian applicants at the San Ysidro port of entry in order to offer relief to shelters and deal with the concerning, albeit limited, use of forged documentation.

Originally, Partida and Delalandre had planned to chronicle the lives of deported Mexicans and other Central Americans from the United States, but the recent influx of refugees has compelled Alza la Voz to expand its mission. The team has nurtured relationships with fifteen of the thirty or so shelters that operate in Tijuana. It is in these temporary housing complexes that the couple captures the stories of deportees and refugees: people at opposite ends of a similar journey, coming or going. Most are caught in a precarious limbo.

Partida says that deportees are the most apt to reveal their histories. Unlike incoming refugees, deportees who are residing in the shelters do not risk much by sharing their stories, for they have already lost most of what they had cultivated in life: contact with family, access to decently-paid jobs, a better future.

“We’re not just here to talk to them for five minutes and take a picture,” Partida explains. “We want to form a bond.”

Alza la Voz seeks a more complete picture of who each deportee was and hopes to become. Through the logistics of deportation, Partida and Delalandre identify a very human story of anguish and, sometimes, hope. Few people speak of  injustices or criticise the American authorities. Instead, a mother confesses that she longs for her children. A son confides the he absconded to the U.S. to escape abuse. These stories strip away labels one often associates with illegal immigration. In their stead remains only emotion laid bare, a person whose pain dwarfs his or her crime.  

A photo accompanies each interview excerpt that Alza la Voz shares on social media. These pictures rarely reveal the speaker’s face. Instead, one sees snapshots of a woman’s delicate, folded hands resting in her lap or a tattoo, which once symbolized a man’s allegiance to a gang. While alienating the subject from the story, the banality of each photo universalizes its meaning. Partida acknowledges that most interviewees are both eager and embarrassed to share their experiences. Deportation is equated to failure in Mexico. Even here, the label of “criminal” carries a social stigma, even if the committed crime that led to the deportation was simply driving without a license.

A tension between the interviewer and the interviewee thus arises in Alza la Voz’s work. There is a general hesitancy to reveal too much about one’s life that pervades every interview. Each speaker must constantly negotiate his or her willingness to delve deeply into often harrowing experiences. Both parties in this conference understand the importance of their work. By implicating themselves in an injustice, each interviewee incriminates government and society alike. This is a common thread that has carried through Alza la Voz’s work since the project was first conceived three years ago, one that sadly will remain central to the project even after the group has left Tijuana.

In the coming months, Alza la Voz plans to develop an exhibition on their collected stories to be presented in galleries, bars, and schools along the U.S.-Mexico border. Thereafter, they will compile their work into a full-length documentary. Partida and Delalandre’s hope is that each deportee’s narrative, which they share on social media in Spanish with an English translation, will help American and Mexican audiences to empathize with one of the region’s most maligned groups.  

What lies in Alza la Voz’s future after it wraps up its current project is still undetermined. But one is likely to find the duo trudging through Mexico in the future, extending a microphone toward those who are censored but not voiceless. Whose voice will rise from the silence next?