TIJUANA, Mexico — Brightly colored clothes air from lines strung between rudimentary plywood-sided homes. Cinderblocks stacked chest-high form the skeletons of unfinished houses, and a pile of unused rebar lies in the dirt patio.
A billboard puts a name to what has become something of a neighborhood interrupted: “Little Haiti. City of God.”
The arid hillside barrio, on property belonging to the Ambassadors of Jesus evangelical church, made headlines last year when nearly 3,000 Haitians ended up in this city bordering San Diego on a failed bid to get to the United States. About 200 were taken in by the church.
But the church’s plans to build a community for Haitians hit a roadblock when civil defense officials said there was a flood risk and barred further construction. A year later, just eight of the 100 homes envisioned are in place, with another 50 people or so living in similar conditions in nearby Scorpion Canyon.
“The neighborhood was not built, and the Haitians who were here went to rent elsewhere and became part of the work life,” Tijuana Mayor Juan Manuel Gastelum Buenrostro said.
Indeed, the denizens of Little Haiti represent a small portion of the local migrants from the impoverished Caribbean nation, many of whom are putting down roots just across the border from what was once their destination.
Most of the Haitians had gone to Brazil after a 2010 earthquake devastated their own country and found jobs during the Olympics and World Cup. When Brazil’s economy slumped and work dried up, they headed north. Some decided to stay in Tijuana because they had found decent work and were eager to settle down. Others said they feared the U.S. would be unwelcoming.
Across the city, Haitians have found employment as welders and factory workers, and have become part of the urban landscape, seen boarding buses, pumping gas or wading into traffic selling flavored waters to motorists.
“With this job plus what my wife earns selling tamales … it gives us enough to pay the rent and the monthly expenses,” said Thony Mersion, a 34-year-old working as a security guard at the Tijuana airport.
On Sundays, many attend a special service at Ambassadors of Jesus. Recently the Haitian ambassador flew up from Mexico City to officiate at a mass wedding of his compatriots. Some have now had Mexican-born children, which makes it easier to qualify for residency.
One of the most successful, commercially, is Marie Toussaint, 30, who this year opened a beauty salon with money loaned from an uncle in Los Angeles.
“With how well it’s going, I can hire Mexican employees to attend to my clients who come from San Diego,” Toussaint said.
The Haitians also got a high-profile shout-out last week when, during a presidential debate, candidate Ricardo Anaya praised Tijuana for taking them in.
“I get goose bumps. … That is the Mexico I want, a generous Mexico, a Mexico with arms open,” Anaya said.
However, an estimated 500 to 800 arrived after authorities stopped issuing humanitarian visas for Haitians in April 2017, and they are living on society’s fringes, unable to work legally.
Pierre Franzzy, 26, said he goes almost every week to the migration office, trying to legalize his status. But when a high-profile caravan of Central American migrants that had attracted the ire of U.S. President Donald Trump arrived in the city recently, he was told his case was no longer a priority.
“For that reason I have made the decision to return to Haiti voluntarily before they file a complaint or deport me,” Franzzy said.
Back in Little Haiti, pastor Gustavo Banda said about $20,000 has been spent on the existing homes and he’s hopeful — optimistic, even — that he’ll be able to put up more, despite the opposition from civil defense officials.
“Here the property tax is paid and the government does not do anything for the improvement of the homes … or even basic services such as trash collection, paving and drainage,” Banda said. “We have been dealing with this problem for 12 years, and this will not stop us.”
“The Haitians wish to stay here, and with the government authorizing them in two years to bring close relatives who currently live in Haiti, I am sure that Little Haiti is going to become a community with Creole as its main language,” he added.
Not all envision a permanent stay in the neighborhood, which is next to a pungent wastewater channel at the bottom of Scorpion Canyon.
Saintanier Jeune, 40, has a stable factory job and said he is comfortable in Little Haiti. But he hasn’t lost sight of the U.S., visible from a nearby high point in the form of San Diego’s bay and gleaming office towers.
“I have the possibility to become a permanent Mexican resident since my daughter was born in this country,” Jeune said. “Still, I want to leave … because I do think I could have a better quality of life on the other side.”