Breakfast at the Border

Two worlds converge over a platter of torn tortillas and salsa verde

Todd Coleman

Over breakfast in Tijuana in 2010, the two sides of me came face to face. I was there, a Mexican-American poet visiting from Brooklyn, with the novelist Cristina Rivera Garza, who teaches at the University of California, San Diego. It was my first trip to the area, so we were sightseeing across the border. Cristina, a double agent of sorts, keeps two cell phones, two wallets, and homes in both cities. We were overnighting at her house on the Tijuana coast.

In the morning, I took a walk on the beach. Cristina had told me to head north, toward the border. She would meet me at the fence and then take me to her favorite breakfast hangout, El Yogurt Place, whose semicircular dining room offers panoramic views of the international divide.

When I got to the border, Cristina was waiting for me next to a puzzle of iron rails, some bent or broken, some altogether missing. Affixed to the fence, which stretched about twenty feet into the surf, were two signs: "danger objects under water" and its outrageously imprecise translation, "pilegro fierros bato del auga," which, in English, would be something like "nadger metals bewo watre." People find this fence so unimposing that they even climb over for kicks, Christina said.

We headed toward breakfast. On our way, we passed Friendship Park where, until recently, family and friends were allowed to touch each other, and even share food, through a wire fence. In 2009, the completion of a 21-foot-tall barrier here had compromised that park's purpose.

At El Yogurt Place, we sat in a banquette and looked out onto the palimpsest of property lines. The leafy American side appeared uninhabited for miles, while the edge of urban Tijuana was jammed up against the U.S. I had flown here from New York City, my home for almost two decades.

Born to a Mexican father and an American mother, I grew up in Mexico City, but we summered in Maine. I travel back and forth to Mexico a few times a year, but I struggle with the transitions. In my psyche, both worlds remain achingly remote. Now, I was witnessing their ambivalent convergence.

I dug into my plate of chilaquiles, yesterday's tortillas—stale and torn but fried and reborn with a tangy, gently spicy tomatillo salsa and a dollop of crema. A humble but filling meal, chilaquiles is born of an imperative to not waste food. Like refried beans, those gratifying leftovers that are spread on day-old bread and smothered in cheese and salsa for molletes, another of my breakfast favorites, chilaquiles is redeemed by its ingenuity and deliciousness. As I savored each bite, I was struck by a feeling of connection. My eyes were trained on the greener grass on the other side of the fence, but my taste buds held me here, in Mexico. —Monica de la Torre, a poet based in New York City, whose latest book of poems is Four (Switchback Books, 2012)