TECATE, Mexico – When Kumeyaay people living on the Mexican side of the Diegueño Nation were – for the first time – denied entry into the United States by border officials, they responded the Indian way.
“They would sing Indian songs right there on the border,” said Ron Christman, a Kumeyaay Bird Singer from the Santa Ysabel Reservation in rural San Diego County.
He remembers when the Kumeyaay people ran into a wall of tight border security along the U.S.-Mexico border in the 1960s. It came after decades of traveling freely to see relatives living on 12 reservations in California through an obscurely marked border.
The Kumeyaay living on the U.S. side have since worked – traversing the tight federal bureaucracy of both countries – to get fellow Kumeyaay living in four communities in Mexico authorization to continue the tradition.
Indian Country Today
“It is a constant struggle to make sure the physical challenge presented by the border does not become a more significant social, cultural or economic barrier for the Kumeyaay people. This is even more important in light of increased border crossing restrictions imposed in recent years,” said Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Chairman Bobby L. Barrett.
Diegueño-speaking lands once took up nearly the whole lower side of what is today California and the top half of Mexico’s most northern state, Baja California. When the U.S. and Mexico negotiated its borders following the Mexican War in 1848, it left more than 1,000 Kumeyaays in Mexico.
“We should have been consulted, but we weren’t,” said Kumeyaay Border Task Force Executive Director Louie Guassac, Mesa Grande Diegueño. What may sound like a new federal front to combat illegal immigration, the task force is instead sanctioned by all the Kumeyaay tribal councils on the U.S. side to reunite the nation.
The end result came in the late 1990s with the issuance of the B1/B2 Visas to southern Kumeyaays by the U.S. government, a multi-use travel credential, also known as a “laser visa.” While the document doesn’t give them dual citizenship or recognize them as part of a sovereign nation, it gets them across the border. The documents withstood the transition from the defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service to the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11 and the swell of security enhancements that followed.
Photo by Victor Morales Most southern Kumeyaays live in communities like San Antonio Necua, 35 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border. Marta Rodriguez (third from left) has brothers and cousins living on the Mexican side. The Kumeyaay Border Task Force led by Louie Guassac (far right) spearheaded the effort to secure visas so southern Kumeyaay could travel to the 12 Kumeyaay reservations in the U.S. for cultural and family reunification.
“I am very happy about it because my family comes and visits and stays, and we can resume sharing in culture, dance and song,” said Marta Rodriguez, who was born on the Mexican side of the Diegueño Nation but now resides with her husband on the Santa Ysabel Reservation.
Getting the visas was a herculean effort. The northern Kumeyaay traveled to Mexico to take a census and worked closely with the Mexican consulate to process passports, a prerequisite for the laser visa. Today, about 1,900 southern Kumeyaay possess the visas.
For the Diegueño Nation, the physical border has been costly. Cultural, economic and linguistic separations exist.
“We were really disappointed that they didn’t know how we lived and we didn’t know about them,” said Angel Dominguez Fernandez, who lives in the San Antonio Necua Kumeyaay Community 35 miles south of the border. It’s a place where a shirtless Indian boy still walks his horse through dirt roads and men are hard at work making 2,000 adobe bricks to construct a structure for the community.
Raul Montes, a Kumeyaay living at the San Jose de la Zorra Indian Community in Baja California is usually out in his field growing tomato, squash and maize that fills his and the community’s pantries.
The northern Kumeyaay too have felt the disunion, Guassac said, who likens the separation to a “broken vase.”
“Those communities look like what Viejas (reservation) looked like before gaming.”
The northern Kumeyaay, who collectively operate seven casinos have reached out. In addition to spearheading the issuance of the visas, they have hosted their southern relatives to teach classes in traditional arts. Baja artisans sell their art and crafts at reservations, and the northern Kumeyaay are helping set up vineyards in Baja California and looking into other economic partnerships.