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My SoCal Life: Seeking harmony across the border

Illustration by Alexia Lozano

As I was driving across the border from Tijuana into San Diego recently, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer had a question for me. I’d just passed the lines of yellow and orange barricades, the giant coils of sharp-edged concertina wire, and a row of cameras recording my approach to the inspection booth.

“What were you doing in Mexico?” the stern-faced officer asked.

“Singing,” I said.

His face softened. He studied my crossing document. “Care to sing me a few lines?”

I demurred, and we both laughed as he waved me on.

For 26 years, I worked as a reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune. My beat was Tijuana and the border, and I covered countless major news stories, including the killings of two Tijuana police chiefs, the arrests of powerful drug lords, and the arrival of massive caravans from Central America.

When I first took the job in the mid-1990s, I rented an apartment in Tijuana and filed my stories from the news-paper’s small bureau in Zona Río, the city’s upscale business district. After a few years, I moved to Imperial Beach and drove into Mexico each day. When the officer at the inspection booth would ask what I’d been doing as I crossed back, I had an easy answer: “Working.”

I retired from daily journalism more than 2 years ago, but I’ve continued crossing into Tijuana. To meet friends for coffee. To attend birthday celebrations. And more than anything else in recent months, to gather in a small room at a state arts center about 5 miles from the border to sing in an all-female chorus.

Sometimes 4 of us show up, other times 20. My fellow choristers are university students, professionals, workers with varying degrees of musical training and talent. Bit by bit, I’ve gotten to know them: the car-less nursing student who struggles to get to rehearsal; the lawyer who’s studying fashion design; the woman who sells stuffed cookies known as coyotas.

I’d always been a bit shy about singing in public, but when the choir’s Cuban director invited me to join, I leaped at the opportunity. We call ourselves Meraki, a Greek word for doing something with soul. The songs we sing break all boundaries: a 16th-century French madrigal, a 1960s Brazilian samba, a gospel song. As our voices harmonize, I silently say a prayer of thanks, that I can share this moment and learn these songs.

The border is well known for dividing, and it’s stories of division that usually make headlines. But many of us fortunate enough to live in Southern California know that the border also connects in ways big and small. After all, the border brought me here, to this diverse group of women.

When rehearsal is over, we leave quickly—there’s dinner to prepare, lessons to study, chores to finish. For me, it’s back to San Diego. But I always come away filled with the power and beauty of sounds that transcend nationalities and borders. As I drove home after another recent practice, an inspector asked if I was bringing anything back.

I wanted to say: “A head full of eighth notes, a heart filled with song.” But she didn’t seem in the mood for pleasantries, so I answered “nothing” and resumed my journey home—enriched and expanded by the music we’d shared. And ready to turn right around and cross again.

Sandra Dibble looks back on her years in Tijuana in the podcast Border City.

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