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As Haitian Refugees Settle in Mexico, A Photojournalist Documents A New Tijuana

A film by Dignicraft.

 

Last May, the complex landscape of Tijuana got a new addition — thousands of Haitians who came to the border seeking asylum.

A majority of the Haitians had left their country in large numbers after the devastating earthquake of 2010. They mostly found homes in Brazil and Venezuela, but after the closing ceremony fireworks of the 2016 Olympics had been distinguished, so had their manufacturing and service related jobs. Many embarked on a dangerous pilgrimage through 13 countries in order to seek asylum in the U.S. — Tijuana is right at the doorstep of this promised land.
 
The first — the lucky ones — got into the U.S. with little hassle, but soon immigration officials started to turn them down. The U.S. immigration authorities claimed to be overwhelmed by asylum petitions and unable to process any more. And now there´s Donald Trump’s immigration stance to add to their uncertainty of gaining entry.
 
Thousands of refugee families continue to be stranded in Tijuana, a city far from where they hoped would be their final destination. Everyday they have a makeshift routine, as they struggle to understand and find a place in a new city.

Since their arrival, Tijuana-based photojournalist Omar Martínez has been documenting the social conditions they live through.

Mexican photojournalist Omar Martínez documents Haitians in Tijuana
Photo: Omar Martínez

Thin, flexible and with an ease to blend into a crowd, Martínez’s presence is made known only by an audible click which gives away his trade. He is a 36-year-old photographer, who has dedicated the past 15 years to registering the complex life of the Tijuana/San Diego border region, including covering violence and narco turf wars during the area’s most violent period to date: 2007 to 2011.

It was then that he documented the major shootout at La Cúpula; a safe house used by organized crime figures to keep arms, drugs and kidnapped local business people awaiting ransom. The house was discovered by the military and the confrontation became a gun battle. A kindergarten nearby had to be evacuated. The pictures Martínez shot of the scene were viewed around the world.

Recently a big career change has come for the photojournalist. After years of hesitation, he decided to quit his job at a local newspaper. “Photographers used to be a priority in media outlets, and now we are the last thing that matters,” he says. “I got tired of producing work that simply doesn't see the light of day, pictures that deserve more projection and a better pay.”

Mexican photojournalist Omar Martínez documents Haitians in Tijuana
Photo: Omar Martínez

He recalls the time he was covering a story and started talking with Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Don Bartletti, whom he deeply admires. Martínez asked Bartletti about his life priorities and was surprised when he answered: “First my garden, then my home, then photography.”
 
“...Then photography,” Martínez pondered.

Since that meeting, Martínez has embraced the diversity of the medium of photography by doing portraits, documenting political campaigns, quinceañeras, weddings, and earning every dollar to build his first brick and mortar home. He is also feeding his passion by pursuing a personal project, the first of his career: spotlighting the lives of Haitian refugees.

A group of over 400 Haitians found shelter in Jesus Ambassadors Church with pastor Gustavo Banda. The church is located in Scorpion Canyon, on a dry river bed, in a muddy field. There is no running water or paved roads around. It is a place close to where Martínez grew up and one he is now actively visiting.

Mexican photojournalist Omar Martínez documents Haitians in Tijuana
Photo: Omar Martínez

“I used to see the photos taken of Syrians going to Europe, but never expected something that powerful would fall right into my lap” he says, “but it did.” 

Omar was brought up in a Christian home, was a missionary child.
 
“I have rarely felt that sort of love and kindness like the one those kids [in the missions] showed me,” he explains. “I think I have been searching for that feeling my whole life and now I found it in [the Jesus Ambassadors Church], where I can document the lives of triumphant people. Where I find myself showing their everyday life, playing, being humans and showing us their immense courage amongst very difficult circumstances.”

This is the feeling that keeps him coming back for more. That and the church's pastor’s leadership.
 
“This pastor [Banda] sacrificed a lot to build a huge church in the middle of nowhere, in a canyon full of wild pigs roaming around with goats. It is a smelly complicated place and people laughed at him for having built a huge empty church with no parishioners to fill it. But the pastor is faithful and told me: ‘See? This was destined to be.’ And his eyes light up and I see myself in him, because I admire passionate people who have faith. I too am a hopeful dreamer full of faith,” Martínez says.

Mexican photojournalist Omar Martínez documents Haitians in Tijuana
Photo: Omar Martínez

For Martínez this project is just beginning, as is his new path as a freelancer.

“I was there when the first Haitian girl was born in Tijuana and I want to document them as they enter public schools, they become Haitian-Tijuana teens, I'm curious what sort cultural mix they bring. I want to be there when the first Haitian becomes a store owner; the full immigrant cycle and how it's going to change the face of this city once again.”

As downtown Tijuana restaurants continue to welcome Haitians as waiters, Haitian women are hired to clean people´s homes and tend markets. Some also found work in shopping mall parking lots during the holidays. Due to this, Martínez has no doubts they will build a life in Tijuana and he wants to document them becoming Tijuanenses.

“They are true warriors who braved a long and hostile journey to get here, getting a job will be piece of cake for them.” Martínez laughs, but he might just also be talking about his own long and hostile journey towards happiness.

 

Interested in supporting the Jesus Ambassadors Church? For more information contact Joel Moreno at (619) 808-6641 or via email at joelmorenoj@yahoo.com.

Visit the church's Facebook page, here. 

Mexican photojournalist Omar Martínez documents Haitians in Tijuana
Photo: Omar Martínez
Mexican photojournalist Omar Martínez documents Haitians in Tijuana
Photo: Omar Martínez
Mexican photojournalist Omar Martínez documents Haitians in Tijuana
Photo: Omar Martínez
Mexican photojournalist Omar Martínez documents Haitians in Tijuana
Photo: Omar Martínez
Mexican photojournalist Omar Martínez documents Haitians in Tijuana
Photo: Omar Martínez

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