Ñongos: A Document of the Tijuana River's Improvised Housing Community

Photo by Ana Andrade.

In Partnership with Mexicali Rose Media/Arts Center: Mexicali Rose is a grass roots communitarian organization dedicated to providing free access to artistic media for the community youth of Mexicali, Baja California.

Ñongos (adj. Said of a situation or dealing: Insecure, uncertain, riddled with difficulties or obstacles). Term utilized by the inhabitants of the Tijuana river canalization in reference to the ephemeral refuge constructed with their own hands.


Ana Andrade is one of a handful of new-generation Tijuana artists involved in artistic practices who desire to produce social change. Andrade has been documenting the Tijuana river community for years, a community that is marginalized, discriminated against, physically beaten, stererotyped. Her photographic proposal seeks to illustrate the realities of one of Tijuana's most difficult social phenomena. Cancellation of illusion, social class warfare, deportation, addiction, rejection, repression, self-punishment, stubbornness, regret; these are all elements that have led an entire population to inhabit Tijuana's river canalization. The images Andrade has been producing for the past years bring out the human element of this community and reflect their daily life.

Photo: Ana Andrade.

The canal, a location where the dividing line between Mexico and the United States begins, also known as "el bordo" given its location, is used by deportees as a waiting area before they try returning to the United States. The majority awaits resources from their family members to enlist the aid of a "pollero," others wait for fog so they can try to cross on their own. Therefore, due to their desperation, the majority turns to drug pushing for a living.

Due to the construction of a new border entry point known as "El Chaparral," police raids have increased in order to "clean up" the area and rid it of a population that is considered "trash." They are taken to the "Veinte de Noviembre" prison for public offenders and are held there for 8 to 36 hours. During the raids, the police beats up these citizens, their food is thrown away and their "ñongos" and blankets are burnt. Therefore, these people, their "ñongos" and the river are transformed via conflicts of interest, natural effects, and the division between countries.

Photos: Ana Andrade.

Artbound caught up with Ana Andrade to discuss her recent work with this community and the effect it has had on both her and the community's life and surroundings.

Where are you from and how has your city influenced your work?

I'm from Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico; I was born in Coronado, California and grew up accustomed to crossing the border. In a certain way, I was/am quite "privileged" on the border, I mean, I'm not living on the "screwed" side of a divided world.

Living next to the Unites States facilitates access to technologies, being able to obtain any type of photographic material and electronic devices.

As far as Tijuana is concerned, I grew up noticing it is populated by people from all over, I believe that makes us border inhabitants more open. This city is surreal and I personally like to find fragments of it which are quite distanced from my reality.

How did you develop as a photographer?

I feel it's something that's always been there. I was born in front of a photographic camera, there are two images of my first contact with a breath of fresh air, you can see a small part of my head. Ever since, thanks to my dad (a photography aficionado) and my grandfather (video aficionado and keen on registry technologies), I have always shared moments with a camera. My grandfather gave me a Minolta and I enrolled in a basic photography course, then digital began and I got a digital camera, always taking pictures. I'd make my urban journeys, explorations of the city and daily life.

I realized what I was doing could lead to a bigger path, and it is something I am still discovering.

How did you become interested, or how did you discover the community that you portray in your work in "Ñongos"?

I've lived close to downtown and my doing as a teenager was to roam around and explore these surroundings, sometimes I'd even go all the way to the U.S. side; at the time I would roam by the bridge connecting Avenida Revolución with the international border crossing. I remember I would pause there to observe the canal, one time after it rained I saw a guy traveling through these waters towards this sort of island made out of trash in the middle of the river. Later, a friend and I walked along all of the visible subterranean portion until we arrived to the point where the river disconnects. Upon seeing that scene the canal became an enigma, I started to spend time on many bridges, observing, sometimes wondering, "Where do the people that walk by there wind up?" Or wondering if they left things or hidden messages in strategic places for known people who would later arrive to that same place.

During that same time I went to school by the Tijuana beaches, therefore, throughout my daily route by the international speedway, I got to see how the police would pursue these so called "dirty" people and pick them up, filling up patrol cars. Then I'd drive by with my camera and took pictures from the vehicle in motion, suddenly, I could even identify people by their clothing.

Photo: Ana Andrade.

What were your first encounters with the community like and how did they come about?

The first time I decided to go down into the river to see what happens there, I was by the border waiting three hours to get my Mexican passport and I just walked. I went up the dam and followed the road. A man walking in my direction told me, "Be careful, there's lots of crazy people here." I asked him if he was crazy, he left and then came back saying he had forgotten something at home, which turned out to be a sewer. I accompanied him, lit a lamp and he showed me a mattress amidst the water of the small sewer, showed me an artifact he was going to sell and took me on a stroll to see four or five small homes (the only ones); they were real pretty colors. It was like a dream in the desert. "El Profe" ("The Professor") told me he liked the drugs he could score there. We arrived with some other guy, he ate a great smelling melon, he'd crack it with the force of his hands. You could feel the wind swaying side to side crashing against the canal walls. We arrived at a gate that had blankets in the shape of a bed and the floor was full of water, a dark skinned man was looking in a tiny mirror, upon lifting his gaze upward he told me he hadn't seen me in a long time and he left dancing, in movement. Then "El Profe" and I went to the taco stands by the border crossing, where he worked cleaning up. We said our goodbyes and promised to meet again.

About a year went by when I returned from out of town and I went to the bridge. I felt the urge to go down to the river again, I walked and a man asked me, "Are you going to the United States?" I told him I was looking for "El Profe" but he didn't know him. I kept on searching and asking, there was so much more people this time around, lots more improvised houses. I walked a couple of meters where some people were lying down on the ground shooting up in their arms, legs or neck. I kept walking. I arrived at a circle of people talking around a bonfire. I sat on the ground and asked for "El Profe." Nobody knew him. I hung out and noticed that the seven or eight people who were there were waiting to cross to the US and that these toy-looking houses were their residences. They wood-fired food, improvised a place to heat tortillas. When the food was ready, everybody came by to grab a taco; there was enough food for everybody and even I ate some tacos... they had asparagus and there were even leftovers. I found the difference in one year's time very interesting. The first time I went down I discovered the drug area of the community. The second time around I discovered that 89% of the people that were there had been deported... for days, months, years.

Photo: Ana Andrade.

What is a "ñongo?"

For the inhabitants of the canal, it's their home.

Personally, a "ñongo" is the use of creativity to survive without investing money. It's an example of the abilities and intelligence of a people rejected due to their illegality. They are homes assembled with recycled materials, "trash," tarps, rugs, plastic, cables, cloth, wood, pipes, buckets, blankets, cardboard, twigs, dirt. It's also a space to coexist, to rest, it's a shelter, a warm place, a bunker, a tomb, a cave, a place of vice and partying, a shade from the sun.

A "ñongo" also refers to the effects of needing documentation in order to have an identity; it's the result of the discrimination, weakness and vulnerability that are generated from being undocumented.

It's a futuristic way of sustainability via available resources, at the same time being a form of regression to our ancestors.

The curious thing is that the word "ñongo" as defined by the dictionary refers to an uncertain situation, unsafe, full of difficulty and obstacles, just like the reality its inhabitants and builders face.

Photo: Ana Andrade.

What specific hardships does this community face?

Thinking back to the root of this social/world problem, there are about 43 hardships or so orbiting around money and power. Unjust commerce and bad programming in the mass media are generators of the main hardships that are noticeable in this area.

Sickness, anything from a foot infection to death by cold weather.

Being carried away by the high status a truck provides.

Past battles between gangs.

Hunger for easy money by participating in drug dealing.

Pride not allowing oneself to return to one's place of origin "defeated and thin."

Depression upon entering a place without liberty, which corners you into seeking solace in substances invented by the demons.

Lack of vitamins, commodity, warmth, clothing.

Becoming accustomed involuntarily to being illegal.

Tired body, tired mind, tired soul.

The way drugs suck you up.






Solitude and abandonment.


Not belonging.

Ignorance; no benefits based off lack of information.

Fear and insecurity.

Craziness, hallucinations, delirium....

Words uttered to the wind without being heard.

Unorganized ideas.



Robbery, crime.

Appreciating the process of watching your things burnt to ashes.

Danger of being run over.



False charges by the authorities.

Repression by the authorities.

Lack of respect towards oneself.

Photo: Ana Andrade.

What type of aggression, oppression, discrimination have you seen in this community?

When municipal policemen raid the community, masses of people run to get away from the uniformed units chasing after them. I've seen how they beat them up and then board them into patrol cars. Everybody is taken to jail for 8 to 36 hours as public offenders. The police are given orders to apprehend whomever they can catch, since they need to meet their numbers in the fight against crime.

I've seen people beaten up by the police, people left in wheelchairs after being beaten, people with fractured ribs, there was this guy they had to drop off in Tecate because he was beaten up so bad they couldn't take him to the judge.

I've also gotten to see how the police mercilessly set fire to all of the "ñongos," how blankets are turned into ash in the winter time. It's a sad fact that police chiefs order useful items set ablaze in order to "clean" the place up, without searching for solutions. Policemen themselves have told me the government does nothing to solve the problem.

One time after this raid, the whole area wound up in ashes; then a patrolcar arrived. It was like a scene from the Old West when I saw the car lifting up dirt while speeding, there was almost no one at the river that day, maybe four people, the policemen and me. A guy from the canal started running and the policeman could not catch up to him and his legs started to fold upon feeling tired. The cop pulled out his gun and shot at the fugitive's feet. The bullet came real close to his feet but missed him and he kept on running. It was absurd to see how the policeman made use of his firearm upon feeling powerless, in order to not feel defeated.

These types of situations happen to our deported countrymen, not only in the canal but in the surrounding downtown areas as well. If they see a person dressed in a "migrant" style they stop them, ask them for identification and if they don't have any ID, they get "picked up."

Illegality based off non-documentation.

Photo: Ana Andrade.

What's an interesting story while you developed this photographic work?

One day I entered a subterranean/camouflaged "ñongo" during a raid. We remained in silence for 13 eternal minutes, concentrating our thoughts on the fact that we were the only ones there and that no one was going to find us. You could hear people running, the screeching wheels of the patrol cars. The person I was with told me, "If it suddenly feels hot, it's because they are burning the ñongo next to us. Just move towards me, this one won't burn down." There was an energetic connection in this silence which allowed us to be, indeed, the only ones remaining in this area.

In your point of view, what is the biggest internal conflict within the community?

There isn't enough aid or information for the recently deported, many get carried away by the idea that the border can be penetrated in this river area, which is possible, but the Border Patrol is very powerful.

Another conflict is not being able to adapt to society, many inhabitants have already been in prison in the United States. In some way, the canal and police repression continue to be a prison.

It's a place where, based on past experiences, many people identify with each other, forming a sort of unique countercultural identity that's looked upon as trash. Building "ñongos" becomes something to do.

In a certain way, being disconnected from conventional responsibilites produces a disturbing comfort which is hard to get out of.

Photo: Ana Andrade.

What different elements/disciplines do you incorporate when presenting this work in a gallery setting?

Digital photography, lomography, installation pieces with some of the elements from the river, texts written by the community members themselves, short documentary videos, disposable camera photography, found objects.

Photo: Ana Andrade.

Have the community members come out to these shows?

Yeah. The first time we presented the work, it turned into a great celebration.

They would tell me, "You made us stars!"

We felt a pure happiness, we toasted the night away with cheap tequila.

We also participated in a conference where the community members commented on their lifestyle, deportation, and the obstacles that are generated via authoritative abuse.

Photo: Ana Andrade.

The work of Ana Andrade portraying the community life of the Tijuana river inhabitants will be presented Friday, February 22nd at Mexicali Rose Media/Arts Center. She continues to work with the community and is currently producing documentary video pieces about some of its inhabitants.


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