I searched in vain today for Friendship Park. But I made a friend.
Dedicated in February 1971 by Pat Nixon, Richard Nixon’s spouse, the park is, or was, along the border at the most southwesterly point in the U.S., where the wall plunges across the beach into the Pacific at Border Field State Park. In Mrs. Nixon’s day, there was only a fence. She asked the Secret Service to cut through it so she could greet the Mexicans who’d come to see the ceremony. She said she hoped the fence would be gone forever before too long.
I’d been twice before, on annual pilgrimages arranged by Bishop Diane Jardine Bruce and the Rev. Dr. Jennifer Hughes. But I hadn’t yet fully figured out the Nixon connection. During the dedication ceremony, she planted a tree a few feet from the borderline itself. The symbolic power of this idealistic gesture has long since been enfeebled by the hard realities of immigration politics. The U.S. side now has two fences separated by a two-lane-wide no man’s land. Successive presidents buried a former first lady’s friendship tree under tons of iron and asphalt.
Friendship Park doesn’t actually exist anymore on the U.S. side. Mexico’s border monument is dimly visible across 50 feet and through our layers of fence. Some access persisted until 2020, but Trump put an end to that. These good folks have a plan to recapture the vision of an international friendship park.
Leaving the parking lot for the 40-minute walk to the wall, I met a man from Shanghai who’s been visiting friends in San Gabriel. He told me stories about Chinese people (he was not among them) making their way across the border after flying to Ecuador. He wanted to see the wall for himself. We had a rich conversation about politics and faith, and we prayed together.
On the way back, a Border Patrol officer got out of his pickup truck and asked my friend and another man, Mario, a Mexican citizen who was walking with us, for their papers. He didn’t ask for mine. Mario had his green card, my friend his visa; all was well. The officer took pains to say that he’d stopped Mario because he was carrying a water bottle manufactured by a Mexican company. Mario shrugged. It must happen all the time. My Chinese friend wasn’t alarmed, either; just amused, having seen, he told me, two people slip over the wall into the U.S. a few minutes before. Turns out Mrs. Nixon was right. You just can’t stop international friendship.