The border crossing was long. Our driver picked us up at the client’s US office, where we were told our Carnet would not be of any use because the Mexican border officials wouldn’t know what to do with it. Undeterred, we waved our paperwork at every uniformed person we saw and eventually ended up standing in a long (and wrong) line on the US side while our driver parked between two semi trucks and caused a frenzy of commotion. The customs agents, though very friendly, didn’t quite know what to do with us. A few discussions later, our papers were signed and stamped and we entered Mexico through a side gate. Despite the previous warnings, the Mexican border agents were muy eficiente y bien informado while handling our paperwork and searching our equipment. We were soon rocketing over hills and careening through roundabouts on our way into the CD Industrial area of Tijuana.
This job required more preparation than is typical. Model releases had to be translated into Spanish. We needed a Carnet (so we didn’t have to pay import/export tax on our gear), a driver that could shuttle us across the border in both directions and an onsite interpreter. We ended up switching hotels at the last moment because there was a consensus that we had chosen a “bad” area despite the positive safety reviews online. But any hassle was fully rewarded by 2 days of access to the friendliest, hardworking, kindest and willing individuals we have ever had the pleasure to shoot. They were like photographers’ assistants: watching for cords, running over to help us carry gear, and all the while seamlessly performing their usual jobs.
One of the delights of shooting a manufacturing facility in Mexico is the lack of safety restrictions. Yes we wore our safety gear, but without an OSHA equivalent we were able to set up our equipment wherever we wanted. It was a field day for us; scampering from welding bay to welding bay, climbing on scaffolds and boxes, starting and stopping machines until each shot was right. To the grinders we said “send some sparks in this direction please” and they happily aimed them straight at our faces.
Many of these people have traveled long distances for work in Tijuana, sending portions of their paychecks south to their hometowns. In order to alleviate some of their burden an onsite doctor treats the workers and their families for free. It is an arrangement of mutual benefit; the workers get good care, and their employer does not lose a man for the half a day or more it takes to visit a doctor offsite. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are provided for pennies on the dollar and include items like salmon, fresh tortillas, vegetables and homemade soup. Workers do not simply do their part on an assembly line; instead they are given the opportunity to grow within their area of interest, to advance and to fully learn a trade. Perhaps this is why they are all so cheerful.
It is a beautiful thing, this sweat and dirt and dust and grime, this common language of physical labor and pride in a job well done, this ability to build something of value with your own hands.