Living and Working Between the US and Mexico During the Pandemic

Alastair Mullholland
April 25, 2023

From an American perspective, the San Diego and Tijuana customs border, one of the busiest international crossings in the world, is designed to control the flow of immigrants, visitors, and illegal goods and drugs from Mexico into the US. The COVID-19 virus was added to the control list. Misinformation, on the other hand, was not.

As you wait in “la linea,” as it is colloquially known, street vendors offer tacos, music, and sombreros. When they are not asking for money or selling some chicles (gum) or trinkets, children play in and out of the cars. These are considered social interaction points for potential COVID-19 infections, given that more than 300,000 people cross the border daily.

According to an article published on the Office of Governor’s website in October of 2022,  Governor Newsom “recently invested $477 million to support the state’s model COVID-19 response and humanitarian efforts at the southern border.” 

Fortunately for Californians, according to an article published by the University of Texas News, “Mexico has a higher vaccination rate than 18 U.S. states, with 10 of these in the South, four in the Midwest and four in the West.” The article explains that this is because the vaccine was not as politicized in Mexico as it was in the US.

Gonzalez Barrera, 40, a wireman for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 569, knows this scene very well. Barrera used to live in Tijuana and work in San Diego. Now, he lives in San Diego and travels regularly to Tijuana to visit family and shop. Ethnically, he and his wife are of Mexican descent with indigenous ancestry. 

Initially, he was hesitant. Since he does not use social media, his exposure to COVID-19 information, or misinformation, was primarily from word of mouth through his social circles in both Mexico and the US, and his own conjectures. 

His concern for the vaccine’s safety was because of its newness. “It is difficult to know its potential long-term side effects,” Barrera said. 

He struggled with COVID-19 news on the radio because it seemed to be inconsistent. To Barrera, forming decisions based on witnessing what was going on around him actually carried the most weight. He still has doubts about the vaccines and hopes everything will be alright.

Nevertheless, to date, Barrera has received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. He went forward with the decision for two reasons. Firstly, he was required to be vaccinated in order to continue to remain employed at most of the available worksites. Secondly, he wanted to do whatever he could to limit transmission of the virus to his family, since he regularly works in close proximity to many people. 

He recalls how some of his relatives were very cautious during the pandemic, requiring physical distance in their interactions and masks during their visits. 

He explained that that was not realistic for him. “I took pictures of our port-a-potty at the construction jobsite to show them how hard it is to realistically follow their standards, dozens of men use one in a day, and they may not be cleaned for several days.” 

Not long after receiving the vaccine, he tested positive, and subsequently so did his family. Fortunately, their infections were not severe. 

Victor Calixto, 30, a first-year inside wireman apprentice for the IBEW Local 569. Residing in Tijuana, he does a 3-hour round trip daily to work and study in San Diego. 

Calixto had tested positive with COVID-19-19 three times. The first time was around July of 2020, when he was working for Hoist Fitness, a manufacturer of exercise equipment in Poway. It started with a sore throat. His employer requested that he should be seen by a doctor. 

Calixto, like many of Hoist Fitness’s employees who lived in Mexico, got Mexican health insurance as it was more affordable and more practical. So he went to get a checkup at SIMNSA, one of the best hospitals in Tijuana.

The doctors x-rayed his lungs and ran some blood work. They said the blood work showed that his body was responding to a virus of some kind and that the x-ray showed the beginning signs of pneumonia. They prescribed him several medicines, some for pain, some for the sore throat, some to prevent blood clots, and two more kinds that he didn’t remember. 

Calixto explained that the tactic in Mexico was to treat the symptoms because they had no access to vaccines at that point. He felt better after three days of taking the medicines.  

At that time, early in the pandemic, COVID-19 tests were also not very accessible and so the doctors were reluctant to use them unless they had beyond a reasonable suspicion of its transmission. 

Calixto was sent home to isolate and reported back to the hospital after a week to take a COVID-19-19 test which returned positive. He was told to return to the hospital once every three days to get blood work and lung x-rays. He was out of work for a total of six weeks but received unemployment during that time. He was isolated for three weeks, but on the fourth week, his family decided to break the isolation, which was much to his relief. 

In November of 2020, Calixto began working at a different company called Connect PV, a manufacturer of photovoltaic systems, also in Poway. Upon beginning employment, he had to take a COVID-19-19 test which came back positive. This time, he was out of work for two weeks, but without any unemployment benefit. When he returned, the tests showed negative and he fortunately had zero symptoms during this time.

Calixto’s final positive test was shortly after he got his brother a job at Connect PV in January of 2021. When his brother took the preliminary COVID-19 test as required for employment, unfortunately it returned positive. Since Calixto had been close to his brother, the company also asked him to take a test and wear a mask at work until he got the results. 

Like his brother, Calixto’s test results also came back positive. With this third infection, although he had developed symptoms of tachycardia, he decided not to see a doctor this time because he felt he could beat it on his own. 

During this time, his parents, wife, son, and other family members also contracted the virus. For most of them, it was like contracting a cold. Unfortunately, his aunt and cousin died not long after. The aunt was 60 and her daughter, his cousin, was only 37. He explained that the anxiety he felt when his aunt and cousin went to the hospital might have contributed to his experiencing tachycardia. 

Calixto got the Pfizer vaccine as soon as it became available to his age group. While he had heard many urban legend misinformation about the vaccine’s safety, he doubted them. “They have done worse things [to us], and we’re still alive,” he surmised. 

Calixto said that the mood in Tijuana was more relaxed throughout the pandemic than in the US. While masks were worn in businesses and restaurants, life in the streets and neighborhoods continued as if there was no pandemic at all, in contrast to San Diego. Calixto credits this much to how neighborhoods are built in TJ, which include many communal and close living spaces. 

Similar to Barrera, Calixto also does not use social media much and received most of his information about the vaccine from word of mouth.

Regardless of the source of information (misinformation or facts), whether from the government or experts in the US or Mexico, the deciding factor for Barrera and Calixto was the wellbeing of their family. And vaccines, despite some outstanding questions on efficacy and side effects, have shown to be a valid option for mitigating serious COVID-19 illness and enabling people to continue to support their families.