Reconsidering Tijuana and what it means to belong – an interview with Border City creator, Sandra Dibble

Border City is a new podcast from LA Times Presents and The San Diego Union-Tribune. Broadly speaking, it’s about life on the U.S-Mexico border, told through the perspective of Sandra Dibble, a journalist who has lived in and reported on Tijuana for almost three decades. Part memoir, part sound collage, part time capsule, Border City is personal, insightful, and absorbing. Dibble confronts the violence most outsiders would associate with the city head-on, but places Tijuana in a larger context, highlighting the rich communities and cultures she’s become a part of. It’s wonderfully scored, and Dibble’s warm narration draws listeners in as she asks deeply relatable questions about belonging. I had the chance to speak to Dibble about the creation of the podcast, what brought her to Tijuana, and how she fell in love with the city.

I thought that the tagline, “violence, beauty, and belonging” was pretty provocative, and I’m curious about the use of those three words in relation to the story?

Sandra Dibble: Well, it’s the story of my 26 years covering Tijuana. I came in 1994, exactly 28 years ago, this month. And it’s basically the narrative of Tijuana over the past 26 years, where there’s been rising drug violence. But there’s also been great growth and immigration. It’s a beautiful place. There’s a lot of culture, there’s a lot of people who stand their ground, you know, courageous people. So I mean the beauty of people, and belonging…just my sort of slow road to feeling like I belong there.

And I read that you’ve lived all over the world. So you must have an interesting relationship with belonging places?

SD: Yeah, my dad was Foreign Service. And he married a woman who was a Swiss from Egypt, and my grandmother’s Greek, and my family’s also from Utah, and I grew up in different countries. Belonging, I think is a basic theme for me, but I think it is for everybody, right? I think belonging is something very fundamental to the human condition.

Absolutely. So after your 26 years in Tijuana, did you feel like you belonged? 

SD: It took doing this podcast because when you’re a daily reporter,  you’re just thinking you want to meet your deadline, you want to, you know, figure out your next story, because you always have all these pressures. So it took two years of thinking about it and thinking about my relationships and thinking about the people I met. And yeah, I feel I belong there. I think well, maybe some people don’t feel I belong there. But belonging is self-generated, it’s what you feel, right? So I feel profoundly tied to the city. I know I’m not a Mexican from Tijuana. But I feel profoundly tied to Tijuana. 

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Going back to the beginning. Why did you leave Washington, D.C. in 1994? Were you covering Tijuana as a journalist?

SD: I worked for National Geographic, actually, I had spent ten years as a daily journalist in Miami. Then I went and worked for three years at National Geographic. And I was a staff writer, I was sort of at the low end of the totem pole. 

I just longed for what I thought was the independence of being in a small bureau. Tijuana was not really a huge news beat–like the eyes of the world were not on Tijuana. So I thought, “Oh, that’s great, I want to be where the eyes of the world aren’t.” And I can kind of just do my own thing.  Was it the wisest decision? Probably not. But you know, one makes decisions and so, this job came up, and I took it.

What made you stay for 26 years? 

SD: The stories just never stop. It’s just an amazing beat. It’s just rich in humanity and courageous people. There are tragedies. How would you get past some really tragic things and stay in your community and keep wanting to build it? I find it inspiring. I love local reporting, too, I think maybe because I was never really from anywhere. I loved local reporting, and getting to know a community and being sort of part of a community. So for someone like me, it was a perfect beat.

Why did you want to become a journalist in the first place? And did your experience living in lots of different places growing up sort of influence where you gravitated to in terms of covering multiculturalism and international topics? 

SD:  I wasn’t on the high school paper. I wasn’t on the college paper. I really didn’t know what I was going to do when I grew up, I had no idea. And then I ended up at Columbia, in the School of International Affairs, because I thought that’s what people like me did. And then I got to take one class in the Journalism School at Columbia. And it was like, “Wow, that’s it. That’s me. That’s what I’m doing.” And that’s just being out on the street. I love being out there. 

Why was a podcast the right medium for this particular story?

SD: Well, the podcast wasn’t my idea. I love listening to podcasts. I love how they transport you. I love how you just enter someone’s head. Though it was the editors’ idea, I do think it was the right medium because this is really talking to people who might not know much about Tijuana.. I’m sure the local community is following it with some interest and may have their views of it, but this is really for someone who maybe feels disengaged when they read news about Mexico or about Tijuana. This can connect them. It’s done in a very personal way, both personal about me, but also the interviews that I have are very personal. I try to avoid talking heads. I have interviewed government officials, but they’re these official declarations where they’ve prepared press releases and have statements. It’s not that kind of podcast. 

Who are some of the some examples of people that you interviewed for the podcast? 

SD: Well, I think one of the most powerful was from  a family called the Hodoyans. I should say they were a well-to-do Tijuana family, but they’re also US citizens. What people don’t understand is a lot of people who live in Tijuana are also US citizens. They’re from Tijuana, but they were born in the US but they were well established in Tijuana. The sons ended up getting entangled with the Arellano-Félix drug cartel in the 80s-90s. One son was actually ripped away from his mother and abducted by guys in hooded caps, and never seen from again. The other son was convicted in the assassination of a police official. And he had, I think, 50 years in prison, which is the maximum. So essentially, this woman, who was head of the women’s committee at the country club, and would spend her days there, became an activist. 

So I knew her story, this is one of the storylines, and she has since died of cancer, but I spoke with her daughter. The daughter is so eloquent and so honest about her family…without saying if they were guilty, or not…but just what this did to her family, and about her mother making the transition to being an activist.

I talked to artists, because in around 2008/9/10, Tijuana’s violence became high impact crimes. So basically, people stopped going out at night, because they were so freaked. But I talked to these same musicians who kept going to their bar. And I think it was the artists who really gave the community its spirit, and kept going. And reopened shuttered spaces. 

I’m curious about the structure of the podcast? What’s the structure of each episode? And what draws you in in the first one?

SD:  At the beginning I worked with this enormously talented and accomplished editor called Susan White. Her thing is narratives. She’s done one podcast, Room 20, with Joanne Faryon. She used to be my editor at the paper, so she knew me, and she really wanted to do this story. So we just did chronologies of my personal life, and then chronologies of stories I’d covered and maybe stories I hadn’t covered in Tijuana, and we kind of melded them. So it’s a memoir. 

It’s not like, “Today we will talk about drug violence, and tomorrow we will talk about migration, and now we will talk about the arts.” It’s all braided together. That was the challenge. I can’t really say, “Oh, well, chapter two is like a great departure from chapter one.” It’s kind of a continuum. Hopefully, with the anecdotes and the interviews we keep people interested and engaged.

My final question is, what do you hope listeners will take away from the podcast?

SD: You know, the podcast does not in any way stay away from the violence that has made all the headlines. But I hope that listeners will get that Tijuana is so much more than that and maybe feel like people are people everywhere. That these are people with lives and a stake in their community, just as they might anywhere else – in Dublin and New York and in Ukraine, right? That people really care about their communities, because that’s who they are…so people wouldn’t feel so detached when they see violence in Mexico.
You can listen to Border City wherever you get your podcasts. Episodes are released weekly. Transcripts with accompanying images are available on the podcast’s homepage.


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