‘How I wrote the story’: Bringing a subculture into focus

Explaining a poignant social problem near the Mexican border, Sebastian Rotella became the real Boss

Here’s a career goal: Write a story so moving that Bruce Springsteen turns it into a song.

'How I wrote the story': Bringing a subculture into focus

'How I wrote the story': Bringing a subculture into focus

My colleague, Sebastian Rotella, was covering the Tijuana border when he dashed off a moving piece about Mexican children who lived in the shadows of San Diego. Bruce was in a creative slump, no longer able to generate those wonderful tales of his imagination like “Jungleland” or “The River,” and was moving toward a career in second-rate social criticism when he read Sebastian’s story. Out came Sprinsteen’s “Balboa Park,” for which Bruce ethically gave Sebastian credit on his “The Ghost of Tom Joad” album, praising Sebastian’s “passionate reporting.” (I apologize for my tone of voice. Bruce and I once had a very close relationship, even though he knew nothing about it. It fractured in 1981, the year the “Newsthinking” was originally published. I included Bruce in the acknowledgement section of the book for the sheer inspiration he’d given me. I took a brand new copy to him when he was staying at the Westwood Marquis that year for a show, and did he ever thank me? No!)

But that’s not why I’m offering the piece. Sebastian wrote an essay about his story that’s a model of how a good reporter’s mind functions when it takes aim on a subculture, one of the most interesting forms of journalism. What you’ll see is a hypothesis that narrows as the reporter bores in hard enough to show you this particular slice of life. Whatever subculture you’re writing about–bicycle messengers, parking valets, Hollywood wannabes, vegans or desperate children–you need a mentality that pushes you toward specificity. Remember, this wasn’t a “project.” It’s a 52-inch story done on a self-imposed deadline.

Read the first 17 grafs, watch the discipline, then we’ll hear from Sebastian, who’s now my paper’s Paris bureau chief.


CHILDREN OF THE BORDER: CAUGHT IN A MAKESHIFT LIFE
April 3, 1993

We start with action, told with a slew of energetic verbs that make us feel we’re watching a documentary:

SAN DIEGO — After the Border Patrol van departed carrying the boys who did not run fast enough, Carlitos whistled, the sound echoing in the park beneath sun-glazed downtown office towers.

There are not many quotes in the story, but the ones that show up tend to be strong ones that advance our understanding rather than simply echoing the writer’s syntax. You’ll find them in the second, fifth and ninth grafs:

“They’re gone!” he shouted in Spanish, inhaling a blast of Octane Booster–a gasoline additive and makeshift drug–from a Coke can. “I chased them off.”

A dozen youths emerged warily from the trees: homeless illegal immigrants who earn a living in a verdant corner of Balboa Park where the cars circle day and night. Where the drivers in business suits and BMWs seek out children who survive by prostituting themselves and selling drugs.

Unfazed by the Border Patrol raid, the diminutive Carlitos, 14, led the way through the brush as he described the suburban home of a man who picked him up recently.

“He has Super-Nintendo, a video, a big television, a pool,” he exclaimed, black hair falling in his eyes. “Like the movies.”

Carlitos reached a freeway interchange that cuts through the park and gestured at a row of blankets in the dirt where he sleeps beneath a concrete bridge. “We’re from Tijuana, Sinaloa, Mexico City, Guadalajara, Honduras,” he said. “This is our new house.”

Now we move to the collective:

Carlitos and his friends are the children of the border.

As young as 9, they wander the streets of Tijuana and Southern California, slipping across the U.S.-Mexico boundary with ease, nomads in the limbo between societies. They move along a trans-border circuit of Border Patrol detention centers, juvenile halls, homeless shelters, cheap hotels, police stations–institutions that they have learned to survive in and to manipulate.

“For them, the international line is not a dividing line,” said Oscar Escalada Hernandez, director of a Tijuana YMCA youth migrant shelter, who has studied street children in Colombia, Brazil and Mexico. “It is like a street that has to be crossed, with certain dangers, certain obstacles, but nothing more than a street.”

Every day, dozens of teen-agers and children end up alone in Tijuana–recently returned or deported from the north, recently arrived from the south, with desolate pasts and uncertain prospects. Illegal immigration by unaccompanied minors has declined, officials say, peaking three years ago because of a surge in youths trying to reunite with relatives legalized under the 1986 Immigration and Reform Act.

Now, in the second sentence of the next graf, Sebastian provides perspective to show us where the subculture fits into a broader scheme:

Nonetheless, the growing number of illegal street children who are arrested repeatedly has alarmed diplomats, social workers and law enforcement officials in both nations. Abused, visibly malnourished, addicted to drugs, their families wrenched apart by poverty and migration, the children are part of the ubiquitous problem of homeless children in the urban Third World, from Manila to Lima to Tijuana.

Although statistics are elusive, experts estimate that as many as 5,000 homeless children live in Tijuana, whose population has swelled to nearly 2 million because of migration and economic growth.

“The phenomenon has overwhelmed the capacity of both public and private agencies,” Escalada said.

An unusual binational coalition–made up of the Mexican Consulate, Border Patrol, San Diego Police, a Tijuana border police unit known as Grupo Beta, and social workers in both cities–has formed to aid the youths who frequent Balboa Park.

Authorities have identified up to 50 hard-core youths for whom they say juvenile facilities do not suffice. Mexican officials send some of the children returning from the United States to the Tijuana YMCA shelter, which provides food and lodging while young migrants determine their next move or find jobs to earn travel money.

The trans-border street children tend to be disruptive and even violent, sometimes enticing newly arrived migrants into petty crime. The coalition hopes to set up a more structured residential treatment program in Tijuana geared to this deeply troubled population.

“These are very difficult children,” said Francisco Velasco, a Mexican-born doctor at a San Diego health clinic. “They have been treated like garbage. They have suffered everything you can imagine. . . . They tell me: ‘Here, I can earn $20 or $40 dollars from a (client). You bring me food, you take care of me if I’m sick. In my country, I don’t have anything.’ ”

Here’s Sebastian:

The story about the street kids of San Diego’s Balboa Park grew out of a vaguely defined idea to write about illegal immigrant youths. I was haunted by the images of all the unaccompanied, adventurous, battered kids I had run into at the border while working on other things.

But I soon realized that the more compelling story concerned the group of ”trans-border” street kids living and hustling in Balboa Park. Their plight had escaped attention because they lived in a kind of bureaucratic limbo and because U.S and Mexican officials had downplayed the problem and, in fact, had done their best to keep it from the media. This gave a nominally non-competitive weekend feature an urgent edge, because during the reporting I ran across several Tijuana and San Diego reporters working on the same thing. Moreover, it seemed that concentrating on this subculture of child prostitutes and drug dealers would be a better story while still providing a fresh and specific perspective on the larger issue.

As this narrower and more manageable idea took shape, so did the writing approach. I wanted to paint a picture from the ground level, to get close enough to let people and events tell the story–as opposed to ”experts” and bureaucrats. The story needed to reflect a larger context, the exploitation and misery of Third World street children, and depict the collision of that culture with the wealth and comfort of San Diego. There was another fundamental problem: tone. It couldn’t be mushy, patronizing or preachy. While the kids provoked enormous sympathy, some of them were also accomplished liars and veteran criminals. Awareness of these elements dictated the attitude toward reporting as well.

Resisting impulses to simply head out to the park, I spent several days talking to cops, social workers and diplomats on both sides of the border about their work with the kids and about illegal immigration and child poverty. Interviews and files of Mexican authorities provided enough information about specific children that I started developing potential cases to spotlight. More importantly, I found the person who appeared to have the best rapport with the kids, a health clinic doctor named Dr. Velasco: He unlocked a lot of doors.

The Friday afternoon and evening we spent in the park was packed with action. There was a Border Patrol raid just as we arrived. After that excitement died down, the kids who eluded capture became increasingly open, despite their natural wariness and fast-talking hustler’s tendency to lie on general principle. When I sat down to write on Monday, I was more depressed than ever about the kids but convinced that I had assembled some powerful material.

I started by free-associating and scribbling a few central images: the cars of the clients circling like vultures (a phrase which later got axed, probably with good reason) the incessant drug-sniffing, the swashbuckling nicknames. Although I’m not much for detailed outlines, I find it helpful to commit to the screen some key phrases before I get going; this helps the thought process and usually evolves into a rough organizational framework.

And I made the first of several painful choices: Although a description of the Border Patrol arrests and casual interplay between agents and kids had seemed a natural lead, I decided it would be ultimately predictable and misleading. This wasn’t a story about the Border Patrol or even really about illegal immigration in the classic sense. I had seen, and written, too many leads like that already. I wanted to present a powerful, specific subculture at close range. Featuring law enforcement too prominently would have created an undesirably institutional flavor.

Instead, the aftermath of the raid served merely to frame the lead, evoking the sense of routine predation that law enforcement and the clients embody in life at the park. Carlitos became the main opening device, with the language intended to propel the narrative forward: Sniffing a blast of ”toncho,” the hints of an urban jungle, the quotes using cumulative lists to describe the clashing worlds of the kids and their clients. I tried to emphasize movement–imagine a hand-held camera following as Carlitos leads the way through the brush. And I also chose details (the kid marvelling about Super-Nintendo at the client’s house, for example) that hopefully paint an understated and indirect picture of the hideous notion of well-off adults preying on homeless immigrant children for sex. I favored these images over graphic quotes, of which there were quite a few. Although extending the opening scene for seven grafs was risky, I was striving for a kind of mini-story that would encapsulate the themes and lay out the setting with Carlitos leading the way.

Then came the simple flat sentence that introduced the ”children of the border” and shifted gears to a section exploring local and international context. I chopped away, aiming for couple of to-the-point quotes and enough statistical information to sharpen the focus without bogging down and a minimum of officialese. A lot of decent social-worker-type quotes lamenting the injustice of it all paled in comparison to the action and got scotched. As often occurs in stories of this type, I’m anxious to get back to the street-level action while trying to think like an editor or reader who wants to know exactly what we are talking about here. After helpful comments from my editor, Cindy Craft, I broke off this expository segment earlier in the rewritten version and returned to the opening narrative with a transition to our run across the freeway to the hideout.

This structure–alternating between individual portraits and the larger discussion involving officialdom–recurs in increasingly short segments to build momentum. When describing drug addiction, the dangers of the park and the harsh family backgrounds, I wrestled with a tendency toward overwriting. I wanted to make sure I avoided hyperbole or sentimentality in favor of understatement; it seems best to approach fantastic or squalid material with a straightforward tone and appropriately energetic but controlled language. That’s how the kids talked about themselves and how the Latin American authors whom I like tend to write.

As the writing progressed, I came to the conclusion that I had not been completely successful in achieving one of my goals: depicting the kids’ lives on both sides of the border. I wasn’t quite able to find one ideal kid and follow him through both worlds–something that might have proven over-simplistic in practice. Space was also an obstacle. I settled for exploring the south-of-the-border milieu in the mini-portraits and the Tijuana migration office scenes.

The final scene returns to the park. Not a particularly innovative device, but a logical one. It would have been nice to make more visits to the park the kids, but I had other reporters nipping at my heels. On rereading, the end could have maybe lost the ”lengthening shadows” in the description of dusk in the park. I was navigating between emotion and melodrama again, trying to use nightfall, a quick snapshot of the boy with AIDS and the flight from the perceived return of the Border Patrol to heighten an atmosphere of menace and despair.

Actually, it turned out it was just a van that looked like the Border Patrol. The kids–except for the boy with AIDS, who proved elusive–soon resumed their picnic. But I was struck by how rapidly and instinctively they had scooped up the food and disappeared, leaving little trace. It seemed best to end the narrative with that moment, sort of a freeze-frame or, more accurately, a fadeout.

We return to the story as it revisits the microcosm that opened the story. Here is the last graf we read:

“These are very difficult children,” said Francisco Velasco, a Mexican-born doctor at a San Diego health clinic. “They have been treated like garbage. They have suffered everything you can imagine. . . . They tell me: ‘Here, I can earn $20 or $40 dollars from a (client). You bring me food, you take care of me if I’m sick. In my country, I don’t have anything.’ ”

Ending the cycle will be difficult for the ragtag residents of the “Four Winds Hotel”–a jocular nickname for the street kids’ “home” under the freeway interchange in the sprawling park north of downtown.

Watch the power of short, punchy sentences in the next graf:

To get to the hide-out, the youths dodge with practiced agility through traffic on freeway ramps, clamber up embankments and navigate narrow paths. In the cave-like, graffiti-decorated refuge beneath the bridge, there are blankets and sleeping bags strewn with piles of clothes, a stuffed toy monster and textbooks. A few boys sometimes attend a San Diego elementary school for the homeless.

Empty plastic containers of Octane Booster, known as toncho , also litter the ground.

Here’s the longest profile segment, 11 grafs on one kid:

Peering from beneath a Chicago Bulls cap, a wiry 14-year-old named Martin told a visitor he wants a case of toncho for his birthday.

“You can get it anywhere,” Martin said in slurred slow motion. “Pep Boys, 7-Eleven. Only $3.99 a bottle and it lasts six guys all day. And gets them good and crazy.”

Some Latin American street children get high on glue or nail polish; Martin and his friends sniff toncho , carrying it around in ever-present soda cans. The substance bears a resemblance to fumes from a gas tank. The harsh fumes smother cold and hunger, but also corrode the lungs, kidneys, heart and brain, Velasco said.

Martin, who was born in the state of Michoacan, said he occasionally takes his earnings home to his mother in Tijuana. He will not stay because he does not get along with his stepfather. He displayed scars on his wrists where he says an older brother hit him.

Martin grew up haunting gritty neighborhoods such as the Zona Norte near the Tijuana River, a prime gathering spot for migrants and the denizens of the border nether world they attract: smugglers, vendors, robbers, drug users.

Like many other youths, Martin discovered he could make money as a small-time, free-lance guide for illegal immigrants at the border. He learned the rhythms of Border Patrol deployment, the gaps in the defenses. Migrants paid him to take them across the fence to nearby fast-food restaurants, where rides north awaited.

But Martin said an increase in Border Patrol forces made business difficult. A friend, known as “Batman,” recruited him as a rock cocaine runner on 12th Street in San Diego.

And perhaps six months ago, Martin heard that there was better money in the park. Now, he said, it will be hard to get rid of him.

“If the migra catches me, I’ll be back the next day,” he declared.

Would Martin change his ways if authorities created a shelter in Tijuana?

“Maybe,” he said absently, dropping down to do pushups. “If they let my mother live there too. If they have weights for exercise. And Super-Nintendo. And toncho !”

Now a section on how San Diego copes:

San Diego, along with many other U.S. cities, has its share of homelessness and runaway youths. But police and others are concerned about the plight of the children in Balboa Park and the brazenness of the prosperous-looking men who frequent the area–often during the day–seeking sex with boys. Lunchtime and the late afternoon are particularly busy. The boys say some clients take them on trips to San Francisco and Canada.

“For us, the children are victims,” said Marcela Merino, a Mexican consul in San Diego and director of a consular department that aids immigrants. “We have asked that the authorities attack this problem by focusing on the people who exploit and abuse them.”

At least two boys who engage in prostitution have been found to have AIDS. There have been two attempted rapes of the homeless youths in the park, police said.

In addition to police sweeps targeting the adults, the consulate is working with authorities to make witnesses available, perhaps by providing videotaped testimony. This will enable more aggressive prosecution, a sometimes difficult task because of transient victims and witnesses.

Despite the danger and the recurring presence of the police and Border Patrol, the youths remain.

Their attitude toward their clients is generally scornful. With singular detachment, they describe prostitution as a means of survival that provides money for impoverished relatives, meals at Burger King, and the high-top basketball shoes and other fashionable items that unite kids of all nationalities and socioeconomic classes.

Back to the kid in the lead:

Carlitos, who was born in the Los Alamos neighborhood of Tijuana, said he steals most of his clothes from department stores and showed off his jeans–”Pure Levis 501.” He visits an aunt in San Diego occasionally and speaks enough English to bluff U.S. immigration agents.

In a husky voice full of cheerful, sarcastic bluster, he switched rapidly between languages.

“I bring money to my mother so she can offer it to the virgencita , (the Virgin Mary),” he chuckled in Spanish. Then he described his father with a profane epithet in English.

When asked if he worries about AIDS, Carlitos looked down, his nonchalance diminished for a moment.

“Of course,” he said. “But the money comes first.”

Most of the young migrants whom the Border Patrol apprehends and turns over to Mexican immigration authorities tend to be timid and bewildered.

In contrast, the street children affect bored bravado and fanciful monikers–Squirrel, Little Dracula, Karate Kid, The Russian.

One boy, named Chilaquil (it refers to a tortilla dish), estimated that he has been caught by U.S. agents at least 20 times. He said he grew up on the streets of Mexico City and headed north last year.

“I was going to Laredo, but I caught the wrong train,” grinned the 16-year-old.

Upon arriving in Tijuana, he spent months sleeping outdoors near the river levee, wrapped in a blanket. Now he divides his time between Balboa Park and a San Diego shelter, taking the city trolley north after he darts across the international line.

Now we get to watch a scene of interaction:

At the Mexican immigration office at the Otay Mesa border crossing, social worker Rosa Isela Orozco interviews a forlorn parade of failed young border-crossers each morning.

On a recent day, one boy who said his name was Omar toyed with papers on her desk. As Orozco questioned the sleepy-eyed 13-year-old with the cough and bruised nose, his attention drifted to a television blaring a cartoon about a galactic cowboy.

Omar claimed not to remember his Tijuana address or neighborhood. He said: “I want to go to Storefront (a San Diego homeless shelter). I like it better there.”

“I think you are telling me pure lies,” said Orozco, her tone mixing exasperation and maternal concern.

When pressed, the youth admitted that he lied about his name and that he had done time in San Diego Juvenile Hall for shoplifting pants and gym shoes. Mexican police records show that the boy told authorities he transports cocaine across the border by swallowing small plastic bags of the drug, which he sells on the crime-ridden 12th Street corridor near the park.

The number of vulnerable migrants who could follow such a path worries social workers.

“You have the classic kid whose destination is uncertain, whose return is made difficult by problems at home,” Escalada said. “He has a cousin named Pedro who visited once from Los Angeles and drove a nice van. He says: ‘I’m going to Los Angeles too. I hear Pedro lives on Arlington Street. I’m going to find him.’ . . . These are the ones who are in great danger of becoming street children.”

Counselor America Escobar recalls a 9-year-old Nicaraguan who was separated from his father while crossing the border and was arrested. The boy claimed to be Mexican and was returned to Tijuana. He made it as far north as a San Diego shelter for teen-agers. He did not find his father; he found new friends who lured him into prostitution.

“He was very clean, a very nice kid,” Escobar said. “But then you slowly see a change. Their eyes change. They lose weight. You lose them.”

Back to the park for the ending:

As shadows lengthened on a recent evening, Carlitos and the others huddled in their usual spot on a grassy slope half a mile from their hide-out, staring at the cars cruising by on a drive that snakes through the park.

About 100 yards away, a startlingly frail boy stood by himself in a hooded sweat shirt and jeans. The boy, who Mexican officials say has been found to be HIV-positive, approached a parked pickup truck, leaned against the side and began talking to the man at the wheel.

Meanwhile, Velasco, the doctor from the health clinic, drove up to the spot where the other youths were gathered. He started unloading bags of groceries and was greeted with cheers.

“We’re busy,” Carlitos yelled at a passing car. “Lunch. Come back later.”

But as they began preparing peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, one boy spotted what he thought was an approaching Border Patrol vehicle. The children of the border bolted upright, snatched up the bags of food and drink and sprinted away into the trees, on the run again, silhouettes fading in the dusk.

If you’d like to read more, Sebastian converted his reporting on this and myriad other border issues into a book, “Twilight On The Line: Underworlds and Politics at the U.S.-Mexico Border” (Norton, 1998). Said reviewer Peter Skerry in the Wilson Quarterly: “To read this remarkable book–all the more remarkable for its complete avoidance of moralizing, invective, sensationalism, and off-the-cuff policy prescriptions–is to feel confident that should this precarious situation change, Rotella will be the reporter who brings us the news.”

RECOMMENDED READING: The New York Times’ David Carr on how magazines are increasingly favoring pictures over words. It hurts to read this:

At the end of this month, the National Magazine Awards will celebrate great narrative by handing out awards for reporting and writing the kinds of stories that thrill readers with every turn of the page. There are plenty of good candidates, but fewer than in years past. As more magazines default to a visual rather than literary palette, the 4,000-word article has become a relic, first replaced by the 800-word quick take and then further boiled to a 400-word blurb that is little more than a long caption. In most magazines on today’s newsstands, words are increasingly beside the point, mere graphic elements that are generally used to frame pictures.

Magazine buyers have always been divided into readers and lookers. But consumers who actually open a magazine at the front and commence reading are becoming an increasingly rarefied demographic group. In a medium that has atomized into niche after niche, the long-form narrative may become just one more fetish, no more or less worthy of a magazine than Sub-Zero refrigerators or B-list starlets.

There are still great articles being written, of course. The attacks in September sparked a burst of long-form excellence, and The New Yorker, Esquire, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic and Harper’s are packed with wondrous, where-did-they-get-that insights into the human condition. Some of them are even doing well on the newsstand. Vanity Fair, a magazine that mixes the long and short, adds readers every week, and even daunting bricks of text like those in The Atlantic and The New Yorker are finding success in a very tough marketplace.

Those magazines, however, are a relatively small slice of the glossy pie. The rest of the industry has gotten the picture–and it does not include spellbinding narratives. Celebrity-driven publications like People and Us Weekly are becoming fashion flip books. ESPN: The Magazine, which received a general excellence nomination for the coming magazine awards, has more DNA from MTV than from traditional sports journalism.

And the smaller magazines that serve as a laboratory for publishing innovation–chic downtown magazines like City and Nest–are pushing graphic rather than linguistic boundaries. Mag-a-logs like Lucky, the shopping magazine, do not generate much more text than what would fit on a price tag. The men’s magazines that continue to storm the newsstand–Maxim, Stuff and FHM–are unapologetically formatted for people who do not read.

Publications that exalt the visual have always done well. But the vast middles of many magazines–the feature wells, where the reading matter used to be found–have morphed into annotated photo magazines.

In this world, everything can be objectified and rendered desirable. A $2,200 faucet gets the kind of lavish lighting and styling treatment that used to be reserved for skinny 17-year-old models.

“It used to be that we used to have to fight with the writers and editors to get the pictures in,” said one designer who has worked at a number of glossy magazines. “Now the design challenge is to take very little text and making it big enough to convey an editorial experience.”

Much of the editorial message is carried in display text, the “deep captioning” that has replaced the traditional profile. Consider this caption last week in a People photo feature deconstructing the fashion choices at the Oscars: “Janet Jackson worked too hard for those abs to hide them, even on Hollywood’s choicest night of the year. At the Vanity Fair party, the singer stayed true to her renegade style, donning hip-hugger jeans, coat and sparkly bikini top.” In the tiny-speak of contemporary magazine publishing, the caption says it all. Ms. Jackson is still in shape and likes to flaunt it, and she remains hot enough to go places that the reader never will.

The shorthand suffices because the great majority of readers are up to date on the handful of luminous beings that constitute the raw material in most mass magazines, whether the focus is entertainment, fashion, music or sports (or more commonly, some mix of all those things). Celebrities have become the people that everyone has in common, and as long as images give the hoi polloi a sense of intimacy, the readers are more than happy to supply both text and subtext.

There are magazines that run counter to the trend. Teen People can be a deeper read than its parent, and Esquire and Sports Illustrated continue to offer the kind of powerful narratives that give the lie to jokes about the attention span of the typical man. But they are being overpowered at the newsstand by much less literate brethren. And the women’s side of the magazine rack lacks literary nutrition, now that Mademoiselle is gone.

“I hear the word `package’ a lot more than I used to at women’s magazines,” said Judith Newman, a longtime magazine writer. “It means that you have to package everything into McBite-size nuggets. It is sad that women writers look to men’s magazines as something to aspire to.”

With articles in retreat on every corner of the newsstand, much of the editorial message in magazines is carried in the marginalia. Editors who were nourished by Spy magazine, “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons”–rather than the Esquire of the 1960s–know that they have to come at the reader from all directions.

“What we do is much more like movies than traditional magazines,” said Greg Gutfeld of Stuff magazine. “We are utterly of the moment and utterly disposable. If readers of traditional magazines were honest, they would tell you that they don’t read more than the first 10 percent of those long articles. We give them the best 10 percent.”

The assumption is that readers raised on a media diet in which they are presented with a new image every few tenths of a second are not about to wait 3,400 words for the upshot. The glossy publishing industry will continue to serve as the back fence for mass culture. But in these days of postliterate publishing, few in the neighborhood seem to have time to stop and tell stories.