How many tourists have ventured south of San Diego for the day simply so that they might return home to tell their friends that they have visited Mexico and it’s just as horrible as one might think? It does not matter that all they saw was a sham Mexico concocted to play on the visitors’ preconceptions, like Tom Sawyer’s Island in Disneyland. Nor does it seem to matter that the three millions of us here in Tijuana are offended by such an off-handed characterization.
And yet the tourists keep on coming in spite of the bad press. What’s our attraction? For that matter, why are these tourists satisfied with knowing only seven blocks of Avenida Revolución (known locally as La Revu) or two square blocks of the Zona Norte (known locally as La Coahuila)? The answer to these questions, I suspect, is waiting for a long and psychologically complex book that few will care to read. The short answer is most likely that one’s expectations will always color one’s perception of reality: the real Tijuana is nothing like folks north of the border have experienced nor is it what they would have you believe.
Tijuana is a product of its historical isolation. It was more wild than the Wild West; it was more remote than Anchorage. And then, shortly after 1985, it was drop-kicked into the modern age.
Back around 1980, a couple of us were heading out of town in search of horses that we might ride on the beach. It’s against the law in California to ride a horse on a beach (unless you happen to own the beach) but there is no such prohibition in Baja California, which is a good thing because in Mexico you can’t own a beach unless you're Vicente Fox. We didn’t know quite where we might find horses for rent so we pulled off the road to ask at a desolate fonda somewhere near San Antonio del Mar.
This was one of those rural businesses that sell basic groceries, simple meals, soft drinks, cold beer, and even shots of hard liquor. The proprietor was out on the property; he saw our dust as we pulled up and came inside shortly after we did. Under these circumstances, it would be terribly rude to blurt out “Hey, man, where are the horses?”, so we got to know each other a little first.
“Where are you from?” the proprietor asked. “From Los Angeles” I said.
“Ah. Do you know much of Mexico?” He might be at this for a while, so I tried to cut him short. “Well, we did just drive through Tijuana” I said.
“Ah, Tijuana.” He shook his head sadly. “Tijuana is not Mexico.”
At the end of our visit, the proprietor suggested we take some beers with us. “I wish I could”, I said, “but I’m driving. I don’t want to get into any trouble.” My answer confused him. After thinking about it for a moment, he said “You won’t get into any trouble here, not unless you cause an accident.” So we took a few draught Coronas with us and the trip was that much more enjoyable.
For the longest time, Tijuana really wasn’t Mexico. Its natives belonged to Misión San Diego de Alcalá and its somnolent ranchos derived title from the old land-grants of the Spanish Crown. Tijuana was part of Alta California – the dividing line in those days was Rosarito – but with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 someone noticed that the peninsula needed to be connected to mainland Mexico and so the border was drawn more or less where you find it today.
Tijuana was as remote a place in Mexico as you could find, lying at the northern tip of what has been called the forgotten peninsula, the other Mexico. And yet it was of great strategic importance to the country because, were it to be populated, it could serve to keep Mexico’s imperialist neighbor from invading once again. With no apparent natural resources, with no overland transportation to the mainland, and with the closest seaport a day’s journey away, what else might Tijuana do but open trade with the gringos of San Diego and offer them what they could not find at home?
A hotel and spa utilizing the local hot springs (agua caliente) opened in 1880, before title to lands in the area had been settled and while the area was still part of the municipio of Ensenada. The first racetrack was also built in 1880: tourists arrived by regularly scheduled wagon service in order to attend the horse races as well as boxing matches and bullfights.
The town of Tijuana was founded under the name of Pueblo Zaragoza in 1889 in an attempt to quell the land disputes that had arisen among the holders of the Spanish grant (the extended Argüello and Olvera families) and to prevent foreign speculators (the Compañía Americana and the Compañía Inglesa) from using contemporary presidential edicts to take that land for themselves. With title settled, the land was parceled out and development began in earnest. In contrast, San Diego had already experienced four real-estate booms by that point.
As early as 1911, Tijuana's main street, then called Olvera, contained bars, liquor stores, and night clubs in response to the vices that had already been prohibited north of the border. When California outlawed horse racing in 1915, Tijuana responded by building a world-class hippodrome near the present City Hall. The new track’s innovations included a moveable starting gate, the first photo finish, a sprinkler car, races on Sundays, and a public-address system.
On the first day of 1920 the U.S. imposed Prohibition, in response to which the Cantina La Ballena (“the longest bar in the world”) and the Azteca and Mexicali breweries were founded; on July fourth of that year, sixty-five thousand people attended the horse races and 12,654 vehicles crossed the border. Most visitors of this decade were wealthy or upper middle-class, well-behaved, and generous: Tijuana was happy with them and the city prospered.
The 1930s were lean years. Prohibition came to an end and a series of morally conservative presidents ruled Mexico. Tijuana all but dried up and blew away. What a sorry irony – those same presidents had relied on Tijuana’s income to fund their armies during the Revolution.
As the U.S. militarized in the late 1930s in order to enter the Second World War, San Diego became a major naval base and Tijuana responded to the sailors’ needs by saturating the area around the old bull-ring with hotels, restaurants, and bars. Informal betting along the lines of three-card monte was common. The vida alegre, that is to say, prostitution, extended into the suburbs of Colonia Libertad and Colonia Independencia. In 1947, the jai-alai palace opened for more betting. All of this infrastructure was again useful during the U.S.’s Korean conflict in the 1950s. And so two generations of corn-pone warriors came to remember Tijuana as the place they visited before they shipped out. No wonder that Tijuana’s sullied reputation became so entrenched.
Baja has been a duty-free zone off and on ever since 1885, and during such times tourists avoided the Customs and excise taxes on a varying list of imported luxury goods. Around 1965, “duty-free” was extended to include maquiladora services for U.S. companies, thus providing the benefits of cheap Mexican labor without the stigma of wetback employees. Prostitution experienced a resurgence in the 1960s due to the Vietnam War: now the Marines of Camp Pendleton joined the sailors of North Island in pilgrimages to what coalesced into La Coahuila. During the 1980s, the sale of ethical pharmaceuticals was liberalized such that U.S. visitors could buy most medications over the counter easily, cheaply, and legally without the prescription they needed back home. About the same time, Playboy magazine glamourized the area as a haven for so-called underage drinking, in response to which the bars on La Revu became so festive that their younger customers occasionally died from alcohol-related accidents.
In the final third of the twentieth century, the tourist business was booming. Those were La Revu’s salad days. We shall not see their like again.
Thoughout Tijuana’s short and colorful history, the city has made its living by providing U.S. tourists lawfully with goods and services that they could not acquire legally in their own country. An unfortunate confusion has arisen as a consequence: there is a widespread notion among the tourists that one may come to Tijuana in order to break laws.
It really doesn't work like that. You can come to Tijuana in order to enjoy the culture, the people, or even the relative liberality of its laws. You can behave lawfully here in ways that you cannot in your hometown. But you may not violate local laws nor offend local decency with impunity – those who have done so have returned home to tell horror stories and to spew dire, ignorant warnings about the strange and devious people who lurk just south of The Known World.
All the while that Tijuana has been San Diego’s sinful sister, it was also growing into a full-fledged metropolis thanks to the influx of grocers, educators, auto mechanics, doctors, dentists, lawyers, restaurateurs – people who service those who worked in the tourist industry. These people also offer their goods and services to the tourists, albeit not with the in-your-face style of Avenida Revolución. They are not always as facile with the English language nor as forgiving of gringo rudeness as are the tourist-tenders of La Revu. These, however, are the people who have been instrumental in Tijuana's development.
Tijuana has been changing quickly and radically. There were 353 inhabitants in 1900; a hundred years later there were perhaps two millions. Because of this growth, the ideas that tourists retain about the place are necessarily out of date. Donkey shows? If those existed, that would have been in the 1950s and ’60s. Bacteria-infested municipal water? That became passé in the 1980s – nowadays the Escherichia coli are showing up in San Diego's water instead. Dogs in the streets? All but gone by 2010. The haggling for trinkets and the bribing of traffic cops? Who knows, we might keep those around as part of the folkloric ambience, rather like that authentic Indian turquoise jewelry you find in Phoenix.
When friends visit me from other parts of Mexico, I try to take them to La Revu in order to give them the True Tijuana Experience. We come in from a side street in order to encounter one of the zebras unawares – that always gets me a nervous, sidelong glance. After a few more steps we are beset by the touts, the enganchadores or jaladores, who seem to jump out of nowhere shouting in deliberately bad English for us to come into their curio shop or for us to enjoy two-for-one margaritas or for us to see, no cover charge, the most beautiful naked girls in Mexico dancing for our pleasure. I do not need to translate what the enganchadores are shouting: my friends are already shocked by the tone of voice and the aggressive gestures. “What the hell is this?” they invariably ask me. “Why, it’s Mexico, of course” I tell them. “It is no such thing. What is this really?” they counter. “Really, we’re still in Mexico,” I tell them, “but this is Mexico for tourists. Folks here have been acting like this for as long as anyone can remember. The tourists expect it of them.”
An earthquake in Mexico City demolished a lot of their newer buildings in 1985, primarily because of lax enforcement of building codes on governmental construction. The consequences of this earthquake brought a tidal wave of chilangos (people from Mexico City) into Tijuana. Their initial reception was hostile: the slogan ¡Haz patria, mata a un chilango! (“be patriotic, kill a chilango”) showed up everywhere because the newcomers were felt to be too aggressive, too ill-mannered, and pretentious. And yet, with their advent, Tijuana joined the twentieth century. We have the chilangos to thank for developing Playas as a residential community and for bringing us such niceties as chipotle, huitlacoche, and Victoria beer.
At the same time, there was a major change in the government of Tijuana – in fact, throughout Baja – in which the ruling group, the PRI (whose corruption produced the faulty buildings in Mexico City), was replaced by the pious, conservative PAN. Many new laws have been passed since then, laws that look as if they might have been borrowed from the U.S., laws that replace the libertarian approach of the old days with “tiered response”. You can no longer drive around Tijuana with a beer in your hand and get in trouble only if you cause an accident: you will now get in some trouble for an open container, or more trouble for driving while intoxicated, or even more trouble for an open container and an accident, or much worse trouble for being involved in an accident while intoxicated and carrying a beer in your hand. Personal freedom and population density tend to work in opposition.
Nowadays Tijuana really is part of Mexico. We’re no longer the end of the world: we've become the fourth-largest city in the country. People from all over have been moving here for the past fifty years, bringing with them the accents and customs of Sonora, Sinaloa, Nayarit, Michoacán, Veracruz, Oaxaca, Jalisco, Puebla – even a few Cantonese and Iraqi Chaldeans. Tijuana still retains a lot of its frontier past, like how La Revu has remained garish to meet the tourists’ expections or how most of its older residential districts, built into steep hillsides, still lack paved side-streets and piped natural gas. But now there is a great confluence of Mexican cultures in the blood and sinews of Tijuana’s body-politic, which finds its expression throughout the city in commercial, governmental, and non-profit events. That achievement alone sets it apart from the culture north of the border, which is generally treated like its body-politic’s cellulitis.
With the repeal of Prohibition, alcohol lost its attraction to all but the 18-to-21 crowd. The hot springs and casino closed in the middle 1930s. The two breweries ceased operation about the same time (although Mexicali is now being made in Tecate by Coors). The horse races came to an end in 1992, when the current owner bought the Agua Caliente Racetrack in order to exploit its lucrative off-track gambling licences. Jai-alai and frontón became unfashionable: their palacio is now an occasional venue for pop music. Tijuana’s bull ring is now in Playas: the famous one where Lucille Ball posed has been demolished in expectation of a shopping mall. Changes in Customs laws during the 1980s and ’90s brought an end to inexpensive Lladró and Chanel. Gambling is now available stateside in the Kumiyaay reservations and homegrown prostitution is available through the Internet.
The city’s older forms of tourism have become all but extinct, leaving behind them, petrified, an unsavory reputation. About all that Tijuana has left to offer is its melting-pot culture and the difference between the U.S. dollar and the Mexican peso.
Tijuana's culture, understated by U.S. standards, is nonetheless breathtaking for those who would make the effort to know it. The arts are everywhere: half a dozen places from Playas to Otay regularly offer trova performances and poetry readings; writers, sculptors, and painters have made Tijuana into an artists’ colony; dancers not only perform post-Cunningham ballet but Arabic, Flamenco, and Irish; opera is performed, not in a pretentious auditorium to Harry Partch’s sea of blue-haired ladies, but to the rank and file of the city out in the middle of the street. Our food and our style of life hold their own against all others worldwide.
The difference in the dollar and peso means that coming here for medical, dental, and retirement needs has been making more and more sense lately. Without that stimulus, people north of the border would have little reason to discover the rest of our culture.
The real question now is whether the new tourists will be sophisticated enough to deal with such a different culture. This was not much of a problem in the past because day-trippers don't stay very long and they kept pretty much to their own street. But what now if you want to hear tuneros at El Potrero or trovadores at Cervecería Tijuana or to catch the Cuban film festival at El Lugar del Nopal? You're going to wind up in the culture for at least a few days.
The cultural issue becomes even more important for the economic refugees from southern California, those who have moved to Tijuana for the cheaper housing. A number of these people have already been deported because they couldn’t shift gears – they kept behaving as they did in the U.S. – and so annoyed their neighbors enough to call the INM (Immigration).
This blog isn’t directed at the Revu day-tripper or the hit-and-run foodie, although the few who remain will find something useful here. The blog is meant for the new tourists, the ones who come for longer stays, so that they might come to understand their new environment and enrich their lives thereby.