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Imagining Tijuana

by William Hillyard

WHERE do you want to go? Is there anything you want to see? They put me on the spot as we cruise around a sleeping, late-night Tijuana on a Friday night. They ask me because I’m the tourist , the one out-of-towner, the sole gringo squished into the back seat of this little blue Corolla zooming through these shadowed streets. Streetlights wash over us as we pass under them, panning through the car like searchlights. As we bank each turn, centrifugal forces roll Delfino onto my shoulder; he can’t hold onto the seats in front of him—he needs his hands to talk. Delfino had invited me to come to Tijuana; said he’d show me the real city. I’m his guest tonight, I guess. We’ll go to a concert, he’d told me, classical music, there’s so much culture here, great restaurants and sports teams, you know, and you’re close to San Diego and the Padres and Chargers games.

Delfino, Professor Rodriguez, teaches classical guitar at the Autonomous University of Baja California. I had met him a couple of weeks ago sipping coffee in a little coffee shop, a converted house with old, oiled pine floors and paint-crusted walls. Mexican boleros looped softly from hidden speakers. I sat with Delfino and his friend Sergio, a fellow professor and a composer, trained in Florence. Tonight he rides shotgun, turned sideways in his seat animatedly hyphenating his nouns with slurred Spanish swear words. They drift effortlessly between English and Spanish talking to me about Tijuana, about the violence – always reiterating that Tijuana doesn’t deserve its reputation as a sleazy south-of-the border Gomorrah.

“Well, what do you want to see?” they press me.

“Take me someplace tourists never see,” I respond, not really knowing what it is I’ve been missing, but wanting to understand the city that these men love so much. “La Coahuila!” they shout as Guillermo guns the car ahead, swerving around potholes. La Coahuila is Tijuana’s Zona Rosa, the Red Light district.
Of course, to most of us, Tijuana means red light district; the first thing that comes to mind are bars and brothels. And it’s not just us north of the border who see it as a morally degenerate cesspool of debauchery, corruption, and violence. That opinion is universal, it seems. Indeed, even mainland Mexicans regard Tijuana as a bastard child of the U.S., the forgotten dark-haired sister city to sun-bleached, blue-eyed San Diego. A guy I ran into at Starbucks this morning, Luis -- a corporate recruiter with a Hurley hat and matching jacket, bemoaned the difficulties he had luring professionals from central Mexico to Tijuana, the futility of overcoming the negative stereotype of the city.
“Go to any other Mexican city, man” he told me in California English seasoned with “mans” and “dudes”, “and you will see only half a page of want ads in the paper. Here we have page after page; if you have skills and training you can do anything you want here. In Tijuana there is mobility.” The people of Tijuana, Everyone I’ve met, hold their city in the highest regard; as hard as this shabby city is on the eyes, they seem to love it. “Tijuana is the happiest city in Mexico,” Luis added, quoting a poll or something he’d read somewhere.

This Starbucks here in Tijuana -- that sits in a shopping mall by a Burger King full of suits with laptops and cell phones, assembly-line art and blonde wood, is a wormhole in the fabric of the corporate universe. Walk through the door and you are transported, teleported to that placeless place that’s like a mirror reflected in a mirror reflected in a mirror. You are no longer in Tijuana. The pimply-faced kid behind the counter tolerated my Spanish long enough not to be rude, then eased me back to English, taking my dollars and handing me my coffee like any kid behind any counter in any Starbucks in any town in America. Nothing about the scene was Mexican.

And that’s the thing, Tijuana snuggles so close to the US that from the air it looks as if it had been cut in half, its other half, its better half, on the other side of the rusty metal border fence. Tijuana’s views are all to the north. This it owes to its geography. Tijuana sits at the very north-westernmost edge of Baja California, the dry, dusty, thousand-mile-long peninsula gripping the underside of the United States. Baja shares nearly 150 miles of border with the US; Tijuana lies along fifteen of those. Yet Baja California, separated from the rest of Mexico by the Sea of Cortez, is attached to the Mexican mainland by a mere 50-mile-wide strip of wasteland, the marshy no-man’s-land of the Colorado River Delta. And while there are four land crossings into the U.S. from Baja, two of them in Tijuana (and two more to be built over the next few years), there is only one road linking Baja to the mainland. One solitary thread ties the wayward child to the motherland.

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