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Imagining Tijuana

Mexicans resent Tijuanans’ affinity for America, their corruptions of the Spanish language, their Spanglish salted with American cuss words and spiced with Anglicisms so that here along the border auto parts aren’t refacciones, but auto partes, pickups are trocas, and the midday meal is lonche. English is widely spoken, too. Guillermo, in whose blue Corolla we are speeding across town, says everything to me in Spanish then repeats it again in English. Likewise, Sergio, who to my ears garbles his Spanglish incomprehensibly, slips casually into textbook English when he wants me to understand. So many Tijuanans live on both sides of the border, many having attended grammar school or high school in San Diego--returning to TJ at night--that, in some respects, national identities have blurred.

Minutes before I met Delfino and Sergio the other night, I had spent an uncomfortable, intimidating couple hours pinned in the corner of a back-street karaoke bar while hard, rough-looking Mexican cowboys crooned corridas to blaring recordings of accordions and tubas. One rough character, his taut face stubbled with a week’s growth, a bucket of drained bottles on his table, prodded me to sing, forcing a worn songbook into my hands. Finally, frustrated with my reluctance, he leaned over, his eyes shaded under an enormous hat, and joked in perfect, accentless American English, “I used to be nervous about singing, but you gotta just picture everyone in the room in their underwear, you know? Like that episode of the Brady Bunch, remember that one? Everyone knows that one!” Yeah, everyone does know that one, I guess, including this drunken karaoke cowboy. I never did sing, but I had a bond with this guy now, a Brady Bunch bond, so I relaxed and had another beer.

Gringos don’t get out much to these backstreets, the grid of neighborhoods that fill the downtown. They stick to Avenida Revolución, the main tourist drag, just as I always have for the most part, coming down here with no other aim than to drink beer and get drunk. I started coming to Tijuana underage, like so many young Southern Californians, to party and carouse in the dozens of bars and nightclubs stacked three or four high along Revolución. Thousands upon thousands of teen revelers converged on the street every night back then to drink and dance. Tequila and beers, two-for-one on Wednesdays, and masses of people on Fridays and Saturdays, margaritas mixed right in your mouth. Mike’s was my bar, a functional, bare-bones place with a gray-eyed old German guy at the door whom I always assumed was “Mike,” though it never occurred to me to ask. Up a few flights of crumbling stairs was Club Regine, a late-night hangout with throbbing techno and staccato strobe lights, walls painted charcoal black. After a few shots of tequila, some beers--two for one at Mike’s--my friends and I would head up the stairs to Regine’s—by midnight the place would be packed with chicks. Young, American chicks. That was more than twenty-five years ago.

Speeding down Revolución with Delfino and the guys, we pass Mike’s and Regine’s--or rather, what’s left of them. The building is a charred and burned-out hulk, a shell, recognizable only by the remains of the sign, “Club Reg…” I say nothing as we whiz past—I had read just a few days ago that Mike’s and Regine’s spent their last days as gay bars, Regine’s featuring transvestite hookers. Driving down La Revu--as the locals call this street--you can still hear the bump, bump, bump of the few remaining gringo bars pulsing in the night air. The dozens of others, however, have flatlined, silent. Revolución, the only Tijuana most Americans will ever know, is all but dead.

The city was born here, really, on this street. In 1911, Los Angeles banned bars and horse racing and Tijuana, then barely a town, stepped in to pick up the slack. Tijuana existed prior to that, of course. About 180 years ago, an embryonic Tijuana known as Rancho Tia Juana, Aunt Jane’s Ranch, gestated on this spot, a dry and lonely little coastal hamlet halfway down the Pacific coast of Mexico. In 1848, however, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the two-year Mexican-American War and redrew the border line due east from the point on the Pacific coast one nautical league south of the southernmost tip of San Diego Bay. San Diego and the territory north of the border including all of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming became U.S. property. But Aunt Jane’s Ranch remained in Mexico. Attempts were made, however, to take Tijuana, to make it part of the United States. For example, during the Mexican Revolution -- the war for which the tourist street was named-- American mercenaries captured the town, occupied it, looted it, but left the bars and curio shops lining the road untouched. From that time on, forces north of the border were to steer Tijuana’s future. During the dry years of Prohibition, for instance, American drinkers swarmed Revolución, frequenting the bars--then mostly American-owned enterprises that had been picked up and moved south of the border. The Hollywood élite virtually relocated to the swank and exclusive hotels, clubs, and casinos of Tijuana. The war years and after saw hard-up San Diego sailors crossing, and coming down to Tijuana to drink, fight and fornicate, and for decades since, La Revu has been the street where American revelers and lechers, drinkers and drunks have partied and puked, fought and fucked.

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