Mexican wrestlers, or luchadores, derive their power from disguising their identity with a mask. This can be seen as the ultimate example of how identity is constructed in Mexico: a tension between the masked self, a character to the outside world, and the true identity of the person hidden behind it. Luchadores are hailed as legendary heroes inside and outside of the ring, their masks become icons that define who they are and what they represent. Aptly, in lucha libre (Mexican wrestling), the most violent, repulsive and humiliating act one luchador can inflict on another is to rip off their mask: revealing their true identity, the face of vulnerability, the truth behind the lie.
The border town of Tijuana, the largest and most traversed point of entry into Mexico, excels at functioning as a mask for Mexico, concealing many of the defining characteristics of a typical Mexican city. The most striking absence, in Tijuana, is the lack of a central plaza, or zocalo: the literal and symbolic heart of Mexican cities and towns that serves as the center for social and political interaction.
Instead of a heart, Tijuana has the Avenida Revolucion, a street lined with a wild assortment of souvenir shops, pharmacies, strip clubs, bars and restaurants. If you were to stroll down the Avenida Revolucion five years ago on a weekend, you would be bombarded by mariachi music blasting from inside of restaurants accompanied by drunken screams singing along. Waiters from competing restaurants would invite you inside in broken English, making sure to excitedly mention "Best Margaritas in Tijuana" and "$1 beers." Vendors would invite you into their shops with phrases like "One dollar! Un dolar!" and "Give me your money! I want your money!" to try to get you to peruse their artisan products and curious Chinese-made souvenirs. And then, of course, on every street corner you would encounter photographers trying to lure you into taking a photograph with a zonkey: a burro painted with black and white stripes to resemble a zebra. The photo would be taken in front of a painted "Aztec" backdrop topped by the iconic phrase: "Welcome to Tijuana".
This unique welcome was the product of the historical role and construction of the street and of the city as an adult playground for Americans. Tourism has been the city's life-blood since the early 20th century, when prohibition in the United States transformed Tijuana into south of the border city of sin par excellence. The Avenida Revolucion was both symbolically and literally at the center of this, a site where citizens of Tijuana merely worked or only occasionally went to take friends or family visiting the city for the first time.
La Revu, as it came to be known amongst locals, became the city's own mask, one that reflected the desires of tourists. The establishments populating the street were designed to reflect preconceived notions of Tijuana, and by extension of Mexico: loud, colorful, cheap, full of booze, and willing to cater to Americans at all costs. The mask that was La Revu concealed the city's underlying social, economic and political ills, outgrowths of widespread corruption and violence tied to the entrenched presence of drug cartels in the city.
In 2008, the mask was violently torn off as an unprecedented spike in violent crime--in response to the national crackdown on the cartels--stopped the flow of tourists into the city. Approximately 80% of businesses in La Revu closed their doors. The once inescapable mariachi music was replaced by urban sound pollution: honking horns, cars speeding by, and above all, a disorienting absence of voices. Metal doors drawn closed now contained the artisan products and souvenirs that once spilled out from shops onto the sidewalk. Even the zonkeys appeared different: the black and white stripes identifying them as proud ambassadors of the city had now faded to a dirty brown and tan.
The mask was gone. This was no longer an icon of a dynamic city, but rather the most drastic example of the economic, social and cultural consequences of drug-cartel violence. The once vibrant center had become utterly dim, a revelation that forced the city to confront its over-dependence on tourists for a sense of self-identity, and its lack of interior community-based social cohesion.
The period of chaos and uncertainty that followed became fertile ground for artists and cultural activists who took the opportunity to reimagine the role of the street and its relationship to the city. This process began by inserting alternative programs into vacant commercial spaces along the avenue as an effort to repurpose the city center as a cultural laboratory for the city itself. In the past two years, a series of shops along this central corridor have been transformed into a vibrant network of galleries, studios, boutiques and cafés known collectively as the Pasaje Rodriguez Arte y Diseño (PRAD).
"El Grafógrafo" has been one of the most active spaces in the PRAD. The hybrid coffee shop/bookstore has made it its mission to become a home for bibliophiles in the hope of fomenting literature throughout the city. It serves as the planning center for a yearly used-book festival, and it has also hosted bi-national literature gatherings as well as regular weekly workshops of poets and writer collaboratives. "El Grafografo" has become a tranquil retreat amidst the sensorial excess of La Revu, a space to sit down, relax, and enjoy a book.
If "El Grafografo" is an alternative to the bright and loud culture jamming of the street outside the Pasaje Rodriguez, then "El Local 29" is a celebration of it. This space serves primarily as a workshop collaborative of silkscreen, graffiti and street artists working to mirror the raw energy of a once vibrant city trying to reanimate itself. Its walls are made available to local artists to experiment with new techniques, and it also hosts rehearsals and performances by local indie-bands. This has become part of a larger effort that also includes other hybrid social spaces, bar/music venue/galleries along the Calle Sexta, a few blocks away from the Pasaje Rodriguez.
By seeking to redefine the role of the street at the heart of the city, these spaces hope to transform the city itself. The most radical work being carried out by various galleries and groups in the city center has also become part of a broader movement led by art collectives and spaces working with communities across the city to mobilize the potential of citizens to rebuild Tijuana from the bottom up. The work of Reacciona Tijuana is a prime example of this emerging community-based cultural revivification.
Founded in 2010, Reacciona Tijuana began working with community members and groups to establish alliances with cultural and private institutions around the city in an effort to create a platform for civic action. This has allowed the group to carry out projects such as renovating and expanding a cultural center in the community of Playas de Tijuana, creating a self-improvement social media campaign aiming to create better neighbors, and painting and posting 350 phrases on billboards and open areas around Tijuana reminding citizens of their responsibility to improve the city. Through such projects, Reacciona Tijuana hopes to build "a collective movement that calls each citizen of Tijuana to take action and responsibility to make their communities thriving and prosperous places to live".
Both the PRAD and Reacciona Tijuana are pushing cultural practice in the city beyond a celebratory reappropriation of the kitschy hybridity and cultural pastiche that characterizes the Tijuana aesthetic, and can still be found in the assortment of goods in shops and bars along La Revu that have managed to stay open through the crisis. It seems the social and economic disintegration caused by the explosion of violence forced a reconsideration of the role of culture within the city, bringing to light the question not just of what the city was in the present or had been in the past, but what the city needed to become.
Allowing and facilitating this becoming is the most radical cultural proposition currently being forwarded by spaces and groups throughout the city. This desire to awaken from the past into a better present and future, this assertion that the city can develop new ways of living in and for itself, is structuring a new breed of artistic interventions that could take as manifesto the opening phrase of the song "Tijuana Makes me Happy" by Tijuana's own electronic music darlings Nortec Collective, "Some people call it the happiest place on earth/ Others say it's a dangerous place/ It has been the city of sin/ but you know / I don't care/ Tijuana Makes me Happy."
Top Image: New bar and dance club on Avenida Revolucion. This more contemporary club took the place of a former iconic dance hall along the street. Photo by Misael Diaz.
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