Over the next several weeks we'll be posting excerpts from a chapter in our upcoming anthology, Tijuana Dreaming: Art and Life at the Global Border. The book collects writings on contemporary Tijuana, Mexico from a variety of poets, critics, novelists, essayists, and scholars from both sides of the border, many of which have been translated into English for the very first time. "Crossfader Playlist" is one such piece-- a sampler of key tracks (blog posts, essays, digital riffs) from noted Tijuana writer, DJ, teacher, blogger, and after-hours chronicler Rafa Saavedra, whose 1995 book Esto no es una salida: Postcards de ocio y odio has just been re-published by Nitro Press.
Essay translated by John Pluecker.
Tijuana Makes Me Happy
The adjective good is used / to describe people / and things that in principle I dislike. /
The adjective bad is used / to describe people / and things that in principle I like.
—JOSÈ MARÍA FONOLLOSA (City of Man: New York)
I have always said Tijuana is the center of the universe. —LUIS HUMBERTO
CROSTHWAITE at the presentation of his book Instructions for Crossing the Border
Tijuana is not Tijuana. —FIAMMA MONTEZEMOLO
I Love Tijuana
More "Crossfader Playlist" InstallmentsCrossfader Playlist: Tijuana Dream
Crossfader Playlist: Living (through) Tijuana
Crossfader Playlist: Tijuana Youth
If one pays attention to what's happening on the street, it doesn't come as a surprise to ﬁnd out that Tijuana still takes ﬁrst place in drug consumption in the country, according to the statistics of the Subsecretaria del Sistema Estatal de Seguridad Publica. People take drugs (the cost of a dose can run from one to ﬁve dollars). What ever drug and wherever (in El Bordo, in La Revu, in Plaza Fiesta, in Pueblo Amigo, in Zona Río, in La Coahuila and nearby areas, in the alto-standing developments and in the rough barrios de la periferia, at raves and concerts, everywhere). In Tijuana, you just have to go to a corner store, a tiendita (one selling food, not the other kind) and read the little sign that's always there "Focos Cinco Pesos" to know what's really going on or go to any weekend party to see the staff in a synthetic trance. The use of marihuana is so common that a lot of people don't even consider it an illegal drug anymore. As has been seen in other places, prohibition has never been a viable solution; neither has the so-called ﬂy swatter approach. With all that in mind, Tijuana could be, this is true, the social laboratory of postmodernity that sociologists and communicologists talk about so much, as it seems to put into practice the words of the political analyst Federico Reyes Heroles, who made clear, on his last visit, that the only possible way to control the drug industry and its social impact was legalization. Tijuana experimental zone.
La city is a virus, a meme that circulates with no restrictions, altering a reality that is more and more delocalized in particular ways. Tijuana is anywhere. Allá y aquí, pixilated in the unconscious collective of the new global dream. Primera advertencia: Don't be fooled by the myth and the legend (it's not Sin City and not the happiest place on Earth). We've left behind that rough-and-tumble city perpetuated in movies for overgrown adolescents or that illusion called the American Way of Life. Tijuana is much more than the clichés repeated by the people who come to try to decipher it, loaded down with all their prejudices. Just glancing brieﬂy at these oft-recycled images is enough— the enormous naked lady, the industrial parks, la línea fronteriza, la calle principal— to understand they're tiny pieces of a minor simulacrum based on a charismatic reality in full-blown restructuring.
Romanticizing the border does no good (sorry, nothing's the same as it used to be). Some people decide to live it with all its dynamics, processes, and problems. Others don't; they invent different ways to live through it. Both are there, moving through the same urban space but in almost parallel worlds. That's why, if what we live are, as one of the new physics theories posits, multiple "nows" that proceed at the same time, this is something we can discover: the Tijuana that still believes in the miracles of Juan Soldado and that doesn't recognize the culture jamming of the story of Santa Olguita (the girl raped and killed in 1938 is promoted to the public in her recent adaptation into a holy saint card); Tijuana as a perpetual escape route, as a place without laws; the Tijuana of land invasions on the extreme edges of la city and their violent evictions later on; the welcoming Tijuana of the Argentinian pop singer Ricardo Ceratto; the Tijuana riled up by the latest designer drug; the Tijuana where los bachilleres with no future wait after school for the camioncito that'll take them straight to the night shift in the maquiladora; the Tijuana considered a new cultural mecca; the conservative Tijuana that doesn't know how to deal with the concept of alterity; the Tijuana of Avenida Revolución, calmly receiving the contingent of patriotic jarheads with their eyes popping out of their heads ﬁghting for the attention of big-busted, steely-assed nymphs; the Tijuana of impunity and corruption at all levels; the Tijuana in the national press ¡otra vez!; the Tijuana of electronic and avant indie pop; the Tijuana that isn't known and that hides when they come to try to ﬁnd it on a weekend; the Tijuana that laughs because it knows that, in the end, nothing/everything is the truth. Fission Tijuana, not fusion Tijuana.
Tijuana doesn't keep still, she moves, she's moving, that's why it's so hard to get a handle on her and why it's so easy to put labels on her post- Canclini that all end up saying the same thing, cracking a fascist morality that condemns what it doesn't comprehend and providing an undercover preview in real time of what's to come. That's why trying to deﬁne what is always mutating, besides being unproductive, is quite pretentious. You choose: Tijuana as a rollercoaster in free fall or the übertrip de tu vida. O las dos cosas at the same time. No big deal, really.
I love TJ, for thousands of reasons, for its crystal-iced vibe and the faribolesque spirit of its streets, for being creative in spite of its precariousness and for pushing on despite tremendous neglect, for its multifaceted character, polychromatic and metathematic, for its bar-hopping nights and its obvious social contradictions, for its incredible audacity and its obvious ingenuity dealing with everything foreign, for transcending a leyenda negra that is only brought up by those seeking to beneﬁt from it, for being something more than that, because my home and a huge network of coconspirators are here, because I do and because why not and because who cares what they're talking (shit) about anyway.
Just Say Tijuana
As a border space where the reality of the developed world coexists with the reality of underdevelopment in Mexico, Tijuana attracts the gaze of people living through, observing, or following at a distance what happens in la city. This is why, for some years, the main concern of the authorities and business groups has been improving the city's image in the interior of the country and also abroad which helps, in some ways, to recover the competitive advantage of yesteryear, as far as it relates to cheap labor and foreign investment so essential to confronting the ferocious onslaught of the Chinese maquiladora industry.
Nevertheless, there's an awful lot going against the city. For example, on MTV Latino's program Urban Myths— in which they cleared up whether different rumors people spread were true or false— they asked the speciﬁc question: Are there problems south of the border? The response was an unconditional True. There are complaints that some police demand up to $100 to let go of partying tourists visiting the city. And although you might not believe it, a representative from the City Police shows up, saying "Some of our ofﬁcers do it. Puede ser, puede ser." The corruption is like that, high-proﬁle and brazen.
That's why it's not surprising a quick Google search turns up 441,000 links in response to the query "Tijuana's bad image." It's also no shocker that an endless stream of groups have appeared (Tijuana Renacimiento, Tijuana Trabaja, Tijuana Opina, Imagen Tijuana) whose goal is to expressly counteract that representation with another image more in line with what they think life is like here. This effort brings to light three very different visions of the local reality: one that pines for the past (reﬂected in the Agua Caliente Minaret), blaming all the bad things in the city on "those immigrants" who brought disorder with them, destroying the postprovincial calm, and dreaming of attaining San Diego's order and aseptic cleanliness; another vision held by those born in the late 1960s, the 1970s, and the beginning of the 1980s, brought up on Saturday cartoon shows, who had American alternative rock as their generation's soundtrack and who, when they were in elementary and middle school, celebrated both Halloween and Día de los Muertos like it was no big deal, who see San Diego as a natural extension of TJ; and the new Tijuana that since 1985 has received a growing number of people from all different parts of Mexico (according to data from INEGI, in 2000, only 39.73 percent of the people living in the city were born in Baja California), which is growing out east and whose residents have a different accent, almost never go to el Centro, don't have visas, and aren't interested in going to San Diego.
These three visions diverge in their view of the desired identity and image of la city, although the extremes have certain things in common: the new Tijuana looks more and more like the Tijuana yearned for by many with their moralistic views of its problems, while still reﬂecting huge differences in terms of strategies for survival. Among them, there is a metageneration of tijuanenses (made up of writers, musicians, academics, politicians, multidisciplinary artists, among others) who don't really care a lot about the whole leyenda negra issue; they know about it and they study it to use it in their artistic, academic, or media work. Nada más. Tijuana doesn't make them defend everyday events and realities that would be present in any city with similar characteristics. So sorry, Tijuana just isn't that unique.
Tijuana Kills Me!
At a stop sign, at the entrances to working-class colonias or to suburban developments advertising themselves as the perfect oasis, dodging the ever-present danger of being in the middle of a dirtybulevar, you can see the newspaper vendors hard at work selling the afternoon edition of El Mexicano, a sensationalist paper that, with headlines almost always in red, almost unintentionally maps out a bloody guidebook to the goings-on of Tijuana profunda. What they do best is spiraling violence: encobijados, levantones, clandestine graves, knife victims, a shootout at the door of a stylish club, rapes, or the increasingly easy turf killing. Life is hard and life is cheap, or, at least, that's what they tell us. How many more people have to die before we ﬂee from la city? How many articles and news stories will we have to read before we really feel like we're living the catastrophe we see on TV?
My friend Sergio Brown, communicologist and visualist, tells me that when people ask me what life is like in Tijuana, I should answer by saying there's a lot of fear, that murders and violent acts are happening everywhere all the time. That I should tremble as I list everything that has happened recently, that my voice should be sad and upset, that I should ironically transmit the media's oft-repeated refrains. He says we should reclaim that image of a ciudad killer as our own, we should sell it, that we should give those morbid journalists the tour of their lives. Let them discover, shall we say, the savage side of la city at its worst possible moment (at its most real and unadulterated). Drop them off at three in the morning in the most hard-core parts of La Morita or El Grupo México. We should consider leaving them to their own devices in a brown-neck bar like El As Negro (now fallen out of favor since it's Manu Chao's favorite place in Tijuana) or El Grullense. We should take them to one of those seafood restaurants where just one look could alter their fate forever. Organize it so they run into a gangbanger from Calle XV3 in the middle of Avenida Revolución, one of those tattooed ones ready for anything so they can write "We can report that Barrio XV3 run deep in Baja" on their Web site. In the end, we want them to remember that ex- presidential candidate Colosio visited one day and he didn't make it out alive. That Tijuana, La Tijuana Killer, unfortunately is also mi city.
According to data from the PGJE, in 2003 there were 295 recorded homicides. By the ﬁrst week of September 2004, that number had reached 214 (including a set of fourteen committed in the span of a week). In all media outlets, not just local ones, there are reports about a ﬁght to the death between the Arellano Félix Cartel and "El Mayo" Zambada's group, ruthless rivals ﬁghting to maintain and control the smuggling routes through the city. At the beginning of 2004, Víctor Clark Alfaro, director of the Binational Committee for Human Rights, told the Los Angeles paper La Opinión that "the violence has become something mundane. A daily pattern of deaths has been established that is related to the presence of organized crime." Nevertheless, in the majority of cases, said acts of violence do not claim the lives of innocent people, except in a few, unfortunate incidents.
Much has been said of the narcojunior connection, about how these young children of Tijuana's elite involved in the drug trade have gone from being a mere anecdote to permeating all strata of Tijuana society. The causes are multiple and varied: some say it's due to a lack of real opportunities or society and its consumerist imperative, family breakdown, the lack of values, or the fact it is an easy way to get hold of money and a relative positive of power. One of my classmates from middle school was one of the ﬁrst to be executed in a cruel and exacting way. Other friends quickly tired of scrawling a cross in the yearbooks on the photos of their class members who had been killed or sought out by the DEA or other legal authorities. Despite all this, there are those in la city who bet, without even the slightest doubt, that the narcojuniors will make the comeback of the year in 2005, but remade into what's already being called "the new freak scene" (successful professionals living the good design life, elegant junkies, and super cuckoos).
Jesús Blancornelas, codirector of the Tijuana newspaper Zeta and an expert on the subject, exposed the city's clubs in his opinion column in the newspaper Frontera— he didn't say which ones— as hotbeds of de luxe cokeheads (well, he calls them enviciados encumbrados or "pompous miscreants" in his arancherado style). Anyway, he makes the statement there that the middle class and los humildes don't have the money to buy cocaine. Yeah, one of his young associates should bring him up to speed. The middle class prefers ecstasy or acid. Cocaine is out; los humildes (which sounds like a seventies group popular with the maquila crowd) prefer crystal and ice.
Furthermore, since 2002, the problems brought by alcohol consumption to the city have returned to the headlines (needless to say we have the highest consumption of beer per person in the country and one of the bars—Las Pulgas, sí señor—sells the most beer in all Latin America). Recently, an initiative by the PAN has sought to abolish, for purely economic reasons, the so-called Ley Seca, or Dry Law, in Baja California (which was implemented in 1915 and speciﬁcally prohibits the sale and consumption of alcohol on the day before and after an election) and in another instance, there is a bizarre proposal to eliminate the words "Lady's Night" on signs, neon and otherwise, in the bars. But this isn't all; in his zeal to end barras libres, a PRI party leader once said that the only thing these businesses accomplish with those kinds of promotions is to incite young people to drink alcohol endlessly for hardly any money and he added, "It's enough for a young person to have fun until one or two in the morning, and I don't see the need for extra or additional hours." None of them see alcoholism as a serious health problem in la city; rather all of them see it as a form of moral collapse that has to be ended. What they don't know is barras libres are out of style with the people who go out to have fun in the city. The bars with beer for a dollar rule.
Read the other installments of this Artbound exclusive series:
Copyright Duke University Press, 2012
Top Image: Photo by Ingrid Hernandez.
About the Author
California becomes an international export by redefining the concept of city and home.
Through workshops, education and placed based projects, art is the connective tissue of a community.
Funding bubbles, cultural deserts and the politics of access to the arts in the 21st century.
At the shadow of the entertainment industry, video artists and underground filmmakers take a stand.
Noir, sunshine and dystopia create a multi-ethnic narrative that is read, watched and admired around the globe.
Multi-hyphenate works that combine disciplines, remix dogmas, and reinvent the wheel.
A dialogue between cultures, the music of our state serves up the California dream like no other artform.
Staging the drama of California through dance, music and theater.
Breaking away from the European and New York vanguard, California reinvents the art world.