There are two Tijuanas: that of the locals, and that of the rest. The true Tijuana belongs only to the oldest families, the grandparents and great grandparents of Tijuana. The view from outside, on the other hand, tends to come into focus through fantasy, stereotype and cliché.
But it is the outsider world that in part created Tijuana (the furthest and uncommunicated town from the country’s capital, México City) at least in business and touristic services: hotels, bars, bullrings, boxing, and mainily casinos that forsaw the future Las Vegas. This was happening a few years after the turn of the Century, around 1907. A german beer expert was brought to the Mexicali brewery whose most important market was in Avenida Olvera, former name of Tijuana’s Revolution Avenue.
In the 19th century, Tijuana resembled the set of and old Western —a few houses, some wooden corrals, mud-caked roads and a custums hut to register the passage of caravans heading to the port at Ensenada.
The city only came into its own in the 1920s, thanks to the Volstead Act, which amended the Constitution of the United States to prohibit the production and consumption of alcohol, as well as gambling, boxing and horse racing. A puritanical, moralizing campaign had gained momentum in California, and vices and worldly pleasures were roundly demonized.
So Americans preserved their good consciences by exporting their vices to the new city emerging on this side of the border, which soon became a nerve center for the production of all sorts of alcohol, from brandy to Mexicali beer.
Capital from the American underworld was largely responsible. American investors like Marvin Allen, Frank Beyer and Carl Withington oponed saloons and broke ground for the construction of casinos like the Foreing Club, the Montecarlo and the Agua Caliente, which was built alongside the hot springs of the same name. And American tourist paid for the prostitutes, the boxing clubs and the opium.
Of course, the particular vices changed a bit in the 20th century, but the city largely kept on playing the same role for its Northern neighbors. Until the violence came to Tijuana, and change everything. Suddenly, this pressure came from the south in the 1990s —drugs (and the violence and law of the jungle that come with them) were heading north and Tijuana was the last stop before the border. Professional drugdealers and assasins from Sinaloa, such as the Arellano Brothers, gradually settled here as one of the strongest and cruellest mobs of the continent. It was like a tide shifting. Instead of an influx of visitors from the north, we felt immense pressure from the south, squeezing Tijuana, and scaring away all the tourists.
Drug trafficking and violence have had a devastating effect on Tijuana’s economy. The murders, kidnappings and decapitations reached a peak in 2008. American stopped coming. Stores closed. Bars were boarded up. Those Tijuana families who could afford it moved to San Ysidro, San Diego and Bonita, California, to sleep in peace. Even local officials of Tijuana City Hall bought or rented houses in La Jolla and Coronado.
But now Tijuana is recovering. In December 2009 there were 56 homicides narco-related. In January 2010 the statistics went up to 67, but next February the number was 31, 17 in March, 22 in April, 12 in June, 31 in July and 23 in August, according to an investigation of Eduardo Guerrero.
The violence has begun to subside, thanks to the work of the local police and the regular mexican Army’s soldiers and Navy’s mareens and the capture last January of El Teo, an infamous murderer and drug lord. Avenida Revolución, dead for the past three years, is showing signs of life. On Friday and Saturday nights it is packed with young people. Caesar’s, a very simbolic and old local restaurant and hotel (where the famous salad was invented) just reopened, and one block over, rock and blues bands get together to play at the music hall. Not for nothing, british rock’n’roll musician and filmaker Julian Temple (he played with the Pistols) is about to start shooting a long documentary on Tijuana, as he did in his Detroit film.
No, the tourists haven’t returned. It’s the locals, the people of Tijuana ——who kept to themselves during the worst of the violence—— who are now reclaiming their territory, for the first time since it was a dusty cow town.
“We have to change our image”, says Jaime Cháidez, a local journalist. “We can’t rely on tourism anymore. The city stills stands, as noble as ever. It is surviving, growing, pucking itself up.”
And for perhaps the first time in more than a century, it is the Tijuanans who are driving that growth. In a sense, then, it is the very violence that plagues Mexico that has returned Tijuana to the people who live there.
A few days ago, a statue was unveiled honoring Rubén Vizcaíno Valencia, a writer, teacher and promoter of Mexican culture who died in 2004. He is the first Tijuana native to be honored in this way, and there he stands, presiding over one of the hallways of the Centro Cultural Tijuana.
I like to think of the kids walking by. “Adiós, teach,” they always say. “Adiós, teach.”