Tijuana Reclaimed

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 the outside world helped create Tijuana.

In the 19th century, Tijuana resembled the set of an old Western — a few houses, some wooden corrals, mud-caked roads and a customs hut to register the passage of caravans heading to the port at Ensenada.

The city came into its own only in the 1920s, thanks to Prohibition and laws outlawing gambling in the United States. Americans exported the vices they had banned at home to the new city emerging on this side of the border, which soon became a nerve center for the production of alcohol, from brandy to Mexicali beer.

Capital from the American underworld was largely responsible. American investors like Carl Withington opened saloons and broke ground for the construction of casinos like the Foreign Club, the Montecarlo and the Agua Caliente, which was built alongside the hot springs of the same name. And American tourists paid for the prostitutes, the boxing clubs and the opium.

Of course, the particular vices changed a bit during the 20th century, but the city kept on playing the same role for its northern neighbor. That is, until the 1990s, when everything began to change. This pressure started building from the south — 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. The Arellano brothers had moved here from Sinaloa in the ’80s, and other traffickers and assassins followed. It was like a tide shifting. Instead of an influx of visitors from the north, we had these smugglers from the south. And the tourists were scared away.

It had a devastating effect on Tijuana’s economy. The murders, kidnappings and decapitations reached a peak in 2008. Americans stopped coming, and those Tijuana families who could afford it moved to California, to San Diego or Bonita, to sleep in peace. Even local politicians and officials bought or rented houses elsewhere. Stores closed. Bars were boarded up.

But now Tijuana is recovering. The violence has begun to subside, thanks to the local police and the Mexican military, as well as the capture last January of Teodoro García Simental, an infamous drug lord known as El Teo. 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 symbolic old restaurant and hotel (where the famous salad was invented), just reopened, and one block over, rock and blues bands play at the music hall.

No, the tourists haven’t returned. It’s the locals, the people of Tijuana — who kept to themselves during the worst of the violence — reclaiming their territory.

“We have to change our image,” said Jaime Cháidez, a local journalist. “We can’t rely on tourism anymore. The city still stands, as noble as ever. It is surviving, growing, picking itself up.”

And for perhaps the first time in more than a century, the Tijuanans 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 here.

A few days ago, a statue of Rubén Vizcaíno Valencia, a writer, teacher and promoter of Mexican culture, was unveiled. 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.

Federico Campbell is the author of the short story collection “Tijuana: Stories on the Border.”


Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/17/opinion/17campbell.html