Searching for the Real Tijuana

Last week, I did something that terrified me. I packed a bag and walked over the border into Mexico.

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Aerial image of Tijuana. Source: Wikipedia.

The No-Go Zone

As long as I can remember, northern Mexico has been a no-go zone; the domain of drug cartels, murderers, corrupt cops, and fugitives. The city of Tijuana has a reputation, not just as a place where the laws are a little loose, but as one of the most dangerous places in North America. In 2017, more than 1700 people were murdered in Tijuana. Most of these murders are related to the drug trade and the battle for control between cartels in the city’s poor areas.

Despite the violence, Tijuana maintains vibrant business districts and booming factories. While the body count in the drug trade spikes, other crimes like kidnapping and extortion that once plagued the middle and upper classes have fallen off. New businesses and high-end eateries are opening around the city and there is new vibrancy in old downtown. Something is happening in Tijuana.

I get on a bus to downtown San Diego. Here, I meet up with four like-minded travelers (American, Australian, and Danish) and our guide, Andres from Tijuana Walking Tour. He’s an American who’s lived in Tijuana most of his life. There aren’t many tours in Tijuana and there aren’t many guides. But those who exist, like Andres, will tell you they do this because they want to show you “the real Tijuana”, not the city you see in the news.

We board the trolley, San Diego’s light rail system. Like the city itself, San Diego’s rail network sprawls to the international border. All of us are nervous. What would we find in Tijuana?

Crossing the Border

The trolley pulls into San Ysidro station. We depart and change our money. The border is under extensive renovation, but these are not the Donald Trump fortifications. They are adding infrastructure, expanding, streamlining, and beautifying on both sides. Construction workers and machines are everywhere. It’s a 625-million-dollar bi-national project that began in 2011, currently in its third phase.

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The pedestrian border crossing between San Diego and Tijuana is part of a $625 million dollar border crossing improvement.

Andres explains that many people in this part of the world are both Tijuanese and San Diegan. They have family, responsibilities, and priorities on both sides of the border. Andres himself commutes into San Diego almost every day, either to attend school or pick up tourists. “You have something like this on the Canadian border, don’t you?” he asks me. It’s true. Qualifying Americans can live and work in Canada, and qualifying Canadians can live and work in the United States, all without visas. Some people even live in one country and work in the other. It’s a special privilege made possible by the North American Free Trade Agreement.

There are two line-ups into Mexico: one for Mexican nationals and another for non-Mexicans. Mexicans flow through by the hundreds. Many, like Andres, are frequent travelers who carry special cards allowing for expedited crossings. In our line for foreigners, there are only the five of us.

I approach the customs officer, an attractive woman in her twenties. This is not the last time today that I’ll find myself stricken by a Mexican woman’s beauty. She seems to roll her eyes as she puts down her smartphone. I feel like I’ve intruded. Am I another American looking for cheap beer and pharmaceuticals? Maybe I’m headed to Zona Norte, Tijuana’s red light district? I hand her my passport. Canadian. She eyes me with new interest. Canadians fly to Mexico. They don’t walk. “Quítense sus lentes y su gorra,” she says. I was still wearing my hat and sunglasses. “Lo siento,” I apologize. My Spanish isn’t very good, but if you speak slowly and make the appropriate hand gestures, I can muddle through.

She studies me, my passport, and my photo, then writes out a visa by hand. She says nothing more before sending me on my way. I put my bag through the scanner, walk past a Mexican soldier with a very large gun, and go outside. I’m in Mexico, where I pass some other men with guns. Are they soldiers? Federales? I can’t tell. They’re not uniformed. They say nothing to us — they don’t need to — their presence encourages us to distance ourselves from the wall.

You Won’t Find These Things in Tijuana

“Does it look different?” Andres asks us. In some ways it is different. In other ways it just looks like working-class places in San Diego. ‘More raw’ is the best way I can describe it. Andres explains that Mexico is a surreal and sometimes absurd place, but he encourages us to let go of our preexisting notions of masked wrestlers and Aztec ruins. “You won’t find these things in Tijuana,” he says.

We follow a bridge over a road that will become California’s I-5 freeway. Now we need to cross a road. “In Mexico, we cross with our instincts!” Andres proclaims. He’s not joking. “Just find a place where you’re comfortable and go. But don’t dawdle. People will stop for you, but cross quickly and repay them by not wasting their time.”

We cross and cross again. We need to catch a bus that’s more like a van. “Jefe!” Andres calls out to the driver so he doesn’t pull away. They prefer pesos but they’ll take an American dollar bill if you don’t have change. The Mexicans pay us little heed. They don’t look at us or speak to each other. These commuters would fit in well in London, actually. The bus is full, so we stand. The drive is… exhilarating. When we get off near the Cecut Centro Hispanoamericano, my arm hurts from holding on so tightly.

We start walking. In my mind, there have always been two Mexicos. The first is resorts and gated communities. The second is abject poverty. So far, I see neither. Just a lot of businesses that wouldn’t seem out of place in the working-class neighborhood where I grew up.

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Mercado Hidalgo contains more candy than I had ever seen in once place.

We stroll along Francisco Javier Mina until we reach Mercado Hidalgo, an airy and bustling market. There are myriad stalls sporting produce, candy, piñatas, spices, cheese, and toys. I’m very quiet as I take it all in. We stumble into a wasp nest built into a bucket of candy, passing through the cloud of agitated insects without incident. The shop owner is unrepentant about the wasps. They’re a fixture of his produce. Part of the experience. As we move from shop to shop, I dodge piñatas and decorations that hang from the ceiling in every direction. I’m not sure if I’m taller than all the Mexicans or if they’re just more tolerant of using the third dimension for storage.

“What do you think?” Andres asks. What’s captivated me so far are the aromas. Everything in Mexico smells. Not better or worse than anywhere else, just… more. More than California. Especially more than Canada.

The parking lot is full of cars, trucks, and SUVs. I see everything from old trucks to new high-end SUVs. These vehicles seem to belong to that middle class I didn’t think existed in Mexico.

Andres leaves us to explore on our own. When we’re done, he meets us in a sheltered area at the center of the market, where we hide from the sun.

We Were Advised to Bring Our Appetites

More than anything else, this market is full of candy. There is more candy here than I’ve ever seen in one place before.

“Mexico has a serious problem with obesity. We’re one of the fattest countries in the world,” Andres explains, popping some tamarind into his mouth before pulling out a box of Marzipan. “But what can I say? We like our candies,” he smirks, before distributing some. Two nearby children look on eagerly as we eat. Andres offers them marzipan. “Maybe just one to share,” their mom requests, Andres’ lecture on obesity still fresh in our minds.

Our next stop is for tacos. We were advised to bring our appetites. Naturally, everyone is excited. We pass a taqueria. Andres says it’s not bad, but it isn’t where we’re going. “Andres, where do you go for tacos when you’re in San Diego?” one of my companions inquires. Andres smiles devilishly. “I don’t eat tacos in San Diego.”

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Pleased with her bounty.

We cross the road with our instincts again. A moment later, we arrive at Taqueria Franc on Rodolfo Sanchez Taboada Boulevard. It’s busy with locals. Overflowing, in fact. Men are cutting vegetables, slicing meat from a spit, and building tacos al pastor. This style of cooking meat was introduced to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants who arrived in the 1800s. The aroma is incredible. Down the street, men are listening to loud music around a speaker. Moms with children pull up for take-out on their way home. A policeman arrives to eat on his break.

We sit at a table on the sidewalk. El Jefe brings us cucumbers, radishes, limes, and salt. I sit and observe the concrete buildings rising up around us. Tijuana is experiencing a boom in the construction of medium-density offices and real-estate.

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Hola. If you have any questions, you should speak to El Jefe. I’m just here to look guapa.

The tacos come on little plates, amusingly lined with McChicken wrappers. The food does not disappoint. Andres advises everyone to quit while they’re ahead. “While you might be able to eat four tacos, you’ll find yourself uncomfortably full. Two or three should be good.”

A busker arrives with his dog and plays guitar outside the eatery. The dog climbs into the colorful bag slung over the guitarist’s shoulder. After paying for our dinner, we move on, passing a break dancer collecting donations from cars waiting at a busy intersection. We cross the road with our instincts again, ward off the invitations of some of the Libre Taxis that serve the city, and catch a bus that costs twenty pesos. We pass a very American-looking Costco and shortly reach Tijuana’s old downtown, Zona Centro.

The Building Blocks of a Society

We visit the Catedral de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe en Tijuana, the main Catholic cathedral in the area. Mexican society is predominantly Catholic and Tijuana is no exception. The cathedral is not large by the standards of most cathedrals I’ve been to, but locals patronize it actively. “When you go to Europe, you see Cathedrals that are hundreds of years old,” Andres tells us. “We don’t have those in Tijuana. This became a Cathedral in 1964.”

What’s interesting about Tijuana to me is the way it’s slowly building a cultural identity. It’s too young to draw on shared history the way old world cities can, and you can’t build a society on a reputation for being a place where the law is a bit loose. There’s something else at the root of Tijuana’s shifting identity. Shortly, I would begin to understand.

While Avenida Revolucion is distinctive, the many streets around it start to look the same to me after a while. There are high-end shops with clothing, footwear, and electronics, staffed by good-looking and well-dressed young people. They seem to cater to tourists more than locals. Many of these places are presently empty. More than anything else, Tijuana has pharmacies. Every block has a pharmacy, each one tidy and clean. When I ask about them, Andres explains that it’s a profitable business. “Imagine you’re an American who can’t afford a prescription. What do you do? Where do you go?”

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The Hotel Caesar in downtown Tijuana is the birthplace of the Caesar salad. Italian immigrant Caesar Cardini created the salad in 1924 during a rush that left his kitchen supplies depleted.

We patronize a few interesting shops off the beaten path, and Andres brings us to a small mall with an entrance I wouldn’t be able to locate again. “I wanted to bring you guys here,” he explains. “This is a very special place to me.” It’s hard to say why. Almost everything here is closed or boarded up.

Andres uses the word “rebuilding” frequently. He talks about his society almost as if it’s in a post-war state. Indeed, there’s a whiff of Berlin in Tijuana. It’s grungy, but sophisticated in its own way. It’s apparent that the city has changed in the wake of the Tijuana cartel’s breakup. These changes, of course, have come at great cost. Tijuana’s unprecedented murder rate stems from the power vacuum left in its underworld. The fuel of it all are los ninis, a class of young people who neither work nor study. Many of them accept payment in return for being the cartels’ local thugs and combatants. Idle young people is not a uniquely Mexican problem, but the failures of education in Mexico are made more potent by widespread income inequality and the ‘alternative’ employment opportunities afforded by America’s appetite for illicit drugs.

We learn that the mall we’re in was once a vibrant place. It’s situated in a location that guards both the pedestrian and vehicular routes to the border. Whoever controlled this area controlled the flow of drugs into California. The cartels met here and there were bloody consequences. Patrons and businesses fled, never to return.

“Shall we go down?” Andres proposes. Most of the mall is actually underground. Down there, you’re never far from some steps up to the street, and the roof is somewhat open, but it’s remarkably peaceful. You can’t hear the noise of the city or the honking car horns just a few feet above. There’s only the cool breeze funneled under the makeshift roof.

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An empowered generation of youth with optimism for the future drives Tijuana’s transformation.

New businesses have begun to enter the formerly empty spaces here. Most of these are small mom-and-pop operations. Boutique fashion stores and coffee shops draw a small number of customers. There’s a bar with just a few stools, a TV, and a few tables out in the mall. Two clean-cut men sit there, talking and enjoying a beer. Teenagers are nearby, laughing, using their smartphones, and doing the things teenagers do.

This seems like the kind of place where dreamers might try to build their legacy. Indeed, Tijuana has always been a sort-of new world for Mexicans. Disenfranchised people throughout the country thought they might build a better life here for themselves. Some of them were right. Others were wrong, and paid with their lives. I understand why this place is so special to Andres. To him, I think it represents both the biggest failures and the biggest successes of the place he calls home. “I want to open a hostel here,” Andres declares. He points to the corner. “Right there. What do you think?”

We’ve almost walked through the whole mall, then Andres stops. “That’s odd,” he says, looking at a storefront. “That place wasn’t there last week.” We investigate. The lady working there explains that it’s her first day in business and we’re her first customers. It’s a tiny shop full of vintage and vegan-friendly collectibles. All of her products are hand-made by locals. All, that is, except the original Nintendo for sale. She hands me her card, and says, in perfect English, “Tell your friends! We’re on Facebook and Instagram.”

When we come up to street-level again, we cross a donkey who’s been painted to look like a Zebra. His handler tries to sell us on taking a picture. Andres laughs it off. “See what I mean about Mexico? Surreal.”

You Have to Interpret the Symbols

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The delicate papers above Santiago Argüello symbolize the fragility of life.

The sun starts to set while we wander through the pedestrian street Santiago Argüello, toward the Tijuana Arch. Above us, hundreds of beautifully-colored papers flap on wires in the breeze. Andres says these papers are purposely delicate and easily rip. It symbolizes the fragility of life, just like the arch towering above symbolizes the link between Tijuana and San Diego. Everything in Tijuana is symbolism. If you want to understand the real Tijuana, you have to interpret the symbols.

But what is this “real Tijuana”? Is it the vibrant center of the city with high-end restaurants and hotels? Is it the hole-in-the-wall shops and eateries where ordinary people are trying to build their future in business? Is it the dozens of graves dug each week for murdered residents? Is it street battles between gangsters and Federales? Is it the place that both is, and isn’t, San Diego, depending on who you ask? Is it California, Mexico, or something all of its own?

The Tijuanese eschew writing for imagery. Murals are everywhere: from the fence that separates Tijuana’s Playas district from the United States, to the walls lining boulevards, to the self-reflective art at the Instituto Municipal de Arte y Cultura, where the artist painstakingly depicts the arrival of a migrant family looking on at America but remembering their Mexican heritage. Nowhere is Tijuana’s symbolism more pronounced than in its murals.

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The mural in Tijuana’s History Museum depicts the growth and change of Tijuana since the 1800s.

It’s hard to deny there’s a sense in the city that they’ve thrown off a set of shackles, yet it seems to me that they’ve traded one scourge for another, watching suffering ensnare the poorest echelons of society. But that’s the same story as every city. It’s why London’s east side was historically its poor side: the wind blew the factory pollution east.

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“Here begins our homeland”.

It’s dark now. Our final stop is Mamut Brewery. They have a bar above the street where they serve their craft beer and house-made food. I notice, once again, that there are only locals here. Andres explains this is a trend he’s noticed in the city. When you walk the streets, you see fewer Americans, and more Tijuanese. It’s part of the transformation — the “rebuilding” as Andres puts it. Tijuana isn’t just a place to visit and load up on cheap loot. It’s also a place where people live.

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I order a pint of Mamut’s oatmeal stout. I don’t really drink, but it’s good. Like its food, Tijuana’s craft beer is at the core of its transformation. Andres teaches us to play Loteria while the group drinks and devours a plate of nachos. “Loteria!” I exclaim. I’ve won the first round on the el diablito card. Time stands still for me here. I’m in Mexico, I’m drinking a cold beer, I’m playing games with people who crossed oceans to see what I came to see. Perhaps most importantly, each of us conquered our fear today. Even if the real Tijuana is a conversation that continues to unfold, no one can say we haven’t played some small part in that conversation.

We get one last bus, which takes us to the border. Andres says the things that slow Mexico down are also the things that make Mexico. “I wouldn’t change anything,” he says, but quickly corrects himself. “Well… I might change a few things.” No society is perfect, but Mexico has a few issues that are hard to overlook.

No Ingles

At this time of night, there’s no wait for pedestrians at the American border. The approach is lined with beggars. Women hold out cups to collect any spare pesos you might have before you depart. Andres leaves us at the border, his duties complete. He has class in San Diego in the morning, so he’ll be back here soon.

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The San Ysidro Port of Entry, viewed from Tijuana. Handling nearly 100,000 northbound travelers every day, this is one of the busiest land border crossings in the world.

Federales inspect our documentation near the border. I have a certain respect for these men. Despite widespread corruption in Mexico’s municipal police, the federal police are not known to have suffered serious incidents of corruption since their last reorganization. They believe in the future of their country like Andres believes in it. 4500 federales have thus far held their principles in higher regard than their lives as they died fighting against cartels in a war that has entered its 12th year. More will die before the war is done.

I continue to the American customs officer and present my passport. Few things are more powerful than a Canadian passport. Mine affords me the ability to move from country to country with unbelievable ease. Traveling with me are a Dane and two Australians. These are modern, wealthy nations, but even these people face questioning and visa checks.

Now back in San Diego, we board the trolley as it pulls into San Ysidro station. One of my travel companions looks at a young man in the seat next to the door. He sits alone, staring straight ahead. “Is this train going downtown?” She asks him. He shakes his head and smiles, “No Ingles.”

It’s almost midnight now. I try not to nod off as the city lights pass by. I can still see Tijuana on the hills around the city, but I can’t tell which lights are San Diego’s and which are Tijuana’s.

More Information

If you would like to visit Tijuana, do your research, take all proper precautions, tell someone where you’re going, and obey the law. I chose to travel with Tijuana Walking Tour and enjoyed my experience. This is not an endorsement of their service, nor have I received compensation from them.

I design experiences with content and applications.

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