South Of The Border

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This is culture shock. Walk over the bridge and across the border into Tijuana from the big parking lots south of San Diego and you step from Southern California into the Third World, from a spacious, prosperous green corner of the United States into a plaza jammed with people selling every imaginable kind of trinket and small children begging and peddling chewing gum. The half-mile walk from the plaza into downtown Tijuana takes you down streets lined with stalls offering tambourines, ceramic Mexican-hat ashtrays, hash pipes, gold rings, Tweety Bird garden sculptures, knives, handcuffs, ponchos, tortilla makers, and most anything else you don’t need but might for a split second want. Auto-repair shops sell Freon (illegal a half-mile north) and cheap bodywork; ultra-bargain drugstores sell over the counter what you’d need a prescription for back home; liquor stores tout inexpensive tequila and mezcal; tobacco stands offer Cuban cigars.

The history of Tijuana is a history of filling needs or desires for Americans that we haven’t wanted to fill for ourselves. This was true before the city was thrust into prominence by Prohibition, and it remains so today, when maquiladoras , factories along the border paying twice the usual Mexican wage and a fraction of the American one, have swollen the city with emigrants from all over the country and made it wealthier and thus far safer and more attractive than ever before.

Tijuana has always depended on tourism—they claim it’s the most visited city in the world—but it has never drawn tourists with its history, yet that history is all around, though usually in a purely commercial form—here at a once-celebrated racetrack, there at a legendary bar. You can find it both in town and in nearby seaside communities, especially at Rosarito Beach, built around a Depression-era grand hotel, and Ensenada, a hardworking Mexican fishing and seaport center just an hour beyond that.

Tijuana was a tiny, remote ranching village until the outcome of the Mexican War dropped the border next to it in 1848. In 1911 California banned gambling, and the town burst forth as an international playground for pleasures both newly and timelessly illicit. By the 1920s it was home to the world’s longest bar—550 feet from one end to the other and open around the clock—and in 1929 came the Hipódromo de Agua Caliente, which was soon the first track in North America to award a hundred thousand dollars to the winner of a single race.

The scene became so riotous that in the early 1930s Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas outlawed gambling and prostitution. That and the American repeal of Prohibition hit very hard, and the town languished until World War II, when jobs above the border opened up again. The wartime naval buildup in San Diego carried Tijuana to a peak—or nadir—as a pleasuring spot for sailors, giving it the unwholesome reputation that has burdened it ever since.

With the new maquiladora prosperity, the population, doubling every decade, has reached roughly two million. Much has been done to clean up both the city’s downtown streets and its image. The old illicit pleasures are doubtless there to be found if you seek them, but so are first-class shopping, fine dining, and all the other attractions of a relatively well-off foreign city.

If you arrive the way day visitors from the United States usually do, by walking over that bridge, continue your walk into town and you’ll soon arrive at Avenida Revolución (or La Revo), today, as eighty years ago, the tourist’s main street. Hawkers will urge you into their storefronts and into the bars that fill at night with noisy California youths (the drinking age is eighteen). Behind the storefronts you’ll find indoor warrens of shops selling not only all manner and quality of curios but also fine regional Mexican handicrafts and furniture.

At the corner of La Revo and Fifth Street, notice the old Caesar’s Hotel. Walk into its restaurant, with its stately old flutedcolumn bar, and you’ll be at the spot where the Caesar salad was invented, on the Fourth of July weekend, 1924, by the hotel’s founder, an Italian immigrant named Caesar Cardini. Back outside Caesar’s you’ll notice on almost every corner a donkey painted to look like a zebra. This is an old Tijuana staple. You’re supposed to climb on and have your picture taken. You’ll know you’re at the end of the downtown strip when you reach the jai alai fronton, a playful 1930s building part Moorish baroque and part Deco, with minaretlike spires and bright blue tilework.

A half-mile away the Zona Río neighborhood shows the newer face of Tijuana, with shopping centers, world-class hotels, and, among other things, the Centra Cultural de Tijuana, a new museum, theater, and Omnimax center designed partly to sell the culture of central Mexico to the local provincials. I went there hoping to find an introduction to local history, but the center’s Museum of the Californias, which will cover the past of the whole Baja region, was still under construction.