Tijuana’s Borderline Personality: A Review of Tijuana Dreaming

Reviewed in this essay: Tijuana Dreaming, edited by Josh Kun and Fiamma Montezemolo (Duke, 2012).

Tijuana-DreamingOver the last few decades, Tijuana has mutated more than any other city in Mexico. No longer the family-friendly day-trip it was in the 60s, and no longer the international art hotspot it was in the 90s, the city has in the last decade been generally seen as a model of uncontrolled violence, lawlessness and urban disintegration. After Operation Gatekeeper went into effect in 1994, and after the border became increasingly militarized post-9/11, “illegal” border crossings into the US rapidly decreased and the city’s population expanded exponentially with the millions of migrants from all over Mexico who were left stranded. Although fewer and fewer migrants cross the border these days, drug trafficking has continued to increased over the years, leaving in its wake serious social problems. TJ now ranks number one in drug abuse within Mexico and is one of the country’s murder capitals. Up until just a few years ago, TJ was the most-visited Mexican city, but due to ultra-violence it ceased to be a major tourist destination for gringos (300,000 daily border crossings long provided the city with a steady source of income).

Even with all these extreme urban problems, what the city most suffers from, as judged by an unstated consensus amongst many of the contributors in Tijuana Dreaming (edited by American Studies professor Josh Kun and anthropologist and artist Fiamma Montezemelo), is an image problem. In their introduction, “The Factory of Dreams,” the editors give a list of some of the most common descriptions of Tijuana: “not Mexico,” “the End of Latin America and the beginning of the American Dream,” “a Walled City,” and a “drug capital.” In “Tijuanlogies,” a history of the city, the author Heriberto Yépez complains: “Gringos, Mexicans, Spanish, it doesn’t matter who it is, Tijuana is a whore about whom you can say what ever you want.”

TJ’s bad reputation stretches back to the beginnings of the city, when casinos, racetracks, bars and brothels first began cropping up in order to supply Southern Californian gentry (especially Hollywood stars and producers) with a nearby pleasure destination during Prohibition. Almost one hundred years later, TJ still hasn’t been able to shake its reputation as Mexico’s “sin city.” The writer Rafa Saavedra, in his essay “Crossfader Playlist,” explains how “a quick Google search turns up 441,000 links in response to the query ‘Tijuana’s bad image’.”

It’s no surprise, then, that TJ has a huge chip on its shoulder, something that gives it more attitude than most cities and sets the tone for this book. To counter unflattering stereotypes, Tijuana Dreaming presents twenty-odd writers, academics and cultural figures who all take a crack at coming up with the definitive definition of the city, often doing so by deconstructing everyone else’s labels.

Hollywood B-flicks and pulp novels, along with the US porn industry, are in large part responsible for creating the earliest stereotypes and stigmas of TJ. US films from the 20s and 30s (such as A Day in Tijuana or Tell it to the Marines) overflow with nefarious nightclubs, violence, prostitution and drugs, while US porn films shot in TJ feature lesbians, underage girls, dogs (including a Mexican version of Rin Tin Tin) and even donkeys. Just as US gangsters set up most of the TJ casinos, speakeasies and whorehouses that gave the city its bad reputation stateside, the infamous Tijuana Bibles, 8-page porn comics from the 20s and 30s, with explicit images involving comic figures (Dagwood and Blondie, Archie, Popeye and Dick Tracy), were created by gringos and have absolutely nothing to do with the city.

Jennifer Insley-Pruitt, a corporate lawyer in the US, in her essay “Redefining Sodom: A Latter-Day Vision of Tijuana,” argues that, “In both fiction and nonfiction, Anglo-Americans describe crossing into Mexico as a kind of descent into hell […] an uncontrolled conduit through which the danger of the south penetrates and pollutes the safety and security of the north.” Writers have long cast TJ as Sodom and Gomorrah in order to gain attention and increase sales. Guillermo Fadanelli (a writer from Mexico City) contributes a piece entitled “The Song of Tijuana,” a first-person account of a short stay in TJ searching for sex and drugs with some literary and historical tidbits thrown in. Within the piece there are plenty of descriptions of TJ that could be lines out of an early Hollywood film noir portrayal of Mexico’s sin city: “Rundown hotels, tenements, houses converted into brothels, cabarets with ordinary names like Chabelas, Adelitas, and La Botana make up a raunchy catwalk of vice.” Yepez, who includes an excerpt of Fadanelli’s writing on TJ in his own piece, is aware of the tendency to trash the city for titillation: “We perform for a national and international public who are either gullible, our unconditional fans, or receiving some kind of personal gain for publicizing the strangeness of the Other […] All of us are no more than tour guides.” This holds true for Manu Chao’s mega-hit (“Welcome to Tijuana, tequila, sexo, marijuana”) which has become the anthem of all spring breakers and other libidinous tourists.

Within the book, several cultural and social workers berate writers, musicians and artists for succumbing to the easy temptation of exploiting the city’s exoticism and eroticism, but Yepez questions this moral correctness: “To tell them the truth, to tell them that we are like everyone else, to tell them that you are us, and we are you, to tell them that Tijuana looks like the mixtures of culture that you find wherever you live, that Tijuana is the sum of its projections, that Tijuana is whatever and nothing, would be cruel. How could we disappoint them?” In the end, it is precisely the sex, drugs and narco decapitations that put the city in the headlines, give artists and writers material to draw from, and offer writers possibilities in foreign media bent on capitalizing on sensationalism.

It is not only writers that cash in on TJ’s bad reputation and attempt to define life on the border. Academics have also long used the city as a playground for cultural theory. As Berumen points out: “For a large group of social researchers, writers, and anthropologists, Tijuana has been the paradigmatic symbol for explaining the phenomenon of deterritorialization of cultural and economic processes at this turn of the century.” This academic attraction to the city can be seen in the foreword to this book, written by Iain Chambers, a European academic who normally writes about borders in the Mediterranean world. Even though Chambers argues for “the unfolding complexities of contemporary Tijuana […] that cannot be reduced to a single version pretending universal validity,” by treating TJ as a border rather than a city, by cutting it off from the rest of Mexico and by using it as a display case for post-modern European theory, he only perpetuates misconceptions.

Tijuana’s role as a kind of theorist’s darling began in 1990 with the publication of Néstor García Canclini’s book Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity. In the book, Canclini states: “During the two periods in which I studied the intercultural conflicts at the Mexican side of the border, in Tijuana, in 1985 and 1988, it occurred to me at more than one time that this city is, along with New York, one of the greatest laboratories of postmodernity.” For García Canclini, Tijuana’s bilingualism, its mix of North/South and First/Third worlds, made it thoroughly “hybrid” and thus a poster-city for postmodernism. In an interview with Fiamma Montezemolo included in this collection, Néstor García Canclini reworks his earlier ideas of postmodernity, hybridity and transculturality in light of recent art exhibitions in TJ that serve to make his previous theoretical categories “less and less precise.”

Many of the artists Canclini refers to participated in the biannual InSite art exhibitions. InSite, like other international mega-exhibitions held in Tijuana over the past decade or so, invited artists and cultural figures from all over the Americas and beyond to come and try their luck at defining, depicting or intervening in life between San Diego and Tijuana. This artistic desire to bridge the border and to connect TJ to the First World art world, encouraged by curators and paid for by local government and private institutions, was seen by many as an attempt to upgrade the ranking of the city within the real estate, economic and tourist industries or, as Yépez sees it, “to invent a favorable image of Mexico’s cultural integration with the U.S.”

Even before NAFTA pried open the Mexican market for US goods and cultural exports, Tijuana had long been a testing ground for artistic crossovers. In “Counterculture, Rockers, Punks, New Romantics, and Mods in Tijuana,” Ejival, a writer, Dj and independent music producer in TJ, discusses the privileged status of the city in relation to the US music scene: “The main catalysts and influences were still radio stations from across the border, some of which, ironically, broadcast, as they still do, from Tijuana, using the city as a heaven-sent shelter from certain FCC laws and regulations in the United States.” “The sudden growth of fanzines, also in the late 1980s,” that, he explains, “went hand in hand with punk and New Wave in London, Madrid, Los Angeles, and New York, was another means to define and connect the scenes in different countries of the Spanish-speaking world.” Live music venues, such as Club Iguana, aimed mostly at Californian clubgoers, played an important role, as well. Located in a mall near the border and run by a San Diego music agent, the club headlined some of the best bands of the 1980s and early 1990s, including the Ramones, Misfits, Nirvana, Sonic Youth and electronic dance music, such as Deee-Lite, all of which had a lasting impact on the local TJ music scene.

Perhaps the essay that best reveals the intricacies of the cultural relationship between TJ and So Cal is the architect Teddy Cruz’s “Practices of Encroachment.” Cruz conducts an anthropologic walking tour between San Diego and TJ, analyzing the types of architectures, institutions, residences and businesses within thirty miles on each side of the border in order to illustrate the unequal development of the border’s urban space. Although the physical land is pretty much the same and although they are only few miles apart, San Diego boasts some of its country’s most expensive real estate while TJ is surrounded by sprawling shantytowns. While the millions of Mexicans migrating north is old news, the used architecture that migrates south occurs under the media radar. As Cruz points out, houses in San Diego and environs slated to be demolished are often bought whole and transported on trucks south of the border where they are mounted on top of one-story metal frames as if on exhibit (though in fact it is done as protection against flooding and mudslides). For those who can’t afford a whole house, even at demolition costs, bits and pieces of construction materials are brought down for homebuilders: “Garage doors are used to make walls (entire houses are made with garage doors as the main structural and exterior skin); rubber tires are cut and dismantled into folded loops, clipped and interlocked, creating a system that threads a stable retaining wall; wooden crates make the armature for other imported surfaces, such as recycled refrigerator doors, and so on.”

Just as TJ, teetering on the border between two radically different cultures, consumes products and cultural lifestyles from the US to feel thoroughly modern, so too does it import ancient constructions from central Mexico to reinforce its ties to the past. Jesse Lerner, a Californian filmmaker who works a lot in Mexico, explores the construction of Mexican-ness within Tijuana in his essay “Borderline Archaeology.” According to Lerner, local petroglyphs and cave paintings from the original inhabitants of the region “do not hold the same drawing power as do massive structures associated with stories about human sacrifices and ritual perforations of the flesh” of the central Mexican civilizations, from whence derive all the “thousands of plaster miniatures of the Aztec ‘calendar stone’ airbrushed in ‘inauthentic’ colors, the Chac Mol bookends and other kandy-colored tangerine-flake pre-Columbian tourist art that abound at the stalls peddling souvenirs” on the tourist strip of Avenida Revolución. As Lerner points out, an essential part of central Tijuana’s cityscape is the impressive building facades, nightclubs and several city monuments that boast an ersatz indigenous past, “architecture that has learned as much from Las Vegas as it has from the Maya.” When TJ dreams, it might fancy itself a US city but it tends to portray itself in ancient Aztec Technicolor.

Like the ancient Aztec sacrifices and bloodletting rituals, or the new narco Hollywood films shot in Mexico, Tijuana increasingly seems to serve as the set for ultra-violence. To capture the feel of the city, Josh Kun begins his essay “The Kidnapped City” with a gruesome image: “The finger arrived in the mail next to the gas bill and the grocery store coupons, bubble-wrapped in a sealed envelope with no return address.” Although crime and violence in Mexico is carried out almost entirely by Mexicans against Mexicans, it is the sniffing on the northern side of the border that gives rise to drug smuggling, the sales in US gun shops that are responsible for the body counts south of the border, and gringo sex tourism that led to underage prostitution and child porn in TJ.

While most media and cultural producers use local violence merely for its shock value, Kun points his (severed) finger north at the global economic actors when discussing the social ills that plague TJ, as the city is inevitably influenced by northern corporations heading south in search of profit. Border geography is destiny, and, as the saying goes, “Poor Mexico, so close to the USA and so far from God.” TJ, forced to live next door to the US, suffers its effects faster and more profoundly than perhaps anywhere else south of the border.

Like many cities in Mexico, the US and elsewhere, TJ has been converted into a consumer of other people’s culture. Much of what made it such a great city, that is, its traditional dance clubs, billiard halls, markets, restaurants and street food, have been overrun by giant malls, bowling alleys, Blockbusters, Walmarts and US fast-food chains. In the last year or two, the violence has abated (which is to say, crime in the city is once again organized) and recently the international media has even begun to tout TJ as a trendy new cultural destination. Although the editors of this collection strive to present “a city that is actively shaping its identity on the rocky ground between culture as global critique and culture as global capital, and between globalization’s perils and its tempting, taunting promises,” it is not so much a culture’s identity as it is a culture’s self-sufficiency and resistance that represent a dream worthy of such a great city.