Monday, October 22, 2018


“Oh, you don’t want to go there. It’s dirty and it’s not safe,” says the older gentleman after we tell him we’ll be visiting Tijuana for a day. He isn’t the only one who insisted that the ice cream shops, souvenir stands, and restaurants of San Diego's Old Town provided more than enough entertainment—that crossing the border wasn’t necessary. Yet, Tijuana is what we are looking forward to the most on this trip. It’ll be the first time I get to use my passport, the first time I’ll venture outside of the United States of America.

- Fountain outside of the Jai Alai Palace Forum.

Tijuana and Mexico have a reputation. Depending on who you talk to, one that’s earned.  When we first arrived in San Diego, we made small talk with our Uber driver on the ride from the airport. He reluctantly told us that he actually hailed from Tijuana, his voice becoming softer when he uttered the words. When we told him our plans—that we couldn’t wait to go there—a big smile came across his face and he enthusiastically said “enjoy ‘TJ’” when dropping us off with a thumbs up.

In a way, I feel sympathy for the border city. Cincinnati’s socio-economic challenges are vastly different. My city isn’t targeted by politicians, nor is it a foreign land. But it has a reputation, and I  constantly have to defend my home to outsiders who write it off. So when the opportunity to visit Tijuana with someone who has a “deep interest in educating visitors about the real Mexico, its history, traditions, and culture” came up, I was all in on the idea of experiencing the place from someone with a local perspective.

- Avenida Revolución.

Laura found Ricardo’s tour as an Airbnb Experience. A few weeks later, we meet him at a Chula Vista Coffee Shop. He walks in while we page through tourist brochures. We hop in a minivan with our friend Kevin and three other travelers (two from New Jersey and one from Prague). Ricardo inquires about where we’re from, what we do for a living, what our understanding of Tijuana is, and what makes us interested in taking this trip. He leaves us with his lovely partner, co-tour guide and wife, Gilda, as he goes off in search of a parking spot near the San Ysidro Port of Entry. We won’t need the car, we’ll be crossing on foot.

San Ysidro is the world’s busiest land border crossing. In 2015, it was estimated that 33 million people entered the U.S. from this point. The flow of humanity goes both ways, though. People regularly commute to cross-national jobs and opportunities, sometimes daily. San Diego and Tijuana are historically and economically linked. 3.3 million people call the San Diego Metropolitan Statistical Area home. The number surges to nearly 5 million when you factor in Tijuana. The respective cities’ downtowns sit just 18.7 miles from each other.

An abbreviated history of the global-city region goes like this:

The native population lived here for thousands of years before the first European explorers arrived from Spain in 1535. Subsequent exploration parties and the pitfalls of colonialism brought about disease, war, attempts at pacification, and Catholicism. First it was the Jesuits, then it was the Franciscans followed by the Dominicans who built missions up and down the Pacific coast. 
Under the Spanish Empire’s viceroyalty of New Spain, San Diego—which was officially founded in 1796—and what would become Tijuana, existed within the province of Alta California. Mexico gained its independence from the Old World in 1821, but war with an ever-expanding U.S. ended in 1848, resulting in new borders as well as the Stars and Stripes flying over San Diego Bay. Tijuana and the Baja California peninsula remained with Mexico.  
Tijuana was officially founded as a city in 1889 and gained a reputation for American tourism early on. San Diego hosted the Panama-California Exposition of 1915, but Tijuana brought tourists to its side of the border with attractions centered around Mexican culture as well as sporting events such as boxing and bull fighting. As the U.S. moved to ban alcohol and established its period of Prohibition, Tijuana enthusiastically welcomed thirsty Americans to partake in libations. The city’s main drag, known as Avenida Revolución, quickly grew to accommodate casinos, bars, restaurants and more.
With vice tourism came a reputation, and the city attempted to shed its negative image. Gambling in Baja California was outlawed in 1935. 
The opening of the El Foro Antiguo Palacio Jai Alai—or “Jai Alai Palace,” as it came to be know—Introduced both Mexicans and Americans to one of the world’s most unique and fastest-paced sports. Crowds regularly filled the arena to watch athletes compete by using wicker scoops to hurl a ball at a wall. In a dumbed-down way, it can be described as “extreme racquetball.” 
Catering to tourists wasn’t the only economic force, though. The city’s proximity to the border made it a lucrative location for citizens of both nations over the years. American companies have long taken advantage of lower wages by placing their manufacturing facilities in Mexico. Many Americans and Mexicans commute between the economic centers. Medical care and prescription medicines—although now under evolving regulations and standards—have traditionally been cheaper in Tijuana and a draw for citizens of the States. 

Despite international lines and physical barriers, San Diego and Tijuana are firmly connected. In many ways, the relationship between these cities symbolizes the larger concept of U.S./Mexico relations. No matter the rhetoric coming from a certain ilk, the two nations are bound by more than simple proximity.

- A passerby pets a donkey painted as a zebra, known as a "Zonkey," on the Avenida Revolución.

For me, Tijuana isn’t’t just an excuse to escape the world I know. It’s a chance to glimpse into another place. I grew up hearing rhetoric from the more conservative end of the American political spectrum, and the Trump years have meant more of the same. Conversely, I’ve heard positive things about Mexico from other travelers. This is a chance to see a brief sliver of Mexico for myself. I smile like an idiot as a Mexican border officer stamps my virgin passport. We walk as a group out of the border facility, past an armed soldier. I am now out of The United States of America for the first time.

Ricardo fills us in on a small bit of the crossing’s history as we walk into the shade and onto the city’s streets. I do my best to listen, but my gaze wanders as I look at storefronts, a massive parking garage, and a taxi stand. I’m trying to soak in the most minute details of everything around me. In reality, the area we’re standing in isn’t much different than the pickup areas of so many airports, but I’m still basking in the notion of being in another country. Throngs of people more accustomed to the border crossing and international travel fly past me.

We hail a few Ubers and my group joins Gilda in the trailing vehicle. She fills us in on some of her experiences with Tijuana. She once held a job here and commuted from the States daily. One of her children attended kindergarten here, but he came to prefer American schools because he didn’t have to eat vegetables. She had truly enjoyed the time she had spent on this side, and she spoke fondly about those days.

We regroup on the Avenida Revolución in front of a sculpture depicting a Jai Alai player standing atop a globe. Behind him, the white columns and decorative details of the Jai Alai Palace Forum stand. We peer inside at the athletic hall turned concert venue while a passerby unsuccessfully attempts to sell us candy and gum. Beneath our feet is Tijuana’s Walk of Fame, a collection of star-shaped markers embedded into the sidewalk intended to mimic Hollywood’s iconic walking path. Most of the stars are for musicians, and the majority of those musicians were popular in Mexico but weren’t actually from Tijuana, to the dismay of many locals.

- Tijuana landscape.

We walk in the sun along the avenue, passing red pay phones and taking note of the traffic and the infrastructure for the city’s modern bus rapid transit network. I think of my time working in and studying the public transportation industry across the U.S. It’s ironic that in so-called developing nations, the mass transit options are often further ahead than many Midwestern cities, including my own.

Stopping into a coffee shop, Ricardo points out the art on the walls. Stylized portraits of modern U.S. presidents (a certain elected official is missing) hang in tandem with depictions of Mexican national leaders. There’s also a striking photograph: a soccer pitch split in half, erected on both sides of the border fence as kids ignore the barrier and play the game over the obstruction. We converse for a bit about the significance and implementation of borders and the image’s message: that the children on both sides—unaware of the political world—aren’t much different. Heading upstairs, diners enjoy a restaurant as we take in views of the street below and surrounding hillside backed by a horizon of mountains and houses.

On our way to the next stop, we glance at the tourist trappings that are geared toward people like us. Shop after shop offers synthetic culture tchochkies that highlight a prowess for consuming tequila. Ricardo points out that much like Cancun, these businesses represent the “Disneyland for adults” perception of Mexico.

- Avenida Revolución.

- Avenida Revolución.

We pass a donkey we can pose with for a price, painted black and white to look like a zebra. We decline the chance to be seen with the “zonkey,” a tourist attraction documented here since at least 1914. We’re filled in on Tijuana’s other donkey connotations when passing a closed and fire-damaged theatre. The legends of “Tijuana Donkey Shows” herald back to the city’s more vice-centric days. A time when one could allegedly watch as a man or woman engaged in sexual intercourse with one of the animals. The urban legend has been repeated for ages, but stories of the explicit show are mostly anecdotal. No one ever seems to have a firmly corroborated story, yet plenty of people tell tales of the depravity.

Passing a restaurant, Ricardo tells of one of Tijuana’s original and most famous dishes. Not traditionally seen as Mexican cuisine, the Caesar Salad was actually born here at Caesars in Tijuana. At the longest-running restaurant in the city, the story goes that Caesar Cardini, originally of Italy, was a restauranteur in Mexico and the U.S. Living in San Diego, but working in Tijuana to skirt prohibition, he found his establishment’s kitchen low on supplies during festivities in 1924. Making due with the ingredients available, he developed the original namesake salad within the hotel and restaurant that bore his first name. The salad is still found at the upscale establishment, running well after the creator passed away in 1956.

Continuing down the Avenida, past its souvenir shops and pharmacies, bolstered by Ricardo’s anecdotes, we duck into an arcade of the architectural sense. Murals line the walls as people take respite in the shade and saunter through. We pass artists hawking their creations, vintage record stores, sticker trading, and even a collection of once-produced-in-Cincinnati Kenner brand Star Wars action figures for sale.

- Arcade murals.

- Mamut Brewery Co.

We head down a hallway and up some stairs, finding ourselves in a craft brewery where the proliferation and appreciation of local alcohol is not solely limited to the borders of the U.S. Ricardo takes our orders, compensating for our group’s lack of fluent Spanish. I step out onto the balcony to look at the cityscape and snap some photographs, receiving subtle chuckles and eye rolls from other tourists who look like me, but have blended in better. A plate of nachos is delivered to our table with more jalapeños and heat than that of the typical stateside sports bar. We converse over a round of coffee porters.

- Ricardo.

Ricardo takes care to acknowledge everyone in the group, genuinely listening and curiously inquiring. Eventually we get to his story, how he hails from Mexicali and came to develop a passion for offering tours and sharing samples of Mexico. We transition into his research history and his study into the psychology of prison rehabilitation. He ends his statements with a smile as we resume sightseeing down the stairs and back into the arcade.

- Coffee Porter at the Mamut Brewery Co.

- Mamut Brewery Co.

- The Arcade.

Reunited back on the street, Ricardo negotiates to get our entire caravan on board one of the color coded, public taxis—an interesting form of public transportation where the air conditioning runs only as the vehicle moves. We eventually arrive at the Mercado Hildago, a large marketplace.

- Fixed route taxi.

- Mercado Hidalgo.

Our guides walk us through various peppers and produce, introducing us to their many friends manning the booths along the way. We taste the sweet and spicy combination of mango seasoned with chili powder and meet a man selling cactus. He offers us up sweet samples of what initially appeared to be an unappetizing vegetable. After demonstrating a proper pairing technique, he offers up his knife. Laura and another in our group grab hold of the blade and start slicing. Smiles and encouraging applause from our host substitutes for English. Throughout the crowded market and its narrow path, we wander. My camera and tourist appearance don’t seem to get as much notice here. People politely nod and go about their shopping as they swat away the occasional fly that has yet to fall victim to any of the traps among the walls.

- Mercado Hidalgo.

- Cactus samples at Mercado Hidalgo.

- Mercado Hidalgo.

Ricardo points out the piñatas for sale at one store. They’re currently out of their most popular model: a depiction of Donald Trump. At the next booth, we sample a dessert. Clearly familiar with the proprietors, Ricardo grabs the knife and starts serving us Coconut Milk Rolls—or “Cocada De Leche”—as the box reads. Despite being caught up in the experience and quick pace of our time so far, I still can’t get over my distaste for coconut.

- Boulevard Independencia.

To the streets once more, Ricardo and Gilda share more anecdotes, history, and points to see along our walk. We come upon the Boulevard Independencia. A flow of weaving motorcycles, taxis, and cars emblazoned with Mexican and American plates flow around the traffic circle surrounding a sleek monument that points skyward.

Arriving at the Centro Cultural Tijuana, we wade through a crowd celebrating Japanese anime with costumes, songs, and performances not unlike similar gatherings found at U.S. convention centers. We stroll past the complex’s iconic, globe-shaped IMAX theatre and into the museum. Ricardo gives us the quick tour as a few security guards chime in along the way. We read stories of the indigenous people and see models of the missions that eventually grew into major cities. Eventually, we arrive at the history of Modern Mexico: The War of Independence, Santa Anna’s actions that lead to civil war, the relationship with Texas, the Mexican-American War, the occupation by France, the Mexican Revolution, and the rise (then fall) of elected officials leading up to contemporary times.

- Centro Cultural Tijuana.

Weapons, portraits, and cultural artifacts line the walls as Ricardo informs us of the significance behind the nation’s flag. The green stripe represents the independence movement, the red stands for the blood shed on behalf of the nation, and the white symbolizes the purity of the Catholic faith. In the center, the nation’s Coat of Arms: a Mexican Golden Eagle perched on a pear cactus, devouring a snake. The symbol traces its inspiration back to the Aztec people and the founding of their empire’s capital, Tenochtitlan. In religious lore, the Aztec gods guided the people by instructing them to seek out an eagle devouring a snake atop a pear cactus. When they came upon that scene, that would be their new city. Tenochtitlan was located at what is now the center of Mexico City.

Back through the festival outside, we call for Ubers that can deliver us to dinner. We find ourselves at the Telefónica Gastro Park where Ricardo points out the establishment’s billboard looming over the entrance. There, a caricature of Donald Trump angrily clutches a taco next to the words “FOOD HAS NO WALLS.”

- Telefónica Gastro Market. The billboard in the background reads: "food has no walls."

The park has garnered both regional and international press since its debut in 2014. On a Saturday evening, the crowds have filled in. We walk past a central core of seating surrounded by food trucks, many of which have their grills placed right next to their counters. The evening sun cuts down into the park and through the haze of cooking as Ricardo tries to give a brief overview of what each business offers. Inside a nearby building, he introduces us to the craft brewery before releasing us to forage.

Everyone goes their separate directions and I wander about making photographs. Trying to decide what to eat, I weigh my options between things that look interesting or things that looks familiar. Ricardo finds me looking confused before helping me order Asada A La Plancha and grilled vegetables that go from camera subject to palatable desire. I hand over a few dollars and get pesos in return. Thirsty, I search for beer inside. Struggling with the little Spanish I know, the bartender is patient and kind, doing his best to help me over the noise of the crowd watching soccer on television. I settle on an IPA and hand over my pesos.

- Grilled vegetables at the Telefónica Gastro Park.

- Asada A La Plancha and generous beer at the Telefónica Gastro Park.

Our group is gathered around a table while a parade of dishes arrive from the various eateries outside. The grilled vegetables taste incredible, but the Asada A La Plancha—steak and complementing items wrapped in a thin tortilla—takes the day alongside french fries. I smother the dish with hot sauce from the tiny plastic cup as Ricardo quizzically looks over.

“That’s going to be really hot, you know,” he says as a smile comes across his face.

He’s right. I’ve misjudged the condiment in a way only someone more accustomed to the fast-casual trappings of American “Tex-Mex” can. While the heat is uncomfortable, the food is too damn good. I keep pushing forward with my meal while sweat pours out of my forehead. I swig down the last of my beer in an effort to try and combat the waterfall of perspiration. Ricardo laughs and shares a communal cerveza with me. He leads us in conversation about the day, our experience, and our impressions. Food keeps coming back to the forefront as everyone boasts about what they’re eating and passes around to share. Seeking some relief from the cramped quarters, I wander around to take things in from the park’s elevated seating area. I watch the sun set across the city’s hillside dotted with a large Mexican flag fluttering in the wind.

- Tijuana landscape.

- OXXO convenience store.

The day coming to a close and we call for a ride one last time. I roll down the window and snap as many photographs as I can before we’re done. Ricardo points out the mariachi bands awaiting hire on the street. They stand ready for what will be a busy night along the Avenida Revolución where more tourists flood the streets as we wait in traffic.

- Mariachi band members waiting for hire along the Avenida Revolución.

I notice our initially quiet driver has a baseball game pulled up on a separate phone, one not occupied by his Uber directions. Ricardo translates as I inquire about the game. At long stoplights, the driver explains his love for Toros de Tijuana, the local baseball club. We inch forward a few blocks and stop again. Now the driver is showing us photographs of him attending games with his children. Another run of blocks and he’s showing off his cap and videos of the team’s fireworks celebrations that preceded games. As he drops us off near the border, I garner up the courage to use Spanish without hesitation.

“Vamos Toros!” I say to him as I get out of the car and he repeats the phrase to me with his fist in the air.

- Mexican flag flying in Tijuana.

Ricardo and Gilda lead us back up the stairs and along the pathway to the crossing. Normally crowded, things are mellow on a Saturday evening. We take our time walking among the passersby who roll luggage and hold the hands of children. Looking South towards the Tijuana River, I see the Mexican flag still swaying with the wind as the last bits of light begin to fall across the city. Amongst the graffitied walls that guide the river water, I watch a few people walk aimlessly, rummaging through rubbish in a way I’ve been fortunate enough to know only as an observer.

Things begin to feel somber, for this day, this experience, and this trip are now ending. Down a circular ramp, we pass a sculpture of four letters: “TJTQ” for "Tijuana Te Quiero," or, “Tijuana, I love you.” At the border office, we’re whisked by with little questioning as others stand waiting. Conspicuously placed portraits of the President and Vice President bring us back to reality as we exit the facility.

We make small talk with Gilda before exchanging hugs, thank you’s, and goodbyes. Back in the minivan, Ricardo delivers us to the coffee shop where the day began. We chat for a bit, he thanks us for coming, and we thank him for giving us a fantastic experience.

“Now you’ve seen the real Mexico,” he says. “You must come back!”

Once again, he's right.

- Crossing the border at San Ysidro back into the United States.

In the ensuing days—after sharing photographs on social media—friends and acquaintances chime in with their own recommendations. Some share sentiments that mirror the one encountered at this story’s beginning.  I’m not an expert on international travel, nor on Mexico or Tijuana. I barely scratched the surface with a guided, half day spent there. Yet, I came away with nothing but appreciation for the place I had just been. Throughout my entire life, Mexico has often been used as a scapegoat. First, it was about jobs, then it was about rallying militias to “defend” the border, and today it’s the nation that’s “definitely” going to pay for “the wall.” Tijuana itself—both when I told people we planned to visit and that we had visited—still elicits the occasional reaction of confusion. Why would/did we possibly want to go there? Although brief and curated, it was refreshing to see things for myself. To form my own opinion. One based in at least some substance. There’s a reality that must be checked, a context greater than the brief sliver I saw, but I wouldn’t hesitate at all to go back, to learn more, and to dive deeper. 

In terms of political ideology: I never have been, nor will I ever be, someone who clamors for the unrealistic notion of “Trump’s Wall.” While certain sentiments expressed and sights recounted in this text may be frustrating to some (assuming they’ve even made it this far), the reality of our current political situation and its effects on the reputation of our nation abroad can’t be ignored. I’ve spent a lot of time traversing the Midwest to places large and small. I saw traits in Tijuana that I’ve also found in places ranging from Toledo, to Milwaukee, and even my home of Cincinnati. There was the same kitschy, touristy crap you’d find on the streets of Gatlinburg, Tennessee and the same kind of hospitality I’ve found in Georgia.  At the same time, there were flairs of a unique culture and things that symbolized just how greatly Mexico can differ from the United States. Tijuana left me wanting more. To not simply just see more of just that city or Mexico, but to travel further and experience more outside of my home nation. No matter current political trends or ideologies, the populations of Tijuana and San Diego are linked on numerous wavelengths, much like the nations they each hail from. They’ll continue to be. And I want nothing more than to keep learning about that.

Ricardo, Gilda, and Laura - thank you. 

You can book Ricardo's tour via Airbnb