By Heriberto Yépez
Tijuana is an industrial park on the outskirts of Minneapolis. Tijuana is a colony of Tokyo. Tijuana is a Taiwanese sweatshop. Tijuana is a smudge beyond the linden trees of Hamburg... Taken together as one, Tijuana and San Diego form the most fascinating new city in the world, a city of world-class irony... Tijuana is here. It has arrived. Silent as a Trojan horse, inevitable as a flotilla of boat people, more confounding in its innocence, in its power of proclamation, than Spielberg's most pious vision of a flying saucer.
-Days of Obligation. An argument with my Mexican father, Richard Rodríguez,
Cities like Bogotá or Tijuana help me understand Beckett and Kafka. As an experimental writer the city I live in is my number one source of heterogeneous structures. But sometimes I wonder how this city became a Tijuana.
In 1809 a 54-year old Kumiai Indian man converted to Christianity. During the religious ceremony, the Indian told the priest the name of the ranchería he belonged to. This man lived on what is now the western Mexican border with Schwarzenegger's California. The Indian name of this place was "Llantijuan". But the priest inscribed his book, "Tía Juana".
Misunderstanding built Tijuana. What we can call—following Lezama Lima's notion—an erotica of errors, an errotica.
Maybe a neurotica.
Llantijuan, by the way, can mean two things: either "place close to the water" or "wasteland".
Contradiction built Tijuana.
Mis-translation and erasure of the Indian heritage constructed the first character in the life of the city, Tía Juana, Aunt Juana. Many kids and adults in Tijuana still believed she existed.
When the American and Mexican war ended, and Mexico was robbed of half its territory, a new border was born. At that time, what is now Tijuana was part of San Diego. The American government made a mistake. They didn't take Tijuana. The maps were wrong. This territory still is, by mere accident, part of Mexico.
But since the nineteenth century, Tijuana's urban development has been heavily dependent on the necessities of the United States. During the first half of the twentieth, the city grew in bars, liquor stores, cantinas, and casinos thanks to cheap fast tourism. (The average tourist takes a 3-4 hour trip into Tijuana). The starting point was the 1919 Volstead legislation that prohibited alcohol on the American side and made Tijuana a drinking city. But long before that, Tijuana had a reputation as a sin city. In 1888 an American journalist from The Nation wrote that Tijuana had more bars than buildings.
In the second half of the 20th Century, maquiladoras—assemblage plants— arrived, like UFOs transforming the urban landscape, pushing even more immigration into the city, helping it grow by the hour.
Space Invaders could define Tijuana. A city of anarchitecture. A city of self-deconstruction.
A good part of Tijuana has been built by immigrants or poor citizens that "invade" the hills, construct shack houses from rubber tires and every kind of material one can think of. Recycling built Tijuana. Tijuana redefined recycling.
People's cars are recycled from their old Californian owners. Tijuana survives thanks to the waste and second- or third- hand merchandise of the United States. Clothes. Computers. Dreams. Sometimes I think Tijuana, more than a city, is a Swap Meet.
Swap Meet urbanism.
Transsexuals and cross-dressers, by the way, are other feature of Tijuana nightlife. In avenida Revolución some strip joints have to paint in their walls "Real Women Here" and downtown Labs in their crystals "Papanicolao Test ONLY for women".
Tijuana is not Mexico" wrote Raymond Chandler in The Long Goodbye (1953). In 2004 a public art festival was called "Tijuana, Third Nation". Tijuana defines itself in contrast to Mexico City. Two cities who despise each other.
Tijuana is resentful of the Mexican federal government. Many people feel forgotten by the distant central power. But Tijuana also distrusts the gringos and doesn't like to be related to Chicanos. Tijuana is a border with a very strong sense of its own identity. Even though many here and outside are of the ironic opinion Tijuana has no identity at all.
Tijuana is Television Town. At one point 75% of all television sets in the world were assembled in Tijuana. Thousands of people worked in San Diego and live in Tijuana. Culture is mixing both ways. People in Tijuana have revolving door minds.
Tijuana is a cold yet family-oriented beach literally a few meters away from the American Patrol and American helicopters fly over a three-fenced bordertown. First world meets third world.
It's the asymmetry. Tijuana is all about asymmetry, stupid!
Tijuana has one million people or maybe three.
Carlos Santana learnt to play the guitar in Tijuana. Traffic wasn't liked too much in this town. Tijuana is obsessed with itself like New York or Buenos Aires. Tijuana is a control freak city yet a metropolis with no recognizable center. Tijuana is centrifugal.
Tijuana's downtown stinks of piss. Its city clock looks like the arch of McDonalds and its official architecture is pure simulacra. Before Baudrillard, there was Tijuana.
Tijuana invented the Caesar salad and Nortec electronic music, which uses norteño popular sounds. The Tijuana Bloggers Front is the most popular blog center in Mexico, it unites professional writers and local party animals. I am a member too. Tijuana has too many hopes to not be, at the end, totally nihilistic.
The Americans built Tijuana.
Poverty built Tijuana. Tijuana is all about economics. In the early nineties a young maquila worker —an "insignificant worker" according to the FBI profile on him— tired of his life of immigrant, wrote a 'book' on how to fix Mexico. He believed that he was the 20th Century version of an Aztec Eagle Warrior. In March 23, 1994 he went to the factory to work. Left early. Took a calafia—a modified American van which gives service to 20-30 people and is one of the distinctive public transportation systems in the city. He had a gun with him. He asked directions as to where get off the calafia in order to attend a political rally held at a poor neighborhood called Lomas Taurinas. He stepped into the crowd. Fired at Luis Donaldo Colosio, the presidential candidate from the Revolutionary Institutional Party —a contradiction in terms, by the way. Colosio died. Mario Aburto was captured. He killed the soon-to-be president because he needed to make a call to the Nation. When millions of plot theories arose around him, his personal story seemed like a Tijuana remake of Taxi Driver.
I am convinced—I have a soon to be published novel about him—Aburto was the product of the maquiladora culture. A worker that read too much, an autodidact writer, frustrated son of globalization, a maquila-crazy who went Nafta bananas.
Tijuana is all about remake, appropriation. Tijuana develops like a Kathy Acker novel in which a city takes an already written story —let's say the California Dream— and rewrites it, giving it the typical Tijuana twist.
Tijuana is Bart Sánchez Art.
Tijuana is satirical. Hates the tourist it welcomes. Bukowski knew it pretty well.
"he asked the bartender what day it was and the bartender said, 'Thursday,' so he had a couple of days. they didn't run until Saturday. Aleseo had to wait for the American crowds to suck over the border for their two days of madness after 5 days of hell. Tijuana took care of them. Tijuana took care of their money for them. but the Americans never knew how much the Mexicans hated them; the American money stupified them to fact, and they ran through TJ like they owned it, and every woman was a fuck and every cop was just some kind of character in a comic strip. but the Americans had forgotten that they'd won a few wars from Mexico, as American and Texans or whatever the hell else. to the Americans, that was just history in a book; to the Mexicans it was very real. it didn't feel well to be an American in a Mexican bar on a Thursday night. the Americans even ruined the bullfights; the Americans ruined everything."(Charles Bukowski, "The Stupid Christs")
Just yesterday, walking through the main tourist avenue, Avenida Revolución, two Asian-American women looking at some clothes were approached by the salesman who told one of them, "Chicken try it. And if you want, I can hara-kiri price". That's how Tijuana deconstructs.Plays with stereotypes from both countries. Tijuana's mascot is a burro painted with black and white stripes. His name is Zonkey.
Tijuana reinvented Mexico and is reinventing American culture as well.
America deconstructs America following Tijuana laws.
It is no accident the naughty grandfathers of Playboy were called, at the beginning of the 20th Century, Tijuana Bibles, those eight-pagers of Betty Boop and Popeye having sex.
Tijuana is built by the contradictory versions about Tijuana.
In 1997 the name of the city was registered by the city government in order to own its copyright and prevent the media, businessman and any one who wanted to use "Tijuana" as part of a title or in any kind of merchandise.
That legislation, of course, didn't work.
Tijuana is whatever anyone wants to say about him or her.
Dozens of writers have written about Tijuana.
Tijuana is almost an imaginary city. A series of different cities which have just a few things in common: maquilas, drug dealers, and 2000 immigrants waiting to illegally cross into the United States every day.
Tijuana has the biggest and most powerful drug cartel in Latin American. Bigger than the Colombian ones.
It is no accident Tijuana's unofficial saint is a soldier who in 1938 was imprisoned because he raped an 8-year old girl.
After being killed by the authorities to stop riots provoked by the angry mob asking for him, Juan Soldado was believed to be —by another segment of the population— innocent. A scapegoat. Miracles started to be attributed to him. Now this tomb is a center of thousands of believers who go to him to ask for miracles of recovering health, forgiveness from a wife angry because of your affair or—Juan Soldado's faithful favorite plea—asking for the green card, safe illegal crossing or American citizenship.
We hate to admit it but crime built Tijuana.
No accident—there is no accident in Tijuana— in 2004 Jorge Hank Rhon, the owner of the legendary Agua Caliente racetrack was elected major.
He is believed to be the intellectual author of the execution of the most famous journalist in Tijuana's history, el Hector "El Gato Félix" —"Felix The Cat"— and has been in prison for charges of smuggling.
Half of the voters, in a very close election, voted for him anyway.
Tijuana is always angry.
When in the late thirties, the Mexican President prohibited gambling in the country, many owners of casinos in Tijuana took their money and ideas and put them to work guess where...
Tijuana was almost Las Vegas.
But instead it became Tijuana.
Tijuana is known in many circles as a hybrid city.
I think postmodernism ruined a lot of things. One of them was the understanding of Tijuana. Tijuana is a lot more than hybridism. Tijuana is all about tensions. Disencounters. A city of farewell to Hegel. A city beyond synthesis.
There are many Tijuanas. Every one of them one half myth, one half temporally out of service. Tijuana is a nightmare of fun, a workaholic weekend.
City of serial housing and serial production, Internet rumors and collective taxis, weekly executions and success stories, ruthless drug dealers and thousands of prostitutes, homeless immigrants and Japanese executives, Mexican millionaires and autodidact killer-writers.
A city of futureless science fiction.
Heriberto Yépez is the author of several books. His novel El matasellos was published by Random House/Mondadori in México.