I’ve already suggested the Border Tour on the American side by Mike Harris and the Maquiladoras Tour by Enrique Davalos. Here’s another small business that offers a wide variety of Tijuana fun: Turista Libre.
When I went, owner Derrick Chen was on holiday. Instead, his assistant Alex gave me a private 4-hour tour through the city. For me, this was even better because Alex is a native of Tijuana who grew up going back and forth across the border.
Alex gave me an incredible glimpse into the Mexican side of border culture. Here’s what I mean:
Turns out, Alex studied social work and psychology in college, so he planned to take me through the many differing socio-economic levels of the city on our tour. He had an interesting take:
“It’s way easier to lose your home and become homeless in the U.S. than it is here. One of the reasons for that is, even though we have all these kinda shady slums and makeshift houses, the property is theirs, so no one can really kick you out.
“Compared to the U.S. where a lot of the working poor, low income class, they rent, so if you miss two or three payments, you’re basically evicted. Now you are out in the streets and you need to go on welfare and all these services. People in the U.S. tend to be more individualistic in my experience, so there’s less of a safety net within your family or friends to keep you from falling under the cracks.
“Here in Mexico, again my experience is there’s more of a social cohesiveness, especially within family where you may be poor, but you have a bunch of family and extended family that can help you out and will at least keep you as stable as they can. You see a lot of people coming together, a lot of people living under the same roof, paying for services together.”
Poor Colonias (Neighborhoods)
Alex first took us to La Mona, which you’ll notice has been painted many colors since I last saw it during my Maquiladoras tour. Perhaps you’ll remember from that tour that La Mona was built by Armando Munow Garcia in 1990 in Colonia Libertad, a neighborhood also known as the “illegal immigrants last stop” before crossing the border.
From there, Alex drove us to another somewhat ramshackle neighborhood, which erected an impressive church called San Martin De Porres. The stain glass on the facade looked majestic and when I strolled across the way to the second parish behind this church, I found a rather shocking stain glass depicting Amerindians as slaves being blessed by a Catholic priest.
Turning around, though, I saw the Cristo de los Alamos statue, so called because the statue is in the neighborhood of Alamos. It’s 23 meters (Rio De Janiero’s version is 30 meters taller) and weighs 9 tons. It’s made of fiberglass, plaster and resin and was designed by Father Antonio Mata Villegas, from Michoacan, and then constructed by artist Virginio Ramirez. The project began in 1997 and was finished in 2000.
The view from the church was stunning and yet, the homes around seemed to show that people were scraping by.
Looking around at the low-income neighborhood here, I asked:
46% shop for clothes and Alex explained that since there are large corporations in the U.S. and outlet stores, it’s cheaper. In Mexico business owners have to pay fees to sell the same clothing because of trade regulations.
Since Tijuana residents live so close to the border, most are able to get a special type of visa. If they can prove financial stability and family ties that show they will return to Tijuana, they are eligible for the visa. Most Tijuana residents qualify.
Casa de las Ideas
Our last stop to a poorer neighborhood also boasted an award winning building Casa de las Ideas.
This poor area once had a canal filled with trash. No parks or aesthetically pleasing buildings existed. Then, one of the local food vendors decided that through community action he was going to demand a park.
An entire strip of land became devoted to bringing the community together to build a soccer field, a skate park and Casa de las Ideas that hosts classes for photography, radio, film, literature and more. It was built around 2010.
One block further, a modern designed Integral Family Development building teaches trades to local residents, including how to make guitars and violins. They also hold classes for kids in computer technology, martial arts, music and dance as a way to promote a shift in mentality about what they can be when they grow up.
Turista Libre does their part as well, having brought a group of German tourists to do a large clean up of the canal.
Broken Windows Theory
Alex explained that he believes part of the solution to poverty on both sides of the border is the “broken windows theory.” If you are able to police and control the small things, like keeping streets clean, having people enforce the traffic signals, or having people pay their bus fares — when you do these little things, it’s less likely that they’ll do worse things or commit higher crimes.
If a person likes clean streets and feels safe within his community, it’s also less likely that he will let his neighbor do bad things because he’ll want that neighbor to keep the neighborhood clean and safe.
If, on the other hand, residents can throw trash on their streets, then they can also break a window of a car and then break into a home to steal money. The problems in such a neighborhood continue to escalate.
Middle Class Tijuana
The center of Tijuana is located around Agua Caliente, which once was a famous race track, but today is a casino owned by the famed Mexican-German Jorge Hank Ron.
Alex grew up near Agua Caliente and he said that he lived in a bubble where it was mostly middle class. He never thought about the poor, but assumed everyone was the same.
A turning point happened for him when his mother began working in a public school and she brought him along as a teacher’s aide. He was dressed in what he believed was normal. They had an assembly and the principal started talking to the kids saying they needed to bring their shoes to school and they needed to be careful of gang members outside the gates. Alex was shocked to hear the principal’s words. He then went to his mom’s class. When he entered, the twenty-five girls and five boys gave him a standing ovation. (He looked more fair-skinned Spanish, while they looked more Amerindian, so they treated him like a celebrity.)
The Tijuana Wealthy
As we drove into the middle class neighborhoods that looked much like any American suburb, you could see how the city had been by the recession of 2007-2010, just like San Diego. Bosque Agua Caliente, a skyscraper, started construction and just stopped mid-way. The building was a heap of empty concrete.
The views were also stunning and the ever-prominent Estadio Caliente, where the famous Mexican soccer team plays, sat always in the distance.
From there, the wealthy homes were a few blocks away. Their architecture varied from the modern to classical. Many of these wealthy neighborhoods were also gated.
In Tijuana, if you gathered together a group of youth and asked if they knew someone who was killed in the crossfire due to drug lords and cartels, most people would nod and say yes.
Our tour ended at the Reloj Monumental, the arch that was created for the millennium in 2000 and was supposed to be a binational project. However, 9/11 happened and border security trumped binational relations. Bi-nationally securing both San Diego and Tijuana from terrorists didn’t seem to come to mind.
The plaque reads:
En el corazon de Tijuana
Como un regalo de los Tijuanenses a esta noble y prospera ciudad, se entrega el arco y Reloj Monumental como simbolo de fortaleza y union de sus habitantes hacia el nuevo milenio.
A little beyond this monument, the road ended at the military landing mat border. Prostitution is legal along some streets close to here. On an adjacent block, transgender prostitution is also allowed. Police cars patrol the area closely, so that regular tourists with kids intuit not to go any further.
El Dandy Del Sur
We headed back down Avenida Revolucion, historically the center of American “vice tourism.” Today, it’s becoming an artist haven, with many galleries and upscale shops. The restaurants are also delightful, including the historic Ceasar’s.
Avenida Revolucion and other places in Tijuana were very dangerous for several years due to the drug wars. Tourists cleared out, businesses went bankrupt and the tourist areas became ghost towns.
Alex explained, “It was dangerous to get caught in the crossfire. Plus, a lot of the local bars where we would normally go to, that was where you would find a lot of the mafia and drug cartel people. It was somewhat dangerous so we decided not to go to those places. Stay at home, do house parties or just figure out where we could go where nobody would know who we were or nobody would think of messing with us.
“We decided that Revolucion was the shadiest, crappiest place that nobody would ever go to. We looked for the shadiest, most hole in the wall bar we could find. We picked a spot on 6th Street. It was called El Dandy Del Sur. It was just us, twenty-something kids, and a bunch of old drunk people.
“We kept on filling that place up until it became so popular, it was the thing to do. After some time, a line started forming of people trying to get in. The bars next to El Dandy started to open up and started to cater to us. We starting renting out or buying the bars in that area and we made a new bar district on 6th Street. It was only local people. You wouldn’t do anything on Revolucion, only on 6th Street.”
This is how the Tijuana economy began to revive itself up again and the residents began to heal.
Get Your Passports
Turista Libre offers many tours in the heart of Tijuana, including taco, brewery and baseball tours. They also engage in civically minded projects. So pick up your passport and drive ten miles down the road to experience an exotic world.
I certainly will be back. I plan to take their Mexicali Chinatown tour at the end of February.