By Barbara Zaragoza / South Bay Compass
When you live in the South Bay, the city of Tijuana appears on the horizon just about wherever you go. If you don’t cross the border daily, then most of your neighbors and friends do. South Bay residents know that Tijuana offers shopping, art, business opportunities, time with family and, of course, good food and wine.
So when a wonderful on-line newspaper like Voice of San Diego descends upon our border neighborhood of San Ysidro, bringing with them an audience of “northerners” to tell them about how they should visit Tijuana, we South Bay locals look at each other rather perplexed. Don’t they already know that?
On October 22nd Voice of San Diego’s culture report writer, Alex Zaragoza, hosted a “Meeting of the Minds” at The Front Art Gallery: a building along historic San Ysidro Boulevard designed by famed architect Louis Gill in 1929. The purpose of the meeting was to highlight the many delights of Tijuana. Karl Strauss offered beer, perhaps to make the experience less frightening to the audience members who presumably trekked all the way from places like North Park to visit the depths of the border region.
Zaragoza, a self-proclaimed “child of the border” who moved to Tijuana at the age of twelve and crossed everyday in her youth, explained that the meeting was held as close to the border as possible, “because you can’t have a border discussion in Carlsbad.”
Nevertheless, the presentation was geared toward people who lived in places like Carlsbad.
Zaragoza introduced writer and tour guide Derrik Chinn who began his talk with a series of rapid fire questions, asking the audience whether they had visited Tijuana in the last week, month or year. Most people raised their hands.
Then, he said, “Alright folks, not to put you on a walk of shame, but if you’ve never been, welcome tonight. These are exactly the kind of people who should be here.”
A woman in the audience yelled out, “I’m from Australia.”
With a laugh, Chinn, an Ohio native who moved to Tijuana in 2007, said that his Midwest friends were too scared to visit, so he started to show them around. After five years, he established Turista Libra Rad Tijuana Tours.
During his talk, Chinn explained that Tijuana is probably one of the most misunderstood locations in the world.
“The thing is, foreigners just don’t have los huevos para ir, to go see it themselves, ok. Why? Because you think of things like this. And the truth is, for a few years we lived with things like this.” He then displayed a picture of a woman hanging naked in some kind of warehouse. “This is what we saw in the papers because every journalist knows, ‘if it bleeds, it leads.’”
Chinn hit upon a frustration that not only afflicts Tijuana. Most residents of the South Bay will tell you that their communities only get press when something “bleeds.”
Thankfully, Chinn’s tour company battles the crime-riddled stereotype, at least in Tijuana. His presentation showed photographs of an art museum, a four mile beach walk with upscale street art, and a library building called the “House of Ideas”. He also showed pictures of rebuilding opportunities, including the old bullring that could become a park and the old Mexican epcot center that could be converted into a concert space.
Next, co-director of 206 Arte Contemporaneo, Monica Arreola presented the revitalization of the art district in Tijuana’s city center.
In 2007 a rash of narco-related homicides led the tourist industry in Tijuana to collapse. Streets once filled with businesses selling knick-knacks such as sombreros went bankrupt.
Two years later, cheap rents and vacant shops caught the attention of many artists who created art galleries, including Arreola who opened her space in 2012. She now hosts exhibits, artist talks and workshops.
Arreola showed slides of three revitalized alleyways in the center of Tijuana: Pasaje Rodriguez, Pasaje Gomez and Pasaje Revolucion.
The Front, by the way, has also hosted artists from across the border, fostering binational relationships through exhibits like Jamex and Einar de la Torre’s Whysidro.
Chef Karla Navarro presented the booming food culture in Tijuana and Baja California. Having been a culinary student in Tijuana who has now lived in the city for twenty years, she explained that as a child she was surrounded by Ensenanda’s fresh produce and seafood. She was also exposed to French cuisine thanks to Benito Molina, who fell in love with Ensenada’s markets and combined its offerings with French techniques at his restaurant.
Navarro described the current foodie scene in Guadalupe de la Valle, where restaurants serve local dishes and award winning wines. She also showed pictures of octopus, quail and tongue, saying that Mexican chefs are not afraid to show tourists their local food, presented in a gourmet way. She also pointed out that even Avenida Revolucion now boasts having the renown chef Javier Plascencia at Caesar’s Restaurant.
Plascencia, as another aside, is the same chef who hosted the 2012 autumnal equinox dinner at Suzie’s Farm in the Tijuana River Valley.
One of Tijuana’s leading sopranos, Zully Martinez also came out to present the projects of the Tijuana Opera, a non-profit organization created in 2000. Their programs reach senior citizens, children and their street festivals attract tens of thousands. In particular, they created a street festival in one of the oldest (and poorest) neighborhoods in the city, Colonia Libertad.
She explained that 55% of their funding comes from the government. Now that could make any South Bay local drool, particularly since most border people on the American side feel that the city of San Diego has chronically ignored them when it comes to funding infrastructure, education and the arts.
The most important speaker of the night reported about the border wait. Bennett Peji of BennettPejiDesign said, “I’m not going to sugar coat it. Horror stories have abounded and I’ve experienced it too. Not only the two or three hour wait, but sometimes waiting for all those hours only for the gate that you’re in to close and then you have to start all over someplace else.”
In the last few weeks, Peji told the audience, an increase in booths and efficient processing of travelers have turned border wait times into about 15 minutes.
Peji forgot to mention that because South Bay residents cross so frequently, the border wait times affect us the most. Not only have wait times had a deep impact on businesses who can’t get products and services in a timely manner, but residents suffer from the air pollution. To that end, local residents have clamored for GSA to do things like open a new pedestrian crossing to relieve congestion. Community activists have won that battle and a Ped West facility should open in 2016.
The evening ended with Zaragoza saying that she hoped the presenters had convinced the audience to visit Tijuana. “So there’s really no reason that anybody here in San Diego shouldn’t be experiencing those things themselves. We’re so close. We’re down the street, literally. So I’m hoping that our presenters really give everybody a reason, or even a bigger reason, to make the trek on down.”
You said it, Zaragoza. The South Bay is already onboard.
[Updated 10/24/14 to provide caption information for initial photo]