Sunday, December 02, 2007

Observations from Tijuana

I had a short but truly fun trip to Tijuana (TJ) this weekend. I accompanied an Israeli photographer who had been doing a residency in L.A. for the past 3 months, and who wanted a chance to observe a border town. Tijuana is just south of the Mexican border with the U.S., just south of San Diego, and the closest Mexican border to Los Angeles. A border, as a friend of mine observed, between first world and third world.

Our guide for the first day was a friend of my daughter's, a young third generation TJ'er named (a pseudonym) Carlo.

Even though Carlo, his father, and his grandfather all grew up in Tijuana, all of them, and all the other children in the family, were born in San Diego. For the cost of a U.S. hospital delivery, he explained, you can get U.S. citizenship. Not a bad deal if you're an upper class resident of TJ like Carlo and his family. Carlo himself went to college at UCSD (University of California, San Diego), and is now starting graduate school in business there.

To give you an idea of what this town is like here's an interesting factoid: In 1920 TJ's population was less than 2,000. Today, its population is estimated at 2.5 million (!). Which is why, as my Carlo explains, TJ offered a lot of opportunity for enterprising young men (and women) from Sonora who arrived in the early and mid 20th century. His own father owns a large building supplies company, and the family lives in the hills overlooking TJ, that host a combination of affluent business owners, and successful drug dealers.

But Carlo claims the easy times in TJ are over, growth has slowed, and Carlo's father wants to make sure he completes his education at UCSD and prepares for a career in the U.S.

We got to see and experience some of the best of TJ. The best hotel (not the priciest) is the Marriott. One of the best restaurants (if you're willing to go for Argentinian food) is Cheripan. And if you go to Cheripan, you should definitely sample the tamarind Martini. Last but not least, go chill out on the beach just south of the border fence, then walk down about 500 feet to the unnamed, but truly fab café for a great espresso.

Then of course there are the shantytowns were many of the longtime residents live, and where immigrants anxious to cross the border huddle waiting for an opportunity to make a run for it. We only saw those from afar. A longer visit would have brought us there as well.

My biggest surprise was that although everyone was nice and extremely helpful, virtually none of the people we ran into, in the restaurants, the hotels, the shops, by the schools, could carry on any kind of conversation in English. Strange for a border town, and maybe reflective of the fact that even after they immigrate to L.A., many of these extremely hardworking and driven Mexicans continue speaking Spanish and don't seem to have the ambition that so many previous generations of immigrants had, to learn English and forget the language of their native country.

There's plenty more to explore in TJ. We had to reserve that for a future trip.


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