On October 20, 2002, the Tijuana Cultural Center (Centro Cultural Tijuana, or CECUT, as it’s most commonly called in Mexico) will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a grand exhibition and festivities. The 186,000-square-foot complex has a budget of $4.2 million and a full-time staff of 150 and houses, in addition to art galleries, the Baja California Orchestra (Orquesta de Baja California), the Hispanic American Guitar Center (Centro Hispanoamericano de la Guitarra), and Centro de Artes Escénicas del Noroeste, the region’s only federally funded drama school. If few people now associated with the cultural center remember Cartolandia, it’s because Mexico’s helter-skelter politics can make even recent events seem distant. Thirty-year-old events can seem like prehistory.
“What you must understand is how much Tijuana, how much Mexico, has changed,” said Carmen Cuenca, a pretty Mexico City native who in one capacity or another has worked at CECUT (pronounced say-COOT) for the past 15 years. Before coming to Tijuana, Cuenca worked at Bellas Artes, a federal institution in Mexico City that for 70 years has served as a kind of Vatican for the fine arts in Mexico, if not much of Latin America.
“When the Tijuana Cultural Center opened in 1982, there were maybe 400,000 people living in all of the city. Twenty years later, some estimates put the city’s population as high as two million. It’s maybe more. Who knows?
“It was under President López Portillo that CECUT was built. Really, it was under the inspiration of the president’s wife, Mrs. López Portillo. She was interested in culture. Well, interested in a certain kind of culture. I was told she had a very large collection of white pianos. I’ve been told, but do not know for certain, that the center once had in its possession one of those white pianos.
“At any rate, when President López Portillo came to power, the country was rich with oil money. By the time López Portillo left office, he’d nationalized the banks. The peso was enormously devalued. There was this huge economic collapse.
“And López Portillo’s party, the pri, had been in power forever. In 1982, no one imagined, no one dreamed, that the pri would someday not be in power. No one dreamed that things would ever change.
“Another thing to remember is that in Mexico, with each new presidential administration, there are so many political appointees that federal institutions change profoundly. Much more so than in the United States. In Mexican government agencies, when a new president comes to power, everything changes from the ground up. So it’s difficult to maintain institutional memory, to develop long-term plans and stick with them.
“CECUT is a federal institution. Its director is appointed directly by the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, ‘the National Council for Culture and the Arts.’ No other city in Mexico has such a cultural center. It’s unique.
“So you have all these factors, all these changes. And think about the name. A cultural center. Think of what a fluid term ‘culture’ can be, of all that it can mean. The interesting thing is that CECUT has sort of embodied in miniature a lot of changes in the country and in the city. Look at what’s happened. We have a new president, Fox, from the PAN party. Who ever thought that would happen? CECUT not only has its first woman director, Teresa Vicencio Alvarez, but she’s the first director to come from a purely cultural background. She’s the first director who wasn’t a politician. She may come from a family with roots in the PAN party, but her family had nothing to do with her selection. She’s extremely qualified for the position. But still. It’s an amazing change.
“Twenty years have passed. This isn’t the same country. This isn’t the same town.”
On the day Cuenca and I had coffee in the bar of the Prado Restaurant in Balboa Park, she sent her two daughters off to wander. When they, looking tired, returned, I asked Cuenca if she knew anyone who might remember the circumstances surrounding the cultural center’s construction.
“Oh, my God. Yes,” Cuenca laughed as she rose to leave. “I know just the person. Manuel Rosen. One of the two architects who worked on the project. He lives in La Jolla. I love him. But Manuel’s angry with me.”
“Yes. Angry. If you talk to enough people who’ve worked at the cultural center, you’ll learn everyone’s angry with everyone. I don’t mean that it’s like everybody hates everybody. But, you know, it’s a cultural institution. People have strong feelings about culture. Go and meet Manuel. Talk with him. He’s a brilliant man.”
In the weeks before I met Rosen I was told that in Tijuana, among people who pay attention to things like the cultural center, there were “entrenched groups.” I was told there was “animosity” between these groups. I was told that these groups either did or did not like the “new direction” the cultural center had taken. The opinions of these groups were never stated publicly. These opinions were, I was told, “in the air.” The people telling me that these opinions were “in the air” would by way of illustration make circular clawing motions at their ears, as if their heads were menaced by swarms of invisible bees.
“What are you worried about opinions for?” Manuel Rosen asked on the late-summer afternoon I met him in his La Jolla apartment. Rosen’s building must be one of few in the county to have two full-time doormen. Rosen has in his living room a small Goya, a drawing by Diego Rivera, and large canvases by several of Mexico’s greatest 20th-century painters.
“My wife has been ill,” Rosen said, apologizing for the art on his walls. “We had even more drawings, more paintings. But we had to sell our home and divide up our art among our three children. We needed a more manageable space. I had to give away more than 1000 books before we moved into this place.”