“In July 2004, I was coming out of my house and discovered the whole Colonia Federal being invaded by police and soldiers,” says Border Council of Arts and Culture founder Luis Ituarte.
“I found out the next day that they discovered a tunnel beneath one of the houses.” Authorities confiscated the house, located a few blocks from Ituarte’s home in Colonia Federal, a Tijuana neighborhood that abuts the border fence at San Ysidro.
Ituarte had admired the funky boat-shaped structure in the past and had even considered renting studio space there. When the building recaptured his attention, he realized it would make an ideal location for the art center he’d been seeking to establish since 2002 for his nonprofit organization. From neighbors, Ituarte learned that renters of the house had been operating a 150-foot-long tunnel to smuggle drugs and people into the United States. According to reports by the Associated Press, the tunnel was equipped with electricity and a pulley system for bundles of marijuana.
“The neighbors were pretty aware of what was going on, but they never denounced it,” says Ituarte. “For obvious reasons, like fearing their lives were in jeopardy.”
These tunnels are not uncommon — the National Drug Intelligence Center lists 21 additional subterranean passageways connecting Tijuana and San Diego discovered since 2005. When owners of the home (the Lozano family) were exonerated of any culpability with regard to the illegal activities going on within, Ituarte contacted them and convinced them to donate the building to be used as an international center for the arts.
“It fit with the history of Tijuana, of being a place of ill repute that turned out into something better,” says Ituarte, citing as an example the casinos of the 1920s that have since been transformed into cultural landmarks.
To highlight rather than hide the house’s illicit past, Ituarte named the new art center La Casa del Túnel, or the House of the Tunnel. Aside from the name of the building, there is no sign of the tunnel — both sides were filled in with five tons of concrete, and Ituarte says there is “no trace” of where it was located in the house.
“At the beginning, we had some neighbors that didn’t like the fact that we called it La Casa del Túnel. They thought it would be like putting the finger on the wound, about something they don’t feel proud about the neighborhood. Now they have accepted it.”
Ituarte claims that Colonia Federal, the area in which he’s lived for seven years, was the first neighborhood of Tijuana. “‘Colonia de los Empleados Federales’ was the original name — that means ‘the Neighborhood for Employees of Federal Government.” According to Ituarte, most of the original residents of the area in the 1930s were employees of the Mexican Federal Customs Office and had been granted pieces of land beside the border on which to build their homes so that they could be close to their place of employment.
“Colonia Federal is a kind of enclosed triangle made by the river, the border, and the entrance to Mexico,” says Ituarte. “This little triangle of nine blocks in which 500 people live is totally separated from the rest of the city.”
Ituarte hopes the cheap rent and what he calls a “romantic” atmosphere will draw more artists. He has already drawn six, of whom Ituarte is one. “I live in a three-bedroom house — a modernist, magnificent California bungalow — which rents me $500. In San Diego or Los Angeles this would cost me close to $2000.”
The majority of residents in the area are renters. “The owners live somewhere else, like Chula Vista,” says Ituarte. “It’s very common here in Tijuana that most people who achieve a certain economical status go to live in San Diego.”
Installing a cultural center, Ituarte says, is one way of protecting a neighborhood from being made into a freeway or river, which is what happened to the rest of Colonia Federal. “Originally this neighborhood was ten times bigger.” The government bulldozed entire streets to make way for the cement construction around the river and wider roadways.
“People are very much afraid the government will do that again. So if they see that we have a cultural kind of development, something for Tijuana to feel proud of, probably the government will think twice before doing an expansion on the border of this land.”
In addition to preserving the community, Ituarte hopes to see it gentrify.
“In the future I see a lot of artists from San Diego moving in here because it’s very easy to get to here, and I know that to get a studio in San Diego right now would cost more than $1000 when you can get one here for $300. All you have to do is take the trolley, do your work, and go back — you don’t have to live here, just come and work.”
As part of his efforts to make the area more appealing to Americans, Ituarte will soon be opening a restaurant on the roof of La Casa del Túnel called Eco Verde Café.
La Casa del Túnel: Art Center
Calle Chapo Márquez 133, Colonia Federalv
Tijuana BC, Mexico
Hours: Friday through Monday
10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Info: 011-52-664-682-9570 or www.cofac101.org