Why Tijuana? That’s what everybody asks me these days. I know. These days, the headlines about Tijuana feature murder, mayhem, and misery. But here’s the thing. These days, when nobody’s going to Tijuana, wouldn’t you know it? I can’t help thinking about Tijuana…

At the risk of sounding nostalgic, I’m getting nostalgic about the place. Like, in the Blind Lady Ale House in Normal Heights the other night, I got to talking with this binational fellow, Gonzalo. About, natch, TJ. “The TJ I love is no more,” he said. “It has lost its identity. Look what’s gone: the bullring, the Jai Alai, Agua Caliente racetrack, the casino. TJ never was beautiful, but at least it was different. And now, nobody goes down there anymore. It’s empty.”

He got me thinking. What is Tijuana turning into? East L.A.? What about the violence? And, yes, if you’re a turista, you do have that thing in the pit of your stomach. Let’s call it wariness. You wonder, Why risk it? What is Tijuana to me, anyway?

Well…why climb Mount Everest? Because it’s there. And TJ is here, and it’s so much more than a rock. This place where we live — on either side of this crazy line — it’s like ET and Elliott, fingers outstretched, touching. Ping! Two civilizations meeting. When you go through that clanking gate, magic happens.

Bottom line is, I just love the place, problems, differences, and all. So think of these stories as pictures at an exhibition. A retrospective, okay? Scenes from one guy’s experience over the past few — heck, several — years stepping across the line to the Village by the Sea. Ti Wan, as the Kumeyaay called it.

SIXTEEN YEARS ON THE BRIDGE

Most times I go down, there he is on the footbridge across the Tijuana River, like a good omen. Jorge. He has a movie star’s face, with intelligent eyes and long dark wavy hair. And useless legs. He lost them to polio, when he was one year old. He looks 30 but says he’s 40. He scoots himself around on a skateboard, with his bag, a heavy construction-glove for his scooting hand, and his box of cellophane-wrapped four-tablet Chiclet chewing-gum packs. The box is still two-thirds full. Not a good sign at this end of the day. “Hey, Mr. Ed,” he says. “¿Como estás?”

“Hey there, Mr. Jorge,” I say. “Muy bien, gracias. And you?”

“Mas o menos,” he says. And I know mas o menos means hard times. I know he’d be much cheerier if things were even a little bit good. It’d be muy bien, or excelente, or bien, bien. Not today. “No tourists,” he says. “They stop coming. This is worse than after 9/11.”

For seven years I’ve been saying hi to him here, with the dry hills of El Norte as a backdrop on one side, and the giant national flag of Mexico and TJ’s oversized bicycle-wheel reloj (clock) on the other. Oh, and then there’s the garbage-strewn concrete spillway below, the proud Tijuana River wafting up its interesting smells.

This bridge is a good-enough location for a business like Jorge’s — selling gum as a way of inviting donations. It concentrates the foot traffic of people heading toward the bars of downtown. But it’s not the greatest place for a 40-year-old legless man to spend his working days.

“How are your children?” I ask.

He says they’re fine, but I have to wonder how he gets by. With a wife, kids, and a couple of grandkids, Chiclets can’t do it. He’s the only Mexican man selling Chiclets here; the others are Mixtec mothers. Their children weave back and forth across the bridge as point men, to keep after you if you show the slightest hesitation or weakness.

I buy a couple of packets. Hand Jorge the three single dollars I have in my pocket. At this point, I usually head on toward Mischief Lane, where there’s good eats, and where Dr. Solorio the dentist has his business — when I can afford him.

But on this day, Jorge is packing up and leaving. Turns out we’re going in the same direction.

“You walking to the centro?” he asks, when we get to Avenida Negrete.

“Yes,” I say.

“Me too. I’m going home.”

So we walk — well, I walk. Jorge scoots along on his skateboard, his legs crossed meditation-fashion, using his hands to push himself. When we come to bumps — and there are a lot of them, lumps, broken curbs, and potholes that his skateboard can’t navigate — he lifts, levers, and tips himself up and down like a gymnast.

We get up to Third, then where a little alley, Callejón Zeta, dives off it, he stops. “My house is down here,” he says. “Would you like to come?”

I can’t believe a callejón so close to el centro would be unpaved, but this one is. It’s narrow, dusty, with cinderblock walls and little houses oh-so-close to you on either side. Jorge maneuvers his way along until we come to a white, wrought-iron security door. He pushes it open and rolls on in. I follow him down a low, narrow passage, where washing hangs on a line strung from the ceiling. We enter a square room. There’s one large bed, a bookshelf with a TV on it showing one of those Mexican telenovelas, a microwave, peach-pink walls, a torn picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe, other religious pictures, a microwave, a fridge, and, just this side of the door to a second room, crowded four-level shelves, a bottle of gas for cooking, and a stove.

Two women, a couple of kids, and a baby sit around, on the bed and in a chair. “I am Juana Ynez Gonzalez,” the younger woman says from the bed. “Jorge’s wife. And this is my old friend Maricela Navidad.” Maricela, seated in the chair, extends her hand.

Jorge offers me a soft drink. Soon we’re into how he keeps a family going, selling Chiclets. “We pay $240 a month to live here,” he says.

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Comments

David Dodd Nov. 11, 2009 @ 1:42 p.m.

Excellent piece, Ed! Authentic, truly authentic and very well done!

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rshimizu12 Nov. 11, 2009 @ 11:29 p.m.

I go down to TJ a few times a year for dental work and thats enough. I go down during the day and I am not to worried about the crime. But I really wonder what the city mayor and government is thinking when so much of TJ's economy is tourist related. It's simply ridiculous to let all the crime and drugs run rampant. I usually go down mid mornings or late afternoons and TJ is a like a ghost town. The main reason is to avoid the heat in TJ. I always walk and wear shoes with a lot of support. The other reason I avoid TJ is because it is so dirty. TJ is in desperate need of some street sweeping on a regular basis.

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JerryB Nov. 11, 2009 @ 6:30 p.m.

Shssssshhh!!! Don't tell the Union Tribune posters who appear after every article on Tijuana about this. They will flood this page, b!tching and moaning about how no one should visit Tijuana.

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xians421 Nov. 12, 2009 @ 11:07 p.m.

I haven't been to TJ in nine months, due to an unfortunate combination of new found sobriety and a personal lack of willingness to comply with draconian passport regulations. The last few times I visited, I found a place entirely devoid of the turistas that serve as the lifeblood of this once vibrant metropolis. Tijuana has become the place to go if you sympathize with Greta Garbo and you "want to be alone". The situation is so dire that even the legless beggars have left for greener pastures.

My wife and I will get back to Mexico, if only to take advantage of the desperation of the no longer thriving Las Rocas Hotel and Spa, but the destinations of old have changed for the worse, and probably for a long, long time.

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goyo Nov. 14, 2009 @ 5:13 p.m.

I want to go to Tijuana with Ed. I have visited Baja off and on for 30 years. I stopped about 5 years ago because of the drug wars, but Ed's story made me decide to go again, at least to Tijuana. To meet the people and enjoy time with them is an incredible experience. We look at them through tourist's eyes but if we can get past that we can appreciate the kindness, sympathy and struggle they endure.

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cabezas Nov. 16, 2009 @ 4:29 p.m.

Revolution isn't a touristy place anymore. Zona Río is the new place where locals and tourists from all over can hit the bars (Plaza Del Zapato, The Rock, London Bar, Cheers, Whiskey, etc.) And top-notch restaurants such as BICE, La Espadaña, Sushi bars, and American chain restaurants such as Applebee's. Not to mention the new "Turi-Bus" that will take you to all the places that are never spoken of in the states... The real TJ!!! Sure crime happens, just like anywhere, but it isn't common in the city! Drug dealers are usually the ones involved and it happens in suburbs that tourists can't just end up in...... They are far into TJ. Something like Julian would be in San Diego.

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Visduh Nov. 16, 2009 @ 9:43 p.m.

A very lengthy piece, like the cover stories in the Reader of old. If one knew no better, this would convince that a trip to TJ was mandatory and as soon as possible. Ah, but your typical gringo would likely find him/herself in severe gastrointestinal distress after sampling those bizarre and wonderful tacos. (It's not a slam of Mexican cuisine, just a fact of life.)

Yes, it is probably a very interesting city, and deserves better than it gets. But if you are a typical US citizen, stay away. There are just too many hazards without much to balance out the equation. The crooked cops, the shakedown artists, the chance of ending up in the middle of a shootout or being kidnapped for ransom, and a host of other things, plus the opportunity to get violently ill from the food just don't make for a pleasant visit.

So, Jerry B, although I don't know a Union-Tribune poster from a hoot-owl, I did my bitching and moaning about not visiting TJ. Actually, the U-T itself often promotes visits to museums, galleries and new stores or restaurants in TJ without a word of caution.

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bohemianopus Nov. 18, 2009 @ 8:35 a.m.

What a wonderful piece! Best cover story in a long time! I read it through to the end.

Love, food, music, history, adventure and human interest--you got it all!

I have been afraid of visiting Mexico recently because of the violence, but I have always loved the country and its people. This article whets my appetite to dip my big toe into the water once again.

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