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.