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Taken together as one, Tijuana and San Diego form the most fascinating city in the New World

“The gringos find our downtown so ugly? They were the ones who made it.”

"Tijuana is where Mexico comes to an end." - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
"Tijuana is where Mexico comes to an end."

Palm Sunday. In the parking lot there is only silence and the scent of suntan lotion.

There is a turnstile.

Through which American tourists enter Mexico as at a state fair. Mexicans pass with the cardboard boxes they are using as suitcases. Some men are putting up palm trees. An old woman proffers sno-cones that look like bulbs of blood. She is wearing Gloria Vanderbilt jeans and jogging shoes.

I pass through the turnstile.

"Manana is the Mexican’s gloss on the light of day."

Already the sun feels older. Indian women sit on the pavement, their crafts spread out before them. There are wristbands of woven yarn, dolls made of ribbon, vibrant bushes of nodding paper poppies.

Hands and voices, beseeching eyes and rattling cups gather to surround me as I tread the gauntlet of pathetic enterprise.

CHICLETS. CHICLETOS.

"In San Diego people speak of “the border” as meaning a clean break, the end of us, the beginning of them."

Little girls not four years old sell Chiclets. Blind old women in blankets hawk Chiclets. Why? Why these little tiles of sugar jade? In Tijuana as in Bombay. A woman holding her baby with one arm will rattle a gross of Chiclets with her free hand. Five cents.

Tijuana, downtown. Taxi, mister? Taxi?

"...but Mexico has a more graceful sense of universal corruption."

Chiclets, Taxi, are urgent questions in Tijuana, questions that soonest teach the visitor the custody of his eyes.

A boy sits on a ledge above the bay of taxis. He wears a cap — like a stage-urchin’s cap. His face is wan and wolfen. His muzzle parts over sharpish teeth; his nostrils dilate to savor the crowd. Slowly he turns his face from side to side, as he would do if he were ravishing himself with a shaving brush, where is he taking me? In the second place, cab drivers still offer male passengers cualquier cosa as a matter of form.

"Mexicans speak of America as 'the other side...'"

For all that, you are deposited safely when the cab driver announces, with a distracted wave of the hand, “El Main Street.” El Main Street is what you’d expect of the region’s fifth tourist attraction, after the San Diego Zoo, Sea World, some others. A Mexico ride. A quick shot of the foreign. Unmetered taxis. Ultramontane tongue. Disney Calcutta.

I am thinking of my first trip across: the late 1950s. We were on our way to visit relatives in Ensenada. We had driven all day from Sacramento in the blue DeSoto, and we reached the border around midnight. I remember waking in the back seat. A fat Mexican in a brown uniform was making beckoning gestures in the light from our headlamps. This isn't Mexico, this isn’t Mexico, my mother kept saying, clucking, smoothing. Tijuana is just a border town; you see the worst here. You’ll see. I remember my father hunched forward at the wheel. The DeSoto was acting up. It was too late to drive anymore. I remember a Saturday night, a big street full of scuffle and shadow: naked lights, persons stumbling, jeering. We found a motel by the bus station. We all slept on a double bed with a green velvet cover. We kept our clothes on. The air was heavy. Wet. I listened to faraway music. American music.

Mexico!

Most tourists come for the afternoon. Most tourists stay three or four hours, just between meals. After the shops, after the scolding sighs, after the bottled drinks, there is nothing to do but head back.

Another Sunday, 1961. I was spending a week with the Faherty's at Laguna Beach. Ernest Hemingway had shot himself in the mouth. (I was Hemingway’s widow. I had read all his novels.) We were in Tijuana for the afternoon. We went to the new bullring by the sea. We sat in the expensive shade. On the opposite side were dark men in white shirts. Kim Novak was sitting a few rows in front of us. Pellets of blood struck the dust all afternoon. The Mexicans cheered the bull because the brave bull took so many thrusts of the matador’s blade and yet refused to die. But the bull did die. The Mexicans cheered the matador. The matador passed a buzzing sachet — the ears of the bull — to Kim Novak while the band played a comic gavotte. Before it got dark, we drove back. Mr. Faherty had my birth certificate in his wallet, just in case. When an immigration officer questioned me over Mrs. Faherty’s shoulder, I answered in a voice he accepted as having no accent; we were flagged forward. We stopped at Old Town in San Diego for a Mexican dinner.

Consider Tijuana from Mexico’s point of view. Tijuana is farther away from Mexico City than any other city in Mexico. Tijuana is where Mexico comes to an end.

In Mexico City you will waste an afternoon if you go to bookstores looking for books about Tijuana. The clerk will scarcely conceal his amusement. (And what would be in a book about Tijuana?) People in Mexico City will tell you, if they have anything at all to say about Tijuana, that Tijuana is a city without history, a city without architecture, an American city. San Diego may worry about Mexican hordes crawling over the border. Mexico City worries about a cultural spill from the United States.

From prehistory, the North has been the problem. Mexico City (la capital) has been the platform from which all provincialism is gauged. From the North came marauding tribes, iconoclasts, destroyers of high Indian civilization. During the Spanish colonial era, the North was settled, even garrisoned, but scarcely civilized. In the 19th Century, Mexico’s northernmost territories were too far from the center to be defended against America’s westward expansion. In after-decades, the North spawned revolutionaries and bandits, or these fled into the North and the North hid them well.

Beyond all the ribbon-cutting palaver about good neighbors, there remains an awesome distance of time. Tijuana and San Diego are not in the same historical time zone. Tijuana is poised at the beginning of an industrial age, a Dickensian city with palm trees. San Diego is a postindustrial city of high-impact plastic and despair diets. And palm trees. San Diego faces west, looks resolutely out to sea. Tijuana stares north, as toward the future. San Diego is the future — secular, soulless. San Diego is the past, guarding its quality of life. Tijuana is the future.

On the Mexican side there is flux, a vast migration, a camp of siege. On the Mexican side is youth, with bad skin or bad teeth, but with a naive optimism appropriate to youth.

On the American side are petitions to declare English the official language of the United States; the Ku Klux Klan; nativists posing as environmentalists, blaming illegal immigration for freeway congestion. And late at night, on the radio call-in shows, hysterical, reasonable American voices say they have had enough. Of this or that. Of trampled flower beds. Of waiting in line or crowded buses, of real or imagined rudeness, of welfare.

In San Diego people speak of “the border” as meaning a clean break, the end of us, the beginning of them. In Mexican Spanish, the legality takes on distance, even pathos, as la frontera, meaning something less fixed, something more akin to the American “frontier.” Whereas San Diego remains provincial and retiring, the intrusion of the United States has galvanized Tijuana to cosmopolitanism. There are seven newspapers in Tijuana; there is American television — everything we see they see. Central American refugees and Southern California turistas cross paths in Tijuana. There are new ideas. Most worrisome to Mexico City has been the emergence of a right-wing idea, a pro-American politics to challenge the one-party system that has governed Mexico for most of this century.

Because the United States is the richer country, the more powerful broadcaster, Mexicans know more about us than we care to know about them. Mexicans speak of America as “the other side,” saying they are going to el otro lado when they cross for work, legal or illegal. The border is real enough: it is guarded by men with guns. But Mexicans incline to view the border without reverence, referring to the American side as el otro cachete, the other buttock.

Traditionally, Mexican cities are centered by a town square or zocalo, on either side of which stand city hall and cathedral, counterweights to balance the secular with the eternal. Tijuana never had a zocalo. And, like other California cities, Tijuana is receding from its old downtown.

The new commercial district of Tijuana, three miles east of downtown, is called the Zona del Rio. For several blocks within the Zona del Rio, on grass islands in the middle of the Paseo de los Heroes, stand monuments to various of Mexico’s heroes. There is one American (Abraham Lincoln) in a line that otherwise connects the good Aztec, Cuauhtemoc, to the victorious Mexican general, Zaragoza. With Kremlin-like dullness, these monuments were set down upon the city, paperweights upon a map. They are gifts from the capital, meant as reminders.

Prominent along the Paseo de los Heroes is Tijuana’s Cultural Center, Mexico City’s most insistent token of troth. Tijuana might better have done with sewers or streetlights, but in 1982 the Mexican government built Tijuana a cultural center, an orange concrete bomba in the brutal architectural idioms of the 1970s. The main building is a museum, very clean and empty during my visit, except for a janitor who trails me with a vacuum cleaner. Together we tread a ramp past fairly uninteresting displays of Mayan pottery, past folk crafts, past reproductions of political documents and portraits of Mexico’s military heroes. The lesson to Tijuana is clear: she belongs to Mexico.

As the exhibits travel in time, south to north, the umbilical approach narrows to gossamer. We reach a display devoted to Tijuana’s own history. We find a collection of picture postcards from the ’20s, emblazoned in English with “Greetings from Old Mexico.”

One sympathizes with the curator’s dilemma. How does one depict the history of so unmonumental a city, a city occasioned by defeat and submission to the enemy’s will?

The treaty ending the Mexican-American War ruled a longitudinal line between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. For decades thereafter, Tijuana remained vacant land at the edge of the sea, an arid little clause dangling from Mexico’s disgraced 19th Century.

No one in Tijuana is able to fix for me the derivation of the name of the place. Some say it is an Indian name. Some think the town was named for a woman who lived in a shack at the turn of the century, a Mexican Ma Kettle known in the region as Tia Juana.

Mexico City tried to dispose of the name in 1925. By an act of Mexico’s congress, Tijuana was proclaimed to be Ciudad Zaragoza. A good name. A patriot’s name. The resolution languished in a statute book on a shelf in Mexico City, 2000 miles away.

Monday of Holy Week. On the side streets of the Zona Norte, by the old bus station, Mexican men loiter outside the doors of open bars. From within come stale blasts of American rock. Is this all that is left of the fleshpots of T.J.?

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We are a generation removed from that other city, the city generations of American men mispronounced as “Tee-ah-wanna,” by which they named an alter-ego American city, a succubus that could take them about as far as they wanted to go. At the turn of the century, when boxing was illegal in San Diego, there was blood sport in Tijuana. There were whores and there was gambling and there was drink.

Mexico spends millions to lure Americans toward the sun; Mexico’s allure has for a longer time been as the dark, a country of nuance and mascara.

Civic leaders in Tijuana are ashamed of the lewd tattoo on the reputation of their city. Progressives refer to the past as “the dark legend.” Tijuana would rather you noticed the daytime city — the office towers, the industrial parks.

Traditionally, Mexicans eat at about the time Americans get ready for bed. Mexicans move as naturally and comfortably in the dark as cats or wolves or owls do. Mexicans take their famous promenade around the plaza it night, meet and gossip beneath the lamppost. Mexicans get drunk and sing like cats beneath the moon.

Traditionally, Mexicans have been ridiculed by Americans as people who sleep the day away. The figure on the ceramic ashtray, the figure that forms the bookend — the Mexican figurine is forever taking his siesta, propped against a cactus, shaded by his sombrero. Mexicans are always late or, refusing to be circumscribed by time, they resort to manana. Manana is the Mexican’s gloss on the light of day. Manana, by definition, will never come. Manana intends to undo all the adages of the English language. Waste not, want not. Don’t put off till tomorrow. A stitch in time.

Do you linger over the figurine? Today, for you — eight dollars.

Mexican cynicism is an aspect of the Mexican habit of always seeking the shade. Nothing is what it seems in the light of day. The Mexican politician wears dark glasses. He says one thing.

Everyone understands the reverse to be true. The traffic citation can be commuted with a bribe. The listed price is subverted with a wink.

What is money between friends? Six dollars?

Americans distrust Mexican shading. The genius of American culture and its integrity come from fidelity to the light. Plain as day, we say. Happy as the day is long. Early to bed, early to rise. Up and at ’em. American virtues are daylight virtues: honesty, plain style. We say yes when we mean yes and no when we mean no. Americans take short shrift from sorrow, reassuring one another that tomorrow is another day or time heals all wounds or things will look better in the morning.

A teenage policeman says: “The gringos find our downtown so ugly? They were the ones who made it.” Which is true enough, though the lustier truth is that Mexican cynicism met American hypocrisy in Tijuana. Mexico lay down and the gringo paid in the morning.

At its best and worst, Mexico is tolerant. Spanish Catholicism bequeathed to Mexico an assumption of Original Sin. Much in life is failure or compromise. The knowledge has left Mexico patient as a desert and tolerant of corruptions that have played upon her surface. Public officials tread a path to corruption, just as men need their whores. No importa. Mexico manages to live.

The intimate life, the family life — abundant and eternal — is Mexico’s consolation against the knowledge of sin. Mamacita, sainted Mama, stokes her daughter’s purity, which is a jewel betokening the family’s virtue. A woman of Tijuana tells me she was never permitted by her parents within two blocks of Avenida Revolucion. Young ladies of Tijuana required duenas long after Mexico City had discontinued the habit.

I am chaperoned through the city by an official from the Comite de Turismo y Convenciones. Her English is about as bad as my Spanish. We stroll the Avenida Revolucion, recently beautified — wider sidewalks, new blighted trees. There, says my hostess, where the Woolworth’s now stands, where disinterested hag beggars squat, palms extended over their heads, used to be the longest bar in the world. And over there, beyond the blue tourist bus (which is being decanted by a smiling guide with a very wide tie) is the restaurant where two Italian brothers named Cardini created the Caesar salad back in the ’20s.

In Tijuana, as in Las Vegas, another city constructed on sand, and almost as old, history is a matter of matchbook covers and cocktail napkins.

Tijuana used to be very glamorous, promises my companion from the Comite de Turismo y Convenciones. We are considering a building (a trade school) where the Casino de Agua Caliente once stood. She thinks. She herself is from Guadalajara. Anyway, all the famous movie stars used to come down.

Among the however many million volumes in the library at the University of California in San Diego there is one green book about Tijuana — not thick — a history written by John Price, an American professor. The book includes photographs of the Casino de Agua Caliente in the ’20s — Moorish architecture, shadows of palm trees, silver sky.

In the same green book, a photograph survives of Sheilah Graham, she on a mule; Tijuana sombrero; hilarious. Her attendant Joseph is none other than the tarnished high priest of the ’20s, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Both look foolish in ways they hadn’t intended.

San Diego changed first. By the 1940s, Prohibition was over and Tijuana had lost some of its glamorous utility. During the war, Tijuana was relegated to the sailor’s rest. From those war years, a Venusberg lore has passed from American fathers to sons, together with prescriptions against infection. Wet dreams advance on the cackle of a lewd horn: a blinking neon cactus; a two-quart margarita; and any of several more lurid images, like mademoiselles who can pick quarters off the table without using their hands.

Tijuana is now offlimits to the U.S. Navy between 8:00 p.m. and dawn. The press officer at the San Diego Naval Station tells me sailors have been harassed by the Tijuana police.

But if you want pornography, go to San Diego, the Mexicans say. And you won’t see people selling drugs on the streets of Tijuana. When the Mexican woman wants an abortion, she crosses the border, the Mexicans say.

There is the father in Tijuana who worries that his teenage son is living under the radiant cloud of American pop culture, its drugs, its disrespect, its despair. San Diego’s morning paper quotes officials in Washington concerning corrupt Mexican officials and an unchecked northern flow of drugs. Washington does not credit America’s hunger for drugs with raising drug lords south of the border.

Mexico does not deny any of it — well, some — but Mexico has a more graceful sense of universal corruption. What Mexico comprehends is a balance between supply and demand. The Mexican comprehends public morality as a balance — the ethereal parts of any balanced thing rise by virtue of the regrettable ballast. The border, for instance. For Mexicans, the border is not that rigid, Puritan thing, a line. (Straight lines are unknown in Mexico.) The border, like everything else, is subject to supply and demand. The border is a revolving door.

U.S. Immigration officials describe the San Ysidro border crossing as “the busiest in the world.” If U.S. Immigration officials counted 40 million people passing through the San Ysidro border crossing last year, Mexico assumes a two-way street. So Tijuana had the same 40 million visitors last year. Tijuana bills itself “the most visited city in the world.” It becomes, in a way, the Mexican’s joke on the gringo’s paranoia, his penchant for numbers, his fear of invasion or contamination.

The trouble with gringo tourists, the Mexican hotel manager confides, is their temerity abroad. The water! Nothing wrong with the water, the Mexican says: I drink it all day. The gringos won’t swim in the pool or sing in the shower or suck on the ice. They pick at their food. Is it safe? Is it clean?

America has long imagined itself clean, crew-cut, ingenuous. We are an odorless, colorless, accentless, orderly people, put upon and vulnerable to the foreign. Aliens are carriers of chaos — Mexicans are obviously carriers of chaos — their backs are broken with bundles of it: gray air, brown water, papacy, leprosy, crime, diarrhea, white powders, and a language full of newts and cicadas.

Mexico does not say it publicly but Mexico perceives America as sterile, as sterilizing, as barren as the nose of a missile. “Don’t drink the water in Los Angeles,” goes the joke, “it will clean you out like a scalpel.” Because Americans are barren by choice, Americans are perceived by Mexico as having relinquished gravity. Within the porticos of the great churches of Mexico are signs reminding visitors to behave with dignity. The signs are in English.

Seasoned visitors from Southern California pass right on through Tijuana, as through some final entanglement with history. Campers and jeeps head south into the vacant depths of Baja — California’s newest, unofficial national park. Just as an earlier generation used Tijuana to refresh its virtue, so once again Californians use Mexico as an opposite planet. As pollution settles over Orange County, Baja California is prized for its pristine desert, its abiding austerity. Even so, Southern California is busy re-creating itself on the far coasts of Baja, building condos, negotiating time-share beach houses in subdivisions with street names like Vista Mar.

Gingerly I am steered through the inedible city by my hostess from the Comite de Turismo y Convenciones. Street vendors offer unclean enchantments, whirling platters of melon and pineapple, translucent candies, brilliant syrups, charcoaled meats, black and red. All are tempting, all inedible. Mexicans bite and lick and chew and swallow. I begin to feel myself a Jamesian naif who puzzles and perspires and will not dare.

“The usual visit, then, three or four hours?”

I notice my hostess is surreptitiously consulting her wristwatch. I’m spending the week, I tell her. I admit to her that I am visiting Tijuana by day, sleeping in San Diego at night.

Ah.

We stop at a cafe. She offers me something to drink.

A soft drink, perhaps?

No, I say.

Cerveza?

But suddenly I fear giving offense. I notice apothecary jars full of improbably colored juices, the colors of calcified paint.

Maybe some jugo, please.

Offense to whom? That I fear drinking Mexico?

A waiter appears from stage left with a tall glass of canary yellow.

Ah.

We are all very pleased. It’s lovely today. I put the glass to my lips.

But I do not drink.

Tuesday of Holy Week. A noisy artificial waterfall outside my window at the Intercontinental Hotel in San Diego is designed to drown out the noise of traffic. The traffic report on the radio posts a 30-minute delay at the San Ysidro border crossing. Children of upper-class Tijuana are crossing into San Diego for school. Mexicans with green cards are heading to their American jobs. From the American side, technicians, engineers, and supervisors are heading for jobs in Tijuana. The 30-minute delay is in both directions.

It was in the 19th Century that American entrepreneurs began reaching into Mexico for cheap labor to build California. In good times, most Americans approved the arrangement, hard work for low wages. But whenever the economy dipped, Mexicans slid down the board. They bumpered up in Tijuana.

Leo Chavez, an anthropologist in San Diego, tells me there is nothing inexplicable about illegal immigration. America lured the Mexican worker; America established the financial dependency that today America relegates to realms of tragedy. Sons following fathers north; it became a rite of passage — “like going to college,” Chavez observes. Tijuana is crowded today with such families. Papa crosses over into the 21st Century; Mama raises the kids at the edge of the 19th Century.

Tijuana is not Mayhew’s London; there are no dark naves of Victorian mills. You see smoke on the horizon. It turns out to be a bonfire on a vacant lot. That this is an optimistic city is apparent mainly in the traffic.

One sees few pedestrians (few sidewalks). Dogs roam dusty lots. In Colonia Libertad some teenagers gather about a car without wheels. If the car had wheels they wouldn’t be there.

All the adages about California cities — suburbs in search of a center, no there there — describe Tijuana also. Tijuana is a municipio, something like an American county. Tijuana extends about 25 miles south and east from its old downtown to include surrounding townships. All are united by one mayor and a single ambition. The ambition of Tijuana is American dollars.

In the lobby of the Lucerna Hotel, I see the sort of family one sees in only two or three hotels in Mexico City. Father with a preoccupied look and thin watch; mother elegant, glacially indulgent of her three children, who squirm under the watchful eye of an Indian nanny.

The word for money in Tijuana is maquiladora. Maquiladora means assembly plant. Twenty years ago, the Mexican government established a duty-free zone along the border, permitting foreign companies to transport parts and raw materials into Mexico. The assembled products could then be shipped to the United States for consumption.

Most of the foreign-owned assembly plants are in new, quietly marked buildings on the east side of town wherein thousands of doomed senoritas spin dreams of love and idleness as their nimble fingers assemble the detritus of modern civilization. The manager of one assembly plant by the airport predicts that all of Mexico will soon look like Tijuana. No one looks up as we pass. In a corner, beneath a metallic template marking the exit, is a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Tijuana is an industrial park on the outskirts of Minneapolis. Tijuana is a colony of Tokyo. Tijuana is a Taiwanese sweatshop. Tijuana is a smudge beyond the linden trees of Hamburg. There is complicity between businessmen — hands across the border— and shared optimism.

On the San Diego side businessmen speak of “mutual benefit,” by which is meant profit from the proximity, of technology and despair. What capitalism has in mind for Tijuana depends upon the availability of great numbers of the Mexican poor; depends upon the poor regaining poor. For their labor Mexicans are paid Mexican wages. Mexico’s daily wage is America’s hourly wage. Some such deal involving cheap labor has doubtless brought Papa to meet his Japanese counterpart in the lobby of the Lucerna Hotel.

A second border crossing has opened at Otay Mesa. In my rented car I traverse the rust-colored fields. I look to left and to right, trying to imagine the industrial Camelot.

Yes, freighted trucks will pass emptied trucks back and forth across the border. Yes, profit will rise from the interaction of stable with unstable economies. But this time America will not be able to get rid of Tijuana once we have done with her poor. Tokyo can. The Koreans are only renting Tijuana for the season. But the anticipatory, desperate city massing beyond the cyclone fence is not going to dissipate into ether at the sound of the five o’clock whistle.

The poor can live on far less than justice. But the poor have a half-life to outlast radium.

Back at the Inter-Continental Hotel, Twelfth Night is in progress. American businessmen in baggy swimsuits sit around the noisy waterfall reading about Japan. A woman of profoundly indeterminate age lopes by — Spandex, sunglasses, earphones. An aging kiddo in a bikini stands on his head while a golden Frisbee slices up to catch the fading light of California.

Spy Wednesday. Mexico would rather schedule a sucker-appointment than seem to deny a journalist’s request. I phone a city official in Tijuana. His secretary is at my service (a sus ordenes). She will phone me right back to confirm the appointment; no one calls back. I rush in for a 10:30 meeting with Senor B. or Licenciado R. His secretary is desolated to have to tell me that Senor B. or Licenciado R. is at a “mixer” in San Diego.

Information in an authoritarian society is power. In Mexico, power accumulates as information is withheld.

Or else I get an interview with a Mexican official and find that even the most innocuous rag of fact is off the record, por favor. The professor from the Colegio de la Frontera stops midsentence to crane his neck across the table whenever my pen touches paper.

I sit on an oversize sofa in the outer office of a Mexican big shot, studying his airbrushed photograph on the wall. I wait 30 minutes, an hour, before I pad back to the secretary’s desk. Senor B. was called away to Mexicali by the governor two days ago. Everything is so upset. Then the radiant smile, the dawning of an explanation.

This is Easter Week, senor.

Holy Thursday. I am going to La Casa de los Pobres, a kitchen for the poor run by Franciscan nuns. Evidently La Casa is well known, because the taxi driver doesn’t ask for directions.

As I sit in the back seat of the taxi, lulled by sensations of perambulation, I nevertheless attempt to memorize the route. I have seen worse neighborhoods than the ones we drive through. Detroit is worse. East London. But this is Mexico. Because Mexico is brown and I am brown, I fear being lost in Mexico.

When I get out of the cab, I am in a crowd; I am forced by the crowd through a gate and into a courtyard the color of yellow cake. I can smell coffee, cinnamon, eggs, frijoles.

I look around for Tom Lucas, a Jesuit priest from Berkeley who invited me here. All that I know about Tom Lucas I have learned from him over lunch at Chez Panisse. The man I recognize in the kitchen at La Casa is speaking Spanish with three Mexican nuns.

At 11 o’clock, groceries are handed out. The poor form a line; everyone in line holds a number. Volunteers are assigned stations behind a bank of tables. What a relief it is, after days of dream-walking, invisible, through an inedible city, to feel myself actually doing something, picking up something to hand to someone. Thus Mexico’s poor pass through my hands. Most women bring their own plastic bags. The bags are warm and smell of sweat as I fill them with four potatoes, two loaves of bread, two onions, a cup of pinto beans, a block of orange cheese. I thank each of the Mexicans. This baffles them, but they nod.

In the afternoon, Tom Lucas takes me with him to the Colonia Flores Magon, a poor section of Tijuana, not the poorest, considering the hills are green and there is a fresh wind blowing.

Even before our pickup comes to a full stop, doors have started to open. First one woman comes out of a house, then several more women come out of their houses, then more women are descending the hillsides.

“Padrecito,” the call is tossed among the women playfully. Most of these women are in their late 20s; most have several children.

Would it be possible, Father, for you to bless my house?

In the seminary Father Lucas may have imagined an activist, perhaps even a revolutionary ministry. He discourages the women from kissing his hand. Yes, he says, he will bless houses.

Some houses are solidly built of concrete blocks. Some houses resemble California suburban houses of the 1960s. Some houses have dirt floors and walls of tin. Some houses are papered with the Los Angeles Times. In front of many houses are tubs of soapy water.

People have heard there is a priest. Together we walk toward a neighborhood park — padrecito, the mothers, the children, the barking dogs. An altar is already set up. There are white carnations in coffee cans. White light bulbs have been strung in the branches of an olive tree. This is Holy Thursday, the commemoration of the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist. Twelve teenage boys have been rounded up by their mothers to slouch at the altar, dressed in bathrobes and sheets to impersonate the 12 Apostles. They grin stupidly at one another as Father Lucas washes their feet according to the ancient rite of divine humility.

A yellow fog is coming in over the hills behind us. Overhead a jetliner is pushing up from Tijuana International, slowly turning left, south, toward Guadalajara and Mexico City. Some people in the crowd seem bored, grow restless. Thirty yards behind the altar, teenagers are playing basketball.

In the rear of our pickup are cartons of day-old junk pastries from a San Diego bakery. My job will be to distribute these to the children after Mass. When I hear my cue from the altar — In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost — I climb over the tailgate and wait there with my arms folded, my legs spread, like a temple guardian. Then Father Lucas instructs parents to bring their children to the truck for a special treat.

Five or six children come forward. All goes well for less than a minute. The crowd has slowly turned away from the altar, blessing itself. Now the crowd advances zombielike against the truck. I’m afraid the children will be crushed. Cuidado! Silent faces regard me with incomprehension. An old hag with chicken skin on her arms grabs for my legs — extravagant swipes, lobster like, or as if she were plucking a harp — trying to reach the boxes behind me.

I fling the pastries over outstretched hands to the edge of the crowd. I throw package after package until there are no more. The crowd hesitates, draws back.

I sit in the truck for an hour waiting for Father Lucas to finish with them. Some bratty kids hang around the truck, trying to get my attention. I watch instead some old men as they stretch their hands toward a bonfire.

Around seven o’clock, Father Lucas places the unused consecrated wafers inside the glove compartment. The truck bounces on dusty roads.

There are few streetlights, no street names. After several dead ends, we are lost. Down one road, we come upon a pack of snarling dogs. Backing up, we come near to backing off a cliff. Once more we drive up a hill. Then Tom recognizes a house. A right turn, a left. The road takes on gravel. At the base of the canyon we see the highway leading to Ensenada. In the distance, I can see the lights of downtown Tijuana, and beyond, the glamorous lights that cradle San Diego Bay. It is a sight I never expected to see with Mexican eyes.

Good Friday. A gray afternoon in Chula Vista, a few miles north of the border. The U.S. Border Patrol station is Spanish colonial in design. The receptionist is Mexican-American. On the wall of the press office is a reproduction of an Aztec stone calendar.

There is a press office.

The PR officer says he is glad to have us — journalists — “helps in Washington if the public can get a sense of the scope of the problem.” The PR officer is preoccupied with a West German film crew. They were promised a ride in a helicopter. Where is the helicopter? Two journalists from a Tokyo daily — with five canvas bags of camera equipment between them — lean against the wall, their arms folded. One of them brings up his wrist to look at his watch. A reporter from Chicago catches my sleeve. Did I hear about last night?

Carload of Yugoslavs caught coming over.

The Japanese reporter who is not looking at his watch is popping Cheez-its into his mouth. The Border Patrol secretary has made an error. She has me down as a reporter for American Farmer. Apologies. White-out. I ...agree to abide by any oral directions given to me during the operation by the officer in charge of the unit. Having signed the form, I get introduced to a patrolman who will be my guide to the night. He is about my age and of about my accent, about my color, about my build.

We drive out. Almost immediately the patrolman stops his truck on a cliff. He hands me his binoculars. In the foreground are the last two miles of the United States of America, scrub canyon; and beyond, Tijuana—the oldest neighborhood — Colonia Libertad; and beyond, the new commercial skyline; and beyond, the sovereign hills of Mexico.

Somewhere up in those Mexican hills, Father Lucas is leading a Good Friday service. The Crucifixion will be re-enacted. There will be a procession. The man elected to play Christ will drag a pine cross up a gravel path. At the top of the hill, Christ will be strapped to his cross; the cross will be hoisted. Cristo will stand upon a pedestal on the upraised cross for about half an hour. He will hear only the wind in his ears as, below him, the crowd prays.

I have elected to spend the afternoon among the chariots and the charioteers. I raise the binoculars to my eyes. Throughout the canyon are people — men, in twos and threes. Down below, perhaps three miles away, is a level plain called the soccer field, because men who will cross the border often pass the time before dark playing soccer. There are pale fires — old women cooking chickens to sell. A Breughel-like wintry haze attends the setting of the sun.

Ten yards below us, a man, a boy, sits crosslegged by a fire, reading a book. He looks up at us but seems not to be aware of us. His lips move. He looks down to his book. He is memorizing.

“It’s almost always a learn-English book,” the patrolman says.

Around six o’clock, the wind comes up, the sky begins to flap like a tent. I can see the lights of rush-hour traffic at the San Ysidro border crossing. By now we are cruising a ragged cyclone fence. Some Mexican kids peek through, smiling.

“Sometimes people throw rocks,” says the patrolman.

Again we are on the mesa. It is dark. Helicopters drag blades of light through the canyons, rendering the crooked straight and the rough places plain. The patrolman confides he is using a code on his radio to alert his fellows that he carries Press. My tour will remain pretty much son et lumiere.

We come upon a posse of border patrolmen preparing to ride through the canyon on horseback. I get out of the truck; ask questions; pet the horses in the dark — prickly, moist, moving in my hand. An officer we meet obliges me with his night-vision telescope, from which I am encouraged to take a sample of the night. He calls me sir. He invites me so close to his chin, I smell cologne as I peer through the scope. It is as though I am being romanced at a cowboy cotillion.

The night is alive. The night is green as pond water, literally crawling with advancing lines of light.

A VIP shuttle van speeds down a hill Stateside; comes to a stop 20 feet beyond our truck. A side door slides open; five men in suits emerge. We stand together on a bluff, silent, grave as Roman senators in a Victor Mature movie. A woman remains inside the van. Petulant? Cold? I can just see the outline of her flared hairdo.

An hour late, we are parked. The patrolman turns off the lights of the truck — “Back in a minute” — a branch scrapes the door as he rolls out of the cab to take a piss. Brush crackles beneath his receding steps. I am alone.

Who? Who is out there?

Dishwashers, gardeners, field workers. Faces I have seen all my life. No big deal. There are pollos— inexperienced travelers in Tijuana slang. Women are pollos. Children are pollos.

Central Americans with all their money stuffed in their shoes are pollos.

Pollos have predators. One hand covers your mouth. Other hands tug at your clothing, swift to harvest your poor life. A kick to your belly, a jerk of your hair, the blade at your throat.

The cab lights up. The patrolman slides in. We drive again. In the dark, I do not separate myself from the patrolman’s intention.

The patrolman has cut his headlights. The truck accelerates, pitches off the rutted road, banging, the slam of a rock, faster, ignition is off, the truck is soft-pedaled to a stop in the dust; the patrolman is out like a shot. The cab light is on. I sit exposed. I can’t hear. I decide to follow. I leave my door open as the patrolman has done. There is a boulder in the field. Is that it? The patrolman is barking in Spanish. His flashlight is trained on the boulder. He traces his beam along the grain, as though he is untying a knot. Three men and a woman stand up. The men are young. Maybe 16. The youngest is shivering. He makes a fist. He looks down. The woman is young, too. Or she could be the mother. Her legs are thin. She wears a man’s wristwatch. They come from somewhere. And somewhere — San Diego, Sacramento — someone is waiting for them.

The patrolman tells them to take off their coats and their shoes; throw them in a pile. Another truck rolls up.

As a journalist I am allowed to come close. I can even ask questions.

There are no questions.

You can take your pictures, the patrolman says.

I stare at the faces. They stare at mine. To them I am not bearing witness; I am part of the process of being arrested. I hold up my camera; their eyes swallow the flash — a long tunnel, leading back.

Chula Vista. The streets are quiet. The patrolman has his eye on a taxi idling by the phone booth outside a 7-Eleven. (“They call for a taxi to take them into L.A. — anywhere from 50 bucks.”) Ignition. Lights. As we hurl forward, the taxi tears away. In front of the phone booth a solitary man, about 50 years old, makes one slow turn in our spotlight. He wears a Dodgers cap to make himself invisible. He smiles as the patrolman gets out of the truck. He extends his arms toward the patrolman, as a somnambulist would. Then he bows his head and delivers over his spirit.

Most people arrested are docile. They know the rules favor them. They will be taken to a detention center, which is a room full of Mexicans watching Johnny Carson. They will waive their right to a trial. In the cool of the morning they will be driven back to the border.

Holy Saturday. “Show me Tijuana, what you think I should see.” Four times during the week, with four different guides, I am given more or less the identical tour. Downtown muy rapido. Then leisurely south to Rosarito Beach, where the gringos have built condos (“like illegal aliens,” according to native wit). Then backtrack to Rodriguez Dam. The gray international airport. The smoked-glass towers of the Fiesta Americana Hotel. Then a slow sweep around the Tijuana Country Club and golf course, climbing toward the grandest houses in town.

This is the section of Tijuana known as Chapultepec. The name pays homage to a fashionable district of Mexico City. Here architectural styles derive less from Spanish-colonial memory, scarce in Tijuana, than from international eclecticism — Cinderella chateau. California Bauhaus. One is not rebuffed by the tall walls characteristic of the colonial high style of Mexico. One is rewarded, instead, with picture windows. The houses are constructed facing the United States.

Shall we stop the car? Get out for a look?

Think of the Joad family’s earlier view of the paradisaical Central Valley. Then think, many generations before the Joads, of Spanish galleons sailing up the Pacific Coast. California was first seen by the Spaniards — as through Asian eyes. Let this view from the hills of Tijuana stand as the modern vision of California.

My final tour of the city ends as an afterthought (because my host wants to buy some liquor for Easter) at the Rio Plaza, an American-style shopping mall. Walking through the parking lot in front of Sears, I think I might be in Stockton. Once inside the mall, I realize I have stumbled upon the zocalo of Tijuana.

Overfragranced crowds of Mexican teenagers are making their paseo between the record shop and the three-theater cine-complex. I pause to get my bearings and to measure the proportions of this city within a city. I am reminded of the model of an Aztec metropolis in a Mexico City museum; fancy leads me further to seek the Temple Mayor. I turn the corner and there it is, belching incense and idolatry, pulling like a magnet — the great temple of middle-class desire — a supermarket called Commercial Mexicana. Commercial is bigger, more crowded — happier — more prodigiously stocked than any supermarket I have ever seen. The meat counter ranges from beef intestines to translucent, delicate, slimy fish. To snake. To lung. To snout. To hoof. There are caldrons of congealed brown mole; there are ceiling-high pyramids of six-packs, eight-packs, econo-packs, super-savers. Boxes of detergent and bags of metallic-looking candies and packages of toilet paper come in gigantic Mexican “family” sizes never seen in America. There are luxuries, conveniences, necessities — everything. Everything! The only souvenir of the New World I decide to bring back with me are five bottles of Liquid Paper correction fluid, because I can’t believe the price.

Easter Sunday. Father Lucas phones me before I check out of my hotel in San Diego. The beer-belly who played Jesus refused, when the time came, to take off his shirt, so they had to hoist him up like Christ the King in a gold sweatshirt. By and by, Christ relented; the shirt came off. And somehow it all worked. Tom wishes I had been there. I should have heard the sound the cross made as it was dragged across the gravel. Jesus brought along some cronies to chat with him while he was on the cross. I should have seen the devout old ladies, the awestruck children, “the way it must have been in Jerusalem — a curious mixture of mood.”

Tom spent most of Saturday looking for a coffin for a baby. The parents were too poor to afford more than a shoe box. “Even the children here know about death. Brother lifts baby sister up so she can have a peek into the coffin.” For once, says Tom, for his own sake, he was glad of the book, the consolation of liturgy.

Tom says he is going back to the Colonia Flores Magon to celebrate Easter Mass in the park. Do I want to come along?

I do not.

I do not tell him I have made plans to meet friends for brunch in La Jolla. I put down the receiver. Not for the first time I am glad of the complaisances of the Inter-Continental Hotel.

The theme of city life is the theme of difference. People living separately, simultaneously. In all the great cities of the world, as in all the great novels, one senses this. The village mourns in unison, rejoices as one. But in the city... In Athens once, I remember sitting in an outdoor cafe, amid sun and cheese and flies, when a hearse with a picture window slid by, separated from its recognizing mourners by rush-hour traffic — an intersecting narrative line — which, nevertheless, did not make mourners of us, of the cafe.

Taken together as one, Tijuana and San Diego form the most fascinating new city in the world, a city of world-class irony. Within 30 minutes of the checkout desk at the Inter-Continental, I am once more on the Avenida Revolucion, where shopkeepers are sweeping sidewalks, awaiting an onslaught of turistas.

Inside Tijuana’s aquamarine cathedral, I sit behind a family of four — a father, a mother, a boy, a girl. They have thick hair. At the elevation of the host, each holds up a tiny homemade cross of stapled palm leaves.

Less than an hour later, I am in La Jolla.

Where friends want to know what I think of Tijuana, I shrug. (I imagine the dead baby packed away in orchids.) It’s there, I say.

But what I want to say is that Tijuana is here. It has arrived. Silent as a Trojan horse, inevitably as a flotilla of boat people, more confounding in its innocence, in its power of proclamation, than Spielberg’s most pious vision of a flying saucer.

Later in the afternoon, in a cold spring wind, we walk around Louis Kahn’s concrete Salk Institute, admiring the way California wanted to imagine its future. We walk on toward the beach. The sky has filled with hang gliders, drifting, silently drifting, like wondrous red- and blue-winged angels, over the sea.

From Days of Obligation by Richard Rodriguez. Copyright Richard Rodriguez, 1992. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc.

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San Diego State math guy, South Bay realtor, North Coast Rep actor, UCSD cognitive scientist

San Diego Smart
"Tijuana is where Mexico comes to an end." - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
"Tijuana is where Mexico comes to an end."

Palm Sunday. In the parking lot there is only silence and the scent of suntan lotion.

There is a turnstile.

Through which American tourists enter Mexico as at a state fair. Mexicans pass with the cardboard boxes they are using as suitcases. Some men are putting up palm trees. An old woman proffers sno-cones that look like bulbs of blood. She is wearing Gloria Vanderbilt jeans and jogging shoes.

I pass through the turnstile.

"Manana is the Mexican’s gloss on the light of day."

Already the sun feels older. Indian women sit on the pavement, their crafts spread out before them. There are wristbands of woven yarn, dolls made of ribbon, vibrant bushes of nodding paper poppies.

Hands and voices, beseeching eyes and rattling cups gather to surround me as I tread the gauntlet of pathetic enterprise.

CHICLETS. CHICLETOS.

"In San Diego people speak of “the border” as meaning a clean break, the end of us, the beginning of them."

Little girls not four years old sell Chiclets. Blind old women in blankets hawk Chiclets. Why? Why these little tiles of sugar jade? In Tijuana as in Bombay. A woman holding her baby with one arm will rattle a gross of Chiclets with her free hand. Five cents.

Tijuana, downtown. Taxi, mister? Taxi?

"...but Mexico has a more graceful sense of universal corruption."

Chiclets, Taxi, are urgent questions in Tijuana, questions that soonest teach the visitor the custody of his eyes.

A boy sits on a ledge above the bay of taxis. He wears a cap — like a stage-urchin’s cap. His face is wan and wolfen. His muzzle parts over sharpish teeth; his nostrils dilate to savor the crowd. Slowly he turns his face from side to side, as he would do if he were ravishing himself with a shaving brush, where is he taking me? In the second place, cab drivers still offer male passengers cualquier cosa as a matter of form.

"Mexicans speak of America as 'the other side...'"

For all that, you are deposited safely when the cab driver announces, with a distracted wave of the hand, “El Main Street.” El Main Street is what you’d expect of the region’s fifth tourist attraction, after the San Diego Zoo, Sea World, some others. A Mexico ride. A quick shot of the foreign. Unmetered taxis. Ultramontane tongue. Disney Calcutta.

I am thinking of my first trip across: the late 1950s. We were on our way to visit relatives in Ensenada. We had driven all day from Sacramento in the blue DeSoto, and we reached the border around midnight. I remember waking in the back seat. A fat Mexican in a brown uniform was making beckoning gestures in the light from our headlamps. This isn't Mexico, this isn’t Mexico, my mother kept saying, clucking, smoothing. Tijuana is just a border town; you see the worst here. You’ll see. I remember my father hunched forward at the wheel. The DeSoto was acting up. It was too late to drive anymore. I remember a Saturday night, a big street full of scuffle and shadow: naked lights, persons stumbling, jeering. We found a motel by the bus station. We all slept on a double bed with a green velvet cover. We kept our clothes on. The air was heavy. Wet. I listened to faraway music. American music.

Mexico!

Most tourists come for the afternoon. Most tourists stay three or four hours, just between meals. After the shops, after the scolding sighs, after the bottled drinks, there is nothing to do but head back.

Another Sunday, 1961. I was spending a week with the Faherty's at Laguna Beach. Ernest Hemingway had shot himself in the mouth. (I was Hemingway’s widow. I had read all his novels.) We were in Tijuana for the afternoon. We went to the new bullring by the sea. We sat in the expensive shade. On the opposite side were dark men in white shirts. Kim Novak was sitting a few rows in front of us. Pellets of blood struck the dust all afternoon. The Mexicans cheered the bull because the brave bull took so many thrusts of the matador’s blade and yet refused to die. But the bull did die. The Mexicans cheered the matador. The matador passed a buzzing sachet — the ears of the bull — to Kim Novak while the band played a comic gavotte. Before it got dark, we drove back. Mr. Faherty had my birth certificate in his wallet, just in case. When an immigration officer questioned me over Mrs. Faherty’s shoulder, I answered in a voice he accepted as having no accent; we were flagged forward. We stopped at Old Town in San Diego for a Mexican dinner.

Consider Tijuana from Mexico’s point of view. Tijuana is farther away from Mexico City than any other city in Mexico. Tijuana is where Mexico comes to an end.

In Mexico City you will waste an afternoon if you go to bookstores looking for books about Tijuana. The clerk will scarcely conceal his amusement. (And what would be in a book about Tijuana?) People in Mexico City will tell you, if they have anything at all to say about Tijuana, that Tijuana is a city without history, a city without architecture, an American city. San Diego may worry about Mexican hordes crawling over the border. Mexico City worries about a cultural spill from the United States.

From prehistory, the North has been the problem. Mexico City (la capital) has been the platform from which all provincialism is gauged. From the North came marauding tribes, iconoclasts, destroyers of high Indian civilization. During the Spanish colonial era, the North was settled, even garrisoned, but scarcely civilized. In the 19th Century, Mexico’s northernmost territories were too far from the center to be defended against America’s westward expansion. In after-decades, the North spawned revolutionaries and bandits, or these fled into the North and the North hid them well.

Beyond all the ribbon-cutting palaver about good neighbors, there remains an awesome distance of time. Tijuana and San Diego are not in the same historical time zone. Tijuana is poised at the beginning of an industrial age, a Dickensian city with palm trees. San Diego is a postindustrial city of high-impact plastic and despair diets. And palm trees. San Diego faces west, looks resolutely out to sea. Tijuana stares north, as toward the future. San Diego is the future — secular, soulless. San Diego is the past, guarding its quality of life. Tijuana is the future.

On the Mexican side there is flux, a vast migration, a camp of siege. On the Mexican side is youth, with bad skin or bad teeth, but with a naive optimism appropriate to youth.

On the American side are petitions to declare English the official language of the United States; the Ku Klux Klan; nativists posing as environmentalists, blaming illegal immigration for freeway congestion. And late at night, on the radio call-in shows, hysterical, reasonable American voices say they have had enough. Of this or that. Of trampled flower beds. Of waiting in line or crowded buses, of real or imagined rudeness, of welfare.

In San Diego people speak of “the border” as meaning a clean break, the end of us, the beginning of them. In Mexican Spanish, the legality takes on distance, even pathos, as la frontera, meaning something less fixed, something more akin to the American “frontier.” Whereas San Diego remains provincial and retiring, the intrusion of the United States has galvanized Tijuana to cosmopolitanism. There are seven newspapers in Tijuana; there is American television — everything we see they see. Central American refugees and Southern California turistas cross paths in Tijuana. There are new ideas. Most worrisome to Mexico City has been the emergence of a right-wing idea, a pro-American politics to challenge the one-party system that has governed Mexico for most of this century.

Because the United States is the richer country, the more powerful broadcaster, Mexicans know more about us than we care to know about them. Mexicans speak of America as “the other side,” saying they are going to el otro lado when they cross for work, legal or illegal. The border is real enough: it is guarded by men with guns. But Mexicans incline to view the border without reverence, referring to the American side as el otro cachete, the other buttock.

Traditionally, Mexican cities are centered by a town square or zocalo, on either side of which stand city hall and cathedral, counterweights to balance the secular with the eternal. Tijuana never had a zocalo. And, like other California cities, Tijuana is receding from its old downtown.

The new commercial district of Tijuana, three miles east of downtown, is called the Zona del Rio. For several blocks within the Zona del Rio, on grass islands in the middle of the Paseo de los Heroes, stand monuments to various of Mexico’s heroes. There is one American (Abraham Lincoln) in a line that otherwise connects the good Aztec, Cuauhtemoc, to the victorious Mexican general, Zaragoza. With Kremlin-like dullness, these monuments were set down upon the city, paperweights upon a map. They are gifts from the capital, meant as reminders.

Prominent along the Paseo de los Heroes is Tijuana’s Cultural Center, Mexico City’s most insistent token of troth. Tijuana might better have done with sewers or streetlights, but in 1982 the Mexican government built Tijuana a cultural center, an orange concrete bomba in the brutal architectural idioms of the 1970s. The main building is a museum, very clean and empty during my visit, except for a janitor who trails me with a vacuum cleaner. Together we tread a ramp past fairly uninteresting displays of Mayan pottery, past folk crafts, past reproductions of political documents and portraits of Mexico’s military heroes. The lesson to Tijuana is clear: she belongs to Mexico.

As the exhibits travel in time, south to north, the umbilical approach narrows to gossamer. We reach a display devoted to Tijuana’s own history. We find a collection of picture postcards from the ’20s, emblazoned in English with “Greetings from Old Mexico.”

One sympathizes with the curator’s dilemma. How does one depict the history of so unmonumental a city, a city occasioned by defeat and submission to the enemy’s will?

The treaty ending the Mexican-American War ruled a longitudinal line between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. For decades thereafter, Tijuana remained vacant land at the edge of the sea, an arid little clause dangling from Mexico’s disgraced 19th Century.

No one in Tijuana is able to fix for me the derivation of the name of the place. Some say it is an Indian name. Some think the town was named for a woman who lived in a shack at the turn of the century, a Mexican Ma Kettle known in the region as Tia Juana.

Mexico City tried to dispose of the name in 1925. By an act of Mexico’s congress, Tijuana was proclaimed to be Ciudad Zaragoza. A good name. A patriot’s name. The resolution languished in a statute book on a shelf in Mexico City, 2000 miles away.

Monday of Holy Week. On the side streets of the Zona Norte, by the old bus station, Mexican men loiter outside the doors of open bars. From within come stale blasts of American rock. Is this all that is left of the fleshpots of T.J.?

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We are a generation removed from that other city, the city generations of American men mispronounced as “Tee-ah-wanna,” by which they named an alter-ego American city, a succubus that could take them about as far as they wanted to go. At the turn of the century, when boxing was illegal in San Diego, there was blood sport in Tijuana. There were whores and there was gambling and there was drink.

Mexico spends millions to lure Americans toward the sun; Mexico’s allure has for a longer time been as the dark, a country of nuance and mascara.

Civic leaders in Tijuana are ashamed of the lewd tattoo on the reputation of their city. Progressives refer to the past as “the dark legend.” Tijuana would rather you noticed the daytime city — the office towers, the industrial parks.

Traditionally, Mexicans eat at about the time Americans get ready for bed. Mexicans move as naturally and comfortably in the dark as cats or wolves or owls do. Mexicans take their famous promenade around the plaza it night, meet and gossip beneath the lamppost. Mexicans get drunk and sing like cats beneath the moon.

Traditionally, Mexicans have been ridiculed by Americans as people who sleep the day away. The figure on the ceramic ashtray, the figure that forms the bookend — the Mexican figurine is forever taking his siesta, propped against a cactus, shaded by his sombrero. Mexicans are always late or, refusing to be circumscribed by time, they resort to manana. Manana is the Mexican’s gloss on the light of day. Manana, by definition, will never come. Manana intends to undo all the adages of the English language. Waste not, want not. Don’t put off till tomorrow. A stitch in time.

Do you linger over the figurine? Today, for you — eight dollars.

Mexican cynicism is an aspect of the Mexican habit of always seeking the shade. Nothing is what it seems in the light of day. The Mexican politician wears dark glasses. He says one thing.

Everyone understands the reverse to be true. The traffic citation can be commuted with a bribe. The listed price is subverted with a wink.

What is money between friends? Six dollars?

Americans distrust Mexican shading. The genius of American culture and its integrity come from fidelity to the light. Plain as day, we say. Happy as the day is long. Early to bed, early to rise. Up and at ’em. American virtues are daylight virtues: honesty, plain style. We say yes when we mean yes and no when we mean no. Americans take short shrift from sorrow, reassuring one another that tomorrow is another day or time heals all wounds or things will look better in the morning.

A teenage policeman says: “The gringos find our downtown so ugly? They were the ones who made it.” Which is true enough, though the lustier truth is that Mexican cynicism met American hypocrisy in Tijuana. Mexico lay down and the gringo paid in the morning.

At its best and worst, Mexico is tolerant. Spanish Catholicism bequeathed to Mexico an assumption of Original Sin. Much in life is failure or compromise. The knowledge has left Mexico patient as a desert and tolerant of corruptions that have played upon her surface. Public officials tread a path to corruption, just as men need their whores. No importa. Mexico manages to live.

The intimate life, the family life — abundant and eternal — is Mexico’s consolation against the knowledge of sin. Mamacita, sainted Mama, stokes her daughter’s purity, which is a jewel betokening the family’s virtue. A woman of Tijuana tells me she was never permitted by her parents within two blocks of Avenida Revolucion. Young ladies of Tijuana required duenas long after Mexico City had discontinued the habit.

I am chaperoned through the city by an official from the Comite de Turismo y Convenciones. Her English is about as bad as my Spanish. We stroll the Avenida Revolucion, recently beautified — wider sidewalks, new blighted trees. There, says my hostess, where the Woolworth’s now stands, where disinterested hag beggars squat, palms extended over their heads, used to be the longest bar in the world. And over there, beyond the blue tourist bus (which is being decanted by a smiling guide with a very wide tie) is the restaurant where two Italian brothers named Cardini created the Caesar salad back in the ’20s.

In Tijuana, as in Las Vegas, another city constructed on sand, and almost as old, history is a matter of matchbook covers and cocktail napkins.

Tijuana used to be very glamorous, promises my companion from the Comite de Turismo y Convenciones. We are considering a building (a trade school) where the Casino de Agua Caliente once stood. She thinks. She herself is from Guadalajara. Anyway, all the famous movie stars used to come down.

Among the however many million volumes in the library at the University of California in San Diego there is one green book about Tijuana — not thick — a history written by John Price, an American professor. The book includes photographs of the Casino de Agua Caliente in the ’20s — Moorish architecture, shadows of palm trees, silver sky.

In the same green book, a photograph survives of Sheilah Graham, she on a mule; Tijuana sombrero; hilarious. Her attendant Joseph is none other than the tarnished high priest of the ’20s, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Both look foolish in ways they hadn’t intended.

San Diego changed first. By the 1940s, Prohibition was over and Tijuana had lost some of its glamorous utility. During the war, Tijuana was relegated to the sailor’s rest. From those war years, a Venusberg lore has passed from American fathers to sons, together with prescriptions against infection. Wet dreams advance on the cackle of a lewd horn: a blinking neon cactus; a two-quart margarita; and any of several more lurid images, like mademoiselles who can pick quarters off the table without using their hands.

Tijuana is now offlimits to the U.S. Navy between 8:00 p.m. and dawn. The press officer at the San Diego Naval Station tells me sailors have been harassed by the Tijuana police.

But if you want pornography, go to San Diego, the Mexicans say. And you won’t see people selling drugs on the streets of Tijuana. When the Mexican woman wants an abortion, she crosses the border, the Mexicans say.

There is the father in Tijuana who worries that his teenage son is living under the radiant cloud of American pop culture, its drugs, its disrespect, its despair. San Diego’s morning paper quotes officials in Washington concerning corrupt Mexican officials and an unchecked northern flow of drugs. Washington does not credit America’s hunger for drugs with raising drug lords south of the border.

Mexico does not deny any of it — well, some — but Mexico has a more graceful sense of universal corruption. What Mexico comprehends is a balance between supply and demand. The Mexican comprehends public morality as a balance — the ethereal parts of any balanced thing rise by virtue of the regrettable ballast. The border, for instance. For Mexicans, the border is not that rigid, Puritan thing, a line. (Straight lines are unknown in Mexico.) The border, like everything else, is subject to supply and demand. The border is a revolving door.

U.S. Immigration officials describe the San Ysidro border crossing as “the busiest in the world.” If U.S. Immigration officials counted 40 million people passing through the San Ysidro border crossing last year, Mexico assumes a two-way street. So Tijuana had the same 40 million visitors last year. Tijuana bills itself “the most visited city in the world.” It becomes, in a way, the Mexican’s joke on the gringo’s paranoia, his penchant for numbers, his fear of invasion or contamination.

The trouble with gringo tourists, the Mexican hotel manager confides, is their temerity abroad. The water! Nothing wrong with the water, the Mexican says: I drink it all day. The gringos won’t swim in the pool or sing in the shower or suck on the ice. They pick at their food. Is it safe? Is it clean?

America has long imagined itself clean, crew-cut, ingenuous. We are an odorless, colorless, accentless, orderly people, put upon and vulnerable to the foreign. Aliens are carriers of chaos — Mexicans are obviously carriers of chaos — their backs are broken with bundles of it: gray air, brown water, papacy, leprosy, crime, diarrhea, white powders, and a language full of newts and cicadas.

Mexico does not say it publicly but Mexico perceives America as sterile, as sterilizing, as barren as the nose of a missile. “Don’t drink the water in Los Angeles,” goes the joke, “it will clean you out like a scalpel.” Because Americans are barren by choice, Americans are perceived by Mexico as having relinquished gravity. Within the porticos of the great churches of Mexico are signs reminding visitors to behave with dignity. The signs are in English.

Seasoned visitors from Southern California pass right on through Tijuana, as through some final entanglement with history. Campers and jeeps head south into the vacant depths of Baja — California’s newest, unofficial national park. Just as an earlier generation used Tijuana to refresh its virtue, so once again Californians use Mexico as an opposite planet. As pollution settles over Orange County, Baja California is prized for its pristine desert, its abiding austerity. Even so, Southern California is busy re-creating itself on the far coasts of Baja, building condos, negotiating time-share beach houses in subdivisions with street names like Vista Mar.

Gingerly I am steered through the inedible city by my hostess from the Comite de Turismo y Convenciones. Street vendors offer unclean enchantments, whirling platters of melon and pineapple, translucent candies, brilliant syrups, charcoaled meats, black and red. All are tempting, all inedible. Mexicans bite and lick and chew and swallow. I begin to feel myself a Jamesian naif who puzzles and perspires and will not dare.

“The usual visit, then, three or four hours?”

I notice my hostess is surreptitiously consulting her wristwatch. I’m spending the week, I tell her. I admit to her that I am visiting Tijuana by day, sleeping in San Diego at night.

Ah.

We stop at a cafe. She offers me something to drink.

A soft drink, perhaps?

No, I say.

Cerveza?

But suddenly I fear giving offense. I notice apothecary jars full of improbably colored juices, the colors of calcified paint.

Maybe some jugo, please.

Offense to whom? That I fear drinking Mexico?

A waiter appears from stage left with a tall glass of canary yellow.

Ah.

We are all very pleased. It’s lovely today. I put the glass to my lips.

But I do not drink.

Tuesday of Holy Week. A noisy artificial waterfall outside my window at the Intercontinental Hotel in San Diego is designed to drown out the noise of traffic. The traffic report on the radio posts a 30-minute delay at the San Ysidro border crossing. Children of upper-class Tijuana are crossing into San Diego for school. Mexicans with green cards are heading to their American jobs. From the American side, technicians, engineers, and supervisors are heading for jobs in Tijuana. The 30-minute delay is in both directions.

It was in the 19th Century that American entrepreneurs began reaching into Mexico for cheap labor to build California. In good times, most Americans approved the arrangement, hard work for low wages. But whenever the economy dipped, Mexicans slid down the board. They bumpered up in Tijuana.

Leo Chavez, an anthropologist in San Diego, tells me there is nothing inexplicable about illegal immigration. America lured the Mexican worker; America established the financial dependency that today America relegates to realms of tragedy. Sons following fathers north; it became a rite of passage — “like going to college,” Chavez observes. Tijuana is crowded today with such families. Papa crosses over into the 21st Century; Mama raises the kids at the edge of the 19th Century.

Tijuana is not Mayhew’s London; there are no dark naves of Victorian mills. You see smoke on the horizon. It turns out to be a bonfire on a vacant lot. That this is an optimistic city is apparent mainly in the traffic.

One sees few pedestrians (few sidewalks). Dogs roam dusty lots. In Colonia Libertad some teenagers gather about a car without wheels. If the car had wheels they wouldn’t be there.

All the adages about California cities — suburbs in search of a center, no there there — describe Tijuana also. Tijuana is a municipio, something like an American county. Tijuana extends about 25 miles south and east from its old downtown to include surrounding townships. All are united by one mayor and a single ambition. The ambition of Tijuana is American dollars.

In the lobby of the Lucerna Hotel, I see the sort of family one sees in only two or three hotels in Mexico City. Father with a preoccupied look and thin watch; mother elegant, glacially indulgent of her three children, who squirm under the watchful eye of an Indian nanny.

The word for money in Tijuana is maquiladora. Maquiladora means assembly plant. Twenty years ago, the Mexican government established a duty-free zone along the border, permitting foreign companies to transport parts and raw materials into Mexico. The assembled products could then be shipped to the United States for consumption.

Most of the foreign-owned assembly plants are in new, quietly marked buildings on the east side of town wherein thousands of doomed senoritas spin dreams of love and idleness as their nimble fingers assemble the detritus of modern civilization. The manager of one assembly plant by the airport predicts that all of Mexico will soon look like Tijuana. No one looks up as we pass. In a corner, beneath a metallic template marking the exit, is a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Tijuana is an industrial park on the outskirts of Minneapolis. Tijuana is a colony of Tokyo. Tijuana is a Taiwanese sweatshop. Tijuana is a smudge beyond the linden trees of Hamburg. There is complicity between businessmen — hands across the border— and shared optimism.

On the San Diego side businessmen speak of “mutual benefit,” by which is meant profit from the proximity, of technology and despair. What capitalism has in mind for Tijuana depends upon the availability of great numbers of the Mexican poor; depends upon the poor regaining poor. For their labor Mexicans are paid Mexican wages. Mexico’s daily wage is America’s hourly wage. Some such deal involving cheap labor has doubtless brought Papa to meet his Japanese counterpart in the lobby of the Lucerna Hotel.

A second border crossing has opened at Otay Mesa. In my rented car I traverse the rust-colored fields. I look to left and to right, trying to imagine the industrial Camelot.

Yes, freighted trucks will pass emptied trucks back and forth across the border. Yes, profit will rise from the interaction of stable with unstable economies. But this time America will not be able to get rid of Tijuana once we have done with her poor. Tokyo can. The Koreans are only renting Tijuana for the season. But the anticipatory, desperate city massing beyond the cyclone fence is not going to dissipate into ether at the sound of the five o’clock whistle.

The poor can live on far less than justice. But the poor have a half-life to outlast radium.

Back at the Inter-Continental Hotel, Twelfth Night is in progress. American businessmen in baggy swimsuits sit around the noisy waterfall reading about Japan. A woman of profoundly indeterminate age lopes by — Spandex, sunglasses, earphones. An aging kiddo in a bikini stands on his head while a golden Frisbee slices up to catch the fading light of California.

Spy Wednesday. Mexico would rather schedule a sucker-appointment than seem to deny a journalist’s request. I phone a city official in Tijuana. His secretary is at my service (a sus ordenes). She will phone me right back to confirm the appointment; no one calls back. I rush in for a 10:30 meeting with Senor B. or Licenciado R. His secretary is desolated to have to tell me that Senor B. or Licenciado R. is at a “mixer” in San Diego.

Information in an authoritarian society is power. In Mexico, power accumulates as information is withheld.

Or else I get an interview with a Mexican official and find that even the most innocuous rag of fact is off the record, por favor. The professor from the Colegio de la Frontera stops midsentence to crane his neck across the table whenever my pen touches paper.

I sit on an oversize sofa in the outer office of a Mexican big shot, studying his airbrushed photograph on the wall. I wait 30 minutes, an hour, before I pad back to the secretary’s desk. Senor B. was called away to Mexicali by the governor two days ago. Everything is so upset. Then the radiant smile, the dawning of an explanation.

This is Easter Week, senor.

Holy Thursday. I am going to La Casa de los Pobres, a kitchen for the poor run by Franciscan nuns. Evidently La Casa is well known, because the taxi driver doesn’t ask for directions.

As I sit in the back seat of the taxi, lulled by sensations of perambulation, I nevertheless attempt to memorize the route. I have seen worse neighborhoods than the ones we drive through. Detroit is worse. East London. But this is Mexico. Because Mexico is brown and I am brown, I fear being lost in Mexico.

When I get out of the cab, I am in a crowd; I am forced by the crowd through a gate and into a courtyard the color of yellow cake. I can smell coffee, cinnamon, eggs, frijoles.

I look around for Tom Lucas, a Jesuit priest from Berkeley who invited me here. All that I know about Tom Lucas I have learned from him over lunch at Chez Panisse. The man I recognize in the kitchen at La Casa is speaking Spanish with three Mexican nuns.

At 11 o’clock, groceries are handed out. The poor form a line; everyone in line holds a number. Volunteers are assigned stations behind a bank of tables. What a relief it is, after days of dream-walking, invisible, through an inedible city, to feel myself actually doing something, picking up something to hand to someone. Thus Mexico’s poor pass through my hands. Most women bring their own plastic bags. The bags are warm and smell of sweat as I fill them with four potatoes, two loaves of bread, two onions, a cup of pinto beans, a block of orange cheese. I thank each of the Mexicans. This baffles them, but they nod.

In the afternoon, Tom Lucas takes me with him to the Colonia Flores Magon, a poor section of Tijuana, not the poorest, considering the hills are green and there is a fresh wind blowing.

Even before our pickup comes to a full stop, doors have started to open. First one woman comes out of a house, then several more women come out of their houses, then more women are descending the hillsides.

“Padrecito,” the call is tossed among the women playfully. Most of these women are in their late 20s; most have several children.

Would it be possible, Father, for you to bless my house?

In the seminary Father Lucas may have imagined an activist, perhaps even a revolutionary ministry. He discourages the women from kissing his hand. Yes, he says, he will bless houses.

Some houses are solidly built of concrete blocks. Some houses resemble California suburban houses of the 1960s. Some houses have dirt floors and walls of tin. Some houses are papered with the Los Angeles Times. In front of many houses are tubs of soapy water.

People have heard there is a priest. Together we walk toward a neighborhood park — padrecito, the mothers, the children, the barking dogs. An altar is already set up. There are white carnations in coffee cans. White light bulbs have been strung in the branches of an olive tree. This is Holy Thursday, the commemoration of the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist. Twelve teenage boys have been rounded up by their mothers to slouch at the altar, dressed in bathrobes and sheets to impersonate the 12 Apostles. They grin stupidly at one another as Father Lucas washes their feet according to the ancient rite of divine humility.

A yellow fog is coming in over the hills behind us. Overhead a jetliner is pushing up from Tijuana International, slowly turning left, south, toward Guadalajara and Mexico City. Some people in the crowd seem bored, grow restless. Thirty yards behind the altar, teenagers are playing basketball.

In the rear of our pickup are cartons of day-old junk pastries from a San Diego bakery. My job will be to distribute these to the children after Mass. When I hear my cue from the altar — In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost — I climb over the tailgate and wait there with my arms folded, my legs spread, like a temple guardian. Then Father Lucas instructs parents to bring their children to the truck for a special treat.

Five or six children come forward. All goes well for less than a minute. The crowd has slowly turned away from the altar, blessing itself. Now the crowd advances zombielike against the truck. I’m afraid the children will be crushed. Cuidado! Silent faces regard me with incomprehension. An old hag with chicken skin on her arms grabs for my legs — extravagant swipes, lobster like, or as if she were plucking a harp — trying to reach the boxes behind me.

I fling the pastries over outstretched hands to the edge of the crowd. I throw package after package until there are no more. The crowd hesitates, draws back.

I sit in the truck for an hour waiting for Father Lucas to finish with them. Some bratty kids hang around the truck, trying to get my attention. I watch instead some old men as they stretch their hands toward a bonfire.

Around seven o’clock, Father Lucas places the unused consecrated wafers inside the glove compartment. The truck bounces on dusty roads.

There are few streetlights, no street names. After several dead ends, we are lost. Down one road, we come upon a pack of snarling dogs. Backing up, we come near to backing off a cliff. Once more we drive up a hill. Then Tom recognizes a house. A right turn, a left. The road takes on gravel. At the base of the canyon we see the highway leading to Ensenada. In the distance, I can see the lights of downtown Tijuana, and beyond, the glamorous lights that cradle San Diego Bay. It is a sight I never expected to see with Mexican eyes.

Good Friday. A gray afternoon in Chula Vista, a few miles north of the border. The U.S. Border Patrol station is Spanish colonial in design. The receptionist is Mexican-American. On the wall of the press office is a reproduction of an Aztec stone calendar.

There is a press office.

The PR officer says he is glad to have us — journalists — “helps in Washington if the public can get a sense of the scope of the problem.” The PR officer is preoccupied with a West German film crew. They were promised a ride in a helicopter. Where is the helicopter? Two journalists from a Tokyo daily — with five canvas bags of camera equipment between them — lean against the wall, their arms folded. One of them brings up his wrist to look at his watch. A reporter from Chicago catches my sleeve. Did I hear about last night?

Carload of Yugoslavs caught coming over.

The Japanese reporter who is not looking at his watch is popping Cheez-its into his mouth. The Border Patrol secretary has made an error. She has me down as a reporter for American Farmer. Apologies. White-out. I ...agree to abide by any oral directions given to me during the operation by the officer in charge of the unit. Having signed the form, I get introduced to a patrolman who will be my guide to the night. He is about my age and of about my accent, about my color, about my build.

We drive out. Almost immediately the patrolman stops his truck on a cliff. He hands me his binoculars. In the foreground are the last two miles of the United States of America, scrub canyon; and beyond, Tijuana—the oldest neighborhood — Colonia Libertad; and beyond, the new commercial skyline; and beyond, the sovereign hills of Mexico.

Somewhere up in those Mexican hills, Father Lucas is leading a Good Friday service. The Crucifixion will be re-enacted. There will be a procession. The man elected to play Christ will drag a pine cross up a gravel path. At the top of the hill, Christ will be strapped to his cross; the cross will be hoisted. Cristo will stand upon a pedestal on the upraised cross for about half an hour. He will hear only the wind in his ears as, below him, the crowd prays.

I have elected to spend the afternoon among the chariots and the charioteers. I raise the binoculars to my eyes. Throughout the canyon are people — men, in twos and threes. Down below, perhaps three miles away, is a level plain called the soccer field, because men who will cross the border often pass the time before dark playing soccer. There are pale fires — old women cooking chickens to sell. A Breughel-like wintry haze attends the setting of the sun.

Ten yards below us, a man, a boy, sits crosslegged by a fire, reading a book. He looks up at us but seems not to be aware of us. His lips move. He looks down to his book. He is memorizing.

“It’s almost always a learn-English book,” the patrolman says.

Around six o’clock, the wind comes up, the sky begins to flap like a tent. I can see the lights of rush-hour traffic at the San Ysidro border crossing. By now we are cruising a ragged cyclone fence. Some Mexican kids peek through, smiling.

“Sometimes people throw rocks,” says the patrolman.

Again we are on the mesa. It is dark. Helicopters drag blades of light through the canyons, rendering the crooked straight and the rough places plain. The patrolman confides he is using a code on his radio to alert his fellows that he carries Press. My tour will remain pretty much son et lumiere.

We come upon a posse of border patrolmen preparing to ride through the canyon on horseback. I get out of the truck; ask questions; pet the horses in the dark — prickly, moist, moving in my hand. An officer we meet obliges me with his night-vision telescope, from which I am encouraged to take a sample of the night. He calls me sir. He invites me so close to his chin, I smell cologne as I peer through the scope. It is as though I am being romanced at a cowboy cotillion.

The night is alive. The night is green as pond water, literally crawling with advancing lines of light.

A VIP shuttle van speeds down a hill Stateside; comes to a stop 20 feet beyond our truck. A side door slides open; five men in suits emerge. We stand together on a bluff, silent, grave as Roman senators in a Victor Mature movie. A woman remains inside the van. Petulant? Cold? I can just see the outline of her flared hairdo.

An hour late, we are parked. The patrolman turns off the lights of the truck — “Back in a minute” — a branch scrapes the door as he rolls out of the cab to take a piss. Brush crackles beneath his receding steps. I am alone.

Who? Who is out there?

Dishwashers, gardeners, field workers. Faces I have seen all my life. No big deal. There are pollos— inexperienced travelers in Tijuana slang. Women are pollos. Children are pollos.

Central Americans with all their money stuffed in their shoes are pollos.

Pollos have predators. One hand covers your mouth. Other hands tug at your clothing, swift to harvest your poor life. A kick to your belly, a jerk of your hair, the blade at your throat.

The cab lights up. The patrolman slides in. We drive again. In the dark, I do not separate myself from the patrolman’s intention.

The patrolman has cut his headlights. The truck accelerates, pitches off the rutted road, banging, the slam of a rock, faster, ignition is off, the truck is soft-pedaled to a stop in the dust; the patrolman is out like a shot. The cab light is on. I sit exposed. I can’t hear. I decide to follow. I leave my door open as the patrolman has done. There is a boulder in the field. Is that it? The patrolman is barking in Spanish. His flashlight is trained on the boulder. He traces his beam along the grain, as though he is untying a knot. Three men and a woman stand up. The men are young. Maybe 16. The youngest is shivering. He makes a fist. He looks down. The woman is young, too. Or she could be the mother. Her legs are thin. She wears a man’s wristwatch. They come from somewhere. And somewhere — San Diego, Sacramento — someone is waiting for them.

The patrolman tells them to take off their coats and their shoes; throw them in a pile. Another truck rolls up.

As a journalist I am allowed to come close. I can even ask questions.

There are no questions.

You can take your pictures, the patrolman says.

I stare at the faces. They stare at mine. To them I am not bearing witness; I am part of the process of being arrested. I hold up my camera; their eyes swallow the flash — a long tunnel, leading back.

Chula Vista. The streets are quiet. The patrolman has his eye on a taxi idling by the phone booth outside a 7-Eleven. (“They call for a taxi to take them into L.A. — anywhere from 50 bucks.”) Ignition. Lights. As we hurl forward, the taxi tears away. In front of the phone booth a solitary man, about 50 years old, makes one slow turn in our spotlight. He wears a Dodgers cap to make himself invisible. He smiles as the patrolman gets out of the truck. He extends his arms toward the patrolman, as a somnambulist would. Then he bows his head and delivers over his spirit.

Most people arrested are docile. They know the rules favor them. They will be taken to a detention center, which is a room full of Mexicans watching Johnny Carson. They will waive their right to a trial. In the cool of the morning they will be driven back to the border.

Holy Saturday. “Show me Tijuana, what you think I should see.” Four times during the week, with four different guides, I am given more or less the identical tour. Downtown muy rapido. Then leisurely south to Rosarito Beach, where the gringos have built condos (“like illegal aliens,” according to native wit). Then backtrack to Rodriguez Dam. The gray international airport. The smoked-glass towers of the Fiesta Americana Hotel. Then a slow sweep around the Tijuana Country Club and golf course, climbing toward the grandest houses in town.

This is the section of Tijuana known as Chapultepec. The name pays homage to a fashionable district of Mexico City. Here architectural styles derive less from Spanish-colonial memory, scarce in Tijuana, than from international eclecticism — Cinderella chateau. California Bauhaus. One is not rebuffed by the tall walls characteristic of the colonial high style of Mexico. One is rewarded, instead, with picture windows. The houses are constructed facing the United States.

Shall we stop the car? Get out for a look?

Think of the Joad family’s earlier view of the paradisaical Central Valley. Then think, many generations before the Joads, of Spanish galleons sailing up the Pacific Coast. California was first seen by the Spaniards — as through Asian eyes. Let this view from the hills of Tijuana stand as the modern vision of California.

My final tour of the city ends as an afterthought (because my host wants to buy some liquor for Easter) at the Rio Plaza, an American-style shopping mall. Walking through the parking lot in front of Sears, I think I might be in Stockton. Once inside the mall, I realize I have stumbled upon the zocalo of Tijuana.

Overfragranced crowds of Mexican teenagers are making their paseo between the record shop and the three-theater cine-complex. I pause to get my bearings and to measure the proportions of this city within a city. I am reminded of the model of an Aztec metropolis in a Mexico City museum; fancy leads me further to seek the Temple Mayor. I turn the corner and there it is, belching incense and idolatry, pulling like a magnet — the great temple of middle-class desire — a supermarket called Commercial Mexicana. Commercial is bigger, more crowded — happier — more prodigiously stocked than any supermarket I have ever seen. The meat counter ranges from beef intestines to translucent, delicate, slimy fish. To snake. To lung. To snout. To hoof. There are caldrons of congealed brown mole; there are ceiling-high pyramids of six-packs, eight-packs, econo-packs, super-savers. Boxes of detergent and bags of metallic-looking candies and packages of toilet paper come in gigantic Mexican “family” sizes never seen in America. There are luxuries, conveniences, necessities — everything. Everything! The only souvenir of the New World I decide to bring back with me are five bottles of Liquid Paper correction fluid, because I can’t believe the price.

Easter Sunday. Father Lucas phones me before I check out of my hotel in San Diego. The beer-belly who played Jesus refused, when the time came, to take off his shirt, so they had to hoist him up like Christ the King in a gold sweatshirt. By and by, Christ relented; the shirt came off. And somehow it all worked. Tom wishes I had been there. I should have heard the sound the cross made as it was dragged across the gravel. Jesus brought along some cronies to chat with him while he was on the cross. I should have seen the devout old ladies, the awestruck children, “the way it must have been in Jerusalem — a curious mixture of mood.”

Tom spent most of Saturday looking for a coffin for a baby. The parents were too poor to afford more than a shoe box. “Even the children here know about death. Brother lifts baby sister up so she can have a peek into the coffin.” For once, says Tom, for his own sake, he was glad of the book, the consolation of liturgy.

Tom says he is going back to the Colonia Flores Magon to celebrate Easter Mass in the park. Do I want to come along?

I do not.

I do not tell him I have made plans to meet friends for brunch in La Jolla. I put down the receiver. Not for the first time I am glad of the complaisances of the Inter-Continental Hotel.

The theme of city life is the theme of difference. People living separately, simultaneously. In all the great cities of the world, as in all the great novels, one senses this. The village mourns in unison, rejoices as one. But in the city... In Athens once, I remember sitting in an outdoor cafe, amid sun and cheese and flies, when a hearse with a picture window slid by, separated from its recognizing mourners by rush-hour traffic — an intersecting narrative line — which, nevertheless, did not make mourners of us, of the cafe.

Taken together as one, Tijuana and San Diego form the most fascinating new city in the world, a city of world-class irony. Within 30 minutes of the checkout desk at the Inter-Continental, I am once more on the Avenida Revolucion, where shopkeepers are sweeping sidewalks, awaiting an onslaught of turistas.

Inside Tijuana’s aquamarine cathedral, I sit behind a family of four — a father, a mother, a boy, a girl. They have thick hair. At the elevation of the host, each holds up a tiny homemade cross of stapled palm leaves.

Less than an hour later, I am in La Jolla.

Where friends want to know what I think of Tijuana, I shrug. (I imagine the dead baby packed away in orchids.) It’s there, I say.

But what I want to say is that Tijuana is here. It has arrived. Silent as a Trojan horse, inevitably as a flotilla of boat people, more confounding in its innocence, in its power of proclamation, than Spielberg’s most pious vision of a flying saucer.

Later in the afternoon, in a cold spring wind, we walk around Louis Kahn’s concrete Salk Institute, admiring the way California wanted to imagine its future. We walk on toward the beach. The sky has filled with hang gliders, drifting, silently drifting, like wondrous red- and blue-winged angels, over the sea.

From Days of Obligation by Richard Rodriguez. Copyright Richard Rodriguez, 1992. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc.

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