Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
"This city of over one million, in which open gunplay was once not at all uncommon, is now run very tightly..."
Avenida Revolucion begins at the boundary of the United States and Mexico, at the junction with Avenida Internacional where, at rush hour, cars come racing around the corner onto Revolucion.
"The flow across the border has always gone both ways..."
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
At the very bottom of the street is a kind of ur-avenue, a no man's land, A declivity of muffler and auto body shops, pharmacies, and hole-in-the-wall dentists’ offices, the Zona Norte is an outback, sunken and depraved, a sort of necessary afterthought of pockmarked pavement to the rest of the avenida, purposely set off by some invisible barrier. It is the famous red-light district of Tijuana, a network of slum courts or vecindades , bedraggled love hotels, and sex cabarets like the Diamante Disco and the Cielito Lindo, from which are heard shouts of Ole! and Mucha ropa! (Take it off!). The ten-block zona runs east to west, between the lower avenida and H Street (Avenida Cristobal Colon); it is like Hong Kong’s tattered Wanchai, Bangkok’s notorious Patpong Road, or Taipei’s Sugar Daddy Row, but for its rumpled, out-of-date seediness, right out of Zola or a daguerreotype scene from dust-drab New York City 100 years ago.
Streetwalkers, mulas, can be had for un rapidito. Girls in shiny blue or red buttocks-squeezing skirts stand silent along the cantinas. Sleek young girls hang around pushcarts, ogled by louts and layabouts who silently wolf down chicken or drink mescal or beg. (At the Nica-Oh Bar uptown, the higher-class prostitutes, unlike the “scrubbers,” hang out.) Disguised “restaurants” south of Second Street (Benito Juarez) and the particularly seedy Avenida Coahuila and Calle Baja California usually sell only beer. Refrescos, however, are sold everywhere — burritos, tamales, even oysters, and aguas frescas, bright soft drinks made from fruit, flowers, and coconut milk.
In America we tend to write obscene or salacious words on walls; Mexicans write insults. You can often hear them in the common chingado or verbal aggression spoken by various skinny poltroons making indirectas — critical japes — the men you try to pass quickly in the shantytown narrowness of those sad streets as they try to entice you into cantinas blaring salsa music from the shadowy warrens and doorways of film noir itself. “Senor, ju look at preety gorls?” can quickly become “Chingua tu madre!” the worst of all possible insults in Mexico, which can be equally expressed in sign language, by whistling, or blasting a car horn.
The area can, of course, be dangerous at night. The “narcotics mafia,” it is said, has recently moved out of Guadalajara and into Baja California. But such a zona de tolerancia should no more define Tijuana than any other city, though salacious anecdotes (including stories of donkey acts, actually banned since the ’40s) and other unfair libels keep Tijuana’s reputation ever fresh, ever lurid, ever incarnadine.
Plaza Santa Cecilia (formerly Avenida Arguello) is the demarcation line between the Zona Norte and the avenida. With its down-at-the-heels trade bars like Disco Bar El Paso and Bar Ranchero (which is reputed to be gay at night), Equipales on Fourth Street, and Noa-Noa on Avenida Miguel F. Martinez, near First, police in the area supposedly take payoffs to look the other way, though there are 500-peso fines for disturbing the peace. At night, when the population of beggars and sellers and Marias (Indians from the interior) and their kids thins out, taking their wooden-ware, silver trinkets, and bamboo rain sticks with them, the coyotes and pollos appear, with the $30 hookers and drunks, and roam the arcades.
From the early days of the century, the first block of Avenida Revolucion, between First and Second Streets, fairly sang with cantinas, eateries, and business establishments. Much of the land down the road, past present-day Fifth and Sixth Streets, was nothing but sleepy meadows and fallow fields that sloped down along the east side, toward what is now Avenida Madero and the Rio Tijuana, into weedy barrancas . The Big Curio Store, which opened in 1918, was run for many years by one Miguel Gonzalez. It famously stood on the corner of Second and Revolucion, the current location of the handsome, neoclassical Banco Internacional, built in 1929. In old black-and-white postcards of the Big Curio Store, signs out front read “curiosidades,” and wagons tied up outside are marked “Tia Juana.” Across Second Street from the store was the California Restaurant, which had its heyday during the ’20s..The San Diego-Tijuana stagecoach in 1909 was a covered buckboard pulled by two horses and held about ten or so passengers. Thirty years later, Greyhound buses — San Diego to Tijuana, 25 cents — were stopping at Second and Constitucion.
In this same block, only a few paces down from the California Restaurant, was the famous Long Bar. “I remember they had superb waiters at the Long Bar,” Martin Lopez recalled, happily reminiscing about Tijuana in the ’30s. “Oh, and beautiful brass. And what’d we drink? Mexicali beer! It was the best. Brewed right here. A full pitcher of it cost 20 cents. Nothing like that today. None of these new beers. No way.” It was at the Long Bar that many of this century’s great bullfighters often gathered, men — artists, some insist — such as Carlos Arruza, Fermin Espinosa (“Armillita”), and the inimitable Manuel Rodriguez (“Manolete”).
But drinking joints were everywhere in the days of Prohibition in the U.S. Avenida Revolucion was one long street of saloons in the ’20s and ’30s. In any case, the great fire of 1938 wiped out the entire block between Second and Third, mainly because there was no water or equipment to fight the flames.
The Nelson Hotel, between First and Second, owned by the Nelsons even today, has an inexpensive restaurant and had a popular bar during the ’50s and ’60s. The hotel’s trademark drink was the Especial: rum, brandy, and Coke. Rock artist Carlos Santana, whose father even today is a mariachi, got his start at the Convoy Club, a tough sailors’ joint (a painted ship’s prow is still in evidence on the wall) that stands next to the Nelson and is now dully called Disco Salsa. Santana, who started his career playing the violin, learned to play guitar from Javier Batiz, who is still around the city. Tijuana, it may be noted in passing, was, more than 30 years ago, the rock and roll capital of Mexico.
Hotel Comercial, between Second and Third Streets, is still owned by the Gonzalez family, who used to own the famous Mexicali beer brewery. And west down Second Street can be found the majestic Our Lady of Guadalupe, Tijuana’s cathedral, which, though it looks quite old, was built in the 1950s. It was only 70 years ago, in 1926, when a near-civil war with the Church broke out. Cristeros, as militant Catholics were then called, were terrorized, convents and monasteries abolished, and priests were hunted down. One Callista general who published his “liberal doctrine” cried out, “My religion is the fatherland, reason my deity, truth my dogma, and Morelos, Juarez, and Madero my trinity. My saints are Cuauhtemoc and Hidalgo...the Pope is my Lucifer, the priests my demons, the nuns my temptation. My temple is the universe, majestic on a serene night. Viva Mexico! Viva the Reform! Viva the ragged ones! Death to the traitors! Viva Juarez! Viva Calles, who carries on the work of Juarez!”
The elegant and exotic Foreign Club Cafe Luxe (later called the Original Foreign Club) occupied virtually the entire block between Third and Fourth Streets. It was set back from the avenida, with a parking lot in front. For most of the ’20s and ’30s, this was the mecca for San Diego’s “smart set” (along with, perhaps, the Sunset Inn). The Foreign Club opened in 1924 and was advertised as “quaint Tijuana’s rendezvous for devotees of dining, dancing, and diversions.” It was in this club that chubby young Margarita Carmen Dolores Cansino (later to be renamed Rita Hayworth) first danced in shows with her Spanish father Eduardo before she was discovered by Hollywood. From the outside, the building was “nothing nice,” recalls 80-year-old Amulfo Espinosa, now patriarch of one of the city’s finest silver shops and a resident of Tijuana since 1937.
Beautiful Rita Hayworth was neither Mexican nor poor, as is still commonly thought. Her father Eduardo and his sister Elisa, children of a well-known Spanish dancer, immigrated to New York and established themselves as the Dancing Cansinos.
Eduardo married young Volga Haworth, an Irish-American girl from Queens who was a chorine in the Follies. Eventually, they all came out West to try to break into films.
Eduardo and Elisa began dancing in Tijuana in 1931. Young Margarita was soon brought into the act. They were living in a three-bedroom, white frame house in Chula Vista, but state law prevented minors from performing anywhere alcohol was sold. So Margarita’s dancing engagements were limited to the notorious offshore gambling boats and nightspots below the Mexican border. The Cansinos danced as headliners at the Foreign Club for a year and a half, a lucrative gig during the depression, and at 15 Margarita had even danced at the Ratliff Auditorium in San Diego. But it was at Agua Caliente, the Monte Carlo of the West, that the elegant Dancing Cansinos with their modernized versions of Spanish classical dances truly made their name.
Theoretically a health resort, named for its hot springs, Agua Caliente was popular with the Hollywood crowd mainly for the gambling and lavish shows. Early Hollywood moguls watched the girl who was sexy onstage but shy offstage, thinking her to be a local guapa. Her brown hair had been dyed jet black. In 1934 a Fox production chief-spotted Rita and took her to Hollywood. The Cansinos last appeared at Agua Caliente on February 9,1935.
The center of Avenida Revolucion’s shopping district now are the large, fixed-price stores like Sara’s and Maxim’s, selling jewelry, clothing, and imported perfumes and such. Behind the site of the popular tourist restaurant La Placita once stood Honold’s German import store. In the old days, across the street from the Foreign Club, in the same block, were classic watering holes like Charlie Keene’s, a bar where most of the jockeys from Agua Caliente hung out, and the Granada restaurant, both of which were gone by the late ’40s.
As tourism increased during the ’20s and ’30s, there was a real need for decent hotels and restaurants south of the border. One place that ably served both requirements was the famous Caesar’s. Caesar’s Hotel, on the corner of Fifth and Avenida Revolution, has been the flourishing landmark or senate of the street since the Roaring ’20s. The hotel and nearby restaurant boasted an elegant clientele, matadors and movie stars, into the ’40s and ’50s. Now it is mostly traveling salesmen who stay there. The behemoth of a building is owned today by Armando Avakian, but there is no longer a restaurant and not even a bar in the place.
It was not hotel owner Caesar Cardini we can thank for the Caesar salad, however. That honor goes to Mr. Libio Santini, who came to Mexico during World War I, as many Italians did. To fight homesickness and because it brought back a taste of the old country, Santini concocted his unique combination of Romaine lettuce, cheese, croutons, a one-minute egg, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, and olive oil (anchovies were never an original ingredient) for a party of Hollywood movie stars on July 4,1924. Santini, who began in the kitchen, went on to become a millionaire through real estate and only recently died, in 1994.
The most famous brothel in Tijuana was the very clean and well-run Molino Rojo, the Red Mill, located at 1050 Madero, at Fifth. It is now a public elementary school named the Centro Escolar Alba Roja. The Molino Rojo (“Every crib with a private bath”) was built in 1929. “It was actually owned by a Japanese man,” Amulfo Espinosa recalled, “who tolerated from men absolutely no roughhousing and who insisted on orderliness. I even remember the name of the Tijuana health officer who took care of the girls who worked there, Dr. Servando Osornio. A very gentle man. The place was internationally famous, of course. It was neat as a pin, and the girls were respected. I mean, they were never, never treated as common. Not at all. People were kind and gracious about such things then. The buildings during the war were suddenly closed down.”
At the corner of Avenida Revolucion and Seventh, on the same side of the street as the jai alai fronton, sits the historic Child Jai, a once-famous restaurant during the heyday of the jai alai games. Tia Juana Tilly’s, another old nightspot, is also nearby.
Then rises the Palacio Fronton, with its high Moorish front, a sort of casde with minarets. An imposing and dramatic Tijuana landmark, the jai alai palace with its thick concrete walls was designed by San Diego architect Eugene Hoffman. It was begun in 1926 but not actually completed and opened until 1945. The depression slowed down construction. Word was that the owner cut a deal with the government on a massive amount of concrete, purchased at a bargain price, that was left over from the construction of the Abelardo Rodriguez Dam, ten miles east of the city. The palace houses a jai alai court, bleachers, two restaurants, an outside bar, and a sports book on the side. Games today are held Monday and Tuesday afternoons and Wednesday and Saturday evenings.
Across from the fronton is the store Tolan, which means “merchant” in the Aztec language of Nahuatl. Here are sold Mexican and Indian goods from around the country. The block between Revolucion and Madero between Seventh and Eighth Streets was once the site of the Tijuana beer brewery, another great beer that no longer exists. Production was stopped about 40 years ago. And many old-timers remember Victor’s Drive-In and Restaurant Steak House, just up from Avenida Revolucion, on Agua Caliente Boulevard, a real ’50s joint recognizable by its big sombrero roof.
But gone today are the old drive-ins and bowladromes.
Tijuana now has more than 50 discotheques, Senor Frogs, Baby Rock, Hard Rock Cafe, Flash, and so forth. And the irony may be that, although crime is on the rise everywhere else, in Tijuana it is not. This city of over one million, in which open gunplay was once not at all uncommon, is now run very tightly, with a high police presence, and in terms of violence is much safer than almost every United States city of comparable size.
The flow across the border has always gone both ways and, whether directly or indirectly, has often involved this strange, enigmatic street, a street named in honor of the deeds of revolutionary heroes but which accommodates fools; a street that is filled with cartoons, droolies, hawkers, pea-and-thimble men, jewel crooks, and outlandish stereotypes, Mexican and American both, but on which can be found, as well, some of the kindest, most gracious people, the soul of Old World courtesy. Whores ply their trade while small schoolchildren, passing the cathedral, see to it, almost every one of them, that they bless themselves. Mexico is unpredictable. “In Mexico nothing ever happens until it happens,” said dictator Porfirio Dnaz as he sailed, grumpily, for exile in France in 1911. The same could be said for the avenida. Unpredictable. Where nothing ever happens until it does.