A Schizoid City
Tijuana has suffered from multiple personality disorder for way too long. It’s been a place for trade and fugitives — for anyone who needed to escape from anything, whether it be extreme poverty, a violent husband, a shotgun wedding, a jail sentence, a closeted gay life, or boredom. All were welcomed in Tijuana. In the past five years, though, it became a place to escape from.
Anyone who needed a dose of Mexican kitsch, a couple of prescriptions filled, a Cuban cigar, and a margarita found heaven on Avenida Revolución. This is the Tijuana most tourists knew, but now it’s gone; La Revo is a ghost town of empty commercial spaces and former bars. Some say it happened because of the downturn in the U.S. economy, but we all know it was fear. The former visitors of Tijuana were afraid that once they crossed the border they would be dodging bullets.
Tijuana’s nightlife was always diverse. There were small bars, expensive clubs, lounges, and little cantinas all over the city. There was business for all of them until it became fashionable for gangsters (narcos) and gangster posers (the new term for them is mangueras) to flaunt their success by reserving tables with bottles of overpriced Remy that they mixed with grapefruit soda or Jumex orange juice. (You could spot them because they were the only ones in the trendy club with a juice box on their table.)
One night in late 2007, I accidentally bumped my shoulder into a man and as his jacket opened I saw a gun. After that, I decided to ditch my favorite dance club forever…so did everyone else with a favorite place in Tijuana. Since 2007, few people dared run the risk of being at a narco hangout. People lived for the news, the newspapers. Morbid stories intensified the paralysis; fear became the most ubiquitous feeling throughout the city.
The Last Ones Were the Younger Ones
Since the early ’90s, downtown cantinas and dancehalls were a refuge for intellectuals and artists who visited them as tourists, walking the dark, downtown streets and the red-light district in the infamous Paseo Inmoral, going into any gloomy strip joint or cantina with a jukebox, scouting the bars for the cheaper beer, the ones that were more comfortable, getting to know the characters, the bartenders, the ficheras, and street musicians.
In 2004, art exhibits and poetry readings were held at iconic cantinas such as Zacazonapan and Dandy del Sur. Bar Turístico in Plaza Santa Cecilia was (and still is) a meeting point for Universidad Autónoma de Baja California students, intellectuals, artists, and journalists. When all of this was happening, the Nortec Collective project was still launching; they played regularly at Don Loope, next to Jai Alai, and although they were independent electronic musicians with day jobs for decades, once they rescued the sound of the norteño street musicians and mixed it in their music, they went from dentists to rock stars.
The downtown scene was still underground but was attractive. Cine Bujazán, an old movie theater on Avenida Constitución, was destroyed by a fire in 1993 and it became an abandoned space until 2001, when Julio Orozco held a photo exhibit in its ruins (the roof burned completely). In 2004, the space was taken by a group of young music promoters; they called it Multikulti. It became an alternative venue for rock concerts and art exhibits. Then Radio Global, an internet radio station based in Tijuana, started to hold parties downtown. Yonkeart made a documentary on La Estrella, an old-school dancehall with wooden benches.
In 2007, Sonidero Travesura, a music project that rescued the cumbia sound and the grupero style of musicians that usually play at quinceañeras and bailes, brought the younger crowd to La Estrella and the forgotten downtown cantinas. All of this had been documented since the early 2000s by emerging Tijuana bloggers who were long-standing visitors of the Centro nightlife. All of a sudden, everybody noticed that they could have fun in these places — there were no narcos, guns, or hard drugs (or even soft ones, with notorious exceptions). The beer was cheaper than anywhere else (no wine or fancy martinis), and there was a jukebox that took pesos and dollar bills. There were candy sellers, Polaroid photographers, men who carried a generator on their neck and offered electroshocks for a tip, and the waitresses were long-haired señoras that brought a little botanita with the beer. It was a paradise for nostalgia lovers.
The traditional local-bar areas of Tijuana started to suffer from this migration, and the only customers left there were narcos, mangueras, and a couple of lost Tijuana fresas that didn’t get the news on time: downtown was being taken over by every urban tribe any night of the week.
At some of the places, it became almost impossible on a Saturday — body heat, smoke, and poor ventilation made them uncomfortable. It was too much for the original bars, so others moved in. A whole bunch of bar owners escaped the expensive rents and the risks of other bar areas. They moved into old bookstores, former Chinese restaurants and camera-repair shops, turning places that were empty for decades into diverse bars among the traditional cantinas and old nightclubs.
The Calle Sexta Phenomenon
During the ’90s, I had a special outfit that I wore every time I went on the Paseo Inmoral or Tour Histórico Cultural (as some humanities students used to call it); the outfit’s closest relative would be a potato sack — a pure wool chuj that I bought from an Indian in Chiapas many years ago. It was my armor because no one would take a woman wearing such a thing to the dance floor. We all did the same: no woman who went to the downtown cantinas would dare wear a skirt or a sleeveless blouse if she didn’t want to run the risk of being mistaken for a fichera. And we always went in a group. It was a tradition for many students to go cantina hopping, starting the tour in the red-light district and ending it on Calle Sexta. For veteran visitors, it can be a shock to see how the scene and crowd have changed. There are hordes of cute miniskirts and strapless dresses, shorts, and trendy boots; kids who get together to flat-iron their hair before they go out; guys with perfectly groomed beards and ear expansions. Some bars serve tomato pulque and mocha mezcal. At some of the hippest bars, a ten-peso coin can be exchanged for a Styrofoam cup of cold beer. There’s even a little coffee shop that has a cinema club with art films. There are a couple of lounges that would fit in easily in Mexico City’s Colonia Condesa, but also there is a bar that’s a death trap of metal staircases, walls made of cyclone fence, and empty trash bags. Some say it’s Tijuana gone Mad Max; I say if the Nazis ever dreamed of having a bar in Auschwitz, this would be it.
This radical change started when La Mezcalera opened in January of 2009, followed by many others. Even though business openings are great for Tijuana’s economy, sometimes the new bars can feel weird…like a sterilized prototype designed to satisfy upper-middle-class hipsters, the same people that in other times would have never gone downtown because it was considered a dirty, poor, and dangerous place.
On the other hand, the migration back out into the night is seen as the way new generations of tijuanenses are reclaiming their city and their right to have fun and feel safe, to feel on par with the crowd that traditionally visited the old cantinas, the ones that served a famous writer, a maquiladora worker, a taxi driver, or a Grammy winner. For decades, anyone who walked Avenida Revolución would be harassed and fought over by club workers competing for a commission on the customer’s tab. In fancier antros or discotecas, the bouncers would profile people at the door and leave anyone outside who didn’t meet their standards. These are practices that don’t belong here.
Rafa Saavedra, the most notorious chronicler of Tijuana’s nightlife says: “The rules have changed. No bar with a velvet rope will be successful here, cover charge is gone for good, there’s no special treatment for anyone, none of the bars take reservations or offer full bottles. That’s why it’s very unlikely that malandros move in, since they like to be noticed, to get preferential treatment, and this won’t happen here. The Calle Sexta phenomenon’s secret is simple: celebration. We all like to be a part of it.”
I can’t deny it. I have mixed feelings toward the new popularity of Calle Sexta. I’m sure it will bring a new set of problems or revive some of the old ones, but today the most attractive part of visiting downtown at night is diversity. There’s everything for any taste (except narco-corridos): industrial music, Japanese pop, ’80s new wave, cumbias, norteño love songs, electronic pop from Spain, an occasional tocada of local and foreign indie bands or DJs. And even though the range of options keeps growing, there’s nothing like exploring the old cantinas; when one finds a place with a jukebox full of José José songs, walls of mirrors, red vinyl booths, silk flowers, a little empty dance floor, a clean restroom, and two-dollar beers, one can forget about time, the economy, love, crime, and the fact that the car is at a public parking lot that closes at 1:00 a.m.…well, that can be a problem.
Lorena Mancilla has a degree in philosophy and owned a cigar shop in Rosarito until the local economy tanked. She currently teaches literature and ethics in Tijuana. Her blog is at: lorenamancilla.blogspot.com.
Botanita: Little snack. There is a variety of snacks served in cantinas all over Mexico, most of the time served for free.
Chuj: A rigid, thick, square sweater woven by hand that falls below the hips.
Colonia Condesa: A Mexico City neighborhood that has a high concentration of cafés, bookstores, bars, and restaurants; a lot of artists and intellectuals live there.
Fichera: A woman whose job in a bar consists of drinking with customers or dancing with them; the bar pays her a commission (not to be mistaken with a stripper or sex worker).
Fresa: A person who belongs (or pretends to belong) to the upper–middle class.
Malandro: Delinquent, criminal.
Manguera: One who thinks it is glamorous to act, look, talk, like a drug trafficker, even when he only aspires to be one.
Narco-Corridos: Songs that pay homage to Narcos and their accomplishments, deaths, cars, guns, stories, codes, lifestyle.
Pulque: Fermented sap of the agave plant (very sour), served in many flavors, such as pineapple, mango, and strawberry.
Tocada: A small rock concert.
To read “Yonder Lies It” en español, click here.