“Sorry, but this is not a costume, this is a character, and it’s something I do with all my heart for everyone that visits us and those who live here in Tijuana,” el Shrek de Tijuana corrects me when I ask him how long it takes to put on his Shrek costume (around 45 minutes). “I do it for people to receive Shrek’s affection and, in turn, transform Shrek from an ogre, to a human being.”
Saturday afternoon the week after Halloween I found Hugo García walking down Avenida Revolución as the character Shrek de Tijuana. His face and neck were plastered in something that was thicker than green make-up. He wore Shrek ears on a headband that a crown cleverly hid. Rags replicated the character's green gloves, and his smile was constant. It all seemed homemade, except for Donkey, a stuffed animal he carries around with him. His potbelly, large nose, thick eyebrows (exaggerated with make-up), bulging neck, and crooked teeth all come natural.
“My señora [wife] was diagnosed with third-stage breast cancer. The character of Shrek [de Tijuana] came to be because of her problems. My wife, thank God, continues with now a stable treatment. It’s been three operations, 27 radiotherapies, and 28 chemos. Each chemo and radio are [devastating] — they were giving her the highest potency. And, believe me, it was tiresome, she was exhausted and vomiting a lot.”
I saw Shrek de Tijuana for the first time a couple of years ago at an art exhibit in the now-defunct TJ China gallery. He had walked into the gallery unannounced and strolled around as if it was completely normal that a grown man was dressed as Shrek on a Saturday night.
“Thank God Tijuana received me with open doors. Now you will find me anywhere there’s masses of people: the Xolos stadium, when there’s a boxing [event] or lucha [libre], los Toros, in the international line, in Palacio [city hall], or like right now, here in Revu. I’ve been Shrek for almost four years now. I take three days off [a week] to let my skin hydrate and to be with my family.”
“I’m from here in Tijuana, from Zona Norte. I was born in Cartolandia,” the now-demolished neighborhood from the 1970s where houses were made from cardboard boxes and other debris.
“I was a welder, all types of welding. But with time, everything went. I started to sell everything I had of value, my tools…. I exchanged it all for [cancer-fighting] medicine. The cost was high because we had to go to Mexicali to get the treatment. It was my responsibility as a father, as a husband, to be with the woman I love....
“Shrek was my own [idea], with the wish to support family members with sick relatives. I went to many chemos and radio[therapies], and all I saw were worried people. It is all different from what I see in the street. In the street, people go out to enjoy themselves, they go shopping. Over there, they aren’t, they are fighting for their lives, for their health. Families are desperate and worried about expenses that one might have. That’s why Shrek de Tijuana exists, to alleviate worries.”
While I was talking to Shrek, a group of Asian tourists started taking his picture. He posed, smiling, and encouraged the ladies to take pictures with him one by one. After the photo session, they all walked away. He didn’t ask for money.
“I don’t ask for donations, it has to come from their hearts. When you do a character in exchange for money, it loses value. I do my character in exchange of nothing. If you give for free, someone else is going to see your work and pay it double."
Shrek is not alone, there are many quirky characters in downtown Tijuana. A few minutes before finding Shrek, I saw a lazily done Spider-Man. He wasn’t doing any flips or poses, just high-fiving children and asking for donations. The “Mysterious Magician” can be found almost every weekend night: he's a guy who stands in a box in a weird outfit with donations laid in front of him. He doesn’t move unless you approach him, then he tries to scare you.
Mudmen, blind saxophone player, homemade cardboard Iron-Man, Captain Jack on stilts, wheelchair karaoke, Pepe Nacho, La Maguana, Chun-Kun lady, El Muertho, and Las Gaviotas, are a few other characters that make up the bizarre spectacle of everyday Tijuana.
A character who will be missed is El Señor de los Monitos, Manuel Zazueta. Don Zazueta died October 20th, three weeks after I interviewed him. He is survived by his wife, seven children, and the thousands of monitos [figurines] glued on his van, which now reads “estamos todos tristes” (we are all sad).