“People touch my hair all the time without asking,” says Szavio Raaum, a 28-year-old Minnesotan who lives in Zona Norte, Tijuana’s red-light district. “You missed a perfect picture the other day. A group of schoolgirls, probably around eight years old, they were reaching up trying to touch my hair like I was some sort of messiah.”
While walking the streets of Tijuana with Szavio, people point and stare at him, and cars honk to get his attention. His hair bounces with every step he takes.
“People ask me if my hair is real or if I’m wearing a wig. Even a cop yelled out at me and asked ‘¿Peluca?’ Why would I do that? They ask me if I do anything special to my hair or if I dye it. I tell them that I just use shampoo. It’s just the way my hair is.”
Szavio’s dad is an African American from the Virgin Islands, but he grew up with his Norwegian mom in Minneapolis. Szavio stands 6´3˝ and dresses like a California skater. His dark facial hair and thick mustache contrast with his light-colored eyes and massive blond afro.
“I’ve been called all sorts of things, but I get ‘Valderrama’ the most. The other day a stranger called me 'Bimbo' and I had no idea why. My friends had to explain what the stranger meant.”
“Valderrama” refers to the most recognizable Colombian soccer player of all time, Carlos Alberto “El Pibe” Valderrama, whose blond curly afro is his most prominent physical trait.
Bimbo, meanwhile, is a bakery brand founded in Mexico in 1945, recognized as the largest baking company in the world. One of their pastries named “Nito” features a young boy with a gigantic afro. The chocolate pastry used to be called “Negrito,” as in “little black kid” (even though the boy's face on the packaging is white); the reference, which could be considered disparaging, was abbreviated to “Nito” in 2013.
“Oh, great, you’re bringing me to the hipster coffee shop,” said Szavio as we walked into Baristi, the new cafeteria on Revolución. I told Szavio I’d buy him coffee and lunch if he explained how he ended up living in Tijuana.
“I got sick of living in Minneapolis. A friend invited me to live with him in Hawaii, so I did that for a year. But Hawaii is the kind of place where you can’t save any money. I took some time traveling Southeast Asia and started to have credit card debt.
“I ended up trimming for some months in Northern California to recoup some money. Then a friend invited me to Los Angeles. There I realized I could either spend all the money I made in two weeks in that city or I could go somewhere where my money would last. I thought that a nice quiet place by the beach somewhere in Mexico would be fitting, but I ended up in TJ.”
Since the beginning of this year, Szavio has been living in a dingy apartment a block away from the border wall.
“When I got to Tijuana, the gasoline protests were going on. I joined the protests and realized I didn’t want to live a relaxing beach life. The city life was calling me. I had no plans to stay in Tijuana. The music scene kept me here, as well as all the cool people I’ve been meeting this past year. People keep it real down here.”
Szavio often walks the streets carrying and playing his accordion. He also plays keyboard, bass, and percussion.
The taquero at his favorite taco spot happily greets Szavio as he orders four tacos de adobada con todo. At another coffee shop (Café Riochia 7) closer to his apartment, the owners and waiters treat him like a celebrity and let him improvise melodies on the piano, which he exchanges for coffee and a meal.
“I own and rent a house in Minnesota, but that doesn’t make me much money. What I get from it I have to invest back in the house. I am also renting a house in Playas that I have posted on Airbnb; that is going fairly well. But my work is in coding and creating websites or apps. I created a game as an experiment called 'Bouncy Egg' for iOS and Droid that’s available for free.”
Szavio’s app is a simple game where you have to time your taps on the phone to make an 8-bit egg bounce from the floor into the sky.
“I have fiber-optic internet and my rent is $150; that’s all I need. The music scene here is great. The tacos are amazing. My mom visited me recently, and I could tell that she knew that Tijuana is going to be my home for a while. It can never compare to back home to real home with her in Minneapolis, but I’ll be here for a while. I definitely need to learn Spanish, though.”