Over the weekend, I drove down from L.A. to Tijuana with mi novia Sophie Fernan and her teenage son, Marcos Antonio. A female friend of theirs in TJ – Eliana - had recently suffered a family tragedy when her brother was tortured and executed by drug traffickers in Sonora. Sophie invited me to TJ to offer condolences to the grieving woman. I also figured it would be a good opportunity to take the temperature of Tijuana at ground level to see if the atmosphere of violence was as pervasive as reported or exaggerated.
Getting into Mexico is easy— we breezed right through the border. If the light is green, you proceed without stopping; if it’s red you have to pull over and I assume answer some routine questions.
On the other side of the border, we made a quick stop at a street vendor for a breakfast of shrimp tacos. The vendor was doing a brisk business. I was the only gringo in sight but the vibe was relaxed and amiable. As we passed the hot sauce bottle back and forth, a beggar worked the crowd, singing a corrido (these are Mexican songs based on a true event) about a hapless guy who tried crossing the border illegally but got caught over and over again until, when he finally made it, thumbing his nose at the whole world.
After breakfast we headed to El Florido, a district west of the city center, where Eliana lived. When we got to the house, we paid our respects at a makeshift shrine of photographs of the murdered brother. I don’t think I’ve seen sadder or more hopeless eyes than that of the fallen brother. They seemed to look out on a world that held no future for him.
As Sophie caught up with Eliana, I sat on a rooftop patio and watched and listened to the life of El Florido passing by— children running on the hills, an unseen radio blasting a ranchera, adults walking slowly in groups of twos and threes, and birds singing in flowering trees. Houses fashioned from a hodgepodge of materials sprawled up the slope of nearby hills. I didn’t pick up any sense of despair looking down from the rooftop, but if I sat at a cocina table with these people it might be a different story.
Later I’d talk to a man named Victor, who worked for several years in the U.S. until work dried up. Now he’s back in TJ only to find factories closing down, one after another. I got the sense he was resigned to waiting out the economic downturn. I’d also learn that business was off at local swap meets, and when I drove down TJ’s main tourism drag on a Sunday afternoon (Avenida Revolucion), it was dead with only a few tourists on the streets.
In the evening, over shots of bacanora— a liquor from Sonora that could power a tractor— I heard various complaints about how the U.S. was castigating Tijuana for being violent, while the U.S. was just as dangerous. I also heard that things in TJ were much improved - that the police force was less corrupt. This may be true, but when Sophie and I left Eliana’s house for the day, we were told to leave our passports behind, and that we risked having them stolen or confiscated if we walked the streets with them in our pockets.
During our visit, Sophie and I stayed downtown at the Fiesta Inn – perfectly serviceable but nothing special. It was indistinguishable from midmarket chain hotels in the U.S., except it seemed about 20 percent cheaper. I also ate at roadside stalls and two days later I still feel fine.
There’s one local dish prepared by street vendors you’ll have to try if you venture down to TJ – coco con camarones. Shrimp marinated in lime is dumped into the shell of a fresh coconut. The soft flesh of the coconut is first scooped out of the shell. The shell serves as a bowl for fresh shrimp, slices of coconut, fresh lime, a few ounces of Clamato, and a dash of hot sauce, ketchup and salt. It’s accompanied by the coconut water from the same nut, served in a plastic bag with a straw. It’s a delicious and healthy meal for about $7 U.S.
Coming back into the U.S. was a different story from entering Mexico. On the way back, we experienced a 90-minute wait in a queue of cars waiting to cross the border. At least the wait is enlivened by a constant stream of hustlers and vendors working the line of cars, selling everything from corn on the cob to stuffed animals and oil paintings. Once we made it the front of the line we had to field suspicious questions from the immigration officer. Then we were zooming back to L.A.
My experiences in TJ are completely anecdotal, and I’m sure it made a difference that I was in the company of Mexicans, but I saw no violence, felt no fear and only encountered pleasant people. Would I recommend traveling to Tijuana? If you’re the type to look for trouble by frequenting the roughest bars, wandering dark streets or playing free and loose with local laws – you’re going to get your ass handed to you in TJ. If you have a reason to go (it’s not exactly a thrilling tourist destination) and if you play it safe, you’ll probably be fine.