CROSSING THE BORDER TO TIJUANA, MEXICO                      JANUARY 2001

 

            My wife and I recently returned from a three-day study tour of Tijuana, Mexico. We went with an Urban Sociology class taught by a colleague.  The class is studying Los Angeles, Tijuana, and the relationship between the two.  We visited places in Tijuana and met with city planners and others to learn about employment, transportation, housing, and migration issues.  I was very moved meeting migrants and seeing the new border walls which reminded me of the Berlin Wall. We also ate wonderful food, and I danced in several clubs.  But before I describe what I learned in Tijuana, I want to say some things about immigrants that I learned from teaching my Diverse Identities class.

 

ALL OF OUR FAMILIES ARE IMMGRANTS

            Everyone in America is an immigrant (5%) or the descendent of an immigrant (95%).  While the ancestors of Native Americans came thousands of years ago, they too were immigrants from Asia.  Recent immigrants come for the same reasons as my ancestors and everyone else (except the slaves who were forced to come) -- to avoid political or religious persecution, and/or to seek economic opportunities and a better life for themselves and their children. The Pilgrims came to avoid discrimination in England. They in turn discriminated against the next groups to come, who discriminated against the groups who followed them.  Every immigrant group has faced discrimination, but some groups much more than others.

            Some people are prejudiced against immigrants because they fear that the newcomers will take their jobs.  But most immigrants do jobs that no one else wants. They do the heavy labor in the fields, and the dirty or tedious work that pays little.  Our economy, especially agriculture, would be desperate for workers without immigrants.  Others fear that immigrants will drain tax dollars in government benefits.  But economic analyses have found that immigrants pay much more in taxes than they get in benefits.

 

TRANSPORTATION AND HOUSING

            On Sunday January 21, Pam and I took a bus to Tijuana from East LA along with a sociology professor, 19 students, and an exchange scholar from China.  We were hosted in Tijuana by two friends of the sociologist, one of whom is a photojournalist, who arranged for a bus and places to visit.  We stayed in a very nice hotel, the Hacienda del Rio in the modern Zona Rio (River Zone), where we had excellent service and great breakfasts. 

            Over the next three days, our study tour included the many places.  At the Colegio de la Frontera Norte (college of the northern frontier, a research institute) we saw maps of employment, housing, and transportation.  We learned that the wealthy people live near downtown, where the stores and employers are.  Poor people live in the outskirts where there are few stores and it often requires taking three buses to get to work.  Some factories are now moving to the outskirts to attract and retain workers. 

            We visited the Traffic and Transport planning office, and rode our bus to see where people transfer among buses and taxis.  Most taxis run fixed routes with fixed fares, so it is difficult to take a taxi directly from home to work. 

            At IMPLAN, the institute for municipal planning, we learned that Tijuana is growing by 80,000 persons per year.  People come from many areas of Mexico seeking employment, either in Tijuana or in the US.

            The economy has been booming in border towns because American and other foreign companies can easily transport components across the border for assembly at cheap labor costs in Mexico.  Many Mexican factory workers make only about $200 a month or $2400 a year, while those doing the same work across the border in the US makes at least 10 times that much.  We learned this on a visit to a maquiladora (factory where foreign goods are assembled), in this case where pre-cut cloth is sewed into women's dresses.

            There aren't enough houses, so on the outskirts of the city there are many casas irregular (irregular houses) who don't meet the building codes.  A representative of another planning office took us to see fancy homes by the racetrack, casas irregular on the outskirts of town, an industrial park, and vast new housing developments.  The latter have small houses with no yards, which cost about $4000 to construct.  They sell for $1000 downpayment and $250 a month for 30 years, which is more than many factory workers can afford.

 

BARS AND BORDER WALLS

            We visited the Culture Center to see the Museum of the Californias and learn about the history of the area. Missions were established in Baja California by the Spanish, but the indigenous people resisted their domination.  Many Chinese were brought to be laborers.  Tijuana developed on the land of El Rancho of Tia Juana (ranch of Aunt Jane) at the time the US-Mexican border was set in 1848.  Bars and casinos attracted many Americans during Prohibition in the US.  Although the government closed the casinos, the bars still attract many American college students who come to drink in Mexico at age 18. 

            The most poignant visit was to the Casa de Migrantes (house of migrants), which is a shelter for people coming to Tijuana to seek employment, those trying to cross the border to the US, or those who have been deported back to Mexico after being captured in the US.  They can stay at the shelter for two weeks while they seek employment in Tijuana.  I felt deep sympathy for the young men who were there (another shelter for women and children is nearby), and as I left I wished each of them Buena Suerte (good luck).

            More than 1500 people have died trying to cross the border into the US.  Most have died from heat or cold as they have tried to cross the deserts and mountains to the east of Tijuana, but some were shot by a rancher in Texas when they trespassed on his land. That is many times more than the 100 who were killed when they tried to cross the Berlin Wall.  The migrants have been driven to the east by a new border policy in 1994 which built triple walls along the border at Tijuana. We drove along the wall several times, and saw an art exhibit about the wall at the museum. 

            Over the years, US immigration policies have been very racist. The quotas have favored people like those already here, and discriminated against those of other ethnicities.  While the US cannot allow unlimited immigration, the policies could be less biased.  We could do more to further economic development in other countries to reduce the economic reasons for immigration.

HUMAN RIGHTS AND CORRUPTION

            Our final study visit was to the office of a human rights activist.  He documents cases of mistreatment by Mexican police and US border guards, and tries to help individuals deal with various violations of human right .  While we were waiting to see him, he was talking with a mother whose 10-year old son had been picked up by the police and had escaped from the detention center. 

            Many (but not all) Mexican police have a reputation for being corrupt.  Many American college students have had to bribe police to avoid going to or staying in jail. A major reason for the corruption is the low wages paid to police.  One of the recent acts of the new Mexican President Fox was to double the wages of the police.  There are city, state, and federal police which have differing jurisdictions.  But there is one group, the Federal Preventive Police, which have authority to go anywhere and investigate anything.  Their primary purpose is to fight the drug cartels, but their powers are scary.  By chance we were able to interview some members of this group.  We met them in a Burger King, where we had made a quick stop for lunch, the only time we didn't eat Mexican food.  We learned that most of them had served in the military, and were the same age as our students.  This was a serendipitous meeting that we never would have been able to arrange in advance!

 

EATING AND CLUBBING

            We had Mexican food with a spicy chocolate sauce at the Casa de Mole near our hotel. We had fish tacos and the most wonderful shrimp tacos downtown at Juniors. Some of us had other culinary adventures as well.  We ate a variety of delicious tacos at the Taco stand out on Ermitas.  We chose from 110 flavors of ice cream at Tepoznieva.  We ate an exquisite meal at Cien Anos (100 years), one of the top 100 restaurants in the world; one of the appetizers was fried grasshoppers with guacamole and salsa in a tortilla!  And we had wonderful seafood dishes at Fili's Mariscos. 

            While most clubs on Avenida Revolucion cater to Americans, the first evening the photojournalist took the older adults to see some clubs that cater to Mexicans, while the students rested at the hotel.  At Las Pulgas (the fleas) we spoke with the owner and visited three rooms -- one with American dance music, one with couples dancing to Norteľos music, and the third which normally has live bands.  Another club, FX, caters to Americans after 10 PM, but before then on Sundays it is open to Mexicans under age 18. We watched older teens dancing while pre-teens watched them from the balconies.  Half a dozen teens were sitting on someone's shoulders while they danced, something I had never seen in a club anywhere in the world.  We also visited Estrella, where the music was salsa and Spanish rock. When the others went back to bed, I danced at the club Animale.

            On the second evening, a Monday, the older adults went to Plaza Fiesta, an area with many bars, but it was dead, so we went to a yuppie Italian restaurant, Saverios, where we had some great Baja California wine (St. Tomas cabernet).  Meanwhile the students sang karaoke and danced at a Japanese bar near the hotel.

            On the third evening, a Tuesday, I went with our students to Animale since the other clubs were dead (they are liveliest on the weekend).  This time there were fewer others in the club.  Besides us there were only 3 couples and a dozen single guys.  Some of the single guys tried to come up and dance with the women in our group, who generally ignored them and they slinked away.  The woman who got the most attention was a tall blond.  At the end of the evening I waited to make sure that all of the students were leaving, and the blond was the last to leave so I ended up walking out with her. Another patron said to me "You are a lucky man" making an assumption about our leaving together which wasn't true!

            We took the bus back to Los Angeles on Wednesday evening January 24.  We had no problems crossing the border, although were concerned about the three with foreign passports, the exchange scholar from China, the student from Russia, and the student from Africa.  We were exhausted, but had had a very rich experience, having seen many aspects of Tijuana not seen by the many one-day tourists which allow Tijuana to claim it is the most visited city in the world.