Monday, December 06, 2010

Tijuana Rebirth

My only visit to Tijuana -- so far -- was 25 years ago. It was brief, but not as brief as we had hoped. My buddy Mike had visited the coastal town of Ensenada a couple years earlier, and we decided to take a side trip there as part of our 2-week, 8,500-mile tour of the U.S. in his old VW. We drove south on the toll road and found a campground on the beach. He was starting to notice a bad clutch cable, so we bought one while we were there, planning to replace it on our return. We had only a couple of stops to make, so it would be easy. The bad news at the time -- but good news in the long run -- is that a construction detour forced us into the hillsides around Tijuana, where we saw the informal, self-built homes made of car parts and then took us through the city center. The clutch cable eventually broke, causing Mike to roll through a stop sign or two. It was this way that we had the chance to learn about the "mordida" or "bite" system, by which traffic police are paid in small bribes. An extra hour or two, and we were wiser, no worse for wear, and only 7,000 pesos ($20 at the time) lighter.

Since then, all I know of Tijuana has come from reading (especially Jack Kerouac's essential On the Road), music (especially Manu Chao's Welcome to Tijuana), and by inference from the other border towns I've come to know much better, such as Reynosa, Matamoros, Ciudad Juarez, and Nogales. This morning, NPR's Jason Beaubien (what a great name!) reported on Calle Sexta, a Tijuana neighborhood trying to remake itself as a trendy destination. In the process, I learned about an entire genre of Latin music that had escaped my notice: Nortec, which is a Tijuana-specific fusion of Tejano/banda/cumbia/norteño music (itself a fusion) and European techno. I downloaded The Tijuana Sessions: Vol. 1 by the Nortec Collective, and found it quite an enjoyable anthology, and more accessible (for a fan of Tejano) than some of the later collections.

I am especially fond of Fussible's "I Like Tijuana" and the video version by 25th Frame. As with Manu Chao's classic (one version of which has had over six million YouTube views), this work is both a send-up of Tijuana stereotypes (which go all the way back to Kerouac and before), an embrace of its seamy side, and a celebration of daily life in this vibrant, if lately troubled, city.

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