Why on Earth is he HERE?

/ / / UNDER continuing CONSTRUCTION / / /

Want A List?
The Gringo lives in Tijuana because he:

  1. Wants to learn more Spanish.

  2. Know more of Mexican culture.

  3. Broaden his foundation as a border/frontera artist/writer.

  4. Rent an apartment here for half or a third what it costs in San Diego.

  5. Eat good tacos.

  6. Has a thing about Mexico.

  7. Has a thing about Tijuana.

  8. Wants to be "the other" living with "the other."

  9. Is a culture vulture.

  10. Was running away from an unpleasant divorce.

  11. Wants to experience the future, right now, in this crucible of post-modern global marketed urban reality.

  12. Had a mid-life crisis.

  13. Fill in the blank.

  14. Fell in the blank.

  15. Yes.

  16. No.

  17. It was his lifelong ambition to live in Tijuana.

  18. It was his lifelong ambition to live in Tijuana and write a webpage about living in Tijuana.

  19. lo que sea -- whatever....

Or Daniel's

I grew up in San Diego, at the end of the border.

All my life, Mexico has been calling me south into wonder, fear, and delight.

My stepsister city, Tijuana, forms the tip of that tropical iceberg, its head lifted up into the American desert.

In 1999 I answered an old dream, and moved here.

At first it was 1) to improve my Spanish by constant immersion in a cultural milieu where that language is the dominant, not subordinate, tongue; and 2) to learn and participate in Mexican culture on our coastal frontier.

Or, at least, so I believed.

Then I began to make friends. Like Frost's road less traveled, that emotional attachment has made all the difference.

It doesn't hurt that my parents and family (except for Michael) are only thirty some kilometers away in San Diego. It helps.

In 2000 I began to share some of what I have learned. Write these pages to help other people see, understand, and hopefully VISIT, this fascinating, curious, and intense city.


  1. To learn more Spanish.
    The gringo always knew a little, then a little more, even studied it in high school, where he learned to say such practical things as:

    ¿Hola Isabel, como estás?

    Estoy bien, gracias.

    Hello, Lizbeth, how are you?

    I am well, thank you.

    And then at the University of California, where he learned to say such practical things as:

    ¿Hola Isabel, como está tu tesis?

    Está bien, gracias, pero falta un poco de analisis sobre el papel de la mujer de Argentina en sociedad posmoderna.

    Hello, Lizbeth, how is your thesis?

    It is well, thank you, but needs some more analysis on the role of Argentine women in postmodern society.

    But he knew the only way to really REALLY learn a language is to live where people speak it every day, where that language is the dominant tongue. Only by immersing himself in such a real society -- as opposed to a classroom -- can he learn to say such things as:

    ¿Q'hubole Isabel, agarraste la honda?

    Sí, buey, bien arreglada. Oye, mire nada mas esta nueva pulsera que mi compa me compro. ¿Está bien padre, no?

    Wha's up, Lizbeth, you caught the vibe?

    Yeah, dude, totally trippin'. Like just check out this new bracelet my best girl got me. It's totally cool, no?

    Back to list.

  2. Know more of Mexican culture.
    Shortly before moving to Tijuana (from his native San Diego), the gringo met a young couple from Mexico City who laughed when he said he wanted to move to Tijuana to know more of Mexican culture. "Oh, no no no," they said, "Tijuana is not Mexico."

    Well, they were wrong... except in one sense. Tijuana is definitely NOT Mexico City! (Thank God for that, at least! -- say most Tijuanenses.) But in spite of being flush up against the U.S. border, it is also NOT at all a U.S. city. No, no, no! It may have a lot of billboards and store signs written in English to help the tourists, but it's a Mexican city, from its bones to its flesh, from the tip of its toes to the crown of its head.

    While trying to be honest, and analytical, and yet not too-long-winded, let us try to answer the question: what is the nature of Tijuana's culture in a nutshell?

    and a book spoke...

    Tijuana tiene un núcleo original de habitantes asentados aquí desde fines del siglo XIX, al que vienen sumando múltiples corrientes migratorias de compatriotas, procediendes de todas las regiones del país, sin faltar la presencia de pequeños grupos de extranjeros de diversas nacionalidades y algo muy importante, la vecindad con California E.U.A. Todo ello dando por resultado un peculiar y firme sentido de mexicanidad, que só es puesto en tela de duda por quienes nunca han estado aquí.

    Tijuana has a nucleus of original inhabitants who settled here in the end of the 19th century, to which has been added multiple immigrating streams of fellow countrymen coming from all the other parts of the country (Mexico), as well as the presence of a few groups of foreigners of various nationalities, and something very important, the proximity with California, U.S.A. All of this has resulted in a unique and strong Mexican feeling, which is only put in doubt by people who have never been here.

    FROM: History of Tijuana, published by the Autonomous
    University of Baja California. Chapter 26, "Culture..."
    [--Translated by the gringo --]

    The official motto of the City of Tijuana is: Aquí empiece la patria -- LITERALLY: Here Begins the Fatherland -- but, more appropriately in English: "The Homeland Begins Here" -- and Tijuana is a very, VERY Mexican city, in spite of being so close to monstrous Los Angeles and little San Diego. Although exposed to the influence of the U.S. -- and what part of the world ISN'T Exposed to U.S. Culture? -- Tijuana has continually refreshed its strong Mexican character by massive transfusions of people from the south, waves of immigration which for the past fifty years have brought almost two million people north to the border from every state in the country.

    Pensamos que a pesar de su crecimiento anárquico y de todos los efectos de la explosió demográfica que viene sufriendo Tijuana, colocada en el contexto de la franja fronteriza, es una de las poblaciones con mayor actividad cultural y con un promisorio futuro en el campo de las manisfestaciones del espiritu.

    We think that in spite of its uncontroled growth and all the effects of the population explosion which Tijuana has suffered, located in the context of the frontier zone, it is one of the populations with more cultural activity and future promise in the field of the manisfestations of the spirit.

    -- Ibid.

    "Culture" is, of course, a word with several different meanings and interpretations. Most people think of museums, theater, art galleries. But a "culture" is also something scientists grow in petri dishes in the laboratories. Heh heh heh. In truth, according to anthropologists (a very cultured group themselves, no?), "culture" is all the manisfestations of social activity.

    You want to see Mexican culture? Go to the market. Or go for coffee at Sanborns. Or ride the bus or route taxis. Or -- God help us for recommending this -- go to the Tijuana Wax Museum. Or for a more orthodox Baja California history experience, go to the new Museum of the Californias (at CECUT -- the Cultural Center of Tijuana).

    Or go to the beach or the park on Sunday and watch the families and couples all having fun. Or go to the mall -- although this is a more elitist experience here than in the U.S. Or walk the downtown sidewalks away from Revolution Avenue, check out the shops on Constitución and Niños Heroes or the Popo market at 2nd & Niños, the true business streets of downtown.

    Or go ahead, walk the sidewalks OF Revolución -- for that strange and wonderful street of madness is also a certain kind of culture... or subculture... a disneylandia type of screaming commercial tourist-vision of "Olde Mexico" which we gringos (from Europe and Asia and South America, too) all seem to enjoy.

    But, seriously, folks:

    Como se sabe, la cultura no es un hecho aislado, sino que condicionada por la historia y la realidad social, responda a una interpretación del mundo y de la vida. Se concibe también como un proceso social y en ese sentido no es un sistema universal y estático, sino que por el contrario es un concepto esencialmente dinámico y distinte en cada pueblo... existe una cultural homogénea, sino un conjunto de culturas regionales y subculturales....

    As it is known, culture is not an isolated event, but rather conditioned by history and social reality, it responds to an interpretation of the world and of life. It is conceived of also as a social process and in this sense is not a universal, static system, but rather on the contrary it is a concept essentially dynamic and distinct in each people...
    ...a unified culture does not exist, but rather a conjunction of regional cultures and subcultures....

    -- Ibid, but with principal authorship for this passage attributed to Maria Guadelupe Kinaste. [Translated by the gringo]

    Here we come at last to the nub of the matter: the culture of the frontier, of the border zone, is a regional culture. Tijuana, in this context, participates in "norteño" culture, of the north of Mexico, especially the "fundadores" -- the founding families of a century ago -- many of whom emigrated north from states like Sonora and Sinaloa and Jalisco, and maintain many family ties and traditions with and from those norteño states. (One small example of such a tradtion: like most norteños, many fundadores prefer tortillas made of flour [tortillas de harina] while most central and southerners prefer tortillas de maiz [corn]. But that is a generalization made here by a gringo, so be careful in accepting it.)

    Remember, culture is NOT static. It is not a "thing" you can put on a shelf and never change. Culture is a process, always changing even as it reaffirms and maintains its traditions. To speak of the "culture" of Tijuana in the last two or three generations is to come to grips with the monstrous demographic fact that hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people have come north to Tijuana from ALL of the Mexican states, the north, the south, and the center, resuelto que resulting that in many respects, Tijuana is more "universally" Mexican than many other northern Mexican states -- including a higher and more varied population of the many different types of Indians -- indigenas -- who have come here.

    If you can put a name to any regional or subcultural group in all of Mexico, the odds are you will find some member or members of the group here in Tijuana.

    Back to list.

  3. Broaden his foundation as a border/frontera artist/writer.
    It is difficult to make this claim without sounding pretencious, or appearing to be chasing after the c'est la mode crowd. 'Tis true that in recent decades it has become fashionable among the
    culture vultures of radical chic to brown-nose (or perhaps we should say "brown-mind" -- as if vultures, in fact, have a...) the frontier. The blessed jet-setting professional culture-dominators of capital universities and culture-insitutions have "discovered" the provinces of the frontier....

    Now, now, Michael, don't be so cynical...

    Sorry, Dano, but... .

    Yes, now we DO seem to be cynical. So let's get personal about it.

    • The fact is this artist, gabacho anglo-celt by descent with only a lost dash of Indian red...
    • That fact is this apparently white anglo-saxon protestant male DID grow up on the border and has always been obsessed with Mexico, to the point of love and desire et al.
    • He built pyramidic towers of rocks at ten years old and played with his little plastic Cowboys and Indians -- played NOT Cowboys and Indians, but Cortes and Aztec. Now all grown up he plays with typewriters and words and images and c o m p u t e r s s s s z z z clk clik click . . . .
    • He learned Spanish as a child but still was not content with his NOT-mastery (see answer #1, above) and among all these other reasons he moved to Tijuana to learn more about this Border City, and uncover his own roots of fear and desire for the other as a self as a creature of the frontier. You can read and read and read books and scholarly articles and sociological reviews printed by deeeeeeeeep thinkers, but in the end, if you don't live it, you won't really know it.

    Michael grew up in the provinces of this frontier, where the human border (social creation) meets the ocean (actual natural border). Here, far from the bipolar cultural tyranny of New York or Mexico City, he has dreamt for years of his own personal landscape-axis: either returning north to San Francisco where he was born, or traveling south across a back-country landscape of canyons and hills, toward a nearby transformation of language and cuisine.

    Not only is this personal, between his ears and in his heart, but shines into his mind from larger social reflections. Michael needed to cross the human-made line line to find his answer to the postmodern future where medieval Spanish and Indian customs merge with technobabylon. Art is only work. The border is only an illusion of change. Bla bla bla bla bla. Hey Mister come on in -- got a special cuban cigar for you.

    You want to learn more about life on the Mexican frontier? He asked himself. Stop looking at it and go live across it. He told himself. Here, in Tijuana, begins Mexico. Begins the power of Spanish as number one language. El patron. The rule. The custom.

    Back to list.

  4. Rent an apartment here for half or a third what it costs in San Diego.
    Yeah, that's right. You read it right. Michael's first apartment at the beach was a one-bedroom, with hot & cold running water and gas and electricity, for two hundred fifty dollars a month. Half a block from the ocean waves. But he will be the first to warn you -- don't just come to live here unless you love Mexico and at least speak a little Spanish and want to learn more. Much better you should come as a tourist, first, enjoy everything Mexico has to offer you, and then....

    Back to list.

  5. Eat good tacos.
    Mikey's friend Hector in Tijuana says somehow the hamburgers always taste better over on the other side (the U.S.). "Cause they know how to make them -- it's like your national food, no?"

    Same thing's true of tacos -- except in the opposite direction. The tacos are MUCH better in Mexico. Forget your stupid groundup-burgerbeef at Taco bell. Forget even the good shredded-beef tacos at your Mexican-American taco shops. Here you got an entire palette of tacos: just in beef alone you have your carne asada, your cabeza, your tripa, your pastor, your vapor, and mmmm-mmmm nam-nam, you got your chile relleno taco, oh yes! Prices are creeping up toward a dollar a taco for a good one. But there are cheapies at seventy-five to eighty cents, or little bitty bites at three-to-a-dollar.

    The only taco Michael has found in the U.S./California which comes close to Mexican quality is the fish taco, and that's because the "famous" makers of fish tacos (R-you-know-whobio's) confesses to having taken an authentic Baja California recipe and used it! Michael is still on a quest to find the best fish tacos in Baja California.

    But beef? Just about anywhere here is good. Way better than in the states. But two special mentions in Tijuana:

    Tacos y algo mas "http://skynarytacosyalgomas" says their big letrero (sign) downtown at the corner of 2nd & Negrete (two blocks downhill toward the river from Revo). They serve up seven or eight different varieties and cuts of meat around four sides of an open stand, with multiple chefs sizzling and chopping away, and their counters are full of big bowls of condiments and radishes and peppers and guacamole and salsa for you to serve yourself. Unfortunately, there are at present no tables and chairs to sit down and eat at. Boo-hoo.

    Tacos Frances on Paseo Playas de Tijuana shortly before you get to the "Y" intersection. Equally sublime selection of varieties of tacos, but with a squadron of little ladies making fresh tortillas by hand. This place does have seating and waiters and waitresses. Well thought of, Tacos Frances is almost a place to see and be seen as much as to get a good taco. Michael has seen Friday night diners in opera gowns and tuxes scarffing down the spicy treats, leaning carefully forward to avoid spilling juicy drops on their formal wear....

    There are other taquerias all over town. Little stands and open-air restaurants with or without tables. There's a well-known row of them -- the "island of tacos" right next to the "sea of taxis," as Michael calls them, just inside the border gate passageway. He's eaten at all of them and seen the prices rise from seven pesos to eight and nine. Some of these little shacks give you ten-to-one exchange for the peso/dollar, which means on every dollar you can save almost a dime, if you pay in dollars instead of pesos. But this can change overnight.

    Then there are the "Tacos Varios" (various tacos) carts right on the sidewalk and street -- and you can only trust in the basic law of health: the taco cart vendors DON'T want to make you sick, it's very bad for business! EXCEPT -- ALWAYS Trust Your Nose. If your nose says NO WAY, then don't. If your nose says "MMM-mmm" then okay.

    VEGETARIAN? Consider a chile rellano or a potato (papa) taco. But check to make sure there's "no manteca" (no lard) involved. Cheese & egg (what DID you think chile rellano is battered with anyhow?) is your problem, okay? 'Nuff'sed.

    Back to list.

  6. Has a thing about Mexico.
    Yes, he does. He always has. Ever since he was a child and found out there was another world beginning just a few miles from his home. Then, when he was eight, his stepfather bought an encyclopedia, and Michael was reading volume M when he saw that Mexico has pyramids, too, at the Place-where-gods-were-made (Teotihuacan). He's never been the same since.

    Back to list.

  7. Has a thing about Tijuana.
    At the age of four, his godmother, an Australian, came down from San Francisco to visit. Michael's mother had not yet remarried. The three women (including Michael's aunt) had all planned to go across to Tijuana with their three children. But godmother Jeanne had forgotten to bring her passport and suddenly Mike and Dano's moms and she decided they had better not go, since the U.S. customs people might not let godmother Jeanne back into the country! The little gringo Mikey wept and wept. Already, at four years old, Tijuana had become a magical land of difference and wonderful toys. Especially the puppets and those blocks that flip-flop back and forth. But at the age of four, it was a pleasure suddenly and unpleasantly denied to him.

    Ever since that day, Mike has watched Tijuana boom and grow, from the Vietnam-era city of his infancy to the maquiladora megalopolis of his adulthood. Somehow, because of that early childhood denial of pleasure, the city on the other side also became associated with his father's memory, the father Michael never knew, who was shot down over Hanoi in 1972. This intuition solidified when his aunt -- actually his father's sister, not his mother's -- showed him some old letters from Vietnam. In one of them, his father mentions going to Tijuana for the night, the same night after he had an almost divorcing argument with his wife. He wrote that he met a woman there, a nice society girl, not a whore, who had just had a breakup-fight with her fiance. Michael's father was hoping to see her again when he returned from the East. But a SAM missile proved otherwise.

    Finally, in the year nineteen ninety-nine, seven years after reading that letter, Michael decided to begin the new millenium in another world. He moved twenty kilometers south, leaving behind the soon-to-be new-baseball park district in downtown San Diego, and advancing into the future of the planet Earth. Only one trolley ride away.

    No, he still hasn't told his mother about the letter. His aunt said she never did. Wanted to leave it up to him. Depending on what he finds out in Tijuana -- where society ladies have long, long memories -- he may....

    Back to list.

  8. Wants to be "the other" living with "the other."
    In the course of studying communication theory and literature and video at UCSD, Michael ran into this anthropological concept. The "other" is of course anyone who is of another cultural group, "exotic" as it were. Tourists delight in traveling to exotic lands and experiencing other cultures. The reconstructed ruins of Chichen Itza in Yucatan are a vast machine for creating an "other" experience for tourists who come seeking the "mysterious Maya." Tijuana has been, for over a century, a kind of touristic machine to manufacture and sell a quick "Mexican" experience to the visitor. Whether that experience be food, art, bullfight, or cantina.

    But Michael is seeking something more basic, more real. Not a fabricated affect, but a living day-to-day habitus of the other. First, the language. The other language of the frontier where he grew up. A latin-american experience. A Mexican reality. The border, as a zone of contact, offers him this double-edged possibility. Not only to experience the "other" as an everyday reality, but to become, himself, an "other" in their eyes. "Ah," they say, hearing his accent, "you are an American, yes?"... "From the other side, yes? El otro lado?" Yes. That is what they say. Other.

    Back to list.

  9. Is a culture vulture.
    One of Michael's first girlfriends -- who was her name, again?

    "Her name was Trudy, Dano."

    Oh yeh, that's right. Daughter of the director of public health, wasn't it, Askor or somebody?

    Silence. Michael only grins in the mirror at the writer. Well, all right then. One of his first girlfriends was a painter -- "I hope she still IS" -- he says. She took him one night to an opening by some sculptor or other. He can still remember the guy's name... isn't it phunny how things stick in the cracks of your mind -- Joe Nyiri, yeah. Every since then Michael's had a special place in his hart for gallery inaugurations. He can't even go buy the Gallery Florist on Forth Avenue -- or is it Fifth -- in San Diego without remembering Trudy and that evenink. And meking more typhos.

    So of course wen he started investigating the art scene in Tijuana he perforce started going to art openings. They're a good buey to spend a phew hours talking and drinking. Not to mention seeing art. But....

    Back to list.

  10. Was running away from an unpleasant divorce.

    From the novel, Tijuana Gringo


    "Diga," the woman said, glaring at this gringo in her motel breezeway. Big backpack hung from shoulders and waist. Only your writer knew what burden bent his heart.

    How did I get here?

    Running from depression and divorce.

    After five years of marriage, Cece left me. For another woman. Went east to Baltimore. Took our son with her.

    We sold our condo; I gave her the money. Still in shock, I moved in with my best friend Jeff. Began to waken to the pain, until, sick with grief -- and denial -- I look for another world where I can forget.

    Gringos always dream of escaping into Mexico. Why? The other? On our very doorstep? Yes. That must be it.

    So I make a run for the border, grasping at cliché. Go live in Tijuana, armed with only books, clothes, and a few hundred dollars.

    You ain't really running, boy man. You will keep your job in San Diego. Have your taco and eat it, too. Tomorrow go back to work in Troy, crossing the walls of empire. Like so many others who live on both sides of the line. There once was a giant two-headed horse standing at the gates. Now that artist is famous. You dream of the same.

    "Diga," the woman said. Speak. What's my story? Tonight I move. That's the plan. First a motel room, then an apartment, in the beaches - las Playas - a most comfortable part of town. Hey - I want to escape, not to suffer! Here there be streetlights, water, electricity, middle-class houses, and the sea.

    So you take the evening trolley from San Diego to the border. Grab a late bus across TJ to the beaches. At last arrive by the dark ocean of night, on the threshold of the Latin world. There this guardian figure steps from mythology and orders you to speak - "Diga," the woman said.

    Diga, she said, imperative from DECIR, to speak, to tell. Is she my first muse here, ordering me open my mouth, tell my story? Be she Viking valkerie, or Aztec cihuateteo, goddess guardian of the dead, choosing me like a warrior poet, to lie down on the stone of sacrifice, and...?

    Or is she only mistress of motel? My soul. My soul aches. University forbade that word. This your antithesis dialectic.

    No matter. Mexico. Mexico. Mexico will lull me to sleep....

    Not Dorothy nor the witch's poppies nor the bluenoses of literature....

    "Diga," the woman said, ten seconds ago....

    Answer her, Michael. She's starting to wonder if you can speak the language....

    Nod your head. Hope she will return the sign. Gaze in this numina; ask with slight accent: "¿No hay un cuarto en el motel?"

    Is there room in the inn at eleven p.m. Thursday night on the beaches of Tijuana? If yes, I will begin my new life in TJ forever; if no, I must go back to San Diego tonight.

    Michael, you are stark raving mad. Only God can rescue you now. Cast off your lines into the sea.

    "Sí hay. Pasele por favor." Into the office. Fill out the registration form.

    FROM: Tijuana Gringo, the novel. Want to see more?

    Back to list.

  11. Wants to experience the future, right now, in this crucible of post-modern global marketed urban reality.

    Well, um, gee whiz flash bam stars and streamers heh he heee um err and meanwhile there are still goin hungry and building their houses out of old metal and castoff garage doors from the gudol usa

    Back to list.

  12. Had a mid-life crisis.

    Michael am too young yet, well almost, maybe kids grow up easier quicker now in generation x, y or z. But Danial, the older, definitely am having had the crisis. Threw away fifteeeeeeen years bureaucracy seniority as petty little messenger then clerk and then secretary and office manager threw it all away to follow my true love of writing poetry and I grabbeed my retirement funds in one hand and ran ran ran to Mexico first to stay a month with cousin Mike at the beach and then find my own place downtown...

    Yo, Dano, don't forget I was the one whose wife dumped me for another woman and I came south first. So don't give me any bullsquat about me being generation X and not old enough BECAUSE Therefore yes, I too am having a midlife even though it be barely thirty years since my father was shot down over Hanoi leaving my mom the deliver me baby alone and then remarry her old sweetheart from the class of 1965 La Jolla High School...

    Back to list.

  13. Fill in the blank.

    Okay, okay, my younger, identical cousin, I believe you.

    Back to list.

  14. Fell in the blank.

    yep we both fell off the turnip truck

    Back to list.

  15. Yes.

    Back to list.

  16. No.

    Back to list.

  17. It was his lifelong ambition to live in Tijuana.

    mmmm that's what we get for growing up in Sandy Eggo on the beach beside the end of the earth.

    Back to list.

  18. It was his lifelong ambition to live in Tijuana and write a webpage about living in Tijuana.

    So here we are.

    Back to list.

  19. Lo que sea -- whatever....

    yeah you sez it bro.

    Back to list.

ut with a REALLY bad reputation. But then, most cities in Mexico have their reputations -- at least in the eyes of people who are NOT from there! For example, people from Mexico City are slurred as "chilangos" and said to be lazy and arrogant. People from Guadalajara are put down as all being effeminate. And Tijuana is supposed to be a place where all the men are drug dealers and all the women are prostitutes. NONE of those cities are very much like those negative characterizations.

BANNER (available)
Copyright 2000-2005 Daniel Charles Thomas
EXCEPT the quotes from HISTORY of TIJUANA by UABC (Universidad Autonoma de Baja California).