The trolley from San Diego to Tijuana is packed in the middle of the day. We ride through the dry and dusty landscape for about twenty minutes before reaching the pedestrian border crossing. Most passengers walk straight towards border control while I stick around to exchange American dollars for Mexican pesos at a booth. In the hall of the practical grey building, people quickly pass through the processing point for American and Mexican passports. Members of other nationalities take a little longer. After thirty minutes, I step back into daylight in Mexico. The landscape remains the same, but almost everything else is different: Architecture and cityscape, language and bills, even the smell has changed. The streets bustle with people, cars, taxis, and buses.
Visiting the border wall
Long lines of cars waiting to get to the US remind me that Tijuana is the most frequented border city in the world. This wasn’t always the case: Spanish conquistadores colonized what is now California in the 16th century, but the border north of the city was only drawn when Mexico lost land to the US after the Mexican-American war in 1848. Yet “Tijuana” isn’t derived from the Spanish “tía Juana” (aunt Jane), but from the word for “oceanside” in Kamia, the language spoken by the Kumiai Native Americans whose original territory is cut up by the most contested border of this decade.
The image of the border wall extending into the sea is iconic – and its location is Playas de Tijuana. It is often invoked to highlight the arbitrariness and severity of borders. During my visit in June, the set up appears absurd: On the American side, the landscape is empty except for the San Diego skyline in the distance. On the Mexican side, the houses along the sea reach right up to the wall. People are fishing in the morning mist. There is a monument by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation stating Latin America is and always will be free from nuclear weaponry. The metal fence is decorated with bright paintings and hopeful messages similar to the remnants of the Berlin Wall, which makes me think of the Cold War in Germany.
A city like a swamp
It was easy to find an event this time: A friend arranged for me to join an art intervention downtown. On the bus to the location, a man approaches me and says in English: “Excuse me, you’re not from here, are you? I just wanted to let you know you shouldn’t have your phone out like this. You’re an easy target for thieves.” It is the first of many times a local will give me this advice. He is surprised to learn I’m not from the US – another thing that will reoccur in conversations over the next three and a half weeks.
The event starts with a talk about the Mexican Revolution in 1910/11 at the Museo de Historia de Tijuana. It focuses on Tijuana’s brief period as an anarcho-communist social experiment. Many of the organizers, including the Magón brothers, were PLM members (Liberal Party of Mexico). After their defeat, Ricardo Flores Magón fled to the US, where he was imprisoned in Kansas with the help of the Mexican government under Francisco I. Madero. The historian explains that Magón was an anarchist who wanted to abolish the state, but the Mexican government reinstated him as a revolutionary hero and socialist after his death; a blatant, but widely accepted rewriting of historical facts. The audience reacts with disbelief; discussions ensue.
Afterwards, a group of artists and representatives of Baja California cultural institutions grab red and black Magonist flags and start walking through downtown. We hop from bar to bar, waving our flags and handing out stickers with revolutionary messages. The atmosphere is giddy. There are poets, musicians, writers, photographers, dancers. Many of them frequently cross the border for university or art events in San Diego. Most participants are from Mexico or the US, but there are also people from Venezuela and Ecuador. We drink and shout over the loud music at each other about art, history, and literary theory. When I ask what makes their city special, one answer stands out: “Tijuana is like a swamp: It’s not pretty, but fertile.”