I learned through conversations with taxi drivers that you could declare yourself Tijuanese, a resident of Tijuana, if you lived there for many years. Many Mexican transplants did just that, adding a layer of a city identity to ones born in rural areas on the mainland of Mexico. I learned through those same conversations that the tourism business was booming and the economy was stronger and more stable there than in other parts of the country. I learned that Tijuana was full of Americans who crossed the border daily to work in the United States.
“It’s cheaper to live in Tijuana,” all the drivers had said.
I spent afternoons and evenings working, online with clients, and in the mornings, I rode. I ordered taxis via Uber on an app on my phone. I never waited more than five minutes. It became my daily ritual, a mash up on taxi cab confessions and traveler tour. I asked questions of my drivers: Where are you from? Why do you drive a taxi? Have you ever been to the United States? It is through these conversations that I received insight to the way to move through the city: you have to look into the nooks and crannies of what is being said. I too was there for work. I needed a place to be stationery while I knocked out a work project. A spacious, furnished one-bedroom apartment in Tijuana cost me a third of what a room-in-someone’s house would cost. So I had swapped the United States for Mexico.
It’s a cultural code switch. We read about Mexicans wanting in on America. Here are Americans wanting in on Mexico, I thought. What does this mean?
“The border is a metaphor, but what that metaphor and what that border means for me, I’m not sure. I need more information.” I turned these thoughts in my mind every day as I stood on the balcony outside my apartment door. I could see San Diego, the Pacific Ocean, Tijuana. I saw the Border Wall jutting out from the beach, dividing San Diego from Tijuana through the Pacific ocean, declaring to the people of San Diego and the people of Tijuana that this is where you stop, and you begin, and crossing through the water can kill you. The line was drawn in the sand between two dynamic cultures. I could see, too, that there was a buffer zone on the United States side. A swath of beach and wetland laid barren and empty, save for the patrol by truck and helicopter. Mexico, however, pushed its boundaries: people, tiny like colorful ants, street art, bold like fire ants, and a road called Via Internacional squeezed the Wall tight, all running right alongside it.
My vantage point from the colonia Lazaro Cardenas, the residential neighborhood where my apartment was located, had amazing physical perspective over the Tijuanese sprawl that looked like a perma-festival, as in, tents and makeshift housing squeezed next to piles of garbage. It was a city of contradictions: big cement houses next to shacks with aluminum walls next to sprawling, squat stone walls with three different versions of barbed wire and broken glass perched on the top.
I read the “Fun fact” that was scribbled in my notebook. “None of my Uber drivers have done fewer than 9,000 trips. Imagine that! Imagine the conversations!”
I glanced up. My notebook full of handwritten notes lay next to an almond-milk late with a small flower on the foam. I was at Cafe Malvia, writing, admiring the visuals, the quintessential Tijuanese color palate: muted green, muted yellow, dirty white, neon lights. My dog sat on the hay bale placed for photoshoots under the neon light that said “Good Vibes.” I was typing notes, trying to articulate something about my interaction with the fascinating place that for so long had been lodged in my mind as dangerous and a place I’ll never go.
I looked at another scribble in my notebook: “This place could give be the place that the artists from Bushwick, Brooklyn flock to when they run out of money and concrete to paint on. More coffee shops than I can visit. Moody. Messy. A strong artesanal brew scene. Who knew?”
I sat outside of the cafe but inside a massive building full of alleys full of little shops with metal rolling doors and vintage clothes and metal-band t-shirts hanging from the ceilings, full of street street art, full of tables with crystals and used books. Peak Tijuana, I thought.
The alley was quiet, and the vendors and sales people hung around on fold-up chairs, playing with smart fones.
I looked at my laptop. I typed:
<sound>The dogs in Colonia Lazaro Cardenas bark around the clock. There is always barking. Tear up every time I see a dead dog in the street (usually once per week). I’m glad my pup Coco has perfected the art of turning around and vertical-jumping up into my arms at the sight of strays.
<smells> La Avenida de Revolucion: grassy smell of zonkies and the corn husks. The leather in the tourists shops. A cheap and strong cologne, which I’ve dubbed Axe body wash. And then at the beach: Sewage, especially after it rains, and ocean water, especially after it rains.
FEELING: salt water at the beach, Las Playas. An unusually cold and rainy month, all the drivers have said. Days that the fog was so thick I couldn’t see San Diego beyond the border wall. Gave me the feeling that I, and the Tijuanese, were cast off Earth. Also: the Pisces full moon pulled the tides up so that the beach was impassable. At times, the beach disappears. Another strange feeling.
<tastes> Corn. Sweet. Tamales, especially good with the red smoky chili sauce. Hot. The place at the beach that makes nachos with thick-cut tortillas. Holds the cheese sauce, the real cheese sauce, runny but not Velveety. Real salty cheese.
I stopped typing. The sensory information was vital to capture; it represented my first impressions of a new-to-me place.
I ripped a piece of paper out of my notebook and took out a pencil. I set the timer on my phone. The Border Wall that divided countries was a physical thing that represented an intellectual thing. The ability to ingest Tijuana as a border city changed my perspective about digesting cultures and how they let us become part of them. I decided that I would spend fifteen minutes brainstorming on a question: Is who I am where I am?