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History Happened Here

South Of The Border

June 2024
7min read

Seeking the best of a raffish past in a richer, safer Tijuana

This is culture shock. Walk over the bridge and across the border into Tijuana from the big parking lots south of San Diego and you step from Southern California into the Third World, from a spacious, prosperous green corner of the United States into a plaza jammed with people selling every imaginable kind of trinket and small children begging and peddling chewing gum. The half-mile walk from the plaza into downtown Tijuana takes you down streets lined with stalls offering tambourines, ceramic Mexican-hat ashtrays, hash pipes, gold rings, Tweety Bird garden sculptures, knives, handcuffs, ponchos, tortilla makers, and most anything else you don’t need but might for a split second want. Auto-repair shops sell Freon (illegal a half-mile north) and cheap bodywork; ultra-bargain drugstores sell over the counter what you’d need a prescription for back home; liquor stores tout inexpensive tequila and mezcal; tobacco stands offer Cuban cigars.

The history of Tijuana is a history of filling needs or desires for Americans that we haven’t wanted to fill for ourselves. This was true before the city was thrust into prominence by Prohibition, and it remains so today, when maquiladoras , factories along the border paying twice the usual Mexican wage and a fraction of the American one, have swollen the city with emigrants from all over the country and made it wealthier and thus far safer and more attractive than ever before.

Tijuana has always depended on tourism—they claim it’s the most visited city in the world—but it has never drawn tourists with its history, yet that history is all around, though usually in a purely commercial form—here at a once-celebrated racetrack, there at a legendary bar. You can find it both in town and in nearby seaside communities, especially at Rosarito Beach, built around a Depression-era grand hotel, and Ensenada, a hardworking Mexican fishing and seaport center just an hour beyond that.

Tijuana was a tiny, remote ranching village until the outcome of the Mexican War dropped the border next to it in 1848. In 1911 California banned gambling, and the town burst forth as an international playground for pleasures both newly and timelessly illicit. By the 1920s it was home to the world’s longest bar—550 feet from one end to the other and open around the clock—and in 1929 came the Hipódromo de Agua Caliente, which was soon the first track in North America to award a hundred thousand dollars to the winner of a single race.

The scene became so riotous that in the early 1930s Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas outlawed gambling and prostitution. That and the American repeal of Prohibition hit very hard, and the town languished until World War II, when jobs above the border opened up again. The wartime naval buildup in San Diego carried Tijuana to a peak—or nadir—as a pleasuring spot for sailors, giving it the unwholesome reputation that has burdened it ever since.

With the new maquiladora prosperity, the population, doubling every decade, has reached roughly two million. Much has been done to clean up both the city’s downtown streets and its image. The old illicit pleasures are doubtless there to be found if you seek them, but so are first-class shopping, fine dining, and all the other attractions of a relatively well-off foreign city.

If you arrive the way day visitors from the United States usually do, by walking over that bridge, continue your walk into town and you’ll soon arrive at Avenida Revolución (or La Revo), today, as eighty years ago, the tourist’s main street. Hawkers will urge you into their storefronts and into the bars that fill at night with noisy California youths (the drinking age is eighteen). Behind the storefronts you’ll find indoor warrens of shops selling not only all manner and quality of curios but also fine regional Mexican handicrafts and furniture.

At the corner of La Revo and Fifth Street, notice the old Caesar’s Hotel. Walk into its restaurant, with its stately old flutedcolumn bar, and you’ll be at the spot where the Caesar salad was invented, on the Fourth of July weekend, 1924, by the hotel’s founder, an Italian immigrant named Caesar Cardini. Back outside Caesar’s you’ll notice on almost every corner a donkey painted to look like a zebra. This is an old Tijuana staple. You’re supposed to climb on and have your picture taken. You’ll know you’re at the end of the downtown strip when you reach the jai alai fronton, a playful 1930s building part Moorish baroque and part Deco, with minaretlike spires and bright blue tilework.

A half-mile away the Zona Río neighborhood shows the newer face of Tijuana, with shopping centers, world-class hotels, and, among other things, the Centra Cultural de Tijuana, a new museum, theater, and Omnimax center designed partly to sell the culture of central Mexico to the local provincials. I went there hoping to find an introduction to local history, but the center’s Museum of the Californias, which will cover the past of the whole Baja region, was still under construction.

The closest thing in the whole city to a historical museum or park, I discovered, is the Wax Museum, a place more entertaining than edifying. There I stood face to face with figures from Mexico’s past, including Montezuma II, Cuauhtémoc, Cortés, Father Junípero Serra, Pancho Villa, Zapata, and Porfirio Díaz — as well as Ayatollah Khomeini, Dracula, Jack “El Destripador,” Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Freddy Kruger, Kennedy, Madonna (bearing a remarkable resemblance to Phyllis Diller), Princess Diana (or Gov. Christine Whitman in a tiara), and President Clinton (especially illembalmed).

I was able to take another kind of look at the past at the Caliente racetrack. It sits across a hilltop overlooking some of the newer suburban sprawl around Tijuana, and since a labor dispute some years back it has been a dog track. Money-saving renovations have removed most of the details from its once-grand domed Moorish front, though the splendor of its scale survives, but the grounds by the entrance offer a surprising consolation: a whole zoo of caged tigers, bears, chinchillas, and exotic birds.

I felt I was closest to the living heart of today’s Tijuana when I stopped by the Mercado Hidalgo. If Mexican food is one of the glories of world cuisine, the Mercado is a glory among marketplaces, as lovely and bountiful as any in Paris or Rome. Its stalls brim with spotless displays not only of familiar fruits and vegetables but also of Mexican limes, guavas, gourds, beans, cheeses, cacti, sugar cane, and dazzling varieties of fresh and dried chilies and candies. Taco stalls and ceviche stands surround the market.

After a day in Tijuana I took a short drive south to Rosarito Beach. The Rosarito Beach Hotel is another Moorish fantasy, now surrounded by an aggregation of nondescript newish buildings. You enter under a stained-glass mural of a pretty señorita based on the founder’s wife, a 1930s Mexican actress. Beneath her an inscription reads POR ESTA PUERTA PASAN LAS MUJERES MAS HERMOSAS DEL MUNDO : “Through this door pass the most beautiful women in the world.” The lobby they passed into—and in the earliest years they included Paulette Goddard, Lana Turner, and Rita Hayworth— is a masterpiece of ornate blue-tile wainscoting under a high carved ceiling and of walls painted in 1937 with murals of Mexican missions; tall iron gates lead off into adjoining rooms. The hotel has a long, broad beach where sunbathers share space with horseback riders and, alas, people racing around on rented all-terrain vehicles. It also had, when I visited, a Titanic museum.

The 1997 movie Titanic was filmed a couple of miles below town in a studio alongside the sea where a nearly full-size replica of the ship went up (and went down) behind a clutch of hangarlike sound-stage buildings. The hotel’s exhibit had assembled some of the dregs of what was dispersed when the set was struck: papier-mâché bollards from the Liverpool docks, a few funnels, small stretches of wall, and an area of deck planking, so you could say you had stood on the deck of the Titanic .

The town of Rosarito Beach grew up around the hotel; today it is mainly a place where young Americans party in bars and tear up the beach on ATVs. Just outside of town, though, modern upscale resort hotels make the most of the dramatic coastal bluffs and beaches, and the Titanic lot makes the best of the unlikelihood of anyone’s coming back to make Titanic II by offering a better Titanic museum. This one includes a movie about the making of the movie and pieces of a first-class cabin, a first-class lounge, and three big mockups of boilers. South of the Titanic lot, civilization falls away, and the highway, a modern divided toll road, passes through a starkly magnificent landscape of brown, rugged hills reaching down to cliffs pounded by the big Pacific breakers.

Ensenada, a seaport and fishing city of two hundred thousand, is far older than T.J. Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, making the usual sixteenth-century search for a northwest passage, sailed into its bay in 1542; permanent settlement began in 1804, a gold rush brought crowds in 1869, and the town served as the capital of Baja from 1882 to 1915. I began my visit at the fish market, a worthy counterpart to the Mercado Hidalgo in Tijuana, with fantastic gleaming arrays of fish and shrimp and bivalves filling the stalls and surrounding lunch counters selling delicious shrimp cocktails and fresh fish tacos.

In Ensenada, as in Tijuana, I found the past most present in places of pleasure. The former Riviera del Pacifico Hotel, yet another glorious Moorish mishmash, had a brief, dazzling life: It opened in the early 1930s, entertained the likes of Johnny Weissmuller, Myrna Loy, and Dolores del Rio, was managed by Jack Dempsey, and closed in 1938, when gambling was banned. It is now maintained as a social, civic, and cultural center, with art exhibits, an archeological museum, and a bar unchanged from the early days and still serving drinks. The mural behind the bar is by itself worth a visit. It shows a drunken Bacchus on donkeyback being tugged by Cupid toward a dancing, castanet-snapping señorita, while a mariachi band serenades the scene.

At the other end of town is a yet more remarkable watering hole. Johan Hussong, a German immigrant, opened Hussong’s Cantina in 1892 to serve Ensenada’s miners and ranchers. Almost nothing has changed there since except for the addition of electricity. From its sawdust-covered floor and its roaming shoeshine man to its green tongue and groove wainscoting, its fifty-foot-long wooden bar, its mirrored back bar with painted-on columns and arches, and the vaqueros and workingmen who sit there at their drinks (during the day, for at night a younger crowd moves in), Hussong’s is a sudden step into an unaltered Old West. Look at the photo on the wall of bandoleered troops marching through Ensenada’s dusty streets during the Revolution of 1911. You might think they could be there right outside the door today.

Alone among all the places I saw in Ensenada and Tijuana, Hussong’s has remained utterly faithful to its history, and it has thereby made itself into an institution. Several competing shops nearby, each barely smaller than the cantina itself, sell “official” Hussong’s T-shirts that are popular all up and down the West Coast. Here the past is most truly preserved—and is most truly alive and beloved.

—Frederick Alien

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