TIJUANA, Mexico--Derrik Chinn has seen much in nearly three years of leading day tours through Tijuana, but he couldn't even escape this symbol:
I saw a groundhog burrowing its way along the new 20 foot tall border fence on the U.S.-Mexico line.
The area and imposing "El Malecon" is part of the beachfront Playas de Tijuana neighborhood along the Pacific Ocean.
It reminded me of the ramshackle Atlantic City boardwalk circa 1980. With its proximity to the new border wall "El muro," the neighborhood is a key component to any visit to Tijuana (pop. 1.6 million).
Chinn operates the three-year old Turista Libre (free tourist), which conducts hip tours of Tijuana......
......The 30-year-old urban explorer lives in a small two bedroom duplex in Playas de Tijuana. He pays $250 a month in rent. Some other Americans live in the neighborhood. "The water goes out for a couple of days," said Chinn, a former newspaper reporter in San Diego. "Trash is still an issue. There are roosters crowing and dogs barking. Neighbors screaming at their kids at all hours. But you have the ocean."
And the ocean represents freedom.
Chinn said, "Even with this death of tourism leaving locals wondering what is going on, they say 'We have to get on with our lives and make this a happy and healthy place to live place without tourism. A lot of cafes have opened along the boardwalk"
I was only in Tijuana for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon.
I hardly had a chance to poll the locals, but vendors along the boardwalk were warm. The people at the Mercado Hidalgo market went out of the way to help me find a Lucha Libre pinata' I could take home.
People say Tijuana is dangerous.
I say I live in Chicago where 10 people were shot to death as part of 42 Memorial Day weekend shootings.
Chinn has a keen and respectful sense of his adopted hometown. Like any good journalist, he looks for the underchampioned. The Tuirsta Libre website promises "No strolls down hooker row. No donkey shows. No gringo stereotypes."
As we walked along the border fence Chinn explained, "In one of the neighborhoods by the border fence the U.S. found a tunnel under a house that was being disguised as a plant nursery. It led to a manhole in the parking lot (on the San Diego side) where you parked. They sealed the tunnel with concrete. Then a guy from Tijuana (Luis Ituarte) who was living in Los Angeles with his wife bought the house and turned it into an art center. It's now called the Tunnel House.
The only other time I was in Tijuana I went to a bullfight with Dr. John Hughes at Plaza Monumental, built in 1960 not far from the ocean.
Chinn said he has been to three bullfights in Tijuana. "The first time I went walking in, 'I know what's going to happen here, but I'm not going to judge, I'm going to witness'," he told me. "The second time I went, it was a couple year later and I went, ewwww. And then third time I went, I figured I'd seen enough."
So, what if someone in his tour group wants to see a bullfight in the rickety stadium?
"I'll tell them how to get there and show them the website," he answered. "It's out there, but I don't want to have any affiliation with it."
Plaza Monumental (cap. 21,000) also hosts concerts. Manu Chao and Pitbull---obviously-- have appeared in the bullfighting ring.
In February, 1990 Nirvana played on Avenida Revolucion Tijuana. "Pearl Jam has played here," he said. "So many people here in Tijuana don't have the ability to cross into the U.S. But they're music fans and they listen to radio from San Diego. And back in the day people from San Diego weren't terrified to come see shows here. And eighteen year olds could party."
Unlike 18 year olds, much of downtown Tijuana is frozen in time.
I'm a magnet for dive bars and cantinas and wound up at Dandy del Sur, just as I had years ago with Hughes. SInce my last visit I learned the electronic Norteno dance band Nortec Collective did a long residency at Dandy del Sur. They are from Tijuana and they will be coming to the Congress Theatre on June 29.
First shot is on me. Here they are with warm and realistic shots of their home town:
Chinn pointed to the 'Clock Monument," a.k.a. "El Arco" or "The Arch.
"A huge digital clock hangs below it over the street but it doesn't work," Chinn said. "I've never seen it work. The arches symbolize Tijuana as the connection between the two countries. I love the sound of the support cables slapping against each other in the wind. A couple years ago for Christmas, at the height of the drug war when everyone was terrified to leave their homes, the city began a new tradition of settitng up a humongous Christmas tree below it, Rockefeller style. The show always must go on."
I will go back to Tijuana to absorb more Norteno music.
Chinn pointed me to the "All My Friends Music Fest," which generally happens in September. Last year's festival featured 35 bands, mostly from Tijuana, who played at a 2,500-capacity mansion with a swimming pool on the outskirts of downtown. The crib is known as "The Millionaire's House," because the owner earned his money by supplying much of northern Mexico grocery stores with polyethlyene.
"They haven't announced the date for this year," he wrote in a subsequent e-mail. "Summer doesn't really get underway around here until mid-July, and on top of that Mexicans tend to hold off promoting anything until a month before hand." Check out Chinn's blog post.
With Chinn's background as a feature reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune, I asked about the point of view he takes on his tours---especially with politically sensitive topics like U.S.-Mexico borders.
I believe, as a journalist, it is impossible to be objective. We are human.
But it is always possible to be fair.
Chinn agreed. He said, "It's impossible to separate your opinions, it is human to have an opinion. That's fair to say about what I'm doing. I definitely have an opinion."
But he doesn't broadcast it.
As for me, I will let these pictures and sounds tell the rest of my story.