In 1920, Tijuana had been a village of eleven hundred. Eighty years later city officials could only guess the population neared two million people. There were entire neighborhoods populated by people from different Mexican states—Oaxaca, Sinaloa, Sonora, Mexico City. Yet the federal government in Mexico City kept Tijuana’s budget minuscule. So the city could neither control growth nor provide services for the newcomers. Shantytowns popped up on the ever-extending edge of town. “Cartonlandia”—Cardboardland, an awesome shantytown on the bed of the Tijuana River near the border—was almost a tourist attraction itself.
To the bureaucrats in Mexico City, and to most of Mexico, Tijuana was an ugly embarrassment, a virtually American city, and hardly Mexican at all. Government bureaucrats required extra salary to come staff federal agencies in Tijuana. In one sense, they were right. Tijuana resembled the global economy it depended on—an assault of random noises and images. “A modern-art painting” is how one Tijuanan described the city.
Yet Tijuana had a beauty that none of the country’s exquisite colonial towns possessed. Young and far from Mexico City, Tijuana was free of history and tradition. It was close to California, the wealthiest U.S. state. This created better jobs and educational opportunities in Tijuana than elsewhere in Mexico. As a crossroads, its people were open to new ideas. To Tijuana came the hardworking poor escaping the limits and decaying economies of their hometowns. Many of these folks intended to sneak into the United States; but they found lives in Tijuana and stayed.
“A more egalitarian society formed here. It’s part of what makes Baja California different,” said David Pinera, who is a professor of Tijuana history. “It was a society in the process of forming, a society in which the culture of hard work predominates and less the culture of privilege. There aren’t the closed social circles. The rich man here is someone who came from the bottom. His father didn’t give him any leg up. He was a waiter or street vendor and made it according to his own efforts.”
Thus a relatively large middle class could form. In the 1980s, banks, insurance companies, and auto dealers began to arrive to serve the middle classes. Tijuana then got its first supermarkets and shopping malls. Moreover, middle-class denizens naturally didn’t want their children exposed to strippers, shantytowns, drunk gringos, and naked-lady playing cards. They wanted music lessons, ballet, and art classes for their children. So a constituency for a more evolved city was born.
The quirky cast of characters in this chapter include:
- Enrique Fuentes, who almost single-handedly nurtured a constituency for opera in Tijuana and who in 2001 opened an Internet cafe, El Café de la Ópera, with computers named Aida, Carmen, Madame Butterfly, and La Traviata, linked to a server named Turandot
- Mercedes Quiñónes, who spent years in a cultural wilderness, volunteering as a choir director and supporting family as a hardware wholesaler, before finding a professional voice teacher and becoming, at age 51, Tijuana’s premier soprano when Pagliacci opened there in 2003
- The Russian emigré musicians who during the 1990s formed Baja California’s first state orchestra, then its first state music conservatory, teaching a new generation of Mexican music students