And in case I want to come alone next time, he instructs me to tell the cab driver, “Third and Madero” or “Revolución and Third.”
A view of Pasaje Rodriguez y Pasaje Gomez.
I’ve heard and read about these pasajes, but even photographs haven’t prepared me for the sensation of having traveled by Star Trek transporter. One minute we’re in downtown Tijuana, among the cart vendors, drugstores, taco stands, and people everywhere. Then we turn down an alley between buildings and suddenly we’re in this in-between place, not outside anymore, but not completely inside either. The roofs of these alleyways are covered with translucent yellow and green corrugated plastic, so the weather doesn’t come through but light does. The walkways are lined with 250-square-foot storefronts, art galleries and vintage shops, blackbox theaters, cafés, and dentist offices.
At this time of day, Pasaje Gómez is quiet, with only a few storefronts open. In the evening, more of the metal gates will rise, Sheiner says, and the pasaje will liven up. Many of the business owners have day-jobs.
Castro steps out of La Tentación and greets us as we approach. He is as olive-skinned as the red-headed Sheiner is fair. After we embrace, he throws an arm around Sheiner’s shoulders.
“We’re the odd couple,” Castro says. “A Jewish pelo rojo and a Mexican Jew. It’s interesting for a lot of people. We have a lot of fun.”
The two laugh and then Castro launches into his explanation of how they ended up here.
“A friend of mine invited me to this place — a pasaje,” he says. “Pasajes are like little malls that were very popular in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. They were very crowded. There were a lot of them in Tijuana, especially in La Revolución — Revolución Street. After 9/11, the economy was brought down and a lot of these pasajes were closed and abandoned. They just closed the doors and the curtains for almost 11 years, until we started opening them again. So now it’s like a little art district.”
Castro says the recent renewed interest in Baja “started with the Valle de Guadalupe and their wine attracting the attention of Americans. There have been many Baja food and wine articles.”
Sheiner adds, “We said, ‘If they’re talking about food and wine, why don’t we start talking about art?’”
When they first opened the gallery, with the encouragement of the Museum of Photographic Arts’ Debra Klotchko, they started with a 250-square-foot space. Within a couple of months they’d expanded to three spaces, where they now hold workshops as well as exhibitions. The storefront is painted bright white with lime-green columns. Out front, in the middle of the pasaje, they’ve added white, plastic modern-looking lounge chairs.
“What we’ve got is very inexpensive rates and rents,” Castro says, explaining that the rent for a space in a pasaje ranges between $200 and $600 per month.
“We’re growing really fast,” Sheiner adds.
According to a September 2012 New York Times article, Pasaje Gómez is the most successful of the new pasajes, having rented out 60 spaces in its first year and a half. And yet, Castro says, the perception of danger , which he attributes to the Mexican media, still keeps potential foreign visitors away.
“Sometimes [the media] don’t even think about what they’re doing,” he says. “They’re working against us. They want to sell their newspapers. They always put something bad on the front page. So it makes it really bad-looking for everybody, but it’s not that dangerous.”
Castro and Sheiner offer themselves as chaperones to gallery guests as often as they can. This afternoon, they walk me around Pasaje Gómez, Plaza Revolución, and across the street to Pasaje Rodríguez, introducing me to friends and café owners, pausing so that I can take pictures of arched doorways and painted corrugated gates. I’m gushy with enthusiasm, oohing and ahhing around every corner. I can’t help it. Not only has my travel bug been awakened, but it has also occurred to me that this place is only 30 minutes away from my house. I’m hoping the photos will entice my husband to come back with me.
“It has taken us a lot of effort, getting Americans down here,” Castro says. He tells me how surprised he was when, in early April, two female artists, both in their 70s and both due to exhibit at La Tentación mid-month, crossed the border to visit the gallery.
“It was a surprise to me that that they were not afraid,” he says. “[The perception of danger] is one of our first things we have against us in bringing people from the United States, especially [people over] a certain age. I’m 57, but, you know, people that are older than 40 are more afraid. Most of the people that go from the United States to our openings and exhibitions are very young.”
Sheiner came to Baja for the first time with Castro, who is a former Tijuana resident, six or seven years ago. They would spend the day, go out to eat, see art, or maybe take a trip farther south to one of the wineries.
“Andrew is most adventurous,” Castro says. “Now he knows all the good taquerías, the good vendors. He shows me things I don’t know.”
Sheiner laughs. “The zeal of the convert,” he says.
Like my husband, Sheiner’s wife was nervous about his trips across the border. But eventually, she was able to let go of her fear.
“She said, ‘If you’re with Castro, I trust you,’” Sheiner says. “After coming so many times, she became comfortable, too.”
Okay, I say, but what if she came on her own? Does he trust that she’d be safe?
“As long as she looks both ways crossing the street,” he jokes. “That’s the real danger.”
You asked for an authentic experience
The aforementioned perception study on travel to Baja from Southern California revealed three particular pain points: 11 percent of respondents do not have a passport (a decrease of 3 percent from the 2011 survey); 43 percent of respondents are not satisfied with the border wait, with San Diegans being the least satisfied, and; women still perceive Baja as less secure than men do.