The importance of Avenida Revolucion

Gringo street

“Too many balcony bars will open up, and in five years, sooner or later, they’ll all be in the cocaine business.”
  • “Too many balcony bars will open up, and in five years, sooner or later, they’ll all be in the cocaine business.”
  • Image by Paul Stachelek

Avenida Revolucion, where two great civilizations collide to form a Himalayan range of apposite images and attitudes, has made business geniuses out of men like Hector Santillan. Starting as a shoeshine boy in the 1940s, then working his way up from curio salesman to curio shop owner to landlord in the busiest tourist block on a street of tourist blocks, fifty-one-year-old Santillan has succeeded because he figured out why Americans need an Avenida Revolucion: the illusion of adventure.

Hector Santillan: "Buying your way out of trouble is part of the adventure for Americans in Mexico.”

Hector Santillan: "Buying your way out of trouble is part of the adventure for Americans in Mexico.”

“If a fifteen-year-old kid is caught pissing on the street and a policeman grabs him, he tries to pay three dollars to get off. Because that’s an adventure,” he explains.

“Americans want to do that. Three dollars is three dollars, so the policeman takes it. People complain about police corruption, but who’s at fault? I’ve seen this in Italy, and I’ve seen this in Puerto Vallarta. Buying your way out of trouble is part of the adventure for Americans in Mexico.”

Fernandez is convinced that someone will fall off a balcony and be maimed or killed.

Fernandez is convinced that someone will fall off a balcony and be maimed or killed.

In his own business, a curio shop between Third and Fourth streets on Revolucion, that ersatz adventure extends to letting tourists believe they’re getting a bargain by haggling down the price of a plaster Porky Pig or an onyx ashtray. “Tourists want to play the game,” Santillan says.

If Tijuana isn’t Mexico, then Avenida Revolucion isn’t Tijuana.

If Tijuana isn’t Mexico, then Avenida Revolucion isn’t Tijuana.

“I’ve been in my store thirty-five years, you think I’ve always been honest with Americans? I’ve been taken myself in Spain, France, and Mexico too, and I know the value of things. It’s voluntary. They know we’re asking thirty dollars for a five-dollar blanket, but they bargain it down to twenty dollars, and they’re happy.

Fernando Velasquez. Club A was built last year atop the old saddle, boots, and silver shop the family still operates on that corner. Velasquez says it was financed by a $200,000 bank loan.

Fernando Velasquez. Club A was built last year atop the old saddle, boots, and silver shop the family still operates on that corner. Velasquez says it was financed by a $200,000 bank loan.

People want to think they’re getting a bargain, that’s fun. Same thing with the kids in these bars — they think they might get into trouble and buy their way out, as an adventure. The kids come here, then they tell their friends, I went to Mexico!’ They don’t say they went to Tijuana, because Tijuana isn’t Mexico. They want to feel they went to another country, a wild country. That’s what we sell.”

Jose Portillo, president of the Revolucion merchants’ association: “Rowdy Americans go into the curio shops and break things and refuse to pay. It’s not worth it to stay open at night now.”

Jose Portillo, president of the Revolucion merchants’ association: “Rowdy Americans go into the curio shops and break things and refuse to pay. It’s not worth it to stay open at night now.”

If Tijuana isn’t Mexico, then Avenida Revolucion isn’t Tijuana. The street is a rich anachronism in a poor city, a carnival ride that’s appealing because it seems about to throw a bearing. There’s a sense of history-in-the making looming over both the city and the tourist street, but while Tijuana’s history marches forward, Revolucion’s repeats itself.

Mauricio Cohen and his partners formed a partnership with the Silvershot family in Tijuana, founders of Sara Imports. But the Silvershots flew to the Middle East on a buying trip and were killed by a terrorist bomb.

Mauricio Cohen and his partners formed a partnership with the Silvershot family in Tijuana, founders of Sara Imports. But the Silvershots flew to the Middle East on a buying trip and were killed by a terrorist bomb.

The street is an Escher drawing of elliptical, illusory, reversible oddities. It’s an American street in a Mexican town; a street built on saloons and gambling halls and bawdy houses that long ago molted into a thousand curio shops, all selling exactly the same merchandise; a street where the dead cantinas have suddenly reincarnated into a half-dozen “balcony bars” in the last eighteen months; a street where wealthy young Mexican businessmen are now the gamblers, risking investments of up to a million dollars on the fickle compulsions of American teen-agers (who take advantage of Mexico’s drinking age of eighteen), wagering that the kids won’t forsake the Tijuana ride before the bank loans become payable in full. A street that is nimble enough economically to change with the course of the incredible shrinking peso.

Year by year, Revolucion becomes increasingly dependent on American money.

Year by year, Revolucion becomes increasingly dependent on American money.

A street in a depressed and troubled country that is more vibrant than any single street this side of China Town. A street whose sordid past decomposed into the black gold that now powers its very profitable sense of danger.

So men like Hdctor Santillan have heard it all before. He’s able to see through all the talk among the younger businessmen about making Revolucion more “secure” for the tourists. Not that he doesn’t want the streets to be safe; it’s just that all that talk comes around again every five years and smacks of what happened to the curio shops that tried to fix their prices and quit bargaining with the tourists: they went out of business.

Santillan knows the ghosts of Revolucion well. Long a leader in local business circles, he spouts relevant statistics with the confidence of a man who’s cracked the game: Eighty percent of the founding members of the Tijuana Chamber of Commerce, the majority of whom owned businesses along Revolucion, were Americans. When the Tijuana Rotary club was formed in 1931, forty percent of its members were Americans. Between about 1946 and 1960, tourism accounted for ninety percent of the business transacted in Tijuana, and sixty percent of that took place at the Agua Caliente racetrack, which was controlled by Americans; tourism today represents only about thirty percent of Tijuana’s economy. Santillan takes all that to mean that the street was built by and for Americans and straddles the blurry line grafting the U.S. to Mexico.

Santillan came to Tijuana in 1942 with his parents, who were from the Mexican state of Zacatecas and who joined the movement of their countrymen toward the border’s enticing richness. Since almost the turn of the century, young Mexicans had been talking of the gold that paved the streets of Tijuana, where gambling houses and horse races made for a twenty-four-hour fiesta. But by the time the Santillans arrived, the gambling houses had long since turned into bars or parking garages or ash heaps, and the main street was filled with American servicemen on the make.

Revolucion was only about five blocks long then; the land east of the jai alai fronton was a vacant field extending all the way to Agua Caliente. Santillan says the population numbered about 40,000, and almost everyone catered to the visiting, uniformed Americans. “San Diego was the number-one navy base in the United States, and there was Camp Pendleton,” he continues, visions of the easy pickings dancing in his head. “They all came down to fight each other, the sailors and the marines. We’d incite them, ‘Hey sailor, you know what that marine said about you?’ ” He laughs intelligently.

In 1952 Santillan started working as a salesman in a curio shop on Revolucion between Third and Fourth streets, across from the old Foreign Club casino. The club was just a bar then, one of some 200 between Second and Sixth streets. Santillan says there were also about 200 liquor stores and about 200 curio shops in the same stretch.

Many of these businesses had been opened by former employees of the casinos, which were shut down abruptly when President Lazaro Cardenas outlawed green table gambling in 1935. Prior to that time, old-timers remember Revolucion as one long street of saloons.

Charlie Carvajal, seventy-eight, was a motorcycle cop in Tijuana in the 1920s, and he worked for a couple of years as a dealer in the Foreign Club until it was shut down. Tijuana was a frontier town then, according to Carvajal, where gunplay was not uncommon, whole blocks of buildings frequently burned to the ground because there was no water or equipment to fight them, and car thieves were summarily executed for “trying to escape’’ from the police.

“ ‘La Fuga,’ it was called; they’d shoot you and say you were running away,” Carvajal relates. “Everybody knew about it. A guy would just disappear, and everybody knew why. When I was a kid, you could leave your car anywhere. Nobody would steal anything off it.” Even today Tijuana doesn’t have a serious car thievery problem, unlike, say, San Diego.

Carvajal became a motorcycle cop in 1926, when the exchange rate was two pesos for one dollar and police pay was forty pesos a week. Today a Tijuana cop makes eighty-six dollars a month, about the same as in 1928. “The mordida [bite] was always the way it worked over there,” says Carvajal, who now helps his son operate an automobile brake shop in Lemon Grove. “But they told you to leave the tourists alone, don’t bother the tourists.”

Tijuana was such a loose town then that a nineteen-year-old cop could arrest the governor of Baja, the very man who created the municipality of Tijuana, and live to tell about it sixty years later. “Between town and the racetrack there was nothing, and I used to hide behind bushes to catch speeders,” Carvajal explains. The speed limit was thirty-five miles an hour. “One day two cars went by at about forty-five, and I took off on my motorcycle and pulled them over. Governor [Abelardoj Rodriguez was driving a Cadillac roadster, but I didn’t know who he was. His bodyguards in the rear car started to get out, but he waved them back. I says, ‘I’m going to have to take you to the station for speeding.' He says, ‘I’m in a hurry, young man. Could I pay you now, and you take it to the station?’ I said no.

“He asked if I knew who he was. ‘I am General Rodriguez,’ he says. ‘And I am Carlos Carvajal, mucho gusto. But we’ll have to go to the station.’ He sighed and said okay.

“The police station was an old adobe fort then, between First and Second streets. When we got there, the governor gets out of his car, and everybody snaps to attention and salutes. He marches into the chiefs office. The sergeant asks me, ‘Did you open the way for him with your motorcycle?’ I said no, I arrested him. ‘Don’t you know who that is?’ No. ‘Jesus Christ! That’s the governor of Baja!’

“Fifteen minutes later. I’m called into the chief's office, and I’m ready to be fired. The chief says. The governor recommended you very highly. He said the next opening for advancement, give it to you.’ But I never did get that promotion.”

Carvajal had to leave the force in 1933 after he was caught bootlegging liquor across the border. He says he managed to escape the border patrol officer who tried to arrest him, and he stayed in Tijuana, working at the Foreign Club, until well after the Eighteenth Amendment (establishing Prohibition) was repealed.

Twenty years later, when Hector Santillan started working as a salesman in a curio shop across from the empty casino, Revolucion was still a street where anything might happen. Yes, there were donkey shows, he says, and prostitution and frequent street brawls involving American GIs. It all added to the general profit of the local shopkeepers, who were all Mexicans now. He recalls seeing wealthy property owners flip a coin to determine who would take ownership of an especially beautiful automobile one of them had. “And I saw the loser just call up a-ear dealer and order another car.” Fortunes were made on Revolucion, and Santillan wanted in.

In those days, if a salesman proved his proficiency by consistently selling a $10,000 inventory for $50,000, he was made a supervisor of the store. And eventually, instead of taking pay, he was allowed to purchase the store over the course of several years. Santillan took possession of his own store this way in 1965, at a total cost of about $150,000.

Today he rents out the basement of his shop to a liquor store, and he’s also part owner of Gomez Arcade, the large curio market that runs through the center of the block beside his shop. He says that he was recently approached by buyers from Mexico City who offered him $250,000 for his shop, which is twenty-four feet wide and sixty-six feet deep, and that that money only represents the buy-in fee for the right to rent the shop for $3000 a month. He laughs when he recalls that a shop like his rented for only about $500 a month in 1965.

Santillan and other businessmen say that property along Revolucion has become so valuable that investors are willing to pay between $100,000 and $250,000 to purchase a lease. In the arcades off the main street, the fee for buying into store space is considerably lower, ranging from $10,000 to $20,000. Santillan turned to the calculator on his desk and quickly figured the average cost per square meter to buy into rental space today along Revolucion: $1500, or about $170 a square foot. The rental rate for retail space on the street averages about two dollars per square foot, or about twice as much as rental space in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter.

“There are still opportunities for young and eager people, for hard workers and good savers, to go into business on Revolucion,” Santillan explains. As proof he points out that a family of Marias (Indians from Oaxaca who are commonly seen begging tourists for handouts) recently started their own store in a small arcade and are now looking to buy a place along the streetfront.

Other newcomers in the business of creating adventure on Revolucion have come from Mexico City. These chilangos, as they are derisively tabbed, have been forced to move toward the border as the Mexican economy worsens. Two stores selling designer-labeled clothing (manufactured in Mexico), Fiorucci and Ellesse, were recently opened in the 200 block of Revolucion by Mexico City businessmen, as was the new shopping mall across the street, Plaza Revolucion. Other businesses from the south have established themselves elsewhere in Tijuana, including the discount stores Ley and Astra and the grocery chain Blanco, which bought out Limon. This new grocery chain has invigorated the Tijuana-based Calimax food stores, says Santillan, because of the increased competition. “People from the south see that the dollars are here, so they come.”

But even the long-established businessmen like Santillan express surprise at the sudden emergence of second- and third-generation Revolucion businessmen, who in the last eighteen months have constructed half a dozen expensive nightclubs on the main street. No one is quite sure how it came about, but a whole new crowd has descended upon Revolucion on weekend nights. Hordes of American high-school- and college-age youngsters throng the thoroughfare, squeezing into the bars that by Mexican law can serve liquor to eighteen-year-olds. “It’s amazing, the change,” remarks Jose Portillo, president of the Revolucion merchants’ association. “Right now there are seven or eight balcony bars, and more are on the way.”

Most of the bars are run by the sons and daughters of established curio merchants. Armando Garcia, a young architect who remodeled the venerable Rio Rita into a college kid’s hangout, is the son of Luis Garcia, who was a merchant for decades on Revolucion. Oscar Escobedo, a partner in Margaritas Village at Third and Revolucion, rented a curio shop at that corner from his father, Antonio, for several years before converting it into a nightclub. Across the street, Tequila Circo, rumored to cost almost a million dollars to construct and decorate, is operated by Mario Baylon, whose family has business interests in lower Mexico. And down the block, at Fourth and Revolucion, twenty-six-year-old Fernando Velasquez is in partnership with four other family members — “brothers, wives, and my mother, of course” — behind the ritzy Club A.

Club A was built last year atop the old saddle, boots, and silver shop the family still operates on that corner. Velasquez, holder of a degree in business administration from the University of San Diego, says it was financed by a $200,000 bank loan. “Tijuana is the fastest growing city, economically, in all of Mexico,” Velasquez explains over lunch at La Especial. “We looked at that real estate we had and decided we wanted to use the property twenty-four hours a day. Financially, the balcony bar was the best use for the property.”

Between 8000 and 11,000 revelers cross the border into Tijuana on an average weekend night, according to the Tijuana Convention and Visitors Bureau. Club A, like most of the new nightclubs, stays open until 3:00 a.m., and on a good night, 450 gringos will leave behind a million to a million-and-a-half pesos (about $10,000). Still, Club A manager Julio Ramirez says the club makes more money before 8:00 p.m. than it does afterward — because 8:00 p.m. is the curfew set by the navy and marine corps for visiting sailors and leathernecks. “People think it’s the kids that are spending all the money, but it’s not,” Ramirez explains. “It’s the twenty- and twenty-one-year-old marines, starting at about noon. The eighteen-, nineteen-year-old kids don’t have a lot of money to spend.”

Apart from trying to recoup his investment while Tijuana is still a hot spot for teen-agers, Fernando Velasquez’s biggest worry is security. Gringos being gringos, many of the liberated teens display the piggish behavior their elders are famous for in Mexico. There have been incidents in which young drunks on the balconies have thrown bottles onto the street, injuring pedestrians and damaging vehicles. Last fall the more established Revolucion business community wrote letters to the mayor of Tijuana and to the chief of police, decrying the lack of control in the new nightclubs. Businessmen and the Tijuana press started criticizing the bars for serving drinks to underage kids and for bringing back Tijuana’s worst days of open drunkenness and rowdy overindulgence.

The attacks prompted the nightclub owners to form their own business association, which currently has about twenty-five members. Plexiglass shields have been placed around the balcony of El Toritos pub, across from the Woolworth’s store, and the other bars are supposed to have the shields around their balconies by the start of summer. Velasquez says the nightclubs have worked out a deal with the police department to hire off-duty officers to work as security guards and ID checkers at the clubs.

“The police corruption is our main concern,” Velasquez says. “The police reflect our economic troubles as a country. If they see a way to make ten dollars off a tourist, they will.” Unlike Hector Santillan, Velasquez won’t say publicly that the corrupt cops might be part of Tijuana’s attraction for young people trying to shed some innocence.

Velasquez says one of the hardest parts of running a nightclub on Revolucion is keeping the bathrooms clean for squeamish Americans. This is one of those simple business imperatives that the new generation of Revolucion businessmen only ignore at their peril. “In the past, we were more naive about business,” he reflects. “But this is becoming a more sophisticated market, and we have to learn to compete. On Revolucion, about seventy-five percent of the young businessmen now have an educational background in business.” It shows. Velasquez can rattle off marketing figures like a Madison Avenue slicker: Tourists spend an average of fifteen to twenty dollars each during a visit to Tijuana, a little less at night. During the day, seventy percent of the gringo’s (studies show 99.14 percent of Tijuana’s visitors are Americans) cash is spent at the curio shops, and the rest goes to restaurants and bars. At night, ninety percent of his wallet is emptied in the bars. The average clubgoer spends six to eight dollars before he or she runs out of money. This takes about two hours; then the patron needs to be moved out (subtly, because forty percent are repeat customers) to make room for a new reveler.

This nighttime crowd is a whole new market for Tijuana businessmen, one that may or may not justify the rather large investment in the balcony bars. “Too many bars will open up, and in five years, sooner or later, they’ll all be in the cocaine business,” remarks Miguel Fernandez, a one-time PAN candidate for congress who operates a curio shop in the Gomez Arcade. Fernandez is convinced that someone will fall off a balcony and be maimed or killed, and he says that will be the beginning of the end for the balcony craze. While some businessmen regard the recent Tijuana rush as proof of a successful image makeover for Revolucion, Fernandez says the street still has the same old problems — corrupt cops, pickpockets, and grime. “The bad part of Revolucion is still there,” he declares. He is sure that the hordes of teen-agers are just a passing fad.

Jose Portillo, president of the Revolucion merchants’ association, believes that the crowds can be kept around if the situation is managed correctly. He spouts a few figures of his own to underscore the importance of not blowing this opportunity: 7,969,681 tourists crossed the border at San Ysidro between January and April of 1986, according to the Baja state secretary of tourism. And that’s the off-season. Sixty-three percent were male, thirty-seven percent were female, Portillo says, and fifty-five .percent were married. “That’s a lot of money,” marvels Portillo, who owns his own curio shop on Revolucion.

Portillo says that the problems brought about by the balcony bars must be controlled, for the good of both the bar owners and the curio shop owners. He says that on weekends curio shops used to remain open until eleven or midnight, but the majority of them close down now at 9:00 p.m. because of the rowdy Americans. “Every person feels worse after he drinks,” Portillo explains, sitting in his office next door to the Tijuana Chamber of Commerce off First Street. “They go into the curio shops and break things and refuse to pay. It’s not worth it to stay open at night now.”

Portillo adds that the tourist market has changed markedly in the last five years, tending to be younger now and inclusive of more families, similar to the market shift to low-rollers in Las Vegas. He worries that “the drinking is more visible now. We don’t want Tijuana to return to the old days.” His association is distributing thousands of Don’t Drink and Drive posters throughout the tourist zone, and it has hired two men to work full time cleaning up trash and doing touch-up painting along the street. “We have to have control," he says firmly. “We don’t want any more cantinas. There has to be a balance. They can’t open three or four [nightclubs] on every block.”

Still, like many of his peers, Portillo has surveyed Revolucion’s shifting business scene and wondered about the possibility of opening his own balcony bar. “It’s ten times more expensive than a new curio shop,” he muses, an imitation Rolex flashing on his wrist. “It’s not easy to recover that investment because all the business only comes on weekends, and the kids don’t have much money. It’s a real gamble, but give me the money, and I’ll try it,” he laughs.

Although the balcony bars have been roundly criticized by the older merchants, business leaders on the street realize how important the bars are in attracting the dollars that all the merchants need. Mauricio Cohen, general manager of Sara Imports, located across the street from Club A, has just recently become much more dependent on American tourists than before the peso devaluation began in 1982. “It’s in the bar’s own interest not to let things get out of hand,” Cohen says. He reasons that if the bar crowd dries up, it will put a significant dent in general commerce along Revolucion. “The mayor of Tijuana has made that clear to them, because he knows how much we depend on the dollars. For us it’s a question of survival.’’

That’s literally true for Sara, which in the early 1980s was the flagship store of a growing chain of import shops, an empire that has now shrunk from sixteen stores to just six. And the once-exclusive importer that could afford to ignore the tourist rabble has been forcedmto market less expensive brands of clothing and perfumes to young Americans with little money to spend. “We’ve lost ninety-five percent of our Mexican customers,’’ Cohen says. “If it wasn’t for the American trade, we’d be out of business right now.’’

Cohen is a member of a partnership that owns two Sara stores, one at Fourth and Revolucion, the other in the Plaza Rfo Tijuana, along with shops called Renee in the 600 block of Revolucion; Maxim, located where the old Foreign Club used to be; and the Mini-Max and Super Todo discount stores on Avenida Constitucion. Cohen and his partners were originally from Mexico City. In 1969 they formed a partnership with the Silvershot family in Tijuana, founders of Sara Imports. But during construction of their building, the Silvershots flew to the Middle East on a buying trip and were killed by a terrorist bomb during a flight from Zurich to Tel Aviv. The Cohen partnership took over the whole business.

In 1970 they opened a store in La Paz, capital of lower Baja, then bought Renee and merged with the owners of Maxim. Eventually they had four stores in La Paz and several more along the Texas border across from Brownsville, McAllen, Laredo, and El Paso. But in 1982, the Mexican peso began its free fall, and the Mexican government placed trade restrictions on the “duty-free" zones along the border. In the past, stores like Sara could import goods from anywhere in the world without paying import duties, and these savings were passed on to the store’s mostly Mexican customers. But in 1982, the government required that for every dollar’s worth of goods the import stores brought into the country, they had to purchase three dollars’ worth of Mexican-made goods. After an outcry from Mexican businessmen, including Cohen and Hector Santillan, who had been selling a lot of imported electronics products, the government eased the restrictions. Now, for every dollar of imports, the stores must purchase a dollar’s worth of Mexican goods.

The effect of these restrictions, combined with the devaluation, dealt a lethal blow, to most of Tijuana’s small importers. Tokio Imports, which was once between First and Second streets, is long gone, along with the import shop Ileteras, at Fifth and Revolucion. A shop called Imports, between Fifth and Sixth streets on Revolucion, now sells mostly Mexican products. And the Dorothy Gaynor shoe stores, which sold imported shoes, are closed. Sara has survived because of its size, even though the chain’s revenues are down from $36 million in 1981 to $14 million last year, according to Cohen. “It was disastrous for us. We closed stores, reduced staff, cut every area that’s not profitable for us. We're more down to earth now and much more dependent on American tourists. The wealthy Mexicans now shop in New York, Los Angeles, or Horton Plaza.”

So year by year, Revolucion becomes increasingly dependent on American money — and American values. But ironically, Revolucion businessmen say that the street will never have a McDonald’s hamburger franchise, even though there are some in Mexico City and Guadalajara. Not only would a hamburger franchise be too much of an intrusion on the carefully maintained illusion that Revolucion is marketing Mexico — the kind of Mexico that exists primarily in the minds of Americans — but there’s doubt that such a franchise could succeed on Revolucion. For one thing, gringos want to eat Mexican food in Tijuana, and although Mexicans love fast-food hamburgers (making the outlets in San Ysidro among the busiest in the world, according to McDonald’s and Jack in the Box spokesmen), they wouldn’t patronize a fast-food burger stand on Revolucion. “We’re like you Americans, who have to leave your country for adventure,’’ says Hector Santillan. “You look for adventure across the border because that's the way you are; we wouldn’t buy hamburgers on Revolucion because it wouldn’t be the same as crossing the line and eating them in San Ysidro. Because that’s the way we are.” □

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