“On the morning of January 20, 1974, the police came. The neighborhood’s name was Tierra y Libertad, ‘Land and Liberty.’ The police marched right into the neighborhood. Perhaps they were state police. I’m not sure. They came in and arrested several people, the leaders of Tierra y Libertad, the people who’d really organized the neighborhood. Others were arrested at work or wherever the police could find them. Worse was to come.
“At around 4:30 or 5:00 that afternoon, as people started returning to the neighborhood from work, coming home, they heard about the arrests. There was a bit of a panic. Someone organized groups to go down to the access road to the Tijuana airport. They kidnapped three buses and an electric company truck and a number of fancy vehicles. They also kidnapped a couple of soda trucks and brought them back to the neighborhood. People went wild and drank the sodas. You can imagine. These were very poor people. A soda was a treat. To be able to drink many sodas was incredible. But they kept the soda bottles. They didn’t break them. There was a reason why they kept the soda bottles. They’d been instructed to keep the soda bottles.
“The people of the neighborhood also kidnapped two policemen and a reporter. They put the police in the bus and threatened to set the bus on fire. By that time the neighborhood was encircled by police and soldiers. Nobody could get in or out. The neighborhood’s leaders were in jail. The people were improvising. They were following these hard-left-wing radicals. Two young men from an extremist left-wing group called the 23rd of September Communist League had taken control. The people had no idea what to do. The two radicals weren’t of much help. The neighborhood was surrounded by police and soldiers. As night fell, the people didn’t know what to do. They didn’t even know they had to wait up in shifts. Everyone just stayed up all night together. They were exhausted. The next morning before daybreak, the army moved in and caught them by surprise. Most people had fallen asleep.
“By this time, of course, the two young Communists had fled. They’d run off long before the police and soldiers arrived. The people of the neighborhood ran around looking for them, but the young Communists had run away because, I later learned, they thought it was more important that they save themselves ‘for the revolution.’
“These two radicals had organized these people for a resistance they couldn’t win. They’d instructed the people of the neighborhood to save the soda bottles. They showed them how to make Molotov cocktails. But they never even told the people they had to light the Molotov cocktails before throwing them. The people, of course, had no experience in this sort of thing. They didn’t know what they were doing. When the army moved in, they just threw the unlighted Molotov cocktails at the soldiers.
“The army rounded up everybody. There must have been at least 5000 people rounded up. They were told that the governor of Baja California was in downtown Tijuana and wanted to meet with them, to speak with them. The soldiers forced the people into cargo trucks. The trucks headed out to Tecate and to Ensenada. Of course they weren’t going downtown to meet the governor. At different points, the trucks on the way to Tecate and Ensenada veered off and headed way up into the hills. At gunpoint the soldiers forced the people off the trucks. This was how they dispersed thousands of people in the hills on the far outskirts of Tijuana.
“Meanwhile, the army moved into Tierra y Libertad with flamethrowers. They burned Tierra y Libertad to the ground. They burned the place to the ground. The homes, you know, were simple shacks made of cardboard and scrap lumber. They burned quickly.
“A baby inside one of those shacks was burned to death. Her grandmother was one of the leaders of the neighborhood. When the baby’s mother was put on the truck, she was afraid of what the soldiers might do. She gave the baby to her two little girls and told them to run and hide inside the family’s shack and not come out, no matter what. The soldiers moved in with their flamethrowers. The little girls panicked and ran out of the shack and left the baby behind. The little girls later told us how amusing the soldiers found it when the little girls ran out. The soldiers were laughing and chasing dogs and pigs with flamethrowers.
“For the next two to three days you’d see people streaming down from the hills. The thousands whom the soldiers had dumped way up in the hills. You’d see them walking down the roads back to Tijuana. When they finally made their way back to Tierra y Libertad, all they found was ashes.”
Forty-nine-year-old Professor Jorge Mancilla, an Ensenada native, studied neurobiology at UCSD and at England’s University of Cambridge. He taught at ucla’s medical school. He now works in Los Angeles as a union representative for professors. When he talks about the events he witnessed firsthand 30 years ago, emotion overcomes him.
“I haven’t thought about these things for a very long time.
“I was young. I was at UCSD. I dropped out for several years because I felt I needed to help my native country. I needed to do something politically to help my native country. What had happened was that in 1973, the governor of Baja California and the mayor of Tijuana had launched an effort called Todo por una Nueva Tijuana, Everything for a New Tijuana. They meant it literally.
“For decades there had been this squatters’ neighborhood in the Tijuana riverbed right up near the border. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of shacks of the poorest migrants. It was called Cartolandia (also known as Cartonlandia), ‘Cardboardland.’ Most of the shacks were made of cardboard boxes. Well, for a ‘new Tijuana,’ this was intolerable. The land was very valuable. It was flat and there was little flat land in Tijuana to build on. There was this plan to cement in the riverbed and put in flood control. So in November 1973, the government went in with bulldozers and soldiers and wiped out Cartolandia. Leveled it to the ground. The refugees from Cartolandia went a little east and took the land that became Tierra y Libertad. That’s the story. Part of what was Cartolandia is where the Tijuana Cultural Center now stands.”
On October 20, 2002, the Tijuana Cultural Center (Centro Cultural Tijuana, or CECUT, as it’s most commonly called in Mexico) will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a grand exhibition and festivities. The 186,000-square-foot complex has a budget of $4.2 million and a full-time staff of 150 and houses, in addition to art galleries, the Baja California Orchestra (Orquesta de Baja California), the Hispanic American Guitar Center (Centro Hispanoamericano de la Guitarra), and Centro de Artes Escénicas del Noroeste, the region’s only federally funded drama school. If few people now associated with the cultural center remember Cartolandia, it’s because Mexico’s helter-skelter politics can make even recent events seem distant. Thirty-year-old events can seem like prehistory.
“What you must understand is how much Tijuana, how much Mexico, has changed,” said Carmen Cuenca, a pretty Mexico City native who in one capacity or another has worked at CECUT (pronounced say-COOT) for the past 15 years. Before coming to Tijuana, Cuenca worked at Bellas Artes, a federal institution in Mexico City that for 70 years has served as a kind of Vatican for the fine arts in Mexico, if not much of Latin America.
“When the Tijuana Cultural Center opened in 1982, there were maybe 400,000 people living in all of the city. Twenty years later, some estimates put the city’s population as high as two million. It’s maybe more. Who knows?
“It was under President López Portillo that CECUT was built. Really, it was under the inspiration of the president’s wife, Mrs. López Portillo. She was interested in culture. Well, interested in a certain kind of culture. I was told she had a very large collection of white pianos. I’ve been told, but do not know for certain, that the center once had in its possession one of those white pianos.
“At any rate, when President López Portillo came to power, the country was rich with oil money. By the time López Portillo left office, he’d nationalized the banks. The peso was enormously devalued. There was this huge economic collapse.
“And López Portillo’s party, the pri, had been in power forever. In 1982, no one imagined, no one dreamed, that the pri would someday not be in power. No one dreamed that things would ever change.
“Another thing to remember is that in Mexico, with each new presidential administration, there are so many political appointees that federal institutions change profoundly. Much more so than in the United States. In Mexican government agencies, when a new president comes to power, everything changes from the ground up. So it’s difficult to maintain institutional memory, to develop long-term plans and stick with them.
“CECUT is a federal institution. Its director is appointed directly by the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, ‘the National Council for Culture and the Arts.’ No other city in Mexico has such a cultural center. It’s unique.
“So you have all these factors, all these changes. And think about the name. A cultural center. Think of what a fluid term ‘culture’ can be, of all that it can mean. The interesting thing is that CECUT has sort of embodied in miniature a lot of changes in the country and in the city. Look at what’s happened. We have a new president, Fox, from the PAN party. Who ever thought that would happen? CECUT not only has its first woman director, Teresa Vicencio Alvarez, but she’s the first director to come from a purely cultural background. She’s the first director who wasn’t a politician. She may come from a family with roots in the PAN party, but her family had nothing to do with her selection. She’s extremely qualified for the position. But still. It’s an amazing change.
“Twenty years have passed. This isn’t the same country. This isn’t the same town.”
On the day Cuenca and I had coffee in the bar of the Prado Restaurant in Balboa Park, she sent her two daughters off to wander. When they, looking tired, returned, I asked Cuenca if she knew anyone who might remember the circumstances surrounding the cultural center’s construction.
“Oh, my God. Yes,” Cuenca laughed as she rose to leave. “I know just the person. Manuel Rosen. One of the two architects who worked on the project. He lives in La Jolla. I love him. But Manuel’s angry with me.”
“Yes. Angry. If you talk to enough people who’ve worked at the cultural center, you’ll learn everyone’s angry with everyone. I don’t mean that it’s like everybody hates everybody. But, you know, it’s a cultural institution. People have strong feelings about culture. Go and meet Manuel. Talk with him. He’s a brilliant man.”
In the weeks before I met Rosen I was told that in Tijuana, among people who pay attention to things like the cultural center, there were “entrenched groups.” I was told there was “animosity” between these groups. I was told that these groups either did or did not like the “new direction” the cultural center had taken. The opinions of these groups were never stated publicly. These opinions were, I was told, “in the air.” The people telling me that these opinions were “in the air” would by way of illustration make circular clawing motions at their ears, as if their heads were menaced by swarms of invisible bees.
“What are you worried about opinions for?” Manuel Rosen asked on the late-summer afternoon I met him in his La Jolla apartment. Rosen’s building must be one of few in the county to have two full-time doormen. Rosen has in his living room a small Goya, a drawing by Diego Rivera, and large canvases by several of Mexico’s greatest 20th-century painters.
“My wife has been ill,” Rosen said, apologizing for the art on his walls. “We had even more drawings, more paintings. But we had to sell our home and divide up our art among our three children. We needed a more manageable space. I had to give away more than 1000 books before we moved into this place.”
In the room Rosen uses as his office, bookshelves sag with books in Hebrew about Jewish mysticism, books in Japanese on Japanese architecture, books in Thai about Thai architecture. One very large bookcase holds the most significant works of 19th- and 20th-century Mexican literature. The sliding glass door on the east side of his office looks out over the fifth hole of the La Jolla Country Club golf course.
A maid brought me a little seltzer in a tumbler. Rosen looked lost in thought. Seventy-five years old, a grandfather to eight grandchildren, he’s still an exceptionally handsome man. (His wife, an Argentine actress, was a famous Mexico City beauty.) Rosen looked sad.
“I miss Mexico City. We had a wonderful life there. We were surrounded by artists, writers, journalists, poets. Creative people. Constant intellectual stimulation. Here, it’s been kind of…lonely.
“It’s a cultural thing. I am Mexican. I’m used to a more convivial society. I’ve always felt very Mexican, even though my parents were American. I attended the American School in Mexico City, which was somewhat unusual. Most of the other Jewish kids attended one or another of the Jewish schools. Still, I’ve always thought of myself as Mexican, and I never thought of being Mexican as a liability until I moved to San Diego and had some difficulty establishing myself professionally. People here, I found out, didn’t like Mexicans and they didn’t like Jews.
“In Mexico I was involved in many projects. I designed the Japanese Embassy in Mexico City, the Olympic swimming pool, a general hospital, the Mexico City convention center. It was through my familiarity with people in the López Portillo administration that I became involved with designing the Tijuana Cultural Center, which was really the result of a confluence of a lot of culturally interested people.
“First of all, of course, there was Mrs. López Portillo, the president’s wife. Carmen Romano de López Portillo. Everybody who knew her called her ‘Munsi.’ That was her nickname. Why ‘Munsi’? I don’t know why. She was a pianist. She was very interested in culture, the fine arts, classical culture. She started the famous Cervantino festival in Guanajuato that now attracts thousands from around the world. She was close friends with Mrs. de la Madrid, whose husband, of course, was the governor of Baja California. So Munsi had this idea of building a cultural center in Tijuana that would act as a kind of window. A window for Americans to see Mexican culture, and a window for the people of Baja California to learn about their heritage.
“You see, the peninsula — Baja California — has historically always been very isolated from Mexico. It was always much closer to the culture of the United States than to the traditions and culture of central Mexico, of Mexico City.
“Munsi had this idea for a cultural center that would present Mexican culture to Americans and to the Mexicans in the north. She was also very passionate about Hellenistic culture, and she had this vision of a kind of agora, the marketplace in classical Athens where all the great philosophers met and taught and exchanged ideas. I heard that ‘Munsi wants to build an agora in Tijuana.’ So when you look at CECUT today, you see that it has this big plaza in front. That was Munsi’s idea of the meeting place where people could exchange ideas.
“When I came on board the project, I definitely had the idea, ‘Let’s make a museum with a meeting hall, a coffee shop, a little bar.’ Places where people could meet and talk. You have to remember, in its initial two years, the center was under the direction of the Ministry of Tourism. It was only later that it came under the auspices of the National Council for Culture and the Arts.
“Munsi visited Disneyland and fell in love with the 360-degree surround cinema they had there. I went to see it too, but it was too large, too out of scale, for what we could do in Tijuana. So I went to see the Omnimax in Balboa Park, and I went to Toronto to see the Omnimax people there. It was perfect for our needs, and it worked out very well. The cultural center now earns 40 percent of its operating budget from the Omnimax ticket sales. Also, with the way the screen was, we had a difficult time figuring out how to house the theater. I decided, ‘Why don’t we just build a spherical exterior that matches the interior?’ It was that simple. Now that big sphere, la Bola, has sort of become a symbol of Tijuana.
“I think, in all, the center took two years to plan and build. The total cost was around $35 million, which would be more than $60 million today. We spent $1 million alone on the equipment for the Omnimax. For the building, we’d wanted to use a special cement used in the construction of the Dallas airport. It turned out to be too expensive, so we had to look for a cement additive that would give us that same warm color. It turned out that there was such an additive right here in San Diego. It was called San Diego Bluff. So the Tijuana Cultural Center has a San Diego color.
“As for my interior, well, I can’t say it’s been entirely ruined. But I’d designed an interior filled with light. I wanted it to be a very bright, very congenial space, open to the garden outside. They’ve covered up many of my windows with plastic, and now the center’s become very gray and morbid inside. It’s not the hopeful interior I designed.
“As for this new director, Teresa, I wish her well. She’s certainly a very pretty and attractive woman, a very intelligent and well-educated woman. Very qualified for the job. And I don’t think she’s going to use her directorship as a springboard to a bigger and better political position, as some in the past tried to do. But I don’t think there’s now any room for me to participate in the center. And, you know, with a woman director, it’s difficult for Mexican men to build a certain kind of relationship. With a man, you can go out, have a drink, relax, build a friendship. But with a woman, it has to be more formal. Mexico isn’t America. Mexican men and Mexican women interact with each other differently than do American men and American women.
“So I did what I did for the center. And I ended up here, in San Diego. What happened was, of course, the great devaluation of the early 1980s. When López Portillo nationalized all the banks. I had most of my money in one bank in Tijuana. Money that I’d earned over a 30-year career. And from one day to the next, it lost 60 percent of its value. Sixty percent. And you couldn’t take out what little was left. So I had to liquidate what real property I had and live on that. This sort of thing happened to everyone. I’m not saying I was somehow special. I’m not saying I was singled out. But I, of course, felt bitter. I’d given six years of my professional life to the López Portillo government. And I lost more than half of all my money. Without warning. Without any warning whatsoever.
“But that’s all in the past. Munsi is dead. López Portillo married again, but he’s ill. Very, very ill. He suffers a great deal. Mexico has a new government, and maybe it will be less of the rich getting richer and the poor, poorer. So far, I haven’t seen any dramatic changes. But what can one man, a president, do in only six years? What can one man hope to accomplish in a lifetime? After the devaluation, I decided to move to San Diego and make a new life.”
Rosen was quiet for a while.
“I came here to conquer San Diego,” he said.
He squinted out the glass door, as if the spirit of Munsi López Portillo might materialize above the fifth hole of the La Jolla Country Club golf course.
“In the end, San Diego conquered me.”
This mix of political power and culture, which seems odd to Americans, or to anyone from the Anglo-Saxon world where government support for the arts has historically been spotty, is very natural to Mexicans.
“It goes all the way back to the conquistadors,” says Professor José Manuel Valenzuela, a sociologist who works for El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana.
“You had these priests who were trying to spread Christianity among an illiterate population. So the church used singing and songs to spread its message. The church used drama, little plays in which the Indians acted out scenes from Jesus’ life. Theater was used as a tremendous means of conversion. And you can still see this tradition in the great holiday pageants performed by the indigenous populations. The tradition is very strong and very deep. There was no difference between the church, the state, and the arts.
“This makes sense when you consider that a large percentage of the population couldn’t read. You had to use more accessible methods. Visual and musical methods. You had to use symbols that could be easily recognized and understood. Think of all the elaborate art you see in Mexican churches. Art used to explain ideas. In 1531 we had the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which quickly became a nationalist symbol. And this continued for centuries. By the 1850s in Mexico, art was profoundly nationalist. Literature and poetry reflected a strong sense of nationalism. Hidalgo used the Virgin as a symbol for the Mexican independence movement.
“At the time of the revolution, roughly 90 percent of the population was still illiterate. The image of the Virgin accompanied Mexican revolutionary forces. And most political news was actually transmitted by song. That’s how people learned what was going on in the country. Muralism functioned in the same way. You had these very strong symbols that could be easily recognized and understood. You see it in Diego Rivera, Siqueiros. A very nationalist, political art. You really couldn’t divide Mexican art, Mexican culture, from Mexican politics. And this continued even into the Chicano movement of the 1970s. Chicanos used the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe in their protests and in their murals. Once again, the use of murals. The use of visual symbols, the use of art, for communicating political ideas.
“And already in the 1930s President Cárdenas was concerned about American culture overwhelming Mexican culture. You began to see greater expressions of this concern in the 1970s when, for example, the Commission for the Defense of the Language was formed, an effort to keep English from encroaching on Mexican Spanish. By the mid-1970s the federal government was taking formal steps to strengthen Mexican culture and identity all across the border region. This institute, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, was even part of that movement. The idea being to have a postgraduate institute to study border culture, issues such as migration, Chicano issues, the maquiladoras.
“So CECUT has to be viewed in that broader context. And there was naturally some initial resistance to the center. There’s been a long-standing tension between northern Mexico and Mexico City. There was always this notion that Mexico City was the source of all legitimate culture, and places like Tijuana had no culture, certainly no significant Mexican culture. And so culture was something that Mexico City felt obliged to export to places like Tijuana.
“In the first few years of CECUT’s operation, native Tijuana residents were very critical of it. They resented it. They saw it as an imposition from Mexico City. Local newspapers, like Zeta, for example, tried to devalue events at the Centro. When they’d review a performance, they were always very careful to note how many minutes late it started, how many chilangos, or Mexico City people, were in the audience. If the performer was or was not a chilango, and if the performer said whether he or she didn’t like Tijuana.
“So there’s been this tension about what sort of culture CECUT supported. Was it going to promote an elitist culture, the traditional arts, an idea of what Mexico City defined as culture and art, or was it going to promote regional culture, popular culture? It wasn’t until 1989 that CECUT had a director who was born in Tijuana, Pedro Ochoa Palacio.”
Professor Valenzuela, who’s authored 15 books and edited a number of anthologies, is a fierce thinker. When asked a question, he responds with phrases like “Well, I can think of four reasons why that might be true…” or “There were five distinct stages to that particular historical development…” And he immediately launches boom-boom-boom into a point-by-point discussion of the issue.
El Colegio de la Frontera Norte sits on a hillside overlooking the ocean a few miles south of Playas de Tijuana. After 90 minutes of delivering well-ordered and brilliant thoughts on the relationship between Mexican art and Mexican power, Professor Valenzuela paused. From his office window, I watched pelicans fly low and slow over the gray and barely rippling sea.
“Something interesting, you know, happened in 1994 at CECUT,” Professor Valenzuela said. “It was during inSITE94, that big binational cross-border installation art show. An artist named Marcos Ramírez did something very dramatic. I’m sure you’ve heard of what happened in 1974 when Governor Milton Castellanos ‘evacuated’ Cartolandia. Well, in 1979, the Tijuana municipal government returned to finish the job with bulldozers. Some of the residents resisted and managed to hang on until late January 1980. It was the rainy season. It had been raining very hard. The reservoir was full. And Governor Roberto de la Madrid had the floodgates opened. He made sure no one told the people in Cartolandia what was going to happen. And the water rushed down and killed several people. It killed six members of a family of seven.
“Marcos Ramírez, whom everyone calls ERRE, was born and raised in Colonia Libertad. He was participating in the inSITE94 show, which was directed that year by Carmen Cuenca. What Marcos Ramírez did was that right there in CECUT’s plaza, right there in front of la Bola, he built a detailed re-creation of one of those cardboard and scrap-wood homes that used to stand in Zona Rio, on the land on which CECUT was built. It was this amazing thing. It looked as though it had just appeared overnight, like some fantastic mushroom. As if it had pushed right up through the ground. As if to say that you can’t bury the past.”
For a greater appreciation of the cultural center’s broader context, Professor Valenzuela suggested I speak with Leticia Márquez, a graduate student and Tijuana resident who’s completing her thesis on the development of cultural institutions in northern Mexico. She happened to be available not long after I spoke with Professor Valenzuela, and she agreed to try to explain to me a little about Mexico’s cultural bureaucracy. We met in the Centro Cultural’s coffee shop.
“The Mexican government simply thought that there was no culture in the north” is how Márquez began to explain how the center came to be. “Initially, all the exhibits, everything came from Mexico City.”
Mexico City. It sounds so simple. A highly centralized bureaucracy masterminding a nation’s cultural life. But bureaucracy tends to be fruitful and multiply. For example, Márquez explained, the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, “the National Council for Culture and the Arts,” which oversees the cultural center, also keeps tabs on 36 other cultural institutions.
An hour or so into my talk with Márquez, she said, “What’s probably difficult for you to understand, and why you’re having a hard time understanding what I’m saying, is that in Mexico we have a great problem with duplication and cooperation. By that I mean that in addition to there being national cultural bureaucracies, there are similar institutions on the state and local levels. So the state of Baja California has its own cultural bureaucracy, as does the municipal government of Tijuana. Now, one of the problems is that there isn’t enough money to properly fund all of these institutions. But who is going to decide who does what? For example, Tijuana’s cultural office publishes the work of local writers. But in the past, the Centro Cultural has also published the work of local writers. The state capital is, of course, in Mexicali, and so there’s been criticism that the Baja government tends to publish the work of only people in Mexicali.
“One of the opinions that’s in the air right now is that things would be simpler if the federal government would just turn over CECUT to the municipal government of Tijuana. I don’t think that’s going to happen. But that gives you an idea of what people are thinking.”
Pedro Ochoa, the cultural attaché to the Mexican Consulate in San Diego, no longer cares much what people think about the Tijuana Cultural Center. From 1989 to 1994 he served as its director. An attorney by training, Ochoa, like many Mexican attorneys, has a literary side. When I met with him to talk about his stint at the center, he was about to leave for a brief trip to Mexico City. What was he going to do there?
“Buy books!” he said, rubbing his hands together. “All sorts of books. You can find many, many books in Mexico City that you can’t find in Tijuana. I can hardly wait.”
Did he read much when he was the center’s director?
“Read? I hardly had time to eat. I lived at CECUT. I didn’t have a romantic life. I didn’t have any sort of private life at all. CECUT was all I did, all I thought about. Six, seven days a week. Ten to 12 hours a day. The administration of the center is what took up most of my time. There’s a lot of detail to attend to. I was only 29 years old when I took the job. I was the first and only local person to be CECUT’s director.
“I started my career as director of public libraries for the city, and then as director for cultural affairs. I then went to Mexico City and worked for the de la Madrid government for one year. I also worked for the Salinas government, working in Mexico City government. But I was far away from my family. I wanted to come back to Tijuana. Which ultimately led me to CECUT.
“I’d always had an interest in cultural matters. When I was little, every day after lunch, our father would make sure to read us an article or two from a Mexico City newspaper, to give us some exposure to the bigger world. And I loved poetry. When I was in high school, I was with a group of students that toured around, giving dramatic readings of poems, epic poems. He also read Neruda and Paz. So a job at CECUT, an opportunity to work with culture, seemed like a wonderful thing.
“When I arrived at CECUT, I, like all its directors, was confronted with there being no long-term plan, no programs. You start from scratch. And, you know, the federal government pays only the employees’ salaries. Everything else, all the other money, CECUT has to make on its own. I was under pressure to act fast.
“The Omnimax, the 360-degree cinema, was clearly the easiest way to make quick money. So I threw myself into this huge project. The Canadian Museum of Civilization had produced this movie, The First Emperor of China, that I knew we could use in our Omnimax. I worked very hard with the Chinese community in Tijuana, with the Chinese Consulate in Tijuana, to promote the film, to raise money for the film. We had to have the movie translated. We used the voice of a Tijuana newscaster for the narration. It was an enormous effort. And it was really the first serious movie that had ever been shown at CECUT’s Omnimax. It wasn’t cute. It wasn’t about baby animals. And there were people who thought it was a big mistake to even attempt something like that. I wanted to debut the movie in January 1990. Everyone said I was crazy. Everyone said January was a terrible month to start anything like that. In January, people have no money for entertainment. They’ve spent all their money on Christmas. But The First Emperor of China turned out to be a huge success.”
Ochoa and I got together on a humid August afternoon in a café not far from the consulate. He’s a dapper, peppy fellow who seems to find humor in just about everything. I mentioned to him that I’d been looking for a copy of a book about the center, a book celebrating the center’s tenth anniversary. I said I knew that it had been published during his tenure but that no one at the center seemed to know where I could find a copy. Even the clerk at the center’s bookstore knew nothing about it. Ochoa laughed and slapped his thighs.
“Oh, they’ve got piles of that book. Lots of copies! But they’re all hidden away somewhere.”
“Jealousy? A silly sense of competition? You know, CECUT’s often been run more by emotion than thought. There are traditionalists who, for example, feel that CECUT should support only the fine arts. They don’t think popular art is legitimate. For that reason there was resistance to exhibiting the work of local artists. I wanted to exhibit local artists. But there was this sense that Tijuana artists, that artists in the north, weren’t good enough. It was in 1989 that I had CECUT’s first solo exhibit of a local artist, Roberto Hinestrosa, a photographer.
“I also inaugurated a series of monthly lectures by Mexican writers. And at first there was some criticism of that. There were people who said, ‘Who in Tijuana is going to come to lectures by writers? There’s no audience for that sort of thing.’ But there was. And that series, too, was a big success.
“In the end, despite the successes, I wanted to have a life. CECUT had been my life. I missed Mexico City, the cultural opportunities there. I went back. I got a job with the attorney general’s office.”
Ochoa looked at me with a smile. He burst out laughing.
“A lot of people in Tijuana were delighted to see me go.”
In other words, Teresa Vicencio, the center’s director since the spring of 2001, has a tough row to hoe. She is, as the Tijuana men I spoke with often mentioned, a very attractive woman. She isn’t of the big-haired, Chanel-suited sort often associated with Mexico City’s ruling class. She’s more casual than that, but not bohemian. Her father was, before his death, national president of pan, President Fox’s party. Her mother serves as a representative in Mexico City government. Her older brother is a federal senator from the state of Jalisco.
“My family history has nothing to do with my appointment as CECUT’s director” is what Vicencio told me when I gingerly asked about her background. We were sitting at a conference table in the basement offices the center uses for its administration. There was a little silence. I gazed at my notes. I tried again. I knew that she had once studied in Paris and is fond of reading. I asked her to tell me something about her professional life before she came to Tijuana six years ago to join her husband, Luis Humberto Crosthwaite, a well-respected Tijuana writer.
She told me she had spent ten years working for the National Council for Culture and the Arts in Mexico City, promoting reading and literacy programs.
“And working for a federal bureaucracy was a good education for me. I got to travel a great deal and worked often with state and local agencies. We in the federal government really did have this idea that we knew what was best for everyone else, and in the end I came to see that our attitude wasn’t very healthy for the country. We didn’t always know what was best. The local people knew what they wanted and needed. And it was for that reason that I wanted to work for a smaller city. Promote culture on a local level.
“Here in Tijuana, I was director for the city’s municipal library system, which was challenging because there was very little money and libraries weren’t a top priority for the city. I had to use a lot of imagination and creativity. It was another wonderful education. I got to see firsthand how the city’s government worked. I became familiar with the people working for the state and municipal cultural agencies. I really loved what I was doing.
“This job at CECUT is difficult because so much of it involves the practical administration of the center. Day-to-day issues. And because we have so much to do in order to define the center’s purpose. We’ve never had a curator, for example. Traditionally, exhibits were decided by the director. Sometimes you got something good, sometimes you got something horrible. I’d like us to have a full-time curator.
“Also, in the past, CECUT was involved in publishing the works of local writers. But we aren’t a publishing house, and I don’t think publishing should be part of our mission. I think our efforts would be better spent by acting as a liaison between local writers and publishing houses in Mexico City. We would do better to help push local writers to a bigger market.
“What I think we should concentrate on is education. Despite CECUT’s problems, the changes in its administration, children have always understood CECUT. We get about 10,000 to 12,000 students a month visiting us for our art and cultural exhibits. As a cultural institution, we can’t ignore our responsibility to work side by side with schools. And I’d like to expand our work with schools. With education.
“You see, there’s really no school of the arts in Tijuana. I’d like us to create a master plan for educating local artists, for bringing them to a higher level of professionalism.
“All this, of course, takes money. And in Mexico we don’t quite yet have the culture of private support for the arts. Contributions to institutions like CECUT aren’t yet tax deductible. We don’t really get private donations. So we’re having to learn to do things like work on marketing ourselves to sponsors, to businesses.
“There is a lot to worry about. I hope our anniversary exhibition, which is going to be a big exhibition, in addition to showing CECUT’s past, will concentrate a lot on what’s happening now in the city. There’s a lot of creative energy in Tijuana. And I’d like people to have an idea of where we might be going in the future.”
Magali Arriola is the young curator from Mexico City whom Carmen Cuenca recruited to give shape and form to the cultural center’s 20th anniversary exhibition. In voice, looks, and manner, she resembles a French intellectual. Delicate wrists. Dusky voice. Direct gaze. Her family were Jewish refugees who before the war fled from Paris to Mexico City. Arriola attended the Lycée Franco-Mexicain in Mexico City. She studied art at the Sorbonne. She’s at home, she says, in both French and Mexican language and culture. She curates for Mexico City’s more avant-garde galleries.
“Young artists in Mexico City look to Europe, rather than to New York, or the United States,” she told me over coffee in the center’s café. “Young artists here in northern Mexico, in Tijuana, are quite comfortable with American art and culture. Which is what surprised me. There’s this whole generation of young artists here, and these are mostly multimedia artists, who take it for granted that they live in a hybrid culture. They’re not at all didactic about it. And this is very different from the older artists here who work in the more traditional visual media. I thought their work was often very rhetorical and weak in discipline. Their poetics don’t go very deep.
“But these younger multimedia artists are really the first generation that was born and grew up in what I guess you might call ‘new Tijuana.’ The huge, urbanized Tijuana. And it’s this chaotic urban environment that interests them. This mixture of cultures. One huge difference between them and young artists in Mexico City is their ease with English. Here, it’s very common to meet people who speak fluent English. That’s not the case in Mexico City. So these younger Tijuana artists are very willing to overcome the border. Some of them even have a kind of utopian spirit for making life in this part of the world more functional. One group, an artist collective called Torolab, even envisions a new bridge over the border that would allow people on both sides to communicate.”
On the late-July afternoon when we spoke, Arriola was still deep in the process of selecting what and who would appear in her exhibition. She said she, of course, wanted to include “as much material as possible,” but the logistics were a headache, and the location of some materials wasn’t clear.
“CECUT has never had a formal curator,” she explained. “So it’s difficult to know just what it has in its collection. I know I’m definitely not going to do a traditional sort of exhibit. I’m thinking at this point that I’d like to do a photomontage showing CECUT’s development over the years. We’ll naturally have some paintings and other work by local artists. But what I really want to do is give space for these younger artists who work in video, and I haven’t quite figured out how I’m going to do that. But their work is some of the most interesting that’s going on in the city right now. There’s a lot of humor, irony, in what they do. There was a video-art group called Bola 8 that grew out of the communications department at uabc, one of the local universities. Some of these artists are especially good, and I’m going to use their work in our exhibition.”
A week or so after I met with Arriola, two Bola 8 alumni, Ivan Díaz and Salvador Ricalde, sat across from me in the cultural center’s café, sipping ice-cold beers and in general projecting a self-possession uncommon among most people their age. Arriola had told me she wanted to show their work in her exhibition.
The young video artists sipped their icy beer. They looked at me, said, “We don’t need Mexico City to tell us what art is.
“Tijuana is creating its own identity. We are an amalgam of both sides of the border.”
Twenty-six-year-old Díaz said to me, “I don’t believe in politics. I don’t believe in using art for politics.”
Twenty-seven-year-old Ricalde picked up the theme. “Of course some people might read politics into our work. But it’s there only in the sense that anything and everything might be considered political. It’s not something we’d do intentionally.”
Díaz continued, “And anyway, we don’t think there’s such a thing as a Mexican identity, as such. You won’t see, for example, a single image of the Virgin of Guadalupe in our work.”
Ricalde told me he went to Mexico City to study film and filmmaking. He studied at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (unam). Ricalde found the capital and the university to be “very, very conservative.”
“I started doing some experimental stuff while I was at UNAM. A non-narrative short film. About a hotel that was across the street from the film department. Images from different rooms in the hotel. People watching TV. People unpacking their stuff. I used color filters. Slow motion. Frame-by-frame shots. These techniques were the techniques of video art, not traditional filmmaking. The faculty couldn’t condone it. They called me in and said, ‘If you persist in this fashion, you will have no access to film stock.’
“We’re so much more free in the north, in our ways of thinking, in terms of what our culture allows.”
Ivan Díaz handed me a CD containing, he said, some samples of his work. I later took it home and perused it. A five-minute-long video called Barbara Sabroso Dancer, or, loosely, “Barbara ‘Funky’ Dancer,” transfixed me. Díaz had apparently cajoled an aging exotic dancer, a puta, from Tijuana’s red-light district to perform for him in a well-lighted studio. While a (drunken?) Díaz sings an offbeat song, Barbara bumps and grinds. She exposes her breasts. She shakes her pimpled buttocks at the camera. She puffs a cigarette. She wiggles her tongue. She masturbates.
Barbara Sabroso Dancer is beautifully produced and brilliantly shot and is the sort of thing that would drive the bureaucrats at Bellas Artes, and at the National Council for Culture and the Arts, right up the wall.
Díaz had smiled when he handed me his CD. Ricalde had explained how he himself had gotten started in video.
“In 1997, I got a job working at a studio that edited videos of weddings and quinceañeras, and it was there that I started playing with the idea of combining music with images from real life.
“You have to understand that at our university, we received almost no technical training when it came to making films or videos. We had no access to computers. Everything we learned was theoretical. So in 2000, I got a Sony Vaio, which was an enormous source of technical experience.
“You see, in Mexico City, videos aren’t yet really considered an art form. It’s not taken seriously. But that’s basically an economics issue. Something that few people understand is that one of the reasons our culture here in Tijuana is so different from that in Mexico City is that our proximity to the United States has given us direct access to inexpensive technology. This has very important consequences. Computer stuff, video stuff, is 40 to 60 percent cheaper in San Diego than it is in Mexico City.”
Díaz said, “And it’s not for nothing that Tijuana is known as the television capital of the world. Until the recent economic crisis, our factories produced more televisions than any others in the world. We grew up bombarded by television, by visual images from America.”
“And up until the recent economic crisis,” Ricalde continued, “Sony subsidized our video art festival. We’ve had one for the past two years. They say they don’t have the money anymore.
“We’ve never gotten much support here anyway. But my work has appeared at ucla, in Brazil, at UCSD, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego. I’ll be showing some of my work in Berlin in late September. Some of my still photographs have been shown in Japan.
“At any rate, I don’t think artists of our generation expect our government institutions to help us promote our art. It’s nice if they do. We appreciate it if a place like CECUT exhibits our work. But I think we’re already beginning to look beyond the government. I think we have a greater sense of private initiative.”
I asked Ricalde if he had a work he liked best.
“An old work in progress. It’s done now, but I worked on it for about three years. A very low-budget sci-fi film. I was trying to break with the subgenre barrier. Trying to show that you could make an interesting sci-fi film without a huge budget. I wanted to show that you could do it without all the money and special effects. I also wanted it to be an homage to those old low-budget sci-fi flicks I grew up with.
“I’ve always seen Tijuana as a bad sci-fi movie from the early ’80s. Everything here was very kitsch. So I placed the movie here, and I tried to give it a very cyberpunk feeling. The city going through a very troubled velocity range. A mix between Mad Max and a Mexican norteño movie. I conceptualized the story with the most popular symbol of the region, the maquiladora plants. I wanted to say something about the cost of having these transnationals here.
“The movie is 16 minutes long and is called Sector T. It takes place in the year 2018. The maquiladoras give their workers ocular implants so they can work better with microcircuitry. But one guy, a rebellious guy, gets loose. And the maquiladoras send their security cops to try and recover their implant. I use a lot of scenes of cars at night. Natural scenarios that you can identify. Scenes in the flood-control channel. Things you’d recognize.”
I asked Ricalde how he’d come to think of Tijuana as “kitsch,” how he’d arrived at an artist’s appreciation of his city.
“The beginnings of my fascination came when I was a little boy. I used to play with the plastic Mexican wrestlers, and I’d have them fight the plastic toys I had from American movie characters, like R2D2 from Star Wars. In my home on Saturdays I’d turn on the TV at 6:00 a.m. to watch the cartoons on the Fox channel. Later I’d watch Mexican wrestling. So the two cultures were always battling in my imagination.
“When I was a little older, from the time I was 8 until I was 13, I moved to Mérida, Yucatán, where my mother’s family are from. Culturally, it’s very different from Tijuana. And I never lost my contacts with Tijuana. I’d come back to visit every summer. I’d bring back with me music that I’d heard in Tijuana, a lot of punk music and reggae. I’d let my friends in Mérida listen to it. Their parents were horrified. It was like I was from another country. Their parents would say, ‘I don’t want you being friends with that kid from Tijuana.’
“After that, I lived in a few other places. Cancún. La Paz. I lived in the Dominican Republic for one year. I got a sort of perspective on where I was from, Tijuana. An objective perspective. I got a perspective of where I am now. And I feel lucky to have all these influences. I’m proud to have Mayan blood, from the Maya in Yucatán. Some people in Tijuana say I have Mayan features. And as far as American culture is concerned, it’s easier to just go with the flow. Not to fight it. I’d estimate that I’m 24 percent American. And in the end, I probably have the same amount of prejudices against Mexico as I have against the United States. I mean, a part of me is American by virtue of having been born and raised in Tijuana. I can’t help it. No one here can help it. American culture. It’s like a virus. And I mean that in a good way.”
On the cultural center’s exterior, near the south entrance, on a wall near the 360-degree cinema, a bronze plaque from 1982 announces, “The Government of Mexico Completed This Work with the Efforts of the Mexican People in Order that Baja Californians Should Continue Our History and Safeguard Our National Cultural Identity.” This plaque shines a few yards from the broad plaza where in 1994 Marcos Ramírez built his disturbing little shack.
He is thickset and has a rugged, handsome face. He has a construction worker’s beefy forearms.
“I worked as a carpenter for many years after I graduated from law school in Tijuana,” Ramírez told me on the morning we met at Bread & Cie in Hillcrest for coffee. “I graduated in 1982. I realized I could make more money working construction in the United States. So I moved to the other side of the border.
“I had always been interested in art, in images. But, you know, when I was growing up, we didn’t even have CECUT. We didn’t have a single museum. We had no access to art except through books and television.
“I had a little education in drawing. When I was in junior high school, I took a class in technical drawing. When I was 12 years old, my father, recognizing my interest, took me to a shop owned by two artists, the Amaro brothers. They used to do these wonderful paintings on velvet that they would sell on Revolución. These great paintings of bandits with scarred faces, long mustaches. A kind of cliché of what Mexicans looked like. To my 12-year-old eye, they were great. I don’t know that I’d think the same way if I saw those paintings now.
“What happened is that the Amaro brothers would teach me to draw for a few minutes, and then they’d send me out to buy them beer. Their studio was at the top of this very steep street in Colonia Libertad, the neighborhood where I was born and raised. So I’d walk all the way down this hill, and all the way back up, lugging four big bottles of beer. It took them only about ten minutes to drink the beer, and then they’d send me down the hill again. I finally told my father, ‘They’re really not teaching me much about drawing. I spend most of my time getting them beer.’ My father told me I didn’t have to go back to their shop.
“So I was working construction in the United States, and in my spare time, in around 1983, I started hanging out at a custom framing shop in Colonia Libertad. At that time I was collecting photographs and posters of images that pleased me. I was hanging around, meeting artists. Several well-known Tijuana painters would come to the shop, José Pastor, Juan Angel Castillo, Miguel Nájera. Pastor and Nájera had studied painting in Mexico City. Castillo was a very fine, very well known Tijuana painter of beautiful landscapes. In fact, when Pedro Ochoa was director of CECUT, he invited Castillo to paint a mural in the center.
“It was during my conversations with these artists that I started to learn a little about art. I was doing some drawing and painting on my own. In my sculptures I was using leftover lumber and hardware from the construction sites where I worked. Around 1990, two artists came to Tijuana. One was Luis Moret, a Spanish painter, and the other was Alvaro Blancarte, who’d come to paint a mural at CECUT. I and other artists began hanging out at the café in CECUT, talking with these guys. It was a great atmosphere. Young artists and these old masters. And it was there, during these conversations, that I began to get a real education in art. The CECUT café was wonderful. We’d meet there every week. We had what they called the ‘artists’ table.’ The café had a bottomless cup of coffee. We even kept meeting there until a couple of years ago, when CECUT started charging for parking and charging for every cup of coffee you drink. Now we meet on Wednesdays, at around 11:00 a.m., at Sanborn’s on Revolución.
“It was in 1990 that I had my first solo show. Four pieces of sculpture and eight or nine paintings at a gallery in Rosarito. It wasn’t a very good show. But one of my paintings won second place in the Baja California Biennial. I started thinking maybe I could become a real artist.
“In 1992, there was a joint exhibition between San Diego, Tijuana, and San Diego’s sister city, Yokohama, Japan. I was invited to go to the exhibit in Yokohama. I remember it was very cheap for us artists to go. Seven hundred dollars for a round-trip ticket and a week at a hotel. At the exhibit I looked very closely at all the work, and I realized that I could do just as well, if not better. I came back to Tijuana and decided to take a sabbatical year and study art full-time. To see if I could do it. Alvaro Blancarte was giving classes, very inexpensive classes, in drawing and painting at CECUT. They gave him a studio there. Blancarte was a very free teacher, very open in his methods. He gave me a lot of inexpensive paper and inexpensive paints and let me do what I wanted to do. So I continued with my art, doing geometric sculptures and figurative paintings. In 1994, when I was invited to participate in the inSITE exhibition, I really found what I wanted. I decided I wanted to base my career on doing installations within a political context.
“At the time of the inSITE exhibition in 1994, I was building a house for myself in Colonia Libertad. And I was thinking about all those shacks, those homes, that people were building for themselves on the city’s margins. I had this idea of bringing the city’s margins to the city’s center, to CECUT. One of the types of shacks that used to stand in Cartolandia. My name for the project was ‘Century 21.’ A play on the name of the real estate company in the United States. I was doing a sort of ‘model home’ with a dark sense of humor. I was trying to present the best part of the city to itself. To me, these margins, that’s where the beauty of the city resides.
“I’m not like the younger artists of today. I’m more interested in the political side of things. I’m an idealist. I don’t think you can so easily detach art from politics. We have a new government now, and I have the sense that some things are changing. You can see it even in the popular culture. There’s more openness. A few more things are accepted. On television, people are even starting to curse a little more. There’s more sexual content and nudity.
“You have to remember that many people in the old government, in the pri, weren’t driven by any particular ideology. For them, it was a career. The pri controlled everything. I know people who were affiliated with the pri, and so now they’re with the pan. They made the change very easily. So it’s difficult to know how deep these changes go. Perhaps we really no longer need a paternalistic government. If the government will no longer support art, then artists will have to find a way to make it on their own. Maybe that’s not so bad.
“But back in 1994, things weren’t so open. In some places my little shack was very well received. It was displayed in the magazine Art in America, in the Los Angeles Times, even in Newsweek.
“The rich in Tijuana didn’t like it at all. They didn’t want this image of the city to be projected abroad. They were mad that I brought this image to public attention. The poor people had an entirely different reaction.
“You see, I’d gone to a lot of trouble to make it exactly like one of the shacks built by the thousands of people who’ve migrated to Tijuana for many decades. I paid attention to every little detail. I even had a small black-and-white TV inside the shack that played all the time. So the poor people who passed by my little shack thought it was the most normal thing in the world. They’d go inside and change their babies’ diapers. They’d shit in the little outhouse I built beside the shack. Sometimes they’d just come and rest inside. Sometimes they’d just walk up to my little shack and sit outside it and rest for a while in its shade.”
Paseo de los Héroes and Mina Street, Baja