San Diego Your mental picture of Tijuana's Avenida Revolución probably looks like this: hordes of American tourists wearing shorts, T-shirts, and fanny packs tromp up and down the sloping street. Some wait in line to don sombreros, climb into carts behind donkeys painted to look like zebras, and pay five dollars each to have Polaroid photos taken of themselves. Sidewalk salesmen, in limited English, talk other tourists into shops packed full of Mexican blankets, ponchos, statuettes. The more adventurous visitors haggle with the shopkeepers to get better prices on the curios they'll haul back over the border in a few hours. The tourists smile because of the bargains they're getting. The shop owners smile because they're growing rich selling their curios for many times what they paid for them.
Héctor Santillán Muñoz, a longtime landlord and shop owner on the avenue, remembers those days fondly. His face bears the broad smile and faraway stare of a man reveling in memories of good times. "Most of our customers in the good days came from the east and middle parts of the United States," he recalls. "They'd come to Tijuana for the first and probably last time, and we ripped them very well. We ripped them incredibly. They paid whatever we asked for in those years. We used to joke, if we made shit out of clay and put it on display, we could sell it. We sold everything in those days. The usual markup rules tell you to sell it for three times whatever you paid for it. But I had the philosophy, if I bought it for one peso, I'd sell it for three dollars. So I did well, and I saved for the future."
The saving was wise, because "Those days are over," Santillán says, "and they won't come back."
Santillán, 72, stands about six feet tall. He's dressed in pressed tan slacks and a short-sleeved dress shirt. His thin gray hair lies straight back on his head. In his lively green eyes, one can still see the teenager from Zacatecas who began working on Avenida Revolución 56 years ago. "I started in this shop when I was 16 years old, sweeping the floor and cleaning everything. Then I became in charge of the store, and then manager, and then the owners gave me a chance to pay for the store with no money down. I just worked 20 hours a day for the owner of the merchandise. There were two owners, the owner of the merchandise and the owner of the land. I was very young, and I could work 20 hours a day. I remember, I would open on Friday at nine o'clock in the morning and close my store at three on Monday morning. The tourists were in here day and night. A lot of Marines, a lot of sailors. We would make them fight each other... 'Hey, sailor, that Marine over there said you're a swabber.' And they would start fighting. Pretty soon they changed the rules in the military so that they couldn't cross the line in uniform."
Memories of bellicose servicemen and spend-happy tourists cause Santillán to smile and fall silent. But the smile fades as his mind returns to the present. "Now, I stay open because... I'm 72 years old. I have five kids, all well married and healthy, ten grandchildren. So instead of staying at my house fighting with my wife, I come over here to my business. It's like a hobby more than a business, because there is no business."
As he speaks, a lone customer wanders into his previously empty shop. "Today, we've actually had customers. There are a lot of people out for a Monday." He chuckles sarcastically. "Something must be wrong."
He says there are a lot of people out this Monday afternoon in early May, but a look up and down the street reveals that salesmen, street vendors, and fare-seeking cab drivers outnumber shoppers four to one. "In 1982," Santillán recalls, "I was president of the chamber of commerce. I remember sitting in my office down on First Street [at the north end of Revolución], looking out the window, and seeing a human river flowing up from the border to Avenida Revolución. That year, for New Year's, I went with all my family to Las Vegas. On the same plane there was another businessman and his family. He offered me," Santillán slows his voice for emphasis, "five... hundred...thousand...dollars just to let him into my retail space here. Plus he offered me $3000 a month in rent, which was twice the going rent in those days. Incredible."
In those days, Santillán says, such offers were not uncommon. "Because," he explains, "these properties were so highly coveted that they'd come to you and offer a lot of money to buy these buildings or rent your space. But," Santillán echoes himself, "those days are over."
Instead of fielding frequent offers to buy or rent their retail space, Avenida Revolución owners today are having difficulty selling them or collecting rents. And in the past year, a sight unseen on the avenue for decades is becoming more common: For Sale signs. Recently three were in evidence on the avenue between Ninth and Second streets, and metal doors with "se renta" (for rent) spray-painted on them cover many formerly prime retail spaces. "Probably 30 percent of the spaces facing the street are empty," Santillán says.
In the good days, business was so plentiful on the avenue that enterprising landowners such as Santillán built arcades of small shops behind the street-front spaces. "There was probably one for each block," Santillán says, "each side of the street. I'm talking about 12 or 14 arcades between First and Eighth streets. Eighty percent of those arcade stores are closed now. For example," he points across the street to the Mexicoach bus depot, "Mexicoach's arcade did very good business. Now, all the stores are closed there."
What stores are left, Santillán says, are having trouble making enough money to pay the rent. "I have a brother with a shop right across the street. I call him and criticize him because he sells imitation silver and gold plate. But he says, 'Héctor, I have to do that or I can't pay the rent.' You have to rip the one, two, three customers you get each day just to pay the rent."
Talk of rents sends Santillán back to the good days of the '60s, '70s, and '80s, when what he calls "the United States' communist phantom" brought a steady supply of servicemen and their visiting families to Southern California and over the border for day trips. "In those days," he smiles with the memory, "we used to write into the contract that the rent would go up 20 percent [of the original price] every year. So in ten years, $1000 rent would be $3000."
Again the smile fades and a look of resignation, albeit cheerful resignation, replaces it on Santillán's face. "I have an arcade with 32 spaces right behind this store. Most of my tenants remain, but only because I prefer to take lower rent than to have empty shops. So instead of the $1000 I used to get, I cut it to $500. Then, instead of $500, $250; instead of $250, $150."
Asked if people are paying on time, Santillán chuckles. "No, no, no, no, no. My brother is probably three or four months behind. But the owner of the building prefers to wait than to kick him out."
Like most in Tijuana who work in tourism-related businesses, Santillán points to 9/11 as the chief cause of Avenida Revolución's demise. But he sees it as the final ax chop that toppled a tree that began dying in 1989, when "the Iron Curtain fell. Then the Navy base in San Diego started to get smaller. The Navy left Miramar. El Toro is empty. Camp Pendleton has fewer Marines. All of that cut down our business here, but we were still okay until 9/11."
Business, Santillán says, has never recovered from the complete closure of the border in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and the longer northbound waits at the border since then. "Even if they opened up the border and made it a lot easier to go back and forth, those days won't come back, because the economy of the United States is not as good as it used to be, and because of the reduction in the military."
If 9/11 was the final blow that felled the money tree that Avenida Revolución once was, the chipper that will grind it into dust comes on January 1, 2008. "By January of 2008," Santillán explains through a burst of morbid laughter, "every U.S. citizen that comes to Mexico and wants to get back into the United States has to show a passport."