We Mexican kids growing up in the '80s in the South Bay of San Diego heard stories of Tijuana's red-light district, known as the cahuila (pronounced ca-HWE-la). We had never been there to see it, so it loomed in our imaginations as a place crowded with "houses of ill repute," "ladies of the night," and other exotic goings-on we didn't fully understand. Its mystery made it useful in a cautionary way, such as "You better stop acting like such a slut or you'll end up working in the cahuila!" It could be employed as an insult: "I saw your mom in the cahuila!" Since the Spanish word for cage, jaula (pronounced HOW-la), sounds similar to cahuila, I imagined the place as a giant birdcage full of half-naked women, their limbs dangling from between the bars. (I later learned that the correct word is "Coahuila," a street in Tijuana's Zona Norte named after the state in Mexico.)
Just as I never believed my girlfriends would become hookers in a Tijuana brothel, I never expected male friends to become customers. I viewed prostitution as a service used out of necessity by men who were unattractive, socially awkward, or married and looking for extramarital sex. Perhaps a single man found himself at an age where he wasn't comfortable carousing in the Gaslamp among girls who were much younger.
But David Hernández (not his real name) is none of the above. With his dark hair and long eyelashes, he could pass for a more muscular, rugged version of Oscar De La Hoya. At 26, he is charming, funny, outgoing, educated, and employed. He says he has a wide social circle and enjoys clubbing and exercising -- a claim borne out by his tanned, toned bicep that peeks from the sleeve of his shirt.
Hernández calls his favorite Tijuana brothel "the happiest place on Earth -- it's like Disneyland for grown men!" He discovered it in 2002 on a jaunt south of the border with friends. "It wasn't as popular back then," he says, "but everybody knows about that spot now."
And by "everybody" he means guys like himself, the kind you might find downtown any night at the Martini Ranch or Stingaree.
I come right out and say it: he could probably get any number of females in the Gaslamp to go home with him. Why pay for it? "It's just the beauty of no attachments and no commitments, no BS," he says. "You see a hot chick, you do your thing, and you never have to talk again."
Tourism in Tijuana has taken a devastating blow in the wake of 9/11, but you would never know it from Hernández's description of a Friday night in one of the oldest brothels in the Coahuila. Apparently, business is booming and the place filled to capacity with raucous guys partying like it's 1999 -- or any year before 2001.
Hernández and his friends park at the Shops at Las Americas in San Ysidro and walk across the border to catch a cab. He tells the driver the name of the bar, "and the driver gives kind of a snicker and takes you straight over there." When the guys make preliminary stops on Revolución, they take precautions: "We always make sure and put our [prostitution] money in our socks so we don't spend it!"
He and four other men I talk to are adamant that the girls are "gorgeous" and "stunning." Hernández says, "There are some old, ugly ones but not many, and they don't get much attention from anybody."
While there is a dance floor, Hernández says he's seen a girl dance only once in all the times he's been there. There is no pretense about the purpose of the establishment. "You're either drinking or [having sex] or both, or the staff kicks you out." Hernández and his friends make the rounds of the room, looking for the best girls. The degree of small talk varies from sitting down together for a couple of drinks to walking straight up to the preferred girl and asking, "¿Cuánto?" ("How much?"). Hernández says he prefers the latter approach.
The going rate is $60. That gets you 20 to 30 minutes upstairs at the adjacent hotel, which can be entered from inside the bar. "When I first went, there was never any line for the hotel," he explains. "You just went straight up the stairs to the hole-in-the-wall front desk and paid $11 for the room. The last time I went, though, the line of people wrapped all the way around the inside of the bar along the wall. It's crazy how popular that place has gotten."
Once inside the 10-by-12 room, Hernández says there is no time to waste. A guy had better stick to the allotted time limit or someone will come knocking at the door "whether you are done or not. You don't mess around over there because they will [mess] with you if you act up."
As he describes the room, he cracks, "There's no telling when the bedspread and sheets were washed. You don't think about that at the time, though." His concern about cleanliness never goes further than the linens, however. What about sexually transmitted diseases? What about HIV? Hernández's is one of the first generations to grow up with demonstrations in school of how to put a condom on a banana instead of grainy Army training films about the dangers of getting a dose of the clap. He's never known a world without AIDS. So how can he blithely put himself at risk? Another American Coahuila regular tells me, "The girls all use condoms. And the girls are clean! They take a shower right in front of you!"
For his part, Hernández says that every weekend can be risky, "whether in TJ or in Pacific Beach on the prowl," and leaves it at that. One recurring theme I hear is that since prostitution is legal in Mexico, Tijuana's health department regularly tests the girls for sexually transmitted diseases. "You can't get that kind of guarantee from a random girl you meet over here," one man tells me.
So what is it about guys like Hernández? Is the traditional dating scene that tiresome? "If you think about it," he says, "it's cheaper altogether" to go to his favorite Coahuila bar. "Dinner, movies, concerts, gas money driving everywhere -- it's so much work, and this could take weeks with a girl you meet in San Diego. In TJ, you pay your money straight up, and you're done in 30 minutes. Like me and my friends always say, all men pay for it one way or another."
The growing social acceptability in the United States of these "regular Joes" becoming "regular johns" may not be occurring in Tijuana. I meet Luis in a quiet bar in Chula Vista, where he often comes after work before crossing the border to go home. He shoots pool with a coworker named Brenda, and we chat after Luis offers to buy me a drink. They seem excited to see a new face in their regular hangout, and even the bartender gets in on the conversation. After a few drinks, they say they are going dancing that night in Tijuana, and I ask, "Going anywhere near the Coahuila?"
The smile leaves Luis's face, and all chitchat comes to a halt. He puts his pool cue back in its case as he tells me no, he's not going anywhere near the Coahuila. "You know why?" he asks me in Spanish. "Because my parents brought me up right. I don't go to places like that."