The Tijuanense Identity

Despite the fact that crime accosts daily life (we’re rather unaccustomed to guns and cadavers), some tijuanenses bicker about who is to be called a tijuanense and who is not. Is living in Tijuana enough to be considered a tijuanense?

As I write this, there are several projects at hand in which the government insists on telling tijuanenses who they ought to be. The current fashion is to express roots and permanence, allegiance to the city. Even outsiders see this as a playground for their identity ideas. One of these projects is called “Fronteras,” or borders, whose leitmotif is to infuse a sense of belonging…as if we don’t know where we are from. Fresh breeding ground based on old-age nationalism.

People in government have always worried that people in Tijuana don’t have a sense of belonging, or roots. It’s one of those vestiges that people in the capital both fear and work on, with slight mutations for every generation. This is nothing but friendly antiyankeeism: as if speaking English or adopting more Anglo customs will erode the border and swallow TJ…yes, they do go for that sort of ideology. For us born in the ’60s, in some cases the jingoism didn’t stop short of telling you how to think. Believe it or not, the government once tried to stop people from naming their children with Anglo names.

People in power have always feared the tijuanense, and they always want to mess with us. In fact, they never speak of us. Unfortunately, we are easy pickings because real tijuanenses (born and raised in Tijuana) are rather few in number. Yet there is a need to let life go on; ignore the trials and tribulations of the everyday. Pan y circo as the Romans used to say — panem et circenses, that is, bread and games. So, enter the identity industry, whose budget grows by the years.

A local effort to inculcate belonging is a soap opera called Vive Tu Casa, which, translated, means Live Your House (which I am sure some bilingual tijuanenses get a smirk out of). The soap opera is about a young man who isn’t born in Tijuana and laments seeing how bad everyone is talking about the city. The protagonist thinks Tijuana deserves much better (do tell, I kept saying to myself as I saw the internet videos). There is a point in the story where some locals point out that he isn’t born here.

The most current effort to instill identity is by a local group of people who defend the city’s reputation, and if we are to believe them, they have nothing to do with the government. They call themselves Reacciona Tijuana, and their method is to display billboards with catchy messages that are supposed to awaken consciousness about the city. Though one can recognize the uphill battle these folks have, they assure us that the campaign “no será una campaña más de identidad tijuanense, ni intentará provocar un bonito sentimiento alentador.” Loosely translated, “This won’t be another tijuanense identity campaign, nor will it try to create a fluffy sentiment [toward the city].”

At Least One Parent From Tijuana

Why the need to infuse a sense of identity, of belonging? Most people who stay in Tijuana are what I called dormant immigrants. Sooner or later they will end up in the U.S. — legally, too. In the meantime, these citizens labor. In part, the previous campaigns targeted these people. As Mexican standards go, people who work hard do well in Tijuana. And when they do well, you can find their faces in the sociales sections of newspapers, where well-to-do people pay to appear when wanting to climb the social ladder. They are happy and want everybody to know about it. Parties, baby showers, weddings, bachelor’s and quinceañera parties…they want to show tijuanenses that they are well off. (Which, these days, is tantamount to telling the local burglar you’re going off on vacation.) Some of them will succeed, some of them won’t, but in the meantime they offer food for thought: They help us understand who we are. Tijuanenses are always reminded who they are not.

While Tijuana is a neighbor that is mostly seen as a Mexican border city with only Mexicans in it, those who live in the city manage to scrape an identity out of the rubble the day leaves behind. Therein lies a plethora of identities all fighting for some sort of acceptance for what they are, for what we are. I belong to the ones we call tijuanenses, which is to say, I have at least one parent who is from Tijuana…the near minimum requirement to begin to feel established in Tijuana. Being born in Tijuana is certainly a plus, and if your grandparents are adopted citizens, then one is surely anchored in Tijuana’s history.

I know this is already alien to some San Diegans with their 619 issues or political configurations that stretch out into several cities and suburbs. Be that as it may, people in San Diego all share a common identity: you are American, period.

I have a friend who came to Tijuana when he was two months old, and no one cuts him any slack for it. Those of us born in Tijuana have a monopoly over who is a tijuanense and gladly defend our city to the point that once-local newspaperman Jesús Blancornelas suggested we patent the name. We are a peculiar lot if there ever was one. To begin with, our claim to be tijuanense is mired in an oblivion that no longer is; the Tijuana that my parents lived is not the Tijuana I lived, nor is it the Tijuana the current lot of tijuanenses lives. We do have, however, some common ground. I speak of a past long gone by now but relevant to the discussion.

You see, in Tijuana, we — that is, those of us who are tijuanenses — identify each other with a strange syntax. We use the syntax of what used to be. This syntax allows us to recognize a past that once was. We speak of those things that were once there or here, of a thing that once was but it is no longer. Buildings that once existed tie a knot to our identity because in that point in time we were there — we saw and lived the building. Places we once frequented braid our common experiences. We corroborate each other’s sense of history by what once was.

Sounds Like Spanish

Of course, there are other factors, such as classical tijuanense-speak that more often than not includes borrowed words from the English language. This sort of lingo was highlighted in Luis Alberto Urrea’s book Across the Wire, in which he asks the reader to try and understand Mexicans from the south arriving in Tijuana and hearing a lingo that sounds like Spanish but is far from it. I can understand that sort of lingo and especially the old lingo with its caló, pachucho speak, spoken near what was once the center, or downtown, of Tijuana.

There was a time when Tijuana was known only for its downtown. In fact, we thought of La Mesa as a place where las aguilas vuelan, that is, a place where the eagles fly. This was meant as a taunt to mean that La Mesa was so freaking far away from downtown (or as the buses used to paint on their windshields, “El Daun Taun”), that only wild life roamed those areas. We, who lived near the Línea, the border, were proud. Going beyond the old Hipódromo was beyond our imagination, indeed.

Tijuanenses are identified by that which they are not; that is, supposedly, Mexicans. Yes, there is an old myth among some Mexicans from the south that Tijuana is no longer Mexico. Remember the efforts by Spanish entrepreneur Antonio Navalón and his Tijuana art exhibition “Third Nation”? Well, that is like a small spin-off of that myth. Its denizens are also rejected similarly. Hence, the government’s effort to instill identity in us either directly or indirectly…like the time they tried to make the peso the only valid currency in Tijuana. God forbid we come up with our own version of who we are. And, in fact, we have been called pochos, a yaqui word meaning “short of”; in this case, short of being Mexican to not being Mexican at all.

One of the reasons immigrant advocates in the U.S. use to defend migrant workers coming to labor in the Californian fields is that regular Americans will not do menial jobs for low wages. A tijuanense, meanwhile, would not be caught dead selling corn on the cob from a cart all around the city. Nor would they sell bottled water from trucks…not even shine shoes, or as this profession is known, shainiar, a spanglish word meaning “to shine.” These sorts of jobs are reserved for the new arrivals.

But the new Tijuana identity is alien to me. Not only on a personal level but geographically as well. This can be seen in the city’s level of tolerance for other Mexicans. It used to be that we identified people from the Mexican capital by being the opposite of everything they were. It was the paradigm of who not to be. It used to be an insult to be called a chilango, which is a person from Mexico City. I was even surprised that our local rivalry between Mexicali and Tijuana had come to a sour point when mexicalenses started calling us tijuanenses “chilango light.” Those were the good old days, indeed. These days, people from Mexico City are more and more accepted. Which is good, of course, but something happened during the course of the past years. Our natural brethren — people from Sinaloa, Nayarit, Sonora — are now the model not to follow. They are now the chilango for the tijuanense.

I don’t know where this will lead the new tijuanense who easily adopts ways that are now alien to me. Maybe the government has finally won the battle of identities — not by a program, but because the city has become so big there might be a chance that there is more than one Tijuana to speak of these days.

Read the Spanish version here.

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wow...this is great!!!

and what a great blog..thx Refried and Cuddlefish!!!

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