“Oh, man! You moved to a place next to Parque Teniente? That’s where the male and transsexual prostitutes hang out, robberies happen, and deported homeless people sleep,” a TJ friend informs me.
For a whole year, I’ve been walking through the park at different hours of the day and night on my way to work or back from the bars. It was scary at first, but the only thing I found to be true from what my friend said is that a lot of homeless people sleep there (day and night). But even after midnight hours, the park has people — teens playing soccer, people walking around smoking a cigarette or walking their dog, couples having a bit of romance, drunks on their way back home, and people playing chess. There are always people playing chess.
The small park, established in 1924 as Parque Teniente Guerrero, is the oldest in Tijuana and the only one in the downtown area. The park was built thanks to professor Josefina Rendon Parra (1885–1955), who pushed for the construction of more green areas and was gifted trees from Balboa Park’s greenhouse.
It’s structured in the style of the classic park you’ll find in older cities in central Mexico. A colonial-style church is situated at the front, a gazebo in the middle, a statue of a Mexican president on one side (Benito Juárez), a statue of a saint (Francis of Assisi) on the other, a playground for children, a small public library, and people from throughout the country. The park and its surroundings are so full of life that, with every step you take, you’ll see something different.
There’s usually a dude or two swinging a hammer on the corner of 3rd and G street. A scary sight at first glance, the hammer folk are actually just advertising their services as auto-dent repair men. A deaf shoeshiner mans a booth next to the workers, not bothered by the ongoing hammering of dents. It takes a short walk to make it to the opposite corner (4th and F), where’ll you find several taco stands offering fish, shrimp, birria, and more. The quesobirria at the corner cart is especially recommended, but get there before they take off at around 3 p.m.
The block is surrounded by dentists’ offices, medical centers, pharmacies, and convenience stores. Meanwhile, the gazebo in the center hosts all sorts of entertainment: a little girl in a wheelchair holds up the microphone and sings Selena songs, the backup track and vocals blaring from a PA. The microphone then goes to a more experienced singer, an older woman who sings Celia Cruz, inciting a dance party. El Muertho (“the dead one”) is a keyboard singer/songwriter that belongs to the ’80s in his gothic black-and-white outfit and Kiss-inspired makeup. He strolls around the park collecting tips when his Halloweenish set is complete. A guy and two girls dance to some pop tunes. They aren’t very good, nor are they sexy, but they captivate the audience, who produce a few pesos for the trio. Clowns juggle and strut around in bizarre outfits. Behind the gazebo, a young guy with dreadlocks, tattoos, and ear plugs draws portraits of iconic figures in chalk.
“I’ve been in the area my whole life and have never been robbed,” Says chalk artist Edgar Omar Cia, 24. “There are many drunks at night, but they are just looking for a place to sleep, too tired to even bother people. Besides, the cops are always nearby. When I started doing the chalk drawings, like, eight months ago, the cops did arrest me because it counted as graffiti. However, now I have a permit from the city. They even told me to continue drawing because people like it.”
“We’re here every Sunday next to the people playing chess and other board games,” says Gilberto Herrera, a reporter for PSNtv who volunteers in a Morena (a political party) tent. “The park used to be really bad, but in 2007 everything changed. When [Jorge] Hank [Rhon] was municipal president, he celebrated his anniversary here and he invited all the rich families in Tijuana, thus they remodeled the whole park. They installed a police booth, the artificial lake, the chess tables, and all the lights. But it did happen to me years ago when I was in high school that I walked through the park and some guy wanted to give me money for oral sex. I’m from Tijuana and been living around here my whole life. I can say that the park is the safest it has ever been.”
Through all the activity that happens day and night at the park, what’s most amazing to me is that, as mentioned, there are always people playing chess. I used to nervously walk through the park when coming home from bars, but there’s something comforting about a park that has people playing chess 24/7.
“They call you a shaved lion if you have never played with them before,” Christian Abel Ramírez tells me about the park’s chess scene. Christian is the co-founder of Rincón de Caissa Chess Club in Pasaje Gomez. “There are a lot of chess clubs in Tijuana and great players out there, but everyone goes through the park at some point in their life. It’s the most accessible, but it’s easy to outgrow it and move on. Many of the players there are deported or retired people, so they don’t have much to do but play chess until dawn. They aren’t textbook chess players and many of them have vices, but it makes for interesting matches.”
Tijuana is a city of myths and misconceptions. At nearly a century old, Parque Teniente Guerrero also has its share, but don’t let that scare you away from a taste of interior Mexico in downtown TJ.