On the Border, Part II: A Tale of Two Cities

Tijuana’s links to San Diego go back centuries: from a dusty stopping point during the Mexican-American War, to the booming prohibition-era party town for U.S. revel seekers. Since foreign-owned factories moved in and businesses across the border looked for workers, Tijuana has become a reservoir of cheap local and cross-border labor, aggravating the city’s enduring social and economic problems.

May 21, 2008

Clink-Clank. Clink-Clank. Clink-Clank. The sound of the swinging turnstile doors is the only thing announcing a pedestrian’s passage from San Ysidro into Mexico’s El Chaparral border station. There’s no wait, nobody asking for a passport, and rarely even a border guard in sight. Essentially, it’s an open border.

More than 17 million vehicles and 50 million people cross this border every year.

Walking into Mexico, the physical convergence of the developed and lesser-developed worlds is stark. From the south, people look toward the economy lying just over the reinforced steel barriers as a means of salvation.

Unlike the United States, in Mexico, the dependency on the neighboring nation is brutally obvious. Just walk down Tijuana’s tourist strip, Avenida Revolución, where a string of shop owners yell, ”Hey, Big Spender, come here I got it!” all hawking the same useless trinkets. Desperate owners of strip clubs threaten to literally pull you inside if you stray too close. One man cajoles passersby to take a picture next to a sad old donkey painted with black and white stripes to resemble a zebra.

Tijuana wasn’t always like this. Just a few blocks from Revolución is the blue and yellow tiled dome adorning the Cathedral of Guadalupe. Such scant vestiges of colonial architecture recall a more peaceful era, a time when the nearby Tijuana River meandered its way over the U.S. border and into the Pacific, instead of into a sewage treatment plant passing under a fence surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.

Before the Mexican-American War, Tijuana was a dusty cattle ranching village by the name of Zaragoza. But as nearby California experienced its first economic boom, the state developed strong ties with its southern neighbor that persist to this day.

Prohibition drew the first wave of tourism towards Tijuana, as bars, cabarets, and gambling houses shot up like dandelions. It soon became an upper-class getaway for Hollywood actors and elite California businessmen.

Soon after the start of World War II, the U.S. government instituted the Bracero Program, which allowed Mexicans legal entry into the United States to fill labor shortages. This sparked a huge migration surge into Tijuana of poor folks from small towns all over Mexico seeking employment.

Migration continued after the program ended and maquiladoras, foreign-owned assembly plants, arrived. Despite lowering the unemployment rate, many argue the low wages offered by the factories have not changed living standards in Tijuana. Maquiladoras import most of the raw material used in production and export the final products to more developed nations like the United States. Mexico sees little of the final profit.

Nonetheless, factory labor and proximity to California have caused Tijuana to grow from a city of just over 65,000 in 1950 to its current population of almost 1.5 million. Many of these poor immigrants invaded the rough terrain of the hillsides around the city and live in shacks made of plywood and sheet metal built over foundations of old tires. These settlements have grown so quickly, that years later, many still lack access to even the most basic public services.

“One of the biggest problems of these urban invasions is energy robbery,” says Heriberto Garcia, Tijuana Coordinator for the Mexican National Commission of Human Rights. “People steal electricity by hooking up cables to power lines and there’s no regulation on how much power they take. This creates a massive fire and electrocution hazard as many of these cables are just laying in the streets.”

Such urban problems aren’t likely to end anytime soon; Tijuana is currently growing at 4.9% a year according to a report by the state government of Baja California. If it continues to expand that fast, the city will double its size in just 10 years.

According to Tito Alegría, professor of urban development at Tijuana’s Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF), an institution dedicated to the study of Mexico’s border region, Tijuana’s population explosion results from being so close to California’s consistently growing economy, which in 2007 was rated as the eighth strongest in the world ranking between Italy and Spain.

“When the average salary in San Diego goes up 1% more than in Tijuana, the number of Mexican workers that cross the border everyday increases 3%,” says Alegría. “But the salaries in Tijuana don’t depend on the U.S. economy; this binational interaction doesn’t produce a convergence.” In other words, Tijuana stays poor while San Diego’s economy grows.

Mexican spending in the border regions of the U.S. also fortifies the economy of cities like San Diego. “Many people who commute from Mexico to California shop there as well because so many U.S. companies outsource production to foreign countries keeping the prices of some products lower than in Mexico,” says Alegría. In the end, U.S. border regions benefit from Mexican spending while many businesses in Mexican border cities lose customers, stifling business development while the population grows at an unsustainable rate.

Tijuana’s current urban problems resemble those of other rapidly growing Latin American urban areas, like Mexico City, where singular housing on the city’s periphery, not centrally located multiple story apartment buildings, house the majority of the inhabitants. But the lack of space for expansion around Tijuana makes rapid population growth more problematic than other cities; the United States border lies to the north, the Pacific Ocean to the west, and a winding terrain to the south where the city will soon merge with the town of Rosarito. This all makes the city’s eastward expansion irregular and cramped.

But experts at COLEF argue that a slowing U.S. economy could eventually diminish Tijuana’s population as migrants seek employment in new places on both sides of the border. For now, maquiladoras and cross-border workers still dominate Tijuana’s economy. But if the U.S. economy continues to slow, maquiladora development will stall too, and increased border security measures may dramatically lower the number of Mexican commuters able to work and shop in the U.S, thereby hurting the economies of both cities.

And tourism, Tijuana’s third biggest source of capital, is on sharp decline given the bad press Tijuana receives as powerful drug cartels battle each other for dominance in the city streets. “I’m not going to say that I’m heavily worried about the decline in tourism,” says Juan Saldaña, Marketing Manager of the Tijuana Tourism and Convention Committee, “but I am worried.” And for good reason: the state of Baja California saw a decline of 3 million visitors in 2007 as opposed to previous years.

These developing concerns in Mexico make the importance of traffic and pedestrian flow at the new port of entry into California crucial not only for Tijuana’s future, but also for U.S. border communities, like San Ysidro, that benefit from Mexican spending.

“Yes, the border currently is a problem,” says Norma Iglesias, professor of Chicano Studies at San Diego State University, “but it is also an opportunity. And until people begin to understand the vast potential that the border has, it will remain a problem.” Unless policymakers begin conceiving of the border region as two parts of a whole, communities on both sides will continue to shoulder the costs.

From cleaning shared waterways and strengthening interdependent economies, to improving public transport and reducing fossil fuel emissions, the border presents an amazing opportunity for both countries to work together in an effort to create positive change at a binational level.

But regardless of whether both governments take advantage of this opportunity, one thing surely won’t change, and that is the cross-border flow of millions of people and dollars 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Clink-Clank. Clink-Clank. Clink-Clank.

Levi Bridges is a writer and freelance journalist based in Latin America. He is currently working in Colombia and Venezuela.

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