Last summer, I told my parents I was planning to “Shut Up and Go” to Tijuana. They essentially responded by telling me to “Shut up and forget about it.”
And that is how the adventure began.
Just so you know, this desire to visit Tijuana didn’t just come out of nowhere. It turns out I was spending the summer with my father who JUST HAPPENED to have moved to San Diego.
For all of you geography nerds out there, I’m sure you know that San Diego is a stone’s throw from the thriving metropolis of Tijuana, Mexico. (Like legit, you can throw a stone from San Diego and it might just land in Tijuana – ask Jo, she went too).
Since I have studied Spanish practically my whole life, constantly surround myself with Latin American culture and am a devout follower of the religion that is Mexican cuisine – How could I ever resist crossing the border?
Well, let’s ask the internet. In 2018, Tijuana was named as the 5th most dangerous city in the world by Business Insider. Even though this violence rarely affects travelers and usually tends to stay between cartels, the negative press was enough to terrify my family.
Like any good son, I decided to strike a compromise so my parents could live at peace with my decision. I called up a Mexican-American amigo who was living in San Diego and he agreed to introduce me to the city. Before I knew it, my folks gave me the green light, and my pal Eduardo and I set off to the border.
The First Time I Fell for Tijuana
Reggaeton blasting at full volume, Eduardo and I pull into our beach villa in Rosarito. This lively seaside village, historically part of the municipio de Tijuana, acts as a relaxing refuge from the metropolitan chaos of the city.
Most of our time in Rosarito, as you can imagine, revolved around the beach. Eduardo and I exchanged laughs over two much needed Piña Coladas at Club Corona which came in at about only $3.50 USD each. At the same time, a mariachi band played some local tunes at the table next to us. My parents were somehow convinced I would end up dead on this crazy adventure to Mexico, but I never felt more alive.
I’m not kidding when I say I was literally dancing along the main avenue when it came time for lunch. Eduardo and I eventually sat down at two isolated stools on the sidewalk, far away from all of the action. As if on cue, a smiling abuelita peered out from the window and asked us, “Tienen hambre?”
Ohhh yes abuela, I was dying of hambre. Before I knew it, she slammed a steaming cheese quesadilla right in front of me with my name ALL OVER IT. For those of you keeping track at home, it came in at less than $1 USD.
In the evening, we grabbed some Dos Equis from a local Oxxo and chatted on the beach while the sun set below the horizon. Aside from the drunk girl who almost fell off her horse right in front of us, everything just seemed… blissful.
The Second Time
We’re peering out the window of our Uber in downtown Tijuana. Our destination: Avenida de la Revolución. According to most of my friends, this is the happenin’ neighborhood of TJ. However, our Uber driver disagreed.
“I’m going to drop you off at the Red Light District. There are sex workers, you’re going to love it!”
I know my Spanish was not perfect, but he could clearly hear me repeatedly saying “LEAVE US BY THE ARCH!” I mean I’m sure the sex workers were nice people, but we were both gay and it was a Saturday morning. Come on….
He still dropped us off at the red light district, claiming we would thank him later. (Not sure where he got that impression). Anyways, thanks to the guidance of my main chica, Mexican Siri, we scurried down some side streets and eventually reached this beauty.
The Millennium Arch, constructed in 2000, represents the gateway to Latin America. However, it was clear that we did not need this arch to tell us we were in Latin America.
Red, green, and white flags fluttered in the wind around us, traditional Mexican music blared from the nearby restaurants, and festive zebras *ehrm donkeys with stripes* trotted along with the traffic. The sensory overload took me over, but in the best way possible. The chaos, sounds, and smells of central Tijuana made me fall in love all over again.
The Third Time
Waves crash along the shore as I come face-to-face with a massive wall. This is what separates the United States from Mexico.
From where I stood, I could easily grasp the contrast between both sides. On the Mexican side, locals leaped into the shore break, food stands weaved in and out of crowds, and boom boxes sent waves of Daddy Yankee and Ozuna into the air. In fact, I even witnessed a family celebrating their daughter’s Quinceñera right below me. Meanwhile, the other side of the wall remained barren and empty. There was not a soul in sight.
The wall was a spectacle in itself. The Mexican side boasted murals such as “Love Trumps Hate.” This reminded me a lot of the murals that lined the Palestinian side of the border wall with Israel. The Mexicans turned such an ugly reminder of division between fellow human beings into something beautiful. In fact, this area is called El Parque de la Amistad “ The Park of Friendship.”
One local told me that back in the day, there was no secondary wall along the border, only the bars. In fact, they could hug their relatives through the bars who made it to the States, have lunch together, and talk about their lives face-to-face. Nowadays, the mesh prevents any physical contact – although loved ones can still technically see each other for a few hours every weekend under the intense supervision of border patrol. It’s not the same though.
Walking away from the border brings you to a packed boardwalk adorned with taco stands, restaurants, and shops. This area is called Playas de Tijuana. My amigo and I turned around a random corner and discovered a makeshift burger joint on the terrace of a local’s house. The daughter of the owner encouraged us to climb the raggedy staircase behind her to watch the sunset as she followed us with our comida and some coronas. Witnessing local families enjoying quality time together on the beach, the unforgettable smell of freshly-cooked tacos, and just the pure joy in the faces of everyone around us – we realized that maybe the Mexicans knew a secret about how to live life that is still foreign to us on the other side of the border wall.
The Fourth Time
One shot became two, became three, became four. Tequila was on the menu tonight, we were in Mexico after all. Eduardo and I found a fiesta at Club Fusion and it was time to see what the nightlife in Tijuana was really about.
What’s the moral of the story?
Don’t let the media discourage you from exploring a new culture or a foreign country. This is especially relevant now with Tijuana’s attention due to Trump’s immigration discourse and the Central American caravan. If you are going to travel somewhere where safety might be an “issue,” make it a point to talk with locals and other travelers who already know the area.
If I had only listened to what I heard about in the media or the “hysteria” from people who had never been to Tijuana, I would have never been able to experience the beauty and vibrancy of the local culture and developed such an appreciation and love for Mexico. Just remember that even though there may be controversy in some parts of the world, there are still millions of people there who “go through the motions” and live their lives normally just like you and I. If they can do it, heck, we can too. (Just don’t go into a war zone, okay?)
This is why when I finally crossed the border from Mexico back to the United States, I didn’t say Adiós, but rather Hasta Luego – which means “See you soon.”
Have you ever been somewhere that was considered “dangerous” by the media and popular culture? How was your experience?