Mar 31, 2023

Border Report: A Search for Tijuana’s Rapidly Vanishing History

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Two dozen university students – and three history professors – traipsed through downtown Tijuana on a recent overcast morning. Carrying a copy of a 134-year-old map of the city, they walked by graffiti-covered fences on Callejon Zeta, the city's oldest street, and one of its most neglected.

Tijuana is a city of constant change and renewal, a center of industry and enterprise, where many strive for a better future. But when I joined this group the focus was the city's past.

"One of the greatest challenges for those of us who live in the city, is that we don't know the city," said Luis Carlos Lopez Ulloa, a historian and professor at the Autonomous University of Baja California.

Lopez and two colleagues, adjunct professors Abraham Uribe and Diego Saavedra, are counting on their project, Iniciativa Zaragoza Tijuana, to build awareness of Tijuana's origins.

Before the year is out, they aim to complete a catalog of the area's historic structures, and present workshops and conferences in public schools. By the end of 2024, they hope to have it designated as a conservation district–a step that would require approval of both municipal and state governments. A virtual reality project, in collaboration with university colleagues in other disciplines, would look at how the area has evolved over the decades.

The professors run monthly two-hour tours to raise awareness of the area's historic value. As they led us down congested city blocks, we stepped quickly past the city's famed Avenida Revolucion tourist district – into the streets that lie behind it, where many of the city's original families settled. "What we are hoping is that this area we are calling Zaragoza, is one that Tijuanenses come to recognize as their own," Ulloa said.

Among the highlights: Wooden bungalows built from a Sears & Roebuck catalog, a crumbling adobe wall with a Seven-Up sign, the Plaza Santa Cecilia, a diagonal walkway packed with merchants and restaurants. And the crown jewel: Parque Teniente Guerrero, built in the 1920s, with its central kiosk and tall trees, a picture of traditional Mexico in a city that defies tradition.

The name Zaragoza honors General Ignacio Zaragoza, the 19th century hero of the Battle of Puebla. As a guide, the historians used a map traced in 1889, the year the city was formally founded. At the time there wasn't much there, apart from a handful of ranchos where cattle grazed by an intermittent stream now known as the Tijuana River, and a road that led to the California border. But after settling a family land dispute, members of the Arguello family hoped to develop the area and commissioned a map to delineate streets and plazas.

The map, dubbed Pueblo Zaragoza, and drawn by a federal government engineer, shows an orderly rectangle, with a central plaza, connected with diagonal streets to four smaller plazas. But this pueblo never came to be: A large flood in 1891 obliterated settlement on the river's banks, including a border boundary marker and the customs depot.

Another factor, the professors explained, was the lack of local decision-makers to insist that as the population grew and the area developed, the plan be taken into account. "That's a big part of the problem, Lopez said. We were a northern territory, administered by the federal government from Mexico City."

Rather than create a central plaza, for instance, authorities built an elementary school in 1927. Part of what once was Avenida Argüello now leads through a parking garage. Yet to this day, vestiges of this diagonal street remain – the most vibrant stretch being Plaza Santa Cecilia, with its musicians, merchants and restaurants and heavy foot traffic.

Though it continues to be called "el centro," downtown Tijuana stopped being the city's economic and social center in the 1970s, as government policies shifted resources farther east, following a flood control project that involved channeling the Tijuana River.

"No thought was given as to what to do with the center of the city," Lopez said. "Downtown was relegated and abandoned."

Historic preservation laws exist, Ulloa said but persuading private property owners to agree to the designations is difficult. As they work on their catalog of structures, they hope to involve the owners in the project as well.

Far from the Aztec pyramids and colonial structures of central Mexico, the border followed a different path to development, and many structures that could speak to its history have been paved over or demolished or burned down. Still, as long as I’ve been here, groups of Tijuana residents have fought to preserve pieces of its history – not always successfully.

What struck me as I listened to these professors interact with students, was that this is a fresh effort by a new generation. All three grew up here in the 1990s. Lopez moved to downtown Tijuana in 1989 from Culiacan at age 12 while Saavedra and Uribe, both in their early 30s, are both natives – Saavedra was born in a hospital on Second Street, Uribe says he is a "son of downtown," where he spent his childhood years. Though all three now live in other parts of Tijuana, they say the project has felt like a homecoming.

"It's been like re-discovering what I used to see 25 or 30 years ago," Ulloa said, remembering the old Woolworth de Mexico store on Calle Segunda–now replaced by a Soriana supermarket. "It's been reconnecting with my memories of adolescence."

Updates on the project are on Instagram and Facebook at Zaragoza.Tijuana.

World Design Capital: Tijuana and San Diego comprise the first binational region to receive the World Design Capital designation–and a signing ceremony on May 26 made it official. The idea is to shed a spotlight on the region throughout 2024 with a series of events on both sides of the border focusing on sustainable design-led policies and their potential for improving lives. These include lectures, art installations, exhibits, design competitions and tours on both sides of the border. Proponents hope the designation will have a long-term effect on the region by finding new ways to address its challenges.

The Montreal-based nonprofit World Design Organization selects cities every two years for the designation. The group aims to raise "awareness of the power of industrial design to effect positive change in the world."

The ceremony at UC San Diego Park and Market brought the organization's president, David Kusuma, together with civic, political and academic leaders from both sides of the border, including San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria and Alejandro Mungarray, Tijuana's secretary of economic development.

Violence at off-road racing event: Ten people died in battle rival criminal groups faced off south of Ensenada on Saturday, May 20. Among those killed in the roadside attack was the alleged target, Alonso Arambula Pina, "El Trebol," identified by Baja California authorities as a member of the Arellano Felix Organization. Arambula had been participating in the "Cachanillazo" rally of light off-road vehicles known as Razors. Killed alongside Arambula in the same vehicle was an Ensenada government official, Jose Eduardo Orozco Gil. Authorities have told reporters that the incident was initiated by members of the Sinaloa Cartel.

Shots broke out as the rally participants stopped by a gas station and convenience store at Kilometer 90 of the Transpeninsular Highway in the community of San Vicente. The U.S. State Department reported that three U.S. citizens were among the victims. Three suspects have been taken into custody, authorities said. Reforma, San Diego Union-Tribune, Zeta, Milenio, Punto Norte.

Sentence reversed in domestic violence case: In a precedent-setting ruling, a Baja California three-judge panel on May 24 ordered the immediate release of Alina Mariel Narciso Tehuaxtle, a former Tijuana police officer serving a 45-year sentence in the December 2019 killing of her supervisor and domestic partner, Luis Rodrigo Juarez. The judges reversed a state judge's October 2022 ruling, on the grounds that Narciso had been acting in self-defense when she shot her partner several times. Narciso testified that Juarez had come home inebriated, threatened her with his service revolver, and beat her repeatedly before she grabbed the weapon and pulled the trigger. Reporte Indigo. Esquina 32, Agencia Fronteriza de Noticias. Nomadas, Punto Norte.

Bottlenecks in port of Ensenada: The takeover of customs inspections by members of the Mexican military has led to bottlenecks in the port of Ensenada, according to the leader of a business group. The president of the Association of Otay Mesa Industries, Jose Luis Contreras Valenzuela, said that transactions that once took four to six hours now take three days.

He warned that if the issue is not addressed, companies will turn to Long Beach.

The Mexican military has been in charge of customs operations in Mexico since 2020. Mexico's president has said the purpose is to prevent corruption and drug smuggling.

Blind Mules: The phenomenon of blind mules–in which drivers unwittingly carry drugs across the U.S. border–has been around for decades. An update by inewsource says that though it continues to occur, the U.S. government has done little to warn the public about the danger of having drugs planted in their vehicles by drug traffickers.

New migrant camp in San Ysidro: Less than a month after the end of Title 42, hundreds of asylum seekers have been camping out in Tijuana by the San Ysidro Port of Entry, hoping to gain admittance to the U.S. and submit an application. KPBS, Border Report.

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Among the highlights In Other News World Design Capital: Violence at off-road racing event: Ten people died in battle rival criminal groups faced off south of Sentence reversed in domestic violence case: Bottlenecks in port of Ensenada: Blind Mules: New migrant camp in San Ysidro: