Poor Tijuana: So Far From God, So Close to the United States

The title is a paraphrase of a famous statement made by the malignant 19th century Mexican dictator, Pofirio Diaz. When Diaz wasn’t busy trying to eradicate the Yaqui Indians of Sonora, he was bemoaning the contrast between living conditions in the U.S. as compared to Mexico, without really attempting to do much about it. The statement holds up today when talking about the hellish Mexican border towns, especially Tijuana, Jaurez, and Nuevo Laredo.

I recently had the misfortune of spending a couple nights in Tijuana. A hotel down there, The Valero, was pimping a deal: a month in a “suite” for $600. The pictures showed a postmodern look to the rooms, clean lines, uncluttered spaces, and smooth surfaces. Being, as I am at the moment, between fixed addresses, I thought I would head down and check it out, so I booked a 2-night stay.

Let me get this out of the way: while it’s certainly not a fleabag, I would not recommend the Valero to anyone unless their idea of amenities are  cold showers and a surly staff . At one point there was no water at all for several hours, news that was regarded at the front desk with detached amusement, and then resentment when I tried to force the issue. The only window in my room faced inward toward a walkway that encircled an atrium, but it didn’t matter because the window had been blackened out. Natural light probably hadn’t entered that room since it was constructed. Within the first 15 minutes I had divested myself of the idea of staying there for a month.

I never have spent a lot of time in Tijuana. In the 80’s I would occasional head down with friends for dinner and drinks, or to catch a bullfight at the old arena. I’ve had a Cesar’s Salad at the famous Cesar’s Hotel bar and I know where you can get some pretty good street food, but I’ve never hung around long enough to know, for example, where the really good donkey-on-woman sex clubs are located. For me, Tijuana is a place totally lacking in charm that you have to drive through to get to the border. Downtown Tijuana

And, of course, the place has gotten exponentially worse in recent decades, due to the vicious competition to control the drug plaza after the ill-conceived take down by the U.S. of the Arellano Felix cartel. So despite the presence of the new “gastronomical district” with famous chefs like Javier Plascencia whipping together over-priced “Baja Med” fusion meals, and despite the presence of a handful of decent, gringo-infested high-end condos in the “Zona Rio”, Tijuana remains the quintessential shit-hole.

But I was booked there for two days whether I liked it or not and planned to make the best of it, by which I mean eating greasy tacos and swilling syrupy margaritas  at a variety of alfresco cantinas,  while observing the honkies attempt to jew down vendors a couple of dimes on made-in-China handcrafted curios. (I  never quite got the “sport” of debating Mexican peasants for 20 minutes in an attempt to get the price of a $4 belt down to $3.75.)

One thing I failed to mention about the Valero  is the location. Even though it’s located only one block off the main drag, Benito Jaurez, the hotel is located smack dab in the middle of the red light district. Whores of every variety, male, female, and tranny, prowl the street desperately seeking out eye contact with their hollow,  predatory stares. On my second afternoon in Tijuana, I was returning to the hotel after spending a few hours in a cantina when a fat, middle-aged prostitute tried to strike up a conversation. She was pointing to the gold chain that I was wearing around my neck and she said, in decent English, that I’d better take it off and put it away if I was to be walking on that street.

Now, the gold chain in question is thick and  high carat and is attached to a gold Saint Christopher’s medallion the size of a nickel. It was a gift and had not been off my neck for over 20 years. I told the woman that I was only 2 blocks from the hotel and I would remove it there. But in the time that it took me to turn away and walk five steps, the whore apparently had signaled an accomplice. I heard foot steps closing fast from behind me and before I had a chance to react I felt the chain being ripped from my neck. I sprinted after the thief for two crowded city blocks but by then he was out of sight. Of course, nobody stopped him.

I was furious. I returned to the room but left almost immediately, back down to the street. The fat prostitute was nowhere to be found. I grabbed a cop and told him what happened and he responded with a what-do-you-want-me-to-do-about-it shrug. I approached another prositute, an attractive blond gringa who I had noticed before. With tears of rage in my eyes I told her I would reward her a thousand bucks in cash if she would help me get the jewelry back. She just looked at me pitifully, called me “baby”, and told me to go back to the room and forget about it.

That night I tried to be philosophical about the whole thing. I told myself that it was just a piece of metal, a material thing, and that at least no one got hurt. But  my mind wasn’t buying the philosophy. It was a valuable piece of metal and it had real sentimental value. I knew then that I couldn’t or wouldn’t ever replace it.

Naturally, I talked to anyone at the hotel who would listen: a custodian, the desk clerks, a nice business man. They all responded the same way, that this could have happened anywhere, especially in the U.S., where you would also be shot and killed. This reaction is a common rationalization among Mexicans. We might slip a roofie into your drink and try to rob you blind but chances are good we won’t kill you like they do in Chicago or L.A. It’s a bullshit excuse but it’s pointless to argue.

It’s been  weeks now but I’m still aware daily that the chain is no longer around my neck. Someone down in Tijuana probably went on a month-long drug binge on my dime, or maybe bought a nice used car. I’d prefer to think that there was at least a moment of soul-searching for the thief and his accomplice but I know this is but a comforting lie. What I’d really like to think is that the Saint Christopher’s is now hanging from someone else’s neck down there, possibly bringing them maybe one little step closer to God and one step further away from the U.S.