I asked Vance to porter me through the state of Baja California. I told him that we were to cross the border: without rhyme, without rhythm, we would head south, taking to the farm-roads that criss-cross the roads that appear on maps. Vance is one-half Indian, one-half Southern-Dutch, and full-blooded lunatic. Naturally, he is a game designer, the details of which you must pry from him: he isn’t the sort to monologue about the office, or ‘Barbie and her Poodle’, something along the lines of his latest title. Nevertheless, perpetually interested in toys and games, Vance has not lost his youth, and for that, I could not ask for a better porter.
We crossed the busiest border in the world, on the road that leads to the sea. The border is a gated entrance into another place - it is inviting. I knew quite a bit about Tijuana before this. I had been arrested here, I had nearly become ill from awful food, I had seen the wickedness. I knew the similarities between Tijuana and the old east from the days of prohibition. To me, Capone and the street thugs of New York, the mafia, the men of the east - they were family men and cowards.
This was Tijuana, where men are shot and beaten in the beating sun. Tijuana is a concrete and tin stretch of misery and sin, and, naturally, the center of the so-called Tijuana Triangle: American buyers, Asian investors and Northern Mexican production. The growing pains of NAFTA hold a tremendous degree of optimism here. Twelve percent of Baja California’s labor force is ranked as technicians. Rents are rising, profits are soaring. The road was filled with the usual trash, the cheap signs, the smell of foul air and gasoline.
In the distance were the Korean-run maquilladoras with their machine-gun armed guard posts, high fences and microwave parts. These factories form the second largest segment of the Mexican economy next to oil. Millions of television sets are produced here each year and crated north. The televisions, of course, air enough news programs to make North Americans get fussy about immigration and ‘Tijuana ain’t Mexico!’ But Tijuana is Mexico, a distinct and successful, if not American-influenced Mexico, just as El Paso or American Nogales are Mexican influenced, but distinctly American cities.
Tijuana is not an unusual model to the Korean, Japanese and Chinese investors and businessmen who came here to bring goods closer to market. After all, as North-Asian labor costs grew steadily in the last half of the twentieth century, they moved their plants to the south: India, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Malaysia. They built economies from rice. Tijuana follows and is being transformed into one of the fastest growing economies in the world. But poverty still reigns, despite more and more neighborhoods of ‘palatial settings, and New England-like streets.’
Mr. Overton, who assists a church youth group building homes for Tijuana’s poor, writes,
“Often, the housing (they) live in is a chicken coop, some large shipping crates, pieces of pallet, sheet or corrugated metal, blankets, pieces of plastic sheeting or trash bags. Almost always the floors are dirt, a treat when it rains. Most of the colonias now have power poles and wiring running along them. No one can afford it, so a system of politely state-sponsored pirating of the power has grown up that relies on spliced together extension cords that often run across the ground with exposed connections right through where the kids play. It is not uncommon to see a pole with twenty-five or more cords snaking their way away from it.“
Drugs, too, are a part of the new dynamics of Baja, and a by-product of the new wealth. The Colombians are losing a battle of the drug trade from increasing American pressure to eliminate South American drug lords. They are now bypassed by Mexican drug families, who buy coca directly from Peru and Bolivia. Nothing penetrates the flow of cocaine and heroin -- not wires, not steel or sand, not the dust rising from the wastelands of Sonora, or the desiccating heat.
Drug police, in their fruitless courage, estimate they confiscate forty-percent of all contraband into the United States. It does little to affect drug prices. It is uncertain that Americans will ever learn that the war over drugs is a war over education and community. Ironically, it is Mexican-Americans who seem to understand this the best, with their low divorce rates, belief in families and the neighborhood. An oil tycoon from Houston once told me, “Los Angeles is like Miami, it is where people go to escape their past, to hide and become anonymous.” In my mind, he spoke of Baja. It was the poor expatriate’s hideaway, a quick drive across the border to run from the tax collectors, the wife, the police.
There is little conjecture in this. A few days after returning from Mexico, I was told a story about a pair of Hawaiian adulterers who feigned their deaths (one left her shoes at the edge of a blowhole) and ended up in a fishing village in Baja. No one quite knew this until one relative saw them on a faraway Baja Sur beach, and decided to leave them, and the fact that they were alive, alone. Few real accounts have been written of Baja, and for that it remains in our collective a bitter desert, a dry road leading to nothing until Cabo San Lucas. There are the accounts of fishing for marlin, of course, and a few excellent articles on paddling the Sea of Cortez, but since Steinbeck’s own, Baja has been lost.