TIJUANA - The sinister stairs seem to lead down into a small hell. Illuminated with red lights and beating to the sounds of hard rock music, the air hangs with the smell of marijuana and sweat in a sticky cloud that engulfs everything. The destination is the basement, which has become one of the most famous bars in Tijuana. Outside, there is a line of seedy bars that charge $5 to dance one song. There are also bars like the Hong Kong and the Adelitas, where strippers get tips of up to $100 for unmentionable services.
Still, at sunrise everything will look different. A workday in Tijuana can be just as charged as the nights, but it has nothing to do with sex and tequila. The medical manufacturing industry in this famous border city employs 30,000 people, working for 41 different companies. There are 29 aerospace firms, employing more than 7,300 people. Tijuana is also the number one Mexican town for the textile-manufacturing sector.
In spite of this dynamism, there is not enough work for everyone. That’s why thousands of Mexicans still cross the border into California every day.
This is the case for Frank, a journalism student who works in the outlet stores on the other side of the ‘line,’ as people in Tijuana call the border. Until three months ago, he had to leave his house two hours before he started work, although his job is located only a 15 minute walk away from the line.
The line separates what is really one urban area formed by Tijuana and San Diego, whose joint population is more than 5.2 million.
[The U.S.-Mexico border in miniature - Photo: tj scenes]
Since the NAFTA free trade agreement signed in 1994, this dual urban area has become one of the most important commercial hubs in the United States, and the most active border in the world. It’s estimated that every day, 50,000 vehicles and 25,000 pedestrians cross the border. Before crossing, it’s recommended that people check how many people are in line, and there are specialized businesses that do just that. The line numbers are transmitted over the radio and by hotline. On an average day, at 9 A.M., there are more than 1,000 pedestrians waiting and an average of 260 cars per gate, more than 3,000 cars in total. Even at midnight there is a line of cars waiting.
In the morning the desert heat is already intense. The pedestrian line seems endless, but locals say it is the fastest way to cross.
According to Bruno Ferrari, Mexico’s economic Secretary, "Tijuana is one of the most strategic locations in the country." The city has been able to take advantage of both its proximity to the ocean and to the United States. It’s less than three hours away from Long Beach, one of the most important ports in the United States in terms of trade with Asia.
Changing migration patterns
But there are downsides too. According to academic studies, the regions around the U.S.-Mexico border are among the most depressed in Mexico. Eliseo Diaz, who has written several reports to that effect, says, "Maybe San Diego is the exception. But right next door is San Ysidro, and that is an impoverished area." Still, the differences in wages can be a powerful incentive to cross the border, even semi-legally, with a tourist visa. In Mexico hourly wages are $0.59, while in the U.S. they are between $7 and $10. So students and young people cross the border to work as nannies and gardeners, well paid work in the land of the stars.
There are also those, like Frank, who have U.S. citizenship and a specially border pass called a Sentry Pass, which allows him to skip the line and cross the border in five minutes.
In fact, Frank’s situation is pretty common in the border towns. His parents decided to give birth on the other side of the line to give him a chance at a good life.
San Diego’s economic strength, where unemployment is a couple of points below the California average, is still a strong attraction for the residents of Tijuana, but it can also give context to the changing migration patterns.
A study by the Pew research center determined that illegal immigration from Mexico practically ended in 2010, and that the recession in the U.S., which has especially touched the construction industry, decreased the country’s attractiveness for illegal workers. The change is that there has been an increase in the amount of legal migration between the two countries. Tijuana is a good example of that, because it is an area where jobs are being created on both sides of the border.
The city has a number of new foreign companies opening and hiring workers as well as several homegrown companies that are expanding. Many leading business leaders and professionals have their heart in Tijuana but work and own businesses on both sides of the line.
Tijuana still has an image problem, one that has been fed by books and movies for decades. But in contrast to Mexico’s other cities, the violence in Tijuana is clearly decreasing. This might be explained by the fact that new narco-trafficking cartel, called Sinaloa, took over in the city. They’re not doves, but they are more business-like and pragmatic then their rivals. They don’t turn to kidnappings or extortion, and use violence only as a last resort. Some say they have a truce with the government.
Whether or not that is true, Tijuana is not the bad girl it used to be. Now it is a working girl trying to get ahead.