Fiamma Montezemolo, René Peralta and Heriberto Yepez. 2006. Here is Tijuana! London: BlackDog Publishing. 192 pp. ISBN: 978 1 904772 45
My first significant personal exposure to Mexican culture (and Mexican people) was after I moved to the United States in 2003. As a Korean educated in Japan, and with no previous experience of America beyond what I knew from popular media, I remember wondering what these bright yellow “Piso Mojado” signs were supposed to mean and, from there, slowly unfolding the enormous significance of this culture for Californian and American life. I was especially fascinated by those Mexican men with big cowboy hats I saw standing in groups by the side of the highway, waiting stoically for day jobs that might or might not come.
Five years of living in New York have taught me that these men and the millions of other Mexican men and women in similar positions are an indispensible part of the American economy. The flows of the city are hugely dependent on their delivering, making, operating, or fixing things, in a way that reminds me of Do-Ho Suh’s sculpture series. It’s hard to imagine passing through any commercial service in New York that doesn’t depend on these efforts in some way. You name it: even the most downhome-looking Korean restaurant in Koreatown, with the ajumma cooking handmade tofu in the storefront to show off its authenticity, has a line of Mexican guys busy in the steamy hot back of the kitchen cooking and delivering the bulgogi and kimchijigae to the tune of salsa music. But especially as compared to their ubiquitous contributions to the culture, they’re virtually invisible in it — the mainstream, anyway, will never help you understand who these people are, where they’re from, how they got here and how they survive on the interface of two (or more) cultures.
[cc image credit: Nathan Gibbs]
That’s why I was so curious to discover Fiamma Montezemolo, René Peralta and Heriberto Yepez’s “Here Is Tijuana!” Of course, Tijuana is literally and figuratively an edge case within Mexico, but as a node of transition between cultures and the first place on Mexican soil physically encountered by many visitors, I thought a book about the city would be an excellent place for me to begin my investigations, its title announcing the reader’s arrival like a tollgate traffic sign at the borderline.
The format of the book and the content
“Here Is Tijuana!” is organized in three chapters (”Avatars,” “Desires,” and “Permutations”) written by authors from three disciplines (an anthropologist, an architect, and a writer/psychotherapist) with three different relationships with the city (having either been born, studied, or currently living there). I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to write this book. From the preface:
“One afternoon three friends were discussing nothing else, but Tijuana. The three of them conducted one of those discussions that ultimately tend to abolish friendship. At the end of the discussion, there were two very clear issues: one, that the three of them would never be in agreement about Tijuana; and the other, that it was necessary to produce a book that would reunite the different postures about the city in order to extend the conflict to others as well.”
And so it seems that the process of making the book itself reflected the nature of its subject. Instead of writing an anthology with separate signed contributions, they apparently decided to let the city tell its own story through a succession of static images juxtaposed against quotations, statistical data and other figures, short interviews, and correspondence (e-mail, letters, notes, etc.). It’s very ambiguous as to whose viewpoint is being expressed at any particular moment, or if the authors even wish to endorse a specific viewpoint at all, and the overall effect is to emphasize that whatever opinions or impressions one holds about Tijuana, however jumbled or even contradictory, they might all simultaneously be true.
Often this use of supposedly neutral “data” requires some knowledge of origins — the name of an institution, for example, or a URL — to decode the meaning apparently intended by the authors. At first I had a hard time reading between the lines, often helped where an image added texture and flesh to the flattened “facts” and figures (a price list of services provided by prostitutes in Tijuana, a schedule of assembly-plant salaries, counts of inbound and outbound passengers at the airport and bus depot, and so on). I certainly don’t think you have to read this book linearly, but I followed the conventional page order, and by the time I was reading the “Permutation” section, all of these fragments had slowly built up, connected with one another and developed a weave that resembled narrative.
And something else slowly revealed itself, too: Tijuana’s conjoined twin city across the border. San Diego emerges from the trip into Tijuana like the other surface of a Möbius strip. It’s not simply that the Mexican city becomes the site of displaced industries and repressed desires, though this is inarguably the case. It’s that the two places depend on one another, each place made possible by certain kinds of flows across this most extreme of borders. And while voice after voice here are entirely correct to insist on the place’s singularity (”It’s not even Mexico, it’s Tijuana”), in the end it’s also clear that like the countries they belong to, both cities are part of a single binary system. And that is something I’ll remember the next time I catch a glimpse into a Korean-restaurant kitchen in Manhattan.