Jorge Hank Rhon, owner of the Caliente Race Track, just minutes south of the border, remembers feeling discouraged upon hearing the results a year ago of a survey taken in San Diego and surrounding areas.

“It found that a majority of people over 40 had been to Tijuana, but the vast majority of people under that age hadn’t,” said Hank Rohn, surveying his track from the grandstand Tuesday night. “I think many (teens) have got the wrong idea about Tijuana.”

In hopes of affecting a significant change in those figures, the race-track owner lured more than 20,000 fans across the border. But the attraction wasn’t racing. It’s was rock ‘n’ roll.


The lineup for Tuesday’s MexFest ‘87--believed to be the largest rock concert ever held in Mexico--included Oingo Boingo, the Bangles, Squeeze, the Fixx, Chris Isaak and the Hoodoo Gurus. Those are all acts that enjoy significant air play on XTRA-FM (91.1), an alternative-oriented radio station that broadcasts from Baja California toward a predominately American listenership.

Although attendance at the nine-hour concert fell short of the 40,000 fans that promoters had hoped for (the total attendance was believed to be about 27,500), the event was nonetheless a success by most standards: The musical lineup was inviting and the atmosphere was lively but generally peaceful. Perhaps the most lasting effect was good public relations for Tijuana.

“Now 20,000 or 30,000 of these (American) kids have been here and know what to expect of Tijuana,” Hank Rohn said between acts. “That’s the best publicity. They’ll go home and tell their friends and parents that there were no problems with Tijuana police and that this is a city just like any other city.”

Tijuana is, of course, in many ways like no other city, and there were occasional reminders of that fact--such as a “program” distributed to patrons by concert promoters full of tips to Americans on how not to get into trouble, including a reminder that Mexican police are not obligated to speak English when arresting visitors from north of the border.

In the yellow flyers handed out at the gate, concertgoers were also informed of this sobering fact: “You might be considered guilty until proven innocent.”

And promoters took no chances on the security issue. An estimated 600 security agents were on hand from Mexico and the United States.


Leaning against the fences surrounding the perimeter of the racetrack grounds were hundreds of local denizens who presumably could not afford the $22 ticket price ($26 on the day of the show). The sound system was so powerful, however, that those on the outside could hear the music nearly as well as those on the inside.

Reminiscent of most stadium concerts in the United States, the scene inside was peppered with the sight of teen-age girls being tossed high into the air by male friends with blankets. During the more popular acts, the areas of MexFest within 200 feet of the stage turned “asphyxiation-fest,” no different from any other rock festival.

Audience participation was a hallmark of the various acts, from Squeeze’s encouraging the entire audience to “throw the earth off its axis” by jumping up and down to the Motown-ized beat of “Black Coffee in Bed,” to the Bangles’ asking Mexicans and Americans alike to “Walk Like an Egyptian” (walking room was inevitably impossible near the stage, where mock Egyptian hand gestures had to suffice).

Headliner Oingo Boingo was clearly the crowd favorite. Even though most of the fans had been on hand for seven hours by the time the L.A.-based band went on about 11 p.m., they still had a lot of energy left for the group’s characteristically frantic brand of eccentric pop-rock.

Oddly, some of the U.S. residents may have felt more at home Tuesday than their Mexican neighbors. Some souvenir booths featured sings saying “No Aceptamos Pesos” (“no pesos accepted”).

A spot check of several dozen Californians on the field failed to turn up a single individual who was in Tijuana for the first time. Some, however, admitted that they had friends who had been afraid to come.

“I was the only one out of my group of friends who would dare drive across the border,” said David Driggers, 21, of La Mesa, enjoying Oingo Boingo with his girlfriend.

“Everyone else was terrified. They think the police are going to hassle you or someone is going to steal your car--even though (Tijuana) is only a few miles away. There has been so much built up about the Tijuana police and how they hassle young people. But now it is being written up that they want to be seen as a neighbor rather than something to be feared. To me, it is like a shopping market below the border.”

Jess Hill, who lives in Newport Beach and works in the promotion department at XTRA-FM, admitted that he frequently has to calm friends’ fears when he works--and surfs--in Mexico, and this time was no different.

“Talking to people from Orange County, the very first thing that came to mind was the federales, “ Hill said. “But they shouldn’t be insecure. This was a major event that was promoted through California as far north as Santa Barbara, and if it was something that was going to endanger people, we wouldn’t have done it.

“Mexico is just another state to me. If you come here, you adhere to the laws and bylaws of the government. It depends on the people who might come down this way to cause trouble or not cause trouble for themselves. Mexico itself is a very docile country.”