San Diego County Arts Writer

While the chattering crowd of shoppers and fun-seekers clogged Avenida Revolucion one recent Thursday, a different kind of Mexican cultural scene unfolded about a mile away.

It was 9:30 p.m., and on a hill overlooking the city, 150 Tijuanans had gathered at the patio of the Casa de la Cultura to hear a dramatization of Franz Kafka’s “Letter to His Father.”

A rousing performance by 18-year-old Edward Coward Garcia, who slowly scaled a three-story fire escape as he railed and ranted against the repressions of Hermann Kafka, drew cheers and long applause from the audience.

Later they laughed at “Sirena del Corazon,” a comic, ribald revue written by Coward, performed with three singing actors, who joined him on the fire escape.

Like the teen-age Coward, the cultural arts in this bustling border city are young, energetic and developing in interesting directions. True, there is no symphony, opera, art museum, major ballet or theater company. But interviews conducted during several visits to Tijuana with artists, arts administrators and patrons show there is a growing appreciation of the need for the cultural amenities.


Although few artists and no arts organizations here are financially self-sustaining, Tijuanans have access to an increasing variety of art forms, from visiting performances, exhibits and the traditional Mexican costumes and artifacts on exhibit at the Centro Cultural Tijuana, to the classical string ensemble Camerata, the grass-roots street theater troupe Los Desarraigados, at least seven folk dance companies, and the avant garde multimedia performances of artist Gerardo Navarro.

Most serious artists, including musicians, actors, dancers and painters, support themselves through teaching or “day jobs” working as clerks in shops. From their point of view, the audience for the arts is improving, the support better than ever before.

“Generally speaking, I am very content, really happy with the arts scene here because of the variety of people involved in it,” actor Cesar Dominguez said.

DisArte Gallery director Cecilia Garcia de Deffis noted a growth in the appreciation for the visual arts. “Six years ago, people didn’t have much art--Mexican art or any art--on their walls,” said Garcia. “Now they’re buying art for their homes and for their offices.”

The evolving arts scene parallels the city’s recent population and economic growth.

Tijuana, in a way, has always mirrored San Diego. As San Diego became a military and vacation city, Tijuana became an unofficial R & R center for U.S. servicemen. In the early part of the century, it was a gambling resort, featuring casinos and horse racing for the Hollywood crowd.

Today, government arts administrators acknowledge that Tijuana, founded 98 years ago, lacks the cultural heritage of older Mexican cities such as Veracruz, Guadalajara and Monterrey. But with their city’s burgeoning economy the envy of other Mexican cities, actors, musicians, visual artists and dancers are finding more opportunities to practice their craft.

A key to this growth is the active role played by the federal and state governments in the arts, artists and government officials acknowledge. The city’s primary focus for the arts is the 5-year-old federally funded Centro Cultural Tijuana, a complex of buildings in the city’s Rio Tijuana district containing a giant-screen theater, anthropological museum, six art galleries, a 1,000-seat performing arts theater, a restaurant and retail shops.

Another principal arts facility is the Casa de la Cultura, formed by the state government of Baja California 10 years ago. Today the Casa, in a three-story, red-brick former schoolhouse perched on a hill above the city, offers children and adults courses ranging from painting, drama, classical guitar and choir to English, piano, ballet, tap, jazz and folk dance.

Close to 1,000 students, mostly children, are enrolled in the program. The kids pay about $3 a month for most classes, which they take two or three days a week. Similar lessons for adults run about $7 a month.

Besides the classes, the Casa supports the arts in more tangible ways with free rehearsal space, which most of Tijuana’s theater companies take advantage of, and with a gallery for art exhibitions and a literary cafe for poetry recitals.

The director of the Casa de la Cultura, Elsa Arnaiz de Toledo, says she expects to raise the class enrollment to 1,500.

“We’re a very young city compared to Veracruz, Guadalajara or Morelia, which have centuries of tradition,” Arnaiz said. “The university (of Baja California) is just 25 years old. Now there are five universities. Twenty-seven years ago we didn’t have one.

“Tijuana has really, really flourished (recently). It was so hard to go to plays or to see an exhibit. Before this, there was maybe a lecture from Mexico City or a play and everyone went. And that was it. You had to go 3,000 kilometers, or go to San Diego for classical music.

“Most of the young people here are young children. We’re planting a seed. Ten to 15 years from now they’ll enjoy the arts.”

The director general of the Centro Cultural Tijuana, Rodolfo Pataky Stark, acknowledged that government participation is a significant factor in the promotion of the arts.

“We’re more like the French system of the state as an arts promoter,” Pataky said. “It’s completely different from (the system) in the United States.”

Pataky sees the center’s role as “a detonator” for the arts in Tijuana. He points out that there are four “serious” art galleries, an association of theater directors and an actors association that did not exist before the Centro opened.

Despite the ferment within the arts community, the arts still are in their infancy and face major hurdles: Tijuana audiences have been reluctant to embrace local talent, preferring instead visiting singers, movie and television stars from Mexico City. The proximity to the United States with its ubiquitous pop culture also is viewed as a threat to traditional Mexican arts.

“It’s seen as everything from outside being better,” Pataky said.

Guadalupe Rivemar, a local arts enthusiast, agreed, saying Tijuanans prefer to support groups that already have “an image. The local groups are seen as if their work is not so professional. We need to change the mentality of people who see the artists as way outside of society. They see a work and applaud, but they don’t support it.”

Juan Hernandez, founder and director of Tijuana’s oldest dance troupe, Cuitlahuac, has noticed that folk dancing is being eroded by popular culture.

“Right here in the frontier (along the border) traditional forms tend to disappear because of the influence of American music,” Hernandez said. “A lot of young people feel ashamed to continue. We have to work hard to induce them to join.”

While government support for the arts clearly is a boon, it also imposes certain restrictions in terms of the amount of time government facilities are available. The Centro gives local performing artists time in its 300-seat space theater and the 1,000-seat theater, but the theaters are usually available for only one or two nights at a time, at most one or two weeks. The same applies to the four or five other government-owned theaters in Tijuana that are used for performing arts events.

None of Tijuana’s 10 professional or amateur theater companies has its own theater or an agreement to produce a season of plays at one of the city’s five theaters. Because of that, most of the theaters produce only two or three pieces annually.

The missing ingredient from most theater companies and from the Tijuana arts scene in general is the promoter. According to Pataky, growth in the arts also requires sharp administrators who can entice the public to attend a performance or exhibition.

“Artists are not good at promotion,” Pataky said. “They need someone who can promote, who knows publicity and how to work with foundations. Promoters create the possibility for the artists.”

That may be changing. A few businessmen are beginning to inch into the arts. The owner of a nightclub this year created a cultural association that has published a literary magazine, has formed an art-film club, and regularly provides performance space to actors.

Another businessman has arranged to bring seven of what he considers the most important plays running in Mexico City to the Centro for an eight-week theater festival, which continues through Oct. 20. The productions are brought to Tijuana for performances on Mondays and Tuesdays, when their theaters are dark in Mexico City.

Armando Garcia Orso, owner of the Rio Rita nightclub on Revolucion, was instrumental in forming the Rio Rita Cultural Assn. The association has published the first edition of its literary magazine, Esquina Baja, which includes short stories, poetry, photography and articles on the region.

“We started presenting some singers and one thing led to another,” said Garcia. “We had not contemplated how it would happen.”

Every Tuesday night Rio Rita’s rear room is transformed into the Margarita Cansino Cine Club. Named after actress Rita Hayworth, who performed under the name of Margarita Cansino in Tijuana, the club screens Mexican, Latin American and internationally recognized art films for free on a wide-screen TV that is normally used for rock videos.

The same 250-seat barroom has been made available for arts performances including plays and one-man shows.

“There is a boom in Tijuana, and culture is part of it,” said artist Romel Rosas in explaining the nightclub’s involvement in the arts.

Garcia said that the cultural events add class to the nightclub. They also add income. At a recent one-man show, the back bar did a good business with the nearly capacity audience.

Rosas, who designed the literary magazine, said the association plans to create a foundation patterned after U.S. arts foundations.

This month and next month the Centro is co-presenting seven of the Mexico City plays with Martin Cuburu, an advertising executive and television anchor on Channel 33.

Cuburu, who also has worked as an actor, got the idea for the festival four months ago. He considers the festival a way of building audiences for local theater.

Among the shows he is presenting are “An Open Marriage” by Dario Fo, Nikolai Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman” and a performance by famed Mexican actor Hector Bonilla, in a one-man monologue from Anton Chekhov.

Cuburu may have summed up the problem facing all the arts in Tijuana while speaking of his interest in the theater: “We are very far away from Mexico City and economically very far away from the States. Ultimately we have to develop our own.”

Thursday: The arts as political statements.