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Borderline Insanity : INSANITY: Revolucion of the Young : The Revolucion Is in the Hands of the Young

Times Staff Writer

It’s midnight Friday and Avenida Revolucion is throbbing. Head-splitting disco and rock music blares from upscale cafes, trendy discotheques and raunchy strip joints. The street is lit up like a giant pinball machine. Balconies are jammed with exultant young Americans, revved up on cheap beer, tequila and the liberating realization that they are in a foreign country.

“I’m 20 years old, and I can’t get beers or anything in the bars back home,” says Bill Fox, who drove to Tijuana from Palos Verdes with a friend. Fox shouts over the din at a flamingo-pink outdoor bar. “Besides, there’s all kinds of girls around here!”

Is nothing sacred? The Tijuana night crawl, a hallowed institution of sleaze for generations of good-time seekers, is just not the same anymore. Cantinas, some famed for acts of bizarre if not illegal indulgence, no longer cater exclusively to a largely male crowd of sailors and Marines and adventuresome carousers with a predilection for the unsavory.

Instead, each weekend evening, Tijuana and Ensenada, the harborside city 70 miles to the south, welcome the latest wave of invaders from el norte: Teen-agers, college students and other youths from the United States in search of exotic thrills and some respite from that most onerous of California laws--the 21-year-old legal drinking age.

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“In the old days, you’d never bring a girl down here,” muttered one disgruntled 40-year-old, a veteran of many low-life jaunts south of the border, now appalled by the teeny-bopper takeover.

To be sure, the bawdy clubs, boasting “GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS!” still are thriving, and roaming prostitutes and transvestites still offer their favors, but it is now the under-21 crowd that dominates the scene. The kids’ behavior is not always exemplary: Ensenada officials were recently contemplating the posting of signs with an explicit message: NO SEX ON THE STREETS. (“We’ve found that Americans tend to pay attention to signs,” explained Miroslava Cuellar, a spokeswoman for the Ensenada mayor’s office.)

Sensing where the money is, club owners have molded their pitch to appeal to the post-pubescent revelers, in some cases imposing dress codes and cover charges to attract upscale customers. The pitch has caught on.

“I just moved out here from Indiana, and this is sooooo different,” says Kelley McDermott, a bright-eyed 18-year-old, who was recently winding up an evening on the town. “Just all these lights in Tijuana. I mean, believe me, you don’t see this in the Midwest.”

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THE ENTRANCE

The young Americans generally enter this foreign soil on foot, passing boisterously through two squeaky, battleship-gray revolving gates at the border station after having parked cars on the U.S. side. (Most choose not to drive in Mexico.) There is no passport or identification check. One of their first sights is a billboard advertising Ralph Lauren’s Polo line, another sign of Tijuana’s maturing self-image. By 10 o’clock on a Friday night, the pedestrian walkway to Mexico has more teen-agers than a beach scene in an old Annette Funicello film.

“Party time!” one youth with spiked hair shouts, exultant, as he emerges on the south side of the revolving gate on a recent Friday evening.

Why do the kids come? “It’s real social--and you can drink,” says Pam Huebner, 18, one of four freshmen from San Diego State University who just passed through the revolving doors. “It adds some spice. But I wouldn’t come down here alone, without a guy. Some friends have had some heavy experiences.”

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“She comes here for the guys,” interjects one of her friends, Joseph Gardner, outfitted in pressed jeans and cowboy boots. “People talk about how bad the jails are, and how bad the federales are,” continues Gardner, adopting a knowing tone. “But, really, they’re not that bad. You’ve just got to pay them off sometimes, that’s all . . .

One time a federale put some cuffs on medown in Ensenada. But nothing happened.”

While all are clearly exhilarated about being in a foreign country, they spend most of their time with other fellow Americans. “I don’t feel prejudiced against Mexicans,” says Huebner, “but I don’t think I’d dance with them . . . You never need to speak Spanish in Tijuana.”

Once across the border, the youthful throngs amble several hundred yards down a passageway, past vendors and begging women and children, as they head for taxis that deliver them them to their favorite hangouts,

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Outlandish Dress

Near the taxi stand, two Navy corpsmen accompany their dates for the evening, 18-year-old twins named Michelle and Tara. The twins’ vampy appearance, from their black outfits, to facial war paint, to close-cropped peroxided hair, may be unremarkable at a showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, but the two still raise eyebrows here, as does the outfit of Joe, one of the corpsmen.

He is no everyday salt. Joe sports an earing in his left ear, ballooning pants and shirt, a bolo tie and combat boots. (Both Navy men requested that their names not be used because the Navy has declared Tijuana off-limits to lower-ranked servicemen between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. after reported police shakedowns and fights.)

“Everyone’s out of control here,” assures Sean, Joe’s fellow corpsman. “It’s a good experience.”

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Joe, meanwhile, glances toward the beckoning lights of Tijuana, his expression suggesting a grand gesture. “That’s all it is out there,” he says, “it’s just one big bar. All of Tijuana is just one big bar.”

THE BAR

Most youths head first for a six-block swath of Avenida Revolucion, the main tourist drag, which in recent years has sprouted many balcony-bars and instantly fashionable clubs that cater to the younger set. On weekend evenings, the street is a jarring, neon-laced fusion of reverberating sound, flashing lights, frolicking teen-agers and local beggars and vendors trying to make a buck. A small army of municipal police patrols the streets, occasionally whisking away troublemakers.

“My dad would shoot me if he knew I was here,” confesses Gary L. Clevenger III, 18, of Mission Viejo, who is seated on a bar stool at the Jorongo Beer Garden & Grill, just across Revolucion from a club known as Banana. The tropical-style Jorongo is a multilevel entertainment factory of sorts, featuring a green-tiled balcony bar, the de rigueur disco and dance floor, as well as a restaurant.

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Clevenger and his friend, Michelle, 17, both students at Saddleback College, are perched on the balcony above the clutter of the avenue, savoring their drinks, including a test-tube-shaped stein of beer that is a house specialty.

Tequila Poppers

“My first time down here was last weekend,” says Clevenger, a strapping, clean-cut, happy-go-lucky sort, shouting above the inevitable clamor. “It was great. I wasn’t driving or anything, so I just had a good time. I was drinking tequila shooter after tequila shooter. . . . Then I got up and took a few steps, and fell down the stairs. On the street I fell down every five steps or so. I had a great time. The best time I ever had.”

“And they play American music here,” interjects his companion, Michelle, clearly feeling the effects of strawberry margaritas. “I eat at Jack In The Box before I come here,” she adds.

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Down the terrace a bit, several employees are treating a young American to a singular local ritual: The Tequila Popper. In this frenzied ceremony, the recipients are provided with bibs, and skilled, whistle-blowing barmen--some dressed as firemen and doctors to heighten the effect--funnel tequila and juice into the customers’ open mouths until they can take no more. In one variation, the Popper recipient is tossed into the air like a pizza. The cost: Three bucks.

“It makes people more relaxed, ready to party,” explains Miguel Valdez, a barman, slipping from Spanish into English.

What does it feel like? “They did that to me on my 21st birthday last year,” confesses a disheveled blonde. “I passed out right on my friend.”

“Wasted,” says Bill Fox of Palos Verdes, bug-eyed following his Popper initiation. “Just wasted.”

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In their conversations, many are wont to talk about their future careers.

One young man says he’s angling to land a job at his father’s firm, where surgical gloves are manufactured. “With this whole AIDS thing,” he confides, “the business is doing really well.”

Terrie, 20, who says she likes “drinking, dancing and meeting people,” explains that she’s honing her secretarial skills. “When I get out of school, my dad’s going to get me a job at McDonnell Douglas. It’s great.”

‘TJ Lets You Go’

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Her companion this evening, Don Templeton, 30, a Navy petty officer, is one of the oldest customers at the bar, but he never tires. “I’ve been here about 40 times,” he says, surveying the roisterous balcony. “You can be more yourself, you don’t have to worry about a lot of rules and stuff. It reminds me a lot of overseas, of the Philippines. Tijuana is a lot like overseas. There, the bars are basically . . . well, you know, whorehouses.”

Terrie adds her impressions. “Tijuana makes you feel like a kid,” she says. “Put in the paper that TJ lets you go.”

THE DISCO

About a mile or so to the east, in Tijuana’s newly remodeled river zone, former site of a shantytown, the picture is quite distinct. Here is the city’s most high-profile night spot: the Laser Club OH!, kind of the Studio 54 of the Tijuana set, where long lines are commonplace and not-sufficiently cool patrons are often refused entry by scowling bouncers packing walkie-talkies.

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“I’ve never been able to get in,” says Allen Hubbard, a 20-year-old Kentucky native in a double-breasted suit who is once again languishing in the uncool zone outside.

Club officials offer no apologies. “If we see people who are rowdy, or who are dressed as bums, we’re not going to let them in,” says Antonio Ortiz, an English-speaking spokesman for the club, where 90% of the patrons are from the United States and most of the rest are “rich Mexicans,” in Ortiz’s words.

“We get a more educated crowd than the places over on Revolucion,” says Ortiz, standing on a catwalk above hundreds of dancers, who are entertained by a deafening sound system, dozens of video screens, live fireworks and green-and-red laser beams.

‘A Lot of Famous People’

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The club, owned by the wealthy Galicot family and employing about 300 workers, features various bars and several rooms, some for dancing and others for more “mellow” activity, Ortiz says. “We’ve had a lot of famous people here,” Ortiz explains proudly. “We’ve had Clint Eastwood. He came by himself and waited in line. We’ve had Julio Iglesias, Neil Diamond, Tina Turner. Tina just wanted to go to a place where she could party and wouldn’t be harassed. . . . We’ve had the Chicago Bears, the Raiders, the Sockers. . . . The Wall Street Journal even wrote an article about us. . . . For our fourth anniversary party, we spent $50,000 just for decorations!”

On this particular night, the club is hosting one of its periodic spectacles: A bikini contest, preliminary round. All of the more than a dozen contestants are from the United States. The winner is slated to receive $2,000 from the contest underwriter, Presidente Brandy.

“Contestant No. 12 is an aerobics teacher,” says Naomi, the American announcer who provides animated play-by-play in Valley-girl English as the contestants are paraded on the dance floor before bulging eyes and raucous cheers. “She has a 36 bust, a 24 waist. . . . She weighs 120 pounds. . . . If she would be a car, she would be a Jaguar . . . Is she hot, guys? Is she hot or what?”

This prompts a ribald ovation. “Contestant No. 12 is Julie. . . . Her turn-on? Fast cars, loud music!”

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More salacious cheers. Another contestant’s turn-on: “Lots of cologne.” More cheers.

Afterward, one of the participants, Toni Forthun, 19, of San Diego, says she hopes the exposure in the contest will eventually help her dancing career. “Anyway,” she adds, “it’s good for the ego.”

THE AFTERMATH

It is past 4 a.m., and the bacchanal is winding down. The Denny’s on Avenida Revolucion is a favorite place for many of the young crowd to begin facing up to the future.

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“At least you know what kind of food you’re getting here,” explains Kris, 18, a chatty blonde whose mother thinks she’s at a friend’s house back in San Diego, as she sits in a Denny’s booth with two others. “We’ve got a few rules in Mexico: Don’t drink the water. Be careful with the food. Don’t sit on the toilet seats . . . “

‘Young and Horny’

What’s the attraction of Tijuana? “When you’re young and horny, what else can you do?” asks Phillip Harrison, 18, of San Clemente, who takes the opportunity to offer some thoughts on the state of this Latin nation. “I think America should take over Mexico again. We don’t want another Disneyland. We just want Mexico.”

All three nod in agreement.

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Adds Kris, “This is a great way to meet people who think like you. And we love to dance.”

“Dancing,” interposes Harrison, “dancing is a natural high. Alcohol is just a socialistic disease.”

But, alas, there are negatives. “We met some people tonight who are obsessive,” says Kris. “One guy told me I was the most beautiful person in the whole bar. Imagine! Me?”

Soon, the three will join the stragglers heading back north, passing Lelo Morales, a 4-year-old boy who sings for coins at the international exit, and crossing into the United States as the morning sun faintly brightens the eastern sky. Some stagger, some have to be carried, others are just tired and hung over.

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“The whole scene is revolting,” concludes Deborah Zahn, 19, a Nebraska native now living in California, who is approaching the border in the faint predawn light. “You have all these people chowing down while kids are starving on the streets.”

But her friend, a tall, sandy-haired blond, appears to disagree. “I’d come back,” he says. “I thought it was fun.”


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