TV REVIEW : 'New Tijuana' Doesn't Dig Deep Enough

"The New Tijuana" is just interesting enough to leave the viewer wanting more.

The hourlong documentary, premiering at 8 tonight on KPBS-TV (Channel 15), presents the changing face of the border city, "the conflicting forces struggling to control the destiny of the new Tijuana."

A city of an estimated 2 million residents, attracting more than 35 million tourists each year, Tijuana is bursting at the seams, attempting to downplay elements of its sleazy past while welcoming the powers of industry.

Much of "The New Tijuana" sounds vaguely like a travelogue. The city is portrayed as successful and booming, Mexico's new center for commerce. There are images of affluent residents and tourists partying in the trendy discos. There are aerial shots of the modern cultural center.

The opening segment discusses Tijuana's reputation as a getaway for Mexicans and Americans looking for gambling, drugs and prostitution. It puts the "new" Tijuana in context.

The current efforts, which have been going on since the '60s, according to the documentary, are once again transforming the city to serve "America's needs," narrator Luis Valdez says. Not only is the city designed to attract tourists, it is the center of the booming maquiladora industry, in which foreign businesses take advantage of trade regulations and inexpensive labor by building plants in Mexico.

Beyond the images of the Tijuana success story, however, the documentary presents enough of the other side of the story--the impact of the changes on human lives--to leave viewers with a disconcerting sense that something is not quite right with all this activity in Tijuana.

Construction along the Tijuana River was made possible by a devastating flood, which killed several settlers and evicted thousands of others. Some claim the government deliberately caused the flood, the documentary notes. The cameras take viewers to El Florido , the makeshift settlement where many maquiladora workers live. With an average salary of $1.25 an hour, they can't afford much else.

To the credit of the producer--Paul Espinosa, KPBS' director of Hispanic affairs--and director and co-writer Frank Christopher, they don't beat the viewer over the head with Tijuana's underlying problems. But it is clear that something is out of proportion.

Images of a young woman lawyer living in an affluent Tijuana neighborhood seem far removed from El Florido. An official explaining that factories hire a large percentage of women for their "dexterity," not for their historical unwillingness to join unions, sounds a disturbing bell, sure to remind viewers that the ring of truth is not always associated with the marketing of the new Tijuana.

Yet, Espinosa and Christopher don't dig deeper. Three dozen Mexican journalists have been killed in the past 10 years, the documentary says, but it doesn't examine who or the reasons why, or what role the government plays in squelching freedom of the press.

An eerie sense that there is more to the story than the documentary tells us permeates most of the segments, including details of the most recent election, which many felt signaled a new wind blowing through Tijuana. However, except for a man who admits he was forced to go to a political rally by his employer, there is little effort to chronicle the history of corruption, deceit and backstabbing often linked to Mexican politics.

It's tough to second-guess producers, but it seems that any of these compelling elements of human struggle--the residents of El Florido , the fight for freedom of the press, the new political movement--would have been worth further investigation.

"The New Tijuana" is clearly meant as an overview for a national audience, and in that sense it is a huge success. It touches all the bases, providing a broad picture of a growing city. But San Diegans have already seen this picture.

Although even locals may learn something about Baja California politics and the new energy many are hoping will change the core and heart of the area, many of the images and marketing efforts of "The New Tijuana" will seem like old news. There is little attention given to whether the redevelopment efforts are actually working. Although the image builders would certainly disagree, some might say that prostitution and the other seedy elements of the old Tijuana still exist, simply hidden behind the new facade.

It is left to the viewer to read between the lines, to seek more information to decide for themselves if the new Tijuana is really that much of an improvement on the old Tijuana.

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