Nick Inzunza, scion of a prominent border family, did not speak more than a few words of Spanish until he was an adult. But not long ago, Inzunza stood up before dozens of his Mexican fiancee's relatives and solemnly asked for her hand in an emotional Tijuana ceremony that seemed worlds away from the freeways and strip malls of Southern California.
Like a number of his Americanized Latino friends and acquaintances who are dating south of the border, Inzunza found love--and a return to his Mexican roots--in Tijuana. He went to the altar in November. His brother will marry a Tijuana woman in July.
"It's like going back to the Old Country to get married, except the Old Country is just 20 minutes away," said Inzunza, 27, who works as an aide to a county supervisor.
Driven by demographics, cultural nostalgia, family ties or sheer geographic coincidence, these young Latinos underscore the increasingly mobile transnational forces that the Tijuana-San Diego border share.
Rudy Murillo, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman in San Diego, says cross-border marriage is an old tradition. He himself was encouraged to go back to Mexico to find a wife, though he ended up marrying an Irish American woman.
Although there are no statistics, Murrillo believes that the trend is increasing with the growing populations of back-to-back twin cities whose residents increasingly view the other side of the border as a drive across town.
More than 40,000 people cross the border to work every day, according to a study by San Diego Dialogue, a think tank that fosters cross-border relations. The study says that each month, 200,000 more cross north to San Diego, mostly to shop. And for the 300,000 who cross south to Tijuana monthly, the most common reason is family and social visits, it said. Thousands of affluent Tijuana high school students attend San Diego private high schools or state universities.
But as the border region becomes more interdependent, the intensification of cross-border social life reveals a complex web of cultural myths and realities that seem to define each side.
One big advantage of the Tijuana singles scene, some U.S. Latinos say, is that it allows them to step away from ethnic stereotyping--or even slurs--in Southern California.
In one quick drive, they feel magically transformed from "minorities" to highly eligible bachelors from a prosperous elite, according to Inzunza. And if they have only a few Latino haunts to choose from in downtown San Diego, Tijuana--and its pulsing array of discos, bars, cafes and nightclubs--is all theirs.
"We walk into a singles bar in [San Diego's] Pacific Beach, and it's like, 'Here comes the kitchen help,' " Inzunza said. "In San Diego, in the eyes of the majority, you're the son of the cook, the gardener or the maid. In Tijuana, you are an educated, dollar-earning American who speaks Spanish. You're at the top of the food chain."
Even those who say they have never experienced overt discrimination have heard enough stories to feel that they are perceived differently by white peers, even in sophisticated social settings.
"I've had friends tell me about going to get an award in a tuxedo at a black-tie dinner, and Anglo people will be like, 'Can you get me a drink?' " said Julio Galindo, 28, a Latino professional.
For Galindo, Tijuana had another allure. When Galindo moved to San Diego in 1995, he wanted to meet "someone like Mom"--the gentle Mexican mother who brought him to Moline, Ill., as an infant 28 years ago.
"The Latinas I dated in Illinois were pretty Anglicized. They had lost a lot of their culture," said Galindo, the executive director of the Barrio Logan Non-Profit Institute in San Diego, which mentors Latino children from grade school to college. "It's a conservative trend. We're looking for those traditional, religious values. We're trying to find that person Dad married. Maybe they can also help us with our Spanish."
Galindo married a Tijuana fashion designer last year, and they now have an infant son, Alec, named for one of the Irish immigrants who defected from the U.S. Army and defended Mexico in the Mexican-American War.
Some U.S. Latino men also believe that single Tijuana women are not as worldly as their American counterparts--and are more likely to be traditional wives.
"A lot of American women, they become a lawyer and it's like, boom, they're out of the house," said Raul Fontes, 28, who sells electrical products for a San Diego company in Tijuana, where he met his girlfriend.
"In Mexico, a woman is judged by how good a mother she is," Fontes said. "I couldn't really go out with a girl who put her career first."
Though there is no hard data to back it up, many young people say it is more common for young American men than women to marry south of the border. And some U.S. Latinas believe that it is because gender roles are more traditional on the Mexican side of the border.
Claudia Cuevas, 24, a San Diego college student who grew up on both sides of the border, said five of her female cousins in Tijuana have married San Diego Latinos in the past few years. But only one U.S. Latina has married any of Cuevas' male Tijuana cousins, and the union lasted just a year.
"She had her own life, her own friends, her own business, and his family did not appreciate that," Cuevas said. "Her life did not revolve around him, and he couldn't handle it.
"They're intimidated by women from this side of the border."
Some experts say that any imbalance actually is triggered by demographic factors.
San Diego, with its military bases, is more male than female. And according to data from the 1990 census, there are 108.8 Latinos for every 100 Latinas in California. The 25-34 age group is 56% Latinos and 44% Latinas in California, according to David Hayes Bautista, a professor of medicine at UCLA and director of its Center for the Study of Latino Health.
"I think the demographic imbalance may drive them across the border," said Phillip Gay, a San Diego State sociology professor.
Analysts say traditions are often bound to shifting social, geographic and economic factors that, since the immigration boom, no longer recognize clear borders.
There is the respected Mexican family that allows their daughter to live, U.S.-style, with her American fiance in Tijuana. And the Latinas in San Diego who ask college counselors to speak to conservative immigrant fathers who vow that their college-bound daughters "will never leave this house except in a wedding dress."
Immigration and exposure to the United States often accelerate change.
Nick Inzunza's father, from an old Californio family, may have dreamed of a traditional Mexicana when he married a young Tijuana woman years ago. But then she went to live with him in San Diego and attended college there in the 1970s, as the women's movement was emerging. They eventually divorced, and she remarried again--three times, Inzunza said. So Inzunza's father raised his three sons alone.
Julio Galindo's shy Mexican mother, frustrated as a housewife, divorced, went back to college, and now owns her own jewelry store in Illinois, Galindo said. And his new bride wants a career too, once their infant son is older.
"As women become more Americanized, their expectations become more Americanized," Gay said.
The idea that Tijuana--Mexico's least traditional city--is seen by anyone as an enclave of orthodoxy amuses some of its natives.
In fact, it is partying--not cultural nostalgia or discrimination--that is the initial catalyst for many Americans who embark on cross-border socializing. Once a Prohibition-era getaway, Tijuana, with its 18-year-old drinking age, is a magnet for San Diego college students who can't legally drink alcohol in California until they are 21.
Edgar Ruiz met his girlfriend on a partying foray in Tijuana four years ago. She recently moved to Chula Vista, a San Diego border community whose nickname--Chulajuana--springs from its de facto status as a suburb of Tijuana.
"I see it as two countries within the same region," said Ruiz, 25, who works for state Assemblywoman Denise Ducheny (D-San Diego). "I'm basically just getting the best of both worlds."
Yet many families in Tijuana emigrated from conservative regions of Mexico, and there are many social traditions there that, in America, exist only on reruns of 1950s television shows. Like the custom of asking suitors to meet a young woman's entire family before the first date, and having her male relatives grill him a bit.
Like many border residents, or fronterizos, Nick Inzunza and his wife, Olga Martinez, pick and choose among the traditions on both sides of the border.
The couple live in San Diego's upscale Mission Hills district. She works as an accountant and studies for her certified public accountant exam. He works for Greg Cox, the chairman of the county Board of Supervisors. Together they also run a business distributing periodicals south of the border.
Unlike other foreign brides who follow their husbands back to America, Martinez didn't have to leave the Old Country far behind. She can be sitting back at her mother's table within the hour.
"Being so close, you lose the sense of crossing into another country," Martinez said. "We see ourselves as a people, not from different countries, but from a single region."
Times researcher Julia Franco contributed to this story.
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Many U.S. Latinos are finding love in Tijuana, in part because of demographics: The San Diego population is older and more likely to be married than that of Tijuana. In California as a whole, there are 108.8 Latino men for every 100 Latinas.
Age Distribution of the Population, San Diego and Tijuana, 1990
% of Population by Martial Status, in San Diego and Tijuana*
* Does not include divorced or widowed
Sources: U.S. Census: San Diego Dialogue, UC San Diego