Mexicans Head North to Snare Holiday Bargains

Times Staff Writer

The pedestrian lane at the San Ysidro port of entry backed up nearly a quarter-mile into Mexico, weaving past the churro vendors, discount drugstores and tin-shack candy booths.

Gloria Escobar, standing near a display of Santa Claus pinatas, already had waited half an hour to cross into California. Only one more hour left, she hoped.

“It’s worth the sacrifice,” Escobar said one morning this week. “In San Diego, the stores are better than Tijuana.... Everyone in this line is going for Christmas shopping.”


The annual holiday season crush at the border reached its height this week as Dodger Stadium-size crowds from Mexico headed north in search of bargains at swap meets, outlet stores and suburban shopping malls.

They endured extra-long waits in the pedestrian and vehicle lanes, which were already jammed with thousands of Mexicans who commute regularly to jobs in the San Diego area.

Red-aproned young men dashed through the idling sea of traffic delivering hot cups of coffee and Mexican sweet bread to motorists. Teenagers hawked old bikes for $5 so the more impatient people could skirt the long lines by taking the bike lane.

“This is nothing,” Pedro Rodriguez Duron said Wednesday morning. A polio-stricken vendor who has wheeled his candy- and soda-filled cart into traffic for 18 years, Rodriguez predicted even bigger lines as last-minute shoppers hit the stores.

“You should see it on the weekend when it takes two hours to cross the line,” he said.

The traffic jams in both pedestrian and car lanes underscore the growing social and economic ties in the San Diego-Tijuana region, a metropolitan area of about 4.5 million people separated by the Otay Mesa and San Ysidro ports of entry.

The San Ysidro port, the busiest border crossing in the world, handles about 47,000 cars and 25,000 pedestrians on a typical day. During the holiday season, car traffic balloons to 65,000, the pedestrian crush to about 40,000.


The growing population and beefed-up security measures at the port have combined to cause longer delays in recent years -- and it’s rarely worse than the week leading up to Christmas.

This week all 24 vehicle lanes have been open at the port. And at least eight inspectors handled the stream of pedestrians. By 10 a.m. on typical days, the traffic eases, but during the Christmas season it only grows.

“It takes close management to be able to follow the pulse of the traffic and keep it under control,” said Vince Bond, spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in San Diego. “We have our traditional anti-terrorism and anti-drug mission, and we also have to facilitate the vast majority of traffic, which is legal.”

Many Mexicans from Tijuana who enter the U.S. frequently use a border crossing card, or “laser visa,” which allows travel within 25 miles of the border.

After clearing customs, many middle-class Mexicans drive across in SUVs and zip north on Interstate 5 to suburban shopping malls, or to Horton Plaza downtown where they can skate at an ice rink. Others on foot hop shuttles to swap meets.

Most shoppers simply walk to the numerous stores that have popped up in recent years in San Ysidro that cater to the cross-border market.


“It’s incredibly proximate,” said Kenn Morris, director of Cross Border Business Associates, a San Diego-based market research consulting firm. Mexican shoppers, he said, spend as much as $75 million at San Diego-area stores during the holiday season.

“People are interested in purchasing products that are either better quality, better priced, and in a better overall shopping experience. It’s a combination of all those things,” Morris said.

Escobar, the woman waiting in line, said Tijuana retail stores can’t compete with American shops. Mexican products -- electronics to clothing to watches -- are often cheaply made knock-offs. And brand-name products can cost double in Tijuana, she said.

The market for U.S. goods is so huge, Escobar said, that she has turned her shopping sprees into a part-time business. She re-sells American goods to people in Tijuana who lack U.S. visas.

“Many people can’t cross, and they still want U.S. goods. The quality is what they want,” Escobar said.

At the Fashion Valley Mall, a shopping center in San Diego’s Mission Valley that includes Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Tiffany & Co., about one-fifth of shoppers are from Mexico, according to Masa Liles, director of marketing.


“That’s buying power that we love,” Liles said.

Just inside the border Thursday afternoon, Mexican shoppers packed the promenade at Las Americas The Gateway, a shopping center in San Ysidro where security guards were directing traffic in the overflowing parking lot.

Emanuel Estrada, 26, and his friend Felipe Romero, 21, both from Tijuana, said shopping centers across the border have more of a Christmasy feel than in Tijuana, where the decorations are not as elaborate.

“It’s kind of sad over there,” Estrada said. “A lot of the lights don’t work.”

“It makes you not want to shop,” Romero added.

Patricia Jimenez, a 50-year-old office worker from Ensenada, said she bought $800 in toys and clothing during her trip that started at 9:30 a.m. and included a two-hour wait to cross the border.

Taking a cigarette break next to her seven shopping bags, Jimenez said she would probably repeat her all-day excursion, just as many of her fellow Baja California residents do.

“All of us Mexicans are leaving our money here,” she said.