Making a Tijuana art scene built to last


It is a damp Friday night in Tijuana. The bars and bordellos in the Avenida Revolución party zone have set their sound systems on 11. At the city's Estadio Caliente, more than 20,000 rabid soccer fans have poured in to watch the Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles battle Mexico City's Club América. And in the gastronomic zone, late-model cars fight for space outside restaurants where the Mexican and American well-to-do spend big bucks on flash-seared tuna and fine wines from Baja's own Guadalupe Valley.

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Away from the usual hot spots, though, on a dead-end street in the Colonia 20 de Noviembre, a residential-industrial pocket tucked between a highway and a set of defunct railroad tracks, an important milestone for the city is being celebrated. Something like 500 artists, patrons and aficionados have gathered, wine glasses in hand, for the 10-year anniversary of La Caja Galería, an exhibition space and cultural center that occupies a mural-draped warehouse.

La Caja's decade-long existence in a city where independent art spaces often come and go is no small achievement.

"In Tijuana, there is a struggle to maintain projects such as this," La Caja founder Arturo Rodriguez says, thanking the crowd for its support in an emotive speech. "I am just one soldier in this struggle."

Rodriguez is right. He's not alone. La Caja is part of an intriguing wave of independent Tijuana arts organizations — both small and large, established and homegrown — trying to build an artistic legacy in this city just 126 years old. These are galleries and institutions that don't just show art but are also actively working to educate and help shape a generation of artists and designers.

On Avenida Revolución, TJ in China ProjectSpace not only shows art but it also hosts talks, seminars and international artist residencies. Across town, in the Colonia Burócrata Ruiz Cortinés, the small and informal Relaciones Inesperadas (Unexpected Relations) offers professional workshops for young artists in addition to the usual roster of talks. And in La Coahuila, the city's notorious red light district, the Escuela Libre de Arquitectura (Architecture Free School) gives more than two dozen design students a singular, hands-on approach — one imbued with a unique Tijuana pragmatism.

"I think there is a greater sense of permanence now," says multimedia artist Ingrid Hernandez, who with her husband, Abraham Avila, founded Relaciones Inesperadas after noticing a lack of professional development resources for artists in Tijuana. "We are really focused on the issues affecting artists, working with them to improve professionalization, helping them understand why they make the decisions they do."

La Caja's mission

La Caja began as a 375-square-foot gallery and over time evolved into a 4,300-square-foot gathering spot that stages contemporary art exhibitions, offers painting classes to school-age children and even organizes art-making workshops for the blind. (One of La Caja's rooms contains a fog machine and a sound system to inspire senses other than sight.) The center's mission isn't just to show art but also to foment an appreciation for it in both children and adults.

Tijuana has always been the sort of place where enterprising individuals could come along and build their own institutions. But the motivations for the current wave of building has roots in one of the city's darkest periods: the three-year period of intense narco violence that began in 2008. Not only was the city contending with the effects of the global economic crisis but it also faced a surge of killings that put tourism in the deep freeze — and had many residents afraid for their lives.

"The city was contaminated," TJ in China co-founder Mely Barragán recalls of that era. "There was so much fear."

"There is nothing else like Tijuana," artist Ingrid Hernandez says. "You can't get bored here. There is identity, there is possibility, there is economy and cluture." (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

At the end of the aughts, homicides more than doubled, according to the Baja California Attorney General's Office, from 337 in 2007 to 844 in 2008. And local news broadcasts turned into a grisly drumbeat of stories about the human body parts deposited around town by the cartels (including three bodies left inside drums filled with acid, just a block from where La Caja is now located).

The number of tourists staying overnight plummeted — from 1.5 million in 2007 to less than half that by 2009. Activity in the city's lively music and art scenes ground to a halt.

Architect Jorge Gracia, who last year launched the Escuela Libre de Arquitectura, says: "It was a moment of reflection in which we said, 'This is our city. This cannot be.'"

Without any viewing public, Rodriguez took to operating La Caja as an online gallery devoted to the work of regional artists. But on numerous occasions, he considered shuttering the whole venture. "It didn't matter if you were rich or poor," he says. "If the bullets were going to get you, they were going to get you.... There were so many times I just thought of giving up."

But he didn't. Instead, after careful consideration, he decided to go bigger. "I thought, 'I need to change things,'" he said. "I thought, 'I can do something different.'"

So in 2010, when the city's homicide rate was still sky high, he decided that La Caja needed to be more than a gallery — it needed to be a space of formation. He transformed an idle warehouse in the Colonia 20 de Noviembre into a place where he could show work and offer classes, from stand-alone art-making lessons to an intensive seven-month certificate course focused on art history and appreciation that has a seal of approval from Mexico's National Institute of Fine Arts.

"Next year," he says proudly, "we will have the 11th group of certificate students come through La Caja."

If the violence was meant to discourage, it had the opposite effect.

"It was when all of this was cooking," Hernandez, says of the current art moment. "The idea of permanence, of legacy, of creating things that will last."

Tijuana has since rebounded from that wave of narco violence — homicides fell to 493 in 2014 — and the city is experiencing a period of relative peace. Though not insignificant, its homicide rate of 29.9 per 100,000 is still better than that of a number of U.S. cities. For example, it's just over half that of St. Louis.

Tourism, however, has remained low, which has given the arts plenty of space to bloom — even in the Avenida Revolución party zone. Over the last five years, the Pasaje Rodriguez and the Pasaje Gomez, once moribund arcades just off the party strip, have come to life with galleries, bookshops and boutiques. On the southern end of the strip, you can now find TJ in China. On the border, a structure that once housed Mexican customs workers is now an art center called La Casa del Túnel. And the city's buzzy Baja Med cuisine scene, spearheaded by charismatic young chefs like Javier Plascencia, has succeeded in drawing a trail of devoted foodies, both Mexican and American, to high-brow restaurants in the gastronomic zone.

Tijuana's evolution

To Pedro Ochoa, who oversees the Centro Cultural Tijuana, the city's federally funded cultural center, the growing presence of art and food and culture is an important harbinger.

"I see Tijuana as having three very important stages of development," he says. "There was the 1920s — Prohibition — which brought tourism to the city. There was the commercial aspect — from the 1930s to the 1990s — when Tijuana was transformed into a duty-free zone. And there was the third stage, the development of the maquiladoras, starting in the 1970s and '80s, which brought manufacturing to the city, so that by the '90s, Tijuana was the largest producer of televisions.

"But I also see another stage, a fourth stage. And I think it will be comprised of two elements: culture and food. That will be part of the evolution of Tijuana."

That stage will to some degree rest on spaces such as La Caja, the Escuela Libre, TJ in China and Relaciones Inesperadas, institutions that will help support and shape the next generation of thinkers.

To be certain, it also rests on cultural forces that have been at play in Tijuana for some time. The city has long nursed a lively class of writers, painters, dancers and musicians who have drawn inspiration from the Baja California reality. "People like to say Tijuana doesn't have culture," says Ochoa. "That's not true. Tijuana just doesn't have traditions, because we are a very young city."

But there is a foundation to build on. The IMSS Theater has offered live theater and dance in Tijuana since the early 1960s. In 1982, the city's cultural center opened with a mix of performances, films, exhibitions and lectures. And in the early 2000s, Tijuana saw the establishment of its first fine art schools: the independent Escuela Superior de Artes Visuales (Superior School of Visual Arts) and the art department at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California (Autonomous University of Baja California).

Concurrent to all of this development was the wave of music that emerged from Tijuana in the early 2000s, spearheaded by the Nortec Collective, a group of DJs who seamlessly fused electronica with the oompah beats of northern Mexican regional music. That movement, which was widely covered by outlets from Rolling Stone to MTV to Time magazine, was key in cementing the idea to the world that Tijuana didn't just passively receive culture, it made it too. Since then, countless other artists have been inspired by their city's unique place in the world — embracing their status as raffish border town and reveling in the hybrid, D.I.Y. culture that draws as much from Mexico as it does from the United States.

"There can be a lack of resources," Hernandez says of Tijuana. "But there is also a lot of opportunity. Everything we do, it's like we're doing it for the first time. It's exciting. It's like you are building your own history.

"Plus it's the border. And not just the border, but THE border. There is 2,000 miles of border between the U.S. and Mexico, but there is nothing else like Tijuana. You can't get bored here. There is identity, there is possibility, there is economy and culture. There are also destructive tendencies, so then you build again. It always regenerates."

Looking back, Rodriguez is glad he stuck it out during Tijuana's bleak moments.

It's the day before the anniversary party and his phone is ringing off the hook with an infinite list of queries from curators and staff. On the second floor, there is frenzied installation of industrial assemblages by Jaime Ruiz Otis and a series of works on paper by Franco Méndez Calvillo. In the street, a sweeper is cleaning up for a special performance that will feature modern dancers in Tyvek suits and a ballerina in a tutu made of bubble wrap. (In Tijuana, the land of maquiladoras, industrial materials are always at hand.)

"No one will ever get rich off of this," Rodriguez says amid the chaos. "But it's important.... I don't just want to be entertainment. I want to educate. I want to shape another generation."

Series: Tijuana's Generation Art