Category Archives: Musings

Tijuana holds spay and neuter clinic for city’s dogs and cats

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Last month, I went to a quinceanera (15th Birthday party celebration)  in Tijuana that included a clown on stilts who walked through the dance floor and did circus tricks. It was very Cirque du Soleil. Lucky, a Tijuana dog I take for occasional walks, perroton3didn’t have that kind of celebration for her own coming-of-age moment (see photo on right), but she was one of hundreds who participated in the city’s first-ever “Perroton” spay & neuter clinic that took place a few weekends ago.

There were no clowns, but outside the facility the atmosphere was very circus-like with  a pet costume party, music and outdoor movies. 

The “Perroton” (basically a play on the word ‘perro,’ which means dog, and  ‘marathon’) was a 24-hour all-nighter that took place at Tijuana’s Universidad Autonoma de Baja California with a team of veterinarians and volunteers dedicated to reducing the number of street dogs and cats in the Tijuana area. It is also an example of the cross-border collaboration that one sees along Baja communities like Tijuana and San Felipe  – check out  what’s going on with animal activists in Felipe- where U.S. expatriates have become active in working with local activists in addressing the problem of large numbers of street animals by holding adoption services and reducing the population through spay & neuter clinics.

More than 300 animals were spayed and neutered during the first-ever Tijuana “Perroton” event that was sponsored by a number of civic organizations, such as the Tijuana Humane Society, which regularly holds smaller-scale clinics for free or reduced prices, and the Preventive Animal Brigade. People came to have their cats and dogs spayed or neutered for under $30. The money is being collected to build a new animal shelter so that dogs like Lucky (who was rescued as a puppy from the streets of Tecate) can prosper and find new homes.  

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American football in Tijuana

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When I heard that American football was being played in Tijuana, I had to double-check my semantics. Soccer, the more popular ball sport here, is commonly called “Football” or “Futbol.” But, no, I was told that actual American football  – not the soccer variety – was becoming increasingly popular among the city’s younger generation.

Last month, I got a chance to see this for myself when I went to an American football game in Tijuana against two junior high teams representing Tijuana (the Jaguares) and Mexicali for the state championship. The moms of the Tijuana kids had made up their own cheerleading chants in English and Spanish (see video below). A drum-pounding dad provided back-up to the cheers as the Tijuana kids took home the trophy.

My initial theory of how American football ended up in Tijuana was that a fair number of Tijuanans cross the border regularly go to San Diego Chargers games. But it  turns out, according to this ESPN story, that American-style football was started in the state of Veracruz where some Mexican students who had been studying in the United States organized an impromptu match in 1896. The article explains  how football has taken root in Mexico slowly but surely over the  year, even becoming established in certain Mexican universities.

This year,  in another development, the Mexican junior  division(American Football)  national team won a spot to compete in the  2009 International Federation of American Football (IFAF) Junior World Championship.


A weekend marathon eating adventure in Tijuana and Ensenada

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This past weekend I joined a group of food bloggers, writers and chefs from Los Angeles in what turned out to be a non-stop eating and drinking tour of Tijuana and Ensenada that was organized by cross-border food blogger Bill Esparza and other Tijuana associations (full credit in message from Kenn below).

Funded mostly by Tijuana tourism folks, my stomach had never experienced anything like this: Morsels of ostrich meat wrapped in organic green stuff at La Villa del Valle Bed & Breakfast in the Guadalupe Valley; Spicy baby octopus at Tijuana’s high-end Villa Saverios restaurant; and sea urchins served on tostadas with a zippy peanut sauce at an Ensenada taco stand called La Guerrerense. 

While I had already been to most of the Tijuana places on the itinerary – La Querencia, La Diferencia, Villa Saverios, L’Apricot, Cien An~os, Lorca, Tacos Los Salceados and Cheripan – I wasn’t familiar with all their offerings. A Saturday morning breakfast stop at the Barbacoa de la Ermita Tijuana, which is run out of a family home, was a surprising treat.

The Ensenada portion of the trip introduced me to the wide range of seafood offerings beyond the traditional fish taco. And Saverios chef/owner Javier Plascencia  – who I once interviewed for a story about Tijuana restaurants expanding north of the border – joined us in the wine country of Guadalupe Valley to cook us a picnic of swordfish and beef cheek tacos accompanied by unique sauces.

Ostensibly, the tour was to introduce these L.A.-based food experts to the wide variety of food options just south of the border, but it also was about relationship building and creating word-of-mouth buzz about the region’s more positive offerings. Several of the Los Angeles chefs expressed interest in participating in cross-border culinary reunions that Plascencia said he is involved in organizing.

Watching the food bloggers and freelancers snap photos of their food and scribble notes, I couldn’t help but feel a little envious of them. In my previous work as a reporter in Tijuana, I got to know the city’s darker side intimately, equating certain places and street corners with horrible crimes committed by the region’s drug groups. It’s a parallel universe, but one that is typically separate from the lives of ordinary tourists – and it certainly hasn’t stopped me from visiting the region regularly. Intently focused on the food, the visitors from L.A. couldn’t have cared less about such details.

And after a while, as my stomach became full with even more tasty morsels of foods, I started to understand why.

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(Chef Javier Plascencia, who has a number of restaurants in Tijuana and Chula Vista, serves up some special tacos during a picnic outside a winery in the Guadalupe Valley).

Here are several posts from the 20+ food bloggers and writers who went on the trip:

Javier Cabral writes about his Baja experience  at teenageglutster.blogspot.com

Patty Berlin elaborates at eatingla.blogspot.com

Matt Kang provides his perspectives at his  blog, Mattatouille, http://www.mattatouille.com

Organizer Bill Esparza recaps the event at his blog, Street Gourmet LA @ streetgourmetla.blogspot.com

***I will post additional perspectives of the trip in future blog entries***

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Mexican political campaigns full of fuzzy mascots and dancing

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As Mexicans prepare for elections next weekend, it’s not unusual for campaign teams to crank out the circus-like entertainment to get people to rally behind their candidates. I’m not sure if the green creature is supposed to be a dinosaur, a lizard or an alligator. I think the point is that he is green and that’s one of the main colors of the Institutional Revolutionary Party. He was campaigning for candidate Liliana Sevilla, who is apparently running for a seat in  the national chamber of deputies. As the fuzzy mascot handed out flyers, a couple members of the campaign team danced on top of a car to the beat of salsa music and Rock-en-Espanol.

How drug traffickers stay fit in Mexico

Picture 10The fact that another suspected Arellano Felix drug cartel member had been arrested in Tijuana wasn’t as interesting to me as where he was found. Mexican media reported that Filiberto Parra Ramos was detained June 10 either inside or just outside the Total Fitness Gym, in the city’s  Zona Rio business district.

That’s the same gym I used to go to when I lived in Tijuana, and to be honest I’m a little surprised he wasn’t going to the swankier Sports World Tijuana gym (the Arellanos’ recreation budget must have been cut). I remember visiting both gyms and deciding not to got to Sports World because the monthly membership was closer to $300 (someone correct me here, if needed…) and because it seemed to be the kind of place where people looked great but didn’t seem to be capable of sweating.

At Total Fitness the equipment area was a little more cramped but there was a lot of sweating going on. Both places had some similar details, such as rock scaling areas and lap pools. At Total Fitness, I had a membership for about $100 a month and a personal trainer who was preparing for a body building competition. At times he seemed more interested in his own physique, but he dutifully kept me from cutting corners with the weights and sneaking off the bikes too early.

Both mega-gyms opened sometime after the year 2000, providing an alternative for wealthier Tijuanenses whose exercise options had previously involved jogging at public park facilities or crossing the border to work out in Chula Vista. For me, the main impetus to work out was to stay fit in my jeans. The stakes are probably much higher for someone like Parra, who was reportedly part of the Arellanos’ killer squad. 

Screenshot from Total Fitness website. They have some gym promo going for $35.

A very big hot dog in Tijuana

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Tijuana has more than its share of charming oddities, but this one was definitely a head-turner. While driving near the Otay Mesa port of entry, I saw this giant hot dog literally roll to a stop on a side street.

I have seen giant condoms, a giant Jesus, and giant beer bottles in Mexico – but not a hot dog. So I  immediately went back to look at it more closely.  As you can see, the truck has been decorated to emulate the physique of a hot dog topped with chile peppers, avocados and tomatoes. Mustard and catsup artfully drip from its sides.  I chatted briefly with the owner, a guy who gave me his name as Jose, who said that he moved to Tijuana from Arizona a few months ago. He has big dreams of creating a whole fleet of these super-sized hot dog trucks, but right now he’s just starting out with this one that offers hot dogs prepared with options for his cross-border clientelle: New York style, Chicago style and Sonora (Mexico) style. It was too early for me to eat a hot dog that day but I plan on returning to check it out some other time.

This reminded me of a post I recently read by the blogger at Masa Assasin, who wrote about the way that Mexican hot dogs have taken U.S. hot dogs to spicier and colorful new heights, i.e. the bacon-wrapped hot dog that appears to form the basis of the Sonoran style hot dog. You can read  more about that at this Masa Assassin link.

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Mexico’s drug trafficking violence gets U.S. attention

Almost overnight, Mexico has jumped  to the top of the U.S. diplomatic agenda – at least momentarily overshadowing Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is visiting Mexico this week, paving the way for a scheduled visit next month by President Obama. 

It appears that part of the attention comes from a heightened awareness of the cross-border threat of drug-related violence.  The rhetoric got especially charged in recent months as Spring Breakers were warned to avoid Mexico (The ATF, in an odd move for an agency whose role seems mismatched for such statements, warned students to avoid Mexico – and then later softened their stance).  The U.S. Joint Forces Command, meanwhile, identified Mexico as one of the two most critical states in danger of failing due to the havoc created by the region’s drug cartels. 

To be sure, the violence appears to have taken a particularly savage turn over the past few years. Missing in some of these assessments, however,  is that the backlash comes from the Mexican government’s own success in attacking the country’s drug cartels over the past eight years. Dismantling long-standing drug trafficking organizations, unfortunately, creates instability . Drug trafficking was a major problem during the 1990s but it may not have attracted this much attention because the drug groups operated with comparatively minimal meddling from the government. This created a false sense of order.

With so much attention on the violence in Mexico lately (I can’t seem to turn on the radio or read a news media source without hearing about it), Mexican authorities have lashed back. In recent weeks, they have pointed out that  the U.S. demand for drugs is fueling the drug trade. They have accused  the U.S. of not doing enough to curb the flow of firearms south of the border into the hands of drug traffickers. Mexican president Felipe Calderon also suggested that the U.S. do a better job of attacking drug corruption in its own agencies.

Things have gotten testy, and the visits by U.S. diplomats are clearly meant to soothe the bickering and focus on the cross-border collaboration efforts. Whether this actually translates to a reduction in the violence is unclear, especially when we consider the unabated demand for drugs in the United States. Instead, stability may be more dependent on the ability of Mexican drug groups to re-negotiate their roles in a way that gives us all the illusion that the underlying problem has been fixed. 

Read a story here in The New York Times, about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitting that the U.S. shares a responsibility in Mexico’s problems. Here’s another one by The Washington Post.

Here is an essay by Mexican scholar Enrique Krauze who argues that Mexico is not a “failed state” at risk of “imminent collapse.” 

Here is a story in The San Diego Union-Tribune about how Mexican drug trafficking groups get their guns from the U.S.

Blog essay by Anna Cearley, former border reporter

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Wishing I could dance the quebradita

 

The quebradita is a dance style that is a combination of county western steps, merengue, and cheerleading stunts. Some see influence of the Lindy Hop, as well. At first I thought it originated in Mexico, but now I’m not so sure. According to this book by Sydney Hutchinson* , the dance evolved  in the Mexican-American community and it is seen as a backlash to the anti-immigrant rhetoric that was taking hold in California in the early to mid 1990s. The dance has developed a strong following south of the border, as well. The first time I saw the quebradita was a few years ago when I was watching one of those Mexican television dance contest shows. I’ve tried it myself, but not with much success. The last time I checked, the Las Pulgas nightclub on  Tijuana’s tourist strip of Avenida Revolucion was one of the places south of the border to go see regular local people doing these moves.

*Sydney Hutchinson book is “From Quebratida to Duranguense: Dance in Mexican American Youth Culture

Here’s another YouTube video of how you might see the quebradita danced in tighter quarters with more subdued moves.

YouTube video of quebradita dancers originally posted by rbdpancho1

Narco tourism possibilities in Tijuana: Tijuana drug tunnel tours?

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There is a certain stigma attached to border cities where members of major drug trafficking groups regularly intimidate police, kill each other, and occasionally leave trails of dumped body parts.

In light of travel advisories like this one, cities like Tijuana have tried unsuccessfully over the past year to convince tourists that they aren’t likely to be the target of a narco shooting.  In Mazatlan, meanwhile, some taxi drivers are finding a niche in taking tourists to (the outside of) places believed to be owned by drug traffickers and to the crime scenes of famous drug battles, according to  this story by Marc Lacey of The New York Times.

While official tourism officials here might wince at the idea, other countries are employing narco tourism: In Colombia, you can visit a ranch used by now-deceased drug trafficker Pablo Escobar. It has been converted into a theme park.

Capitalizing on the narco phenomenom can be controversial, but a fair number of tourists would probably enjoy visiting the sites of one of Tijuana’s infamous drug tunnels (or others in Tecate and Mexicali). The art museum known as Casa del Tunel – the origin of one the city’s famous cross-border tunnels –  provides only passing recognition of its past incarnation.

Tijuana Tunnel Tours could be a mobile event, or it could become an actual museum. There is a warehouse east of the Tijuana airport that was the origin of a massive and incomplete tunnel said to have been built for Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman in the 1990s. This tunnel museum could include photos of other tunnels, explanations of how tunnels are found, and shovels and religious icons found at tunnel sites. Guzman, who remains at large, might be appeased with a VIP pass.

Photo of warehouse that was the entrance of a massive tunnel discovered in 1993, said to have been built by suspected trafficker Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman. The last time I visited the building, it was being used by Mexican federal authorities to hold confiscated cars.

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Soldier at the Mexican border: “May I please inspect your car?”

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There’s something both intimidating and reassuring about being greeted at the Tijuana border by a masked soldier with a very large rifle. They started showing up here en masse last year in response to a notable uptick of drug-related violence. Now the camouflaged greeters seem to have become the city’s unofficial mascot to city visitors, along the lines of the bomb-sniffing dogs I once encountered at a Bogota, Colombia mall.

Once you get behind their ski masks, though, the ones I’ve met appear to be quite polite. I had the opportunity to watch them up close during two recent visits to Tijuana when my car was pulled over for an inspection at the border. In the most recent case, a lanky soldier leaned down to my eye level and asked me for permission to inspect the car. Then he then asked politely if I would please exit the car while he searched behind the car seats, along the door interiors and in the trunk.

Finally, finding nothing of note, he thanked me.

The San Diego Union-Tribune has a story by Sandra Dibble about the military’s increased presence in the border region. 

Not everyone is pleased with the soldiers. The New York Times writes about how some Mexicans – some of whom may have questionable motives – have been protesting the military’s presence in certain drug trafficking hot spots. Read the story by Marc Lacey here.

Photo of soldiers at Tecate port of entry during an investigation in 2007.