Emergence of a Hybrid Culture

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Posted by ArtNews on May 03, 1997 at 16:48:08:

Emergence of a Hybrid Culture

Influenced by two nations, the privileged bohemians of Baja California
have created their own youth movement. From it have arisen new arts,
literature and viewpoints.

TIJUANA--Eliot Garcia, 23, says he learned English from "Batman"
reruns. Now he sings Spanglish rock anthems about police brutality,
drug-related violence and the O.J. media circus. His Tijuana band,
Nessie, has already cracked Los Angeles' Whisky nightclub and MTV

Jose Hugo Sanchez is a performero--performance artist. His
ranting monologues, as littered with U.S. pop images as Tijuana is
with Coca-Cola and Guess jeans ads, describe how poor U.S.-bound
peasants trade family and roots for a traumatic journey into American
consumer society.

Claudia Sandoval, 21, edits the Dream of Venus, one of dozens of
underground 'zines, small low-budget publications that fuse
kaleidoscopic graphics, modernist poetry and provocative essays on
everything from the drug culture movie "Trainspotting" to border
identity issues.

Their generation of rockers, poets, artists and writers are the
youthful heralds of Tijuana's collision with the future, the
privileged and articulate bohemians of Baja California fronterizos, or

They are the vanguard of what Mexico City-based sociologist
Nestor Garcia Canclini has dubbed one of the world's "hybrid

Members of an unusually well-educated, middle-class society,
these fronterizos have grown up in the cauterizing glare of U.S.
popular culture. They have come of age far from the gravitational pull
of the institutions and traditions of central Mexico, in a region
steeped in the free-wheeling history of the individualistic norteno
border culture.

As permanent spectators to the great hemispheric exodus from the
impoverished south to the prosperous north, they draw from a ceaseless
caravan of human dreams and tragedy. Captive audience to the bloody
machinations of Tijuana's famed drug godfathers, their vision--like
the city itself--has a gritty film noir aesthetic, flavored by dark

"This is where U.S. and Mexican culture collide," says Roberto
Mendoza, 27, the leader of a techno-electronico-industrial group,
Artefakto. "You take a right and you're in the First World. Take a
left and you're in the Third World."

That description might apply equally to Mendoza, with his black
leather coat, heavy industrial boots, long black bob and the aquiline
features of a pre-Colombian heritage. He likes to say he learned
English as a child from "The Price is Right," during an era when
Tijuana could tune in to 10 American TV stations but only one Mexican

Academics say the Tijuana counterculture scene gets its ironic
urban edge from its unique position as the only border city anchored
to one of America's most culturally potent urban corridors.

Perhaps that is why the look of Tijuana's neighborhoods and strip
malls owes more to suburban Los Angeles than Mexico City. And why punk
rock and heavy metal coexists with the Baja rodeo season, drug
pistoleros and border balladeers.

Says Alfredo Alvarez Cardenas, director of the city's cultural
center: "Tijuana is definitely postmodern."

"That area is electrified with creativity," says Maria Sobek, a
Chicano studies professor at UC Santa Barbara and an expert on border
culture. "Because of the contact between the two cultures, there's
this tremendous production of new modes of behavior, new ways of
speaking, new ways of seeing. It's becoming a great center of
production of literature and arts."

While the size of youth movements is hard to quantify, Alfredo
Alvarez Cardenas says the Tijuana scene is big enough to support a
thriving music milieu and put the city on the map of global youth

Local alternative bands play to thousands at concerts and
festivals. There is a broad enough consumer base to draw European
artists like Miguel Bose, an ethereal progressive rock artist from
Spain. Mexico City bands like Maldita Vecindad have packed 12,000 fans
into Tijuana's downtown bullring. And Tijuana bands such as Nessie,
Tijuana No and Mexican Jumping Frijoles are among the city's most
important cultural exports to Mexico City, Los Angeles and border
cities like Monterrey, experts say.

Young adults from as far north as Los Angeles drive to Tijuana
for rock concerts publicized on Spanish-language radio, according to
Enrique Ojeda, the art director of MORE-FM (98.9), a rock-en-espanol
station heard from Ensenada to Oceanside. San Diego poets read at
Tijuana cultural centers such as El Lugar del Nopal.

"The Tijuana rock scene is extremely important," said Emilio
Morales, the Los Angeles-based publisher of a rock-en-espanol bible,
La Banda Elastica, or The Rubber Band. "Since the '60s, some of
Mexico's most important rock bands have come from Tijuana. It is the
influence of the border. [Growing up listening to] American radio
gives them a fresher ear."

Where Cultures Meet and Merge

Tijuana student Cynthia Ramirez, 26, says the local vanguardia is
an expression of the surreal experience of straddling two cultures.
Its totems are a New World collage in which American artist Andy
Warhol and writer William Burroughs rub shoulders with Mexican painter
Frida Kahlo and the Zapatista rebels. Ramirez's 'zine, la pecera,
calls her generation "mutants."

"Fronterizos don't belong to Mexican culture, but to border
culture," says Ramirez, co-author of a senior thesis on the Tijuana
rock scene for the communications department of the Tijuana campus of
the Universidad Iberoamericana Noroeste. She also edits one of the
'zines, which in Tijuana are called fanzines. They are anything but
the fawning celebrity press their name might imply.

Fanzine writers sift through Mexican icons with irreverence,
nurtured by a childhood in which traditional Day of the Dead
festivities competed with trick or treats and Casper the Ghost. Their
cult of kitsch mocks the idiosyncrasies of both cultures, from former
O.J. Simpson house guest Brian "Kato" Kaelin to the Mexican penchant
for putting the Virgen of Guadalupe on everything from key chains to
refrigerator magnets.

"Nothing is sacred," says Daniel Rivera, a popular deejay known
by his one-word pseudonym, Tolo. "Every day, new people come to
Tijuana with new traditions, languages and religion. All the icons
arrive. If you don't like one, you discard it for another.

"There is no nationalist pressure," Rivera says. "You don't know
where your Mexican authenticity ends and your gringo influence

That pluralism--demographic, cultural, religious and, to the
chagrin of some, moral--is at the heart of the Tijuana youth scene and
the history of the city itself, some say. While some conservative
elders may disapprove of the scene, others view it as a passing phase.
Some of the fronterizos' parents and grandparents were themselves club
owners or musicians during Tijuana's long era as a party town for Navy
men or Prohibition refugees.

"The simple fact of having been born in Tijuana confers upon you
a very important distinction: diversity of viewpoints," says Javier
Hernandez, 24, the editor of a popular fanzine, Aleph.

Disdain for American commercialism is a staple fanzine theme. A
recent essay in Aleph rejects the idea that border bohemians are
wannabes of America's Generation X or the so-called MTV generation.

"One must ask how much of this supposedly uniform generation is a
myth, and how much of it is a publicity stunt to sell more Coca-Cola,
and movies like 'Reality Bites,' " the Aleph essay says. "Those who
could assume the MTV lifestyle in this country are a minority, a
minority who parrot cliches."

The border bohemians celebrate so-called trash cultura, a
declaration of independence from the tyranny of conspicuous
consumption and hypocritical moralism. "Enough already of car ads and
mineral water. We don't want to smell good! We don't want to lose
weight!" says Alex de la Iglesia in la pecera.

But if they criticize aspects of American culture, their embrace
of American trends and styles is unapologetic. With their black
leather, proletarian chic boots, grunge wear and polyester, many of
los hard-core of Tijuana would blend in well with the youth of
Seattle, Austin, Texas, or Athens, Ga.

Tijuana rocker Cesar Hernandez, 21, says the U.S. influence is
partly the legacy of decades of American partiers who have flocked to
the city since Prohibition. Hernandez himself is the grandson of a
musician who played the famed Agua Caliente Casino in its heyday, when
luminaries such as Clark Gable, the Marx Brothers, Bing Crosby and Al
Capone put in appearances. His peers, he says, are simply victims--or
beneficiaries--of cultural geography.

"We are a border people, and these are our roots," he said.
Martin Hernandez is the son and grandson of nightclub owners. A
member of the rock band Mercado Negro, or Black Market, he says he
grew up influenced by U.S. punk rock, surfer and skater culture, along
with Tijuana nightclub culture and the Latin jazz explosion. "It's a
collage," Hernandez says.

So is the hybrid language, Spanglish, a linguistic pingpong
employed even by those perfectly capable of using both languages
properly. The fronterizos' Spanglish is not a language of ineptitude,
but a slang of youth identity which, in their case, is bicultural.

Some Spanglish terms are universal, like the self-explanatory
taco shop, instead of taqueria. New uses constantly radiate out of
youth subculture. Small-time drug thugs are los low-lifes. Penniless
Mexican immigrants are los Outsiders. Un Hollywood is a grandstander;
un rockstar a conceited person. And there are Spanglish band names,
like the Mexican Jumping Frijoles.

Yet many Tijuana bohemians deny the suggestion that they are
agringados--co-opted by gringo culture. "People keep talking about the
search for identity, but I think Tijuana already has an identity that
is neither Mexican or American--or even Mexican American--but
something else entirely," said RDD, a rock fanzine.

Giving Rise to New Views

That "something else" filters into the artistic compassion for
the stream of desperately poor, northward-bound immigrants. Mercado
Negro recorded an entire album about it, "Cruzando la Frontera," or
"Crossing the Border."

Artist Jose Hugo Sanchez writes of immigrants who jettison
impoverished Mexican lives to become "technopagans" in a bewildering
and xenophobic America:

"You will leave your father, you will leave your mother, you will
leave your pregnant wife/ You will cross the border on your knees . .
. To the north of the future. Braving death at the border . . . Ads,
slogans, McDonald's, cars and more cars . . . Citizen of the
millennium: Listen to me! Where is your woman, your soul? In what
language will you dream? In what language will you die? Goodbye,
goodbye . . . he who left and never returned/ Mother one day I will
return with my pockets full of virtual dollars . . ."

There is also the sense of belonging to a region that is set
apart from central Mexico by geographical remoteness and a unique
modern history of political independence.

Baja California broke with six decades of ruling party domination
when it elected Mexico's first opposition party governor, of the
National Action Party, in 1989. The party vowed to clean up
institutionalized corruption. But drug corruption is more evident in
Tijuana today than ever.

"They have a tremendous sense of existential disenchantment,"
says Jose Manuel Valenzuela, an expert on Tijuana youth movements at
the Baja Colegio de la Frontera Norte. "It is not nihilism, but
profound disappointment with authority figures, with discredited
leaders who ought to be their moral compass."

Whatever their frustrations, the Tijuana bohemians are also
relatively privileged, enjoying a general level of economic
opportunity and education denied to most Mexicans.

Baja California's high school education rate is the highest in
the country; university education second only to Mexico City. Between
Tijuana and Ensenada are 20 university campuses, think tanks,
professional schools or research centers. There are 21 public library
branches in Tijuana, art and dance schools, and a cavernous cultural
center with galleries, cultural organizations and computers. No wonder
so many Tijuana rock bands and fanzines have their own World Wide Web
pages, and their partisans are so e-mail adept.

While shantytowns of impoverished newcomers ring the city of 1.2
million, Tijuana boasts a storied unemployment rate--1%--that is the
envy of a nation. It is the only Mexican border city with more
middle-income residents than low-wage earners, according to studies.
Its residents benefit from the foreign manufacturing industry and a
web of businesses and services fueled by its strategic position as
close neighbor to a major California city and host of the world's
busiest land border crossing.

Working women are common in Tijuana and face fewer prejudices
than elsewhere in Mexico. There are 24-hour grocery stores,
nightclubs, pharmacies. Cash registers ring up dollars and pesos.

So in many ways, young adults like MTV veteran Eliot Garcia, who
chose a futuristic present over a tradition-bound one, are typical
children of the Tijuana middle class.

He knows his native city has a mixed reputation, as the scene of
the assassination of the presidential heir apparent in 1994, as the
home of the Tijuana drug cartel. But also as a brash exciting mecca
for the ambitious, hard-working and forward-minded.

"It's seen as a city of progress, that is becoming one of
Mexico's most important cities, if it's not already. People come here
from all over," Garcia says.

"We are still creating Tijuana."

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