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Driving Through an Empty Tijuana in the Midst of the Swine Flu

A shotgun seat-rider's account of what Mexico actually looks like through local eyes from the other side of the border.

"Since everyone is dumping on Mexico these days, you might as well help me do the real thing."

My friend Marcos Ramirez (aka "ERRE") isn't kidding. He's building a new house in Colonia Libertad, Tijuana's oldest and most surrealistically colorful neighborhood, and needs to dispose of some construction debris. I ride shotgun in his pickup while his younger brother Omar, a poet-artist with eyes like Che Guevara's, sprawls in the backseat.

For once in a lifetime, afternoon traffic in Tijuana is unsnarled and ERRE spurs his Chevy Silverado through the Zona Rio roundabouts, past the giant statue of Father Kino and the utopian sphere of the Cultural Center, until we reach the Avenida Internacional, the long straightaway next to the corrugated steel futility of the border wall.

As the road climbs the mesa, there is a jarring view of landscape disfigured by National Guard bulldozers and the endless churning of terrain by Border Patrol jeeps. But today even the brutalism of Operation Gatekeeper is ameliorated by blue skies and a tickle of a sea breeze. ERRE catches the mood and puts on a Beach Boys CD.

I have a sudden inkling of what he must have been like when he was a 15-year-old outlaw skateboarder from Colonia Libertad, careening suicidally down its rutted slopes. Later, he briefly practiced law, but quickly turned away from its corruption to work for 17 years as a skilled carpenter and homebuilder in the United States.

In 1997, he confounded the Border Patrol by erecting a huge Trojan Horse (two heads, facing in opposite directions) at the San Ysidro frontier. It exactly straddled the international line. Tijuaneses loved it.

Since then he has created similar provocations from Reading, Pennsylvania, to Yunnan, China, attaining the kind artistic renown that usually guarantees studio space in Soho or Coyoacan. But he stubbornly prefers being, as he puts it, a "Libertarian."

The Silverado lurches into a dirt side street somewhere on the proletarian backside of Chapultepec Heights. ERRE pulls up along a fence, honks his horn, and the debris is quickly unloaded by elves in rags. He hands one of them 100 pesos, or $7. (The minimum wage in the sweatshop maquiladoras is only 55 pesos per day.)

The old city dump is closed, the new one too far away, so like most Tijuaneses, ERRE uses the services of the informal economy. Moreover, in the midst of an unprecedented NAFTA recession, a horror-ridden narco-war, and now a much-hyped pandemic, any act that circulates a few pesos amongst " el pueblo " seems conscientious.

We fishtail out of the dirt alley and return to a paved avenue of restaurants, beauty salons, and car-alarm dealers. Schools and public buildings are closed, morning masses have been suspended, and sports events have been cancelled, but stores and street markets remain open and desperate for business. Customers are sparse, though. Half the population seems to have disappeared. Few people, apart from municipal employees and office cleaners, wear surgical masks, but no one seems to begrudge those that do.

"Looks like the Invasion of the Body Snatchers," I say.

"You should have seen Mexico City," ERRE replies. "I was down there for the Zona Maco Art Fair when the flu pandemonium started. At first it was just a big joke. Everyone was decorating their face masks with Salvador Dali mustaches or big teeth like Bugs Bunny. On mine, I wrote ' Ay cabrón, qué gripón traigo! ' ['Oh shit, what a terrible flu I've got!']

"Then the famous archeologist Felipe Solis suddenly died. He was the director of the National Anthropology Museum and the previous week had given Obama a tour of Aztec treasures. There were rumors that he had swine flu. [This was subsequently denied by medical authorities.] That chilled the whole scene. People didn't know what to expect. It was like the Camus novel [ The Plague ]. Best friends were afraid to give each other an abrazo or a kiss on the cheek.

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