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Tijuana seeks to shake sin city image
Updated: 2004-06-10 10:00

With its rowdy tequila bars, massage parlors and betting shops, the Mexican frontier city of Tijuana has long had a reputation as sin city for weekend revelers from the United States.

Its tarnished civic stock sank even further in recent years when it lent its name to one of the most ruthless drug smuggling rings in history -- the Tijuana Cartel -- and became a bridgehead for illegal migrants to the United States.

But in a bid to shake off its negative image, the booming industrial city of 1.2 million people is attempting a bold make-over to replace its reputation for vice and criminality with a highbrow renown for the arts and culture.

Steered by a specially convened Image Committee, authorities in the city have developed an ambitious program of public art to transform its parks and underpasses, and are celebrating the city's locally born good-guy heroes in a prominent hall of fame.

The city's cultural center, meanwhile, has developed an innovative arts program including opera, theater and film festivals, as well as regular painting and photography exhibitions that celebrate a contemporary border culture.

"We want to give people symbols of beauty that they will love and get attached to, because we want them to love Tijuana and take pride in it," Image Committee director Jose Galicot said in his art-crammed office.

"Right now we have more cultural activities than the Americans across the border in San Diego. We believe that Tijuana will become another Venice and another Florence," he grandly predicted.


Locals say silent film star Charlie Chaplin started the city on its downward path when he coasted over the border for illicit shots of liquor during Prohibition in the 1920s. He was followed by gangster Bugsy Siegel, who cut a racetrack deal that set the city's enduring illicit tone.

But after an economic crisis prompted by the collapse of the peso in the mid-1990s wiped out the value of family savings overnight and plunged the city into a period of deep gloom, Tijuana residents took the first steps toward improving the city's beleaguered image.

Galicot and a painter friend took a brush to a low concrete balustrade just south of Tijuana's 24-lane border crossing into the United States and painted Mexican flags in a bid to cheer up passing motorists. It worked.

Collaborating with local artists, the businessman, writer and amateur painter went on to paint murals of upbeat subjects including schools of whales, battling dinosaurs and desert flora across 70 of the city's plain concrete bridges and underpasses.

"There is no other city in the world that has more murals in its streets," Galicot says of the eye-catching friezes daubed across the industrial city, each bearing the heartfelt dedication: "With love to Tijuana."

Because of this creativity, Galicot was appointed by the mayor in 2002 to head up a newly convened Image Committee. He went on to set up a hall of fame in the arrival area of Tijuana's international airport, to present newcomers to the city with a gallery of locally born notables and their achievements.

"When people think of Tijuana, they think of the notorious Tijuana cartel. But the Arellano Felix brothers (who led the drug-smuggling band) weren't even from the city," Galicot said.

"We created the hall of fame to champion the careers of local heroes" such as boxing's world super-featherweight champion Erik 'Terrible' Morales and Major League baseball star Esteban Loaiza, he added.


Characterized as a sepia-tinted drug den in director Steven Soderberg's Oscar-winning movie "Traffic," and as a town of "tequila, sexo y marijuana" in French singer Manu Chao's hit Welcome to Tijuana, the city has a lot to live down.

While satisfying U.S. citizen's sinful appetites is still a big business in the tawdry Avenida de La Revolucion strip of bars and lap dancing clubs, city authorities say they have closed down all but three of Tijuana's 120 massage parlors since 2001.

In a bid to further challenge the downbeat perceptions, the Tijuana Cultural Center is offering a broad program of classical dance, opera and theater in its series of specially built performance spaces.

"(Part) of our mission is working for the city's image. Through the Center we can show the rest of the world what is happening in Tijuana," Center director, Teresa Vicencio said.

"There is an explosion of interest in culture here ... And I want people to say 'I'm going to Tijuana because of the dance festival'... and not because of the Avenida de La Revolucion," she adds.

Known as "la bola," or the ball, for its domed concrete cinema space, the Culture Center has become a landmark for residents of the border city, and a focus for culture across northwest Mexico.

The Center regularly holds exhibitions by local painters, photographers and video artists celebrating the city's vibrant border culture, and is beginning to spark interest from outside the area, Vicencio says.

Tijuana was named as one of the world's eight "most creative centers of culture and vitality" by Newsweek magazine in September 2002 -- alongside cities such as Austin, Texas, and Gateshead, in Britain.

"The eyes of the country are turning to Tijuana," she says with a smile. "They are starting to get news about what is going on here, and learn about the artists that we have."

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