Sometimes when you start an assignment, you have no idea where it will lead. One minute you’re watching soccer on television in your comfortable suburban home, the next you’re walking across a highly politicized border to catch a game from the ground level.
For my birthday this year, my wife decided we would go to Tijuana for a match. After a five hour flight from Baltimore and a day in San Diego, we took the Blue Line down to San Ysidro and walked across the border. Upon entering the building, we talked to the Instituto Nacional de Migración border agent about our visit.
"Why are you here?" she asked in a tone that was equal parts bored and puzzled. "Going to the soccer game" my wife said. "Why are you here?" the agent asked, this time the boredom replaced with genuine curiosity. "Soccer" my wife repeated, shooting me a look. "Fútbol" I added pointing at my shirt, with the Club Tijuana logo emblazoned on the top. She looked at me even more puzzled than before, but shrugged and asked how long we were staying. "Three days" we said. She wished us well and stamped our passports and waved us through. After running our bags through an x-ray scanner, we exited the building a mere 15 minutes or so after we entered.
Aqui empieza la patria
If your image of Tijuana is donkey shows and narco wars, then you would be surprised to learn that while there are pockets of crime, poverty, and debauchery these are not representative of the city any more than Washington Park is of Chicago or Bourbon Street is of New Orleans. Tijuana has middle class neighborhoods and developments that wouldn’t look out of place in New York or Toronto, and many parts that are virtually indistiguishable from places just across the border in San Ysidro or San Diego. Paseo Chapultepec is one such place, and the restaurant Cabanna came highly recommended and did not disappoint. The chic decor and new takes on classic dishes was a bit of a metaphor for a city that is constantly reinventing itself. The Burrito Mar y Tierra was delicious, as was the Rib Eye Cabannero with a mole sauce.
The next day was game day. One of the first things I noticed was seeing people in Xolos jerseys out and about, both where we stayed and when we went from our hotel down to the beach at the border. Our cabbie tried talking us into going to Rosarito instead. "It’s about 30 minutes, but much nicer." We thanked him and said perhaps another time, and he proceeded on to the Parque de la Amistad.
Driving along the border, you get a sense of truly how fruitless it is to try and wall a country off. People aren't stupid. 10 foot walls mean a rush on 12 foot ladders. Barbed wire on the top is defeated with snips or a carpet. And in the event a wall is built into the heavens, people can just tunnel under it to attain their goal.
As I approach the wall, I'm filled with sadness at the realization that it represents a complete breakdown in trust between two neighbors. I take note of the graffiti on the wall: on one column, the word "igualdad"- equality - and behind it, the United States border patrol in an SUV. Other graffiti with messages of hope and unity stood in stark contrast with the ultimate symbol of division.
All along the boardwalk are small shops, most are selling some sort of souvenir or food. Zhi Cafe a few hundred yards down the boardwalk is a cool coffee shop that wouldn't be out of place in any beachside town most anywhere in the world. Coffee, tea, snacks, and delicious smoothies to help keep you cool as you watch the Pacific roll into the beach.
Un equipo sin fronteras
Estadio Caliente is pretty easy to get to from just about anywhere in the city. Outside are vendors hawking decent knockoff merchandise, and people kind of congregating and tailgating. There were a couple of drum-and-brass bands playing as asada smoke wafted through the air, providing the soundtrack for anyone within earshot.
Inside the stadium before the game are vendors hawking food and tchotchkes of all kinds. The burrito I had from one of the stands near the Xolo Shop was serviceable for 30 pesos, but the agua - a grape and berry flavored drink - was well worth it in the afternoon sun.
The stadium is very much a work under construction, hastened by Club Tijuana's meteoric rise to the first division just three years after being founded. The north end has a second deck, while the west side has the press box, luxury suites, a nightclub, and more - all in a vertical edifice reminiscent of the famous La Bombonera in Argentina. The paths down to the seats are fairly steep, and you're lead down to your seat by an attendant who'll clean it for you before reminding you to tip him.
Unlike some Mexican stadiums, there’s no fencing along the railing, although several security was everywhere as well as fully decked out riot police on the pitch. These guys had little to do on the night, although in other stadiums in Mexico they’re most usually kept busy hoisting their shields to protect players from beer being thrown from the stands.
All throughout the match, vendors walk up and down the steps selling anything and everything from beer and peanuts to chicharrones and piña coladas. If you get seats in the front row, expect a vendor to pass in front of you every 20-30 seconds.
At the match we sat next to a father and son who were Santos fans. The father explained that while his son was born in Tijuana, they were both Santos fans since the father was from Torreón. A man in a leather jacket and Xolo mask sat on the other side. He greeted the man and his son and even later on took a picture together, with the kid in the Santos jersey predictably giving the thumbs down to the masked fan. All throughout the match, they cheered for their Guerreros, and no one bothered them.
Before the match started, every so often there was a surreptitious bang. It signified the approach of La Masakr3 - the Xolos supporters who were marching in from the nearby Plaza de las Palmas. Seemingly out of nowhere, the south end where they stand and cheer was full of people.
As soon as the initial whistle blew, La Masakr3 lurched into action like a rowdy metronome. Drums, guiros, trumpets, and voices all launched into song, stopping only at the half. The atmosphere in the stadium was electric, and it only increased when Tijuana got out to an a lead in the 23rd minute thanks to Gustavo Bou. Beer flew through the dusk sky as La Masakr3 launched into a celebration.
Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente and LA MASAKR3 TIJUANA celebrate the first lead of the 2017 LIGA Bancomer MX Apertura.Posted by Eugene Rupinski on Monday, August 21, 2017
In the 33rd minute, the stadium rang loud with the cry of "Fuerza Tijuas"to spur on the home side. While timed chants are often disastrous, usually with awkward silence leading up to it or the first few cadences being a mashup with whatever preceded it, this was seamless. It worked. In the 37th minute, Nacho Malcorra was able to double the lead, which was more than enough on the night.
LA MASAKR3 TIJUANA spurring on Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente to victory. #FuerzaTijuasDikirim oleh Eugene Rupinski pada 21 Agustus 2017
At the half the teams switched, putting Santos goalkeeper Jonathan Orozco squarely in front of La Masakr3. Somewhere near the 60th minute, a goal kick was awarded, and the crowd - all of it - launched into El Grito. It was unfortunately the loudest chant of the evening, followed with a song that was equally as unfortunate. Thankfully it was the only audible instance of El Grito on the night.
Xolos would hang on for the win, their first of the season. The mood in the stands was jubilant, and the party continued out on the concourse with the music provided by La Masakr3 for anyone who wanted to hang around and enjoy the festivities.
For a post-match meal, we met up with Jonny Rico Aviles of Prost Amerika, Cesar Hernandez of ESPNFC, and Nate Abaurrea who does English-language radio for Xolos at Taconazo Hipodrómo. The atmosphere is cool - a small walk-up place with limited seating and al pastor tacos that are among the best I've ever eaten. It was great to catch up and talk with friends over tacos.
Viva la (Avenida) Revolución
Sometimes you go to a place that hasn't changed in decades; a place that is stuck in a bygone era that ain't coming back anytime soon. Often times, that's a bad thing. Caesar's in Zona Centro is the exception to this rule. This is the same now as I envision it was when Prohibition-era Los Angelinos and San Diegans would come down for their drug- and drink-filled orgies of debauchery. Dining al fresco is the way to go, although it can be a bit raucous with the sounds and sights of urban life happening while you dine.
The origin of the ubiquitous Caesar salad, the dish is prepared table side in a manner that is truly a culinary art form. The garlic, anchovies, egg yolk, Dijon mustard, and other ingredients are mixed as you watch, then layered onto individual pieces of Romain lettuce.
The beef marrow is well worth your time and pesos, as the greasy goodness is easily raked out of the cylindrical cuts of bone onto a puff pastry. The lamb chops are also done to perfection, and fish of the day with potato scales was amazing - not too heavy, which for a dish with scalloped potatoes and a cream sauce is unfortunately all too often a reality.
Avenida Revolución is the big tourist strip, with stores of all kinds offering trinkets and, in the words of one vendor, "the best junk." You can get a photo taken with a donkey painted to look like a zebra, buy cheap pharmaceuticals and liquor, and watch traditional dancers at the Santiago Argüello just near the Tijuana Arch.
Leaving Mexico was nothing like I had imagined. Instead of some hellscape full of people being interrogated and sniffed by dogs, the line was only about ten people deep when we walked across. The border agent asked us what we had (candy and souvenirs) and where we were headed. We replied "home" almost in unison, to the non-amusement of the guard. He handed us back our passports and we continued on our way. No searching, no sniffing, no problem.
The border is an inescapable and unfortunate reality between two nations whose similarities were made that much more apparent to me on my first trip south. There were certainly differences in culture between the United States and Mexico, but none any more shocking than leaving the congested northeast where I live to go to the American South or Southern California. Perhaps one day the similarities will be as widely touted as the differences are now.