The Best Thing About San Diego Is... Tijuana
Across the border, I found a vibrant scene that helped me appreciate California.
As the drumbeat for a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico has grown louder over the past year thanks to Donald Trump, I’ve shared a lot of the typical reactions against it: Vilifying immigrants is ignorant and cruel. The desire to keep others out is un-American.
But I have another thought that probably doesn’t come up much for anyone who doesn’t live near the border: Please don’t make it harder for me to go to Mexico.
I came to San Diego after years-long stints in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., two towns dominated by their respective industries—entertainment and politics. They were places where you could be slogging home from your low-paying job and stumble upon a music video shoot, or overhear a debate about an upcoming bill. The cities pulsated with ideas that, eventually, would work their way into American homes, whether they were for a Netflix series or a way to fund birth control.
San Diego is nothing like that. The Wall Street Journal recently marveled that people are beginning to venture to San Diego’s downtown to eat and to live, things that are a given in most other big cities. Amid some sleek new restaurants and condos, downtown is largely still a sad mishmash of bail bonds shops and offices whose workers flee at 6 p.m. After my first couple months here, San Diego’s ubiquitous nickname—“America’s Finest City”—started to seem like an inadvertent joke. It’s safe, but it’s not vibrating with excitement. The weather’s great, but you’ll have to enjoy it in between long stints in your car. It’s fine.
In San Diego, I had a wonderful new job and a new husband, but I found myself flailing for the hallmarks of city life I’d come to depend on. I missed having a legitimate transit system and a vibrant cultural scene. It took a day trip to make me see what makes San Diego so special. It’s Mexico.
On that first venture into Tijuana, a group of about 15 of us climbed onto an old school bus, drinking Pacificos. A former San Diego newspaper reporter guided us to a handful of shops and stands around the city. We sipped a salty, savory soup from Styrofoam cups. Ate tacos on an outdoor patio, the grilled shrimp crammed into pillowy tortillas oozing with mozzarella. Stopped for ice cream at a shop bursting with enough colors to rival the 60 flavors on the menu, things like prickly pear and fig with mezcal. We marveled at art galleries packed into an alleyway between Calles Revolución and Constitución.
I was hooked.
It took being a tourist in Mexico, ironically, to push me to explore the corners of my own city that exist beyond the tourist destinations people associate with San Diego: the beaches and Balboa Park.
Downtown doesn’t really serve as the one-stop hub for culture, shopping, and getting around that I was used to in other cities—but if I could find those things in another country, I should be able to find them in my own city, I figured. And I did, eventually: a modern Portugese bakery in Ocean Beach, horchata cold brew and galleries with lowrider-inspired art in Barrio Logan, Japanese markets with ramen and tonkatsu stands tucked inside in the Convoy District. But it took soaking in Baja to give me a compass to seek out those more vibrant pockets of San Diego.
Crossing in and out of Mexico, of course, isn’t as easy as hopping from Vancouver, Washington, into Portland for an afternoon of tax-free shopping, or riding BART between San Francisco and Oakland. But it’s not all that hard, either.
Over the last year, as the border wall cacophony has grown louder, San Diego officials—many of them Republicans—keep making it easier to get to Mexico.
The city’s light-rail system can’t take you to the beach, the San Diego Zoo, or to virtually any of the urban core neighborhoods that city planners hope will accommodate future growth—but it does go to the border. In a splashy press conference, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Uber executives announced a ride-hailing service that crosses from one country to another. A new bridge lets you park in the U.S., then cross a walkway directly into Tijuana’s airport to catch cheaper flights into other parts of Mexico. And a multimillion-dollar expansion of the San Ysidro Port of Entry, already the busiest international crossing in the Northern Hemisphere, is under way.
There are countless people for whom a border wall would destroy their livelihoods, or their ability to seek an education in the U.S. I’m not one of those. I’m incredibly privileged to be able to travel in and out of Mexico for leisure and with relative ease.
But being able to appreciate the region as a whole has made me love living here by orders of magnitude more than when I stuck closely within the confines of the San Diego city limits. San Diego and Tijuana, like any cities, have their shortcomings. Taken together, though, they enrich each other in a pretty amazing way.
Not long after I moved to San Diego, the newly elected mayor floated the idea of making a joint bid—in partnership with Tijuana—to host an upcoming Olympics. The idea was laughed out of the room as “an instant loser,” partly because it was against the rules. Less than two years later, though, the International Olympics Committee changed course and said it might be open to cross-border bids after all.
They seem to be coming around to the same idea that I did: that two nearby cities don’t exist in isolation. They feed off of and complement each other, even when there’s an international border between them.
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