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Road Trip in the Plague Years

Driving shotgun with a Mexican artist through the streets of Tijuana.

| Tue May 5, 2009 4:14 PM EDT

There are no tourists. Nada. Although the only confirmed swine flu cases locally are across the border in San Diego, Tijuana as usual bears the stigma—the growing fear of all things Mexican even when they originate, like the demand for drugs or the industrialized livestock from which this new flu probably sprung, in the United States.

"Feel lonely, gringo?" ERRE laughs.

To console me, he points out that there are no cops on the streets either.

Three days earlier, drug-cartel gunmen launched simultaneous attacks on police across the city, killing seven in half an hour, one of them in the small station just up the block from the Ramirez family home. Using decoders to break into the police radio frequency, the killers daily taunt the cops, blasting loud narcocorridos and boasting of future assassinations.

"Today all the police are either at the funeral for their comrades or in hiding. The narcos have threatened to raise the death toll to 30 in the next week."

"Why are they so pissed off at the cops?" I ask.

"I think the police confiscated a huge drug cache," younger brother Omar interjects.

We stop at a light. Some desperate squeegee guys without water bottles scuffle over ERRE's windshield. Two soldiers on the corner of Paseo de los Heroes observe the melee with indifference. Masked by black bandanas, they cradle new made-in-Mexico FX-05 assault rifles in their arms.

It is disturbing that the presence of troops should be so reassuring. The Mexican Army has an appalling human-rights record, and some leftists believe that the pandemic emergency has become a mere pretext for the further militarization of daily life—like shutting down this year's May Day demonstrations.

ERRE shrugs. It is difficult, he explains, to imagine how control of public safety in border cities like Tijuana or Ciudad Juarez can ever be returned to the corrupt, and now terrified, cops. The elites, meanwhile, ensure their own safety by hiring Blackwater-type mercenaries.

Almost on cue, we pass a small convoy of SUVs and what looks like an armored car converted into a bullet-proof limo. Stenciled on the side is the corporate logo of "Panamerican Security de Colombia." (The real Blackwater—now shamelessly re-branded as "Xe"—has recently opened a training facility just across from the Tijuana airport on Otay Mesa.)

ERRE yawns. Heavy metal on the streets of Tijuana is no big deal.

By the time we reach Colonia Libertad, it's 4 pm and some bustle is returning to the streets. We park in front of the old family home, across from some chemical tank cars marooned on a branch of the San Diego and Arizona Eastern Railroad. The family guard dog, a middle-aged Chihuahua named Momo, barks dutifully from the roof.

ERRE has to rush to take his dad to a doctor's appointment. Señor Ramirez hails from a proud cowboy town in Jalisco that claims to be the birthplace of the mariachi. After traveling around as a movie projectionist in the villages of the Alta, he came to Tijuana and Southern California in the early 1950s. He worked as an extra in Hollywood, on an aircraft assembly line in San Diego, as a cab driver in Tijuana, and now, almost age 80, oversees the family wrought-iron workshop.

The patriarchal home, like Tijuana itself, has been self-built in increments that faithfully graph the family's economic history. The 1990s boom years, when ERRE was a well-paid carpenter in California, are represented by an impressive faux-Victorian wing with dormers, bays, and gables.

I wisecrack about his hallucinatory "gingerbread casa de sueños."

He smiles, then scolds: "You know this is the Tijuana dream, my parents' dream. We never stop building. We're always making room for more people. When I was a kid, do you have any idea of how many cousins and compadres from my father's pueblo stayed here until they could cross to jobs in California? Hey, amigo, this is Ellis Island."

To underscore the point, brother Omar shows me the key prop in the video he has recently completed about the Ramirez family's neighborhood: the "Lady of Libertad."

Omar says it is based on one of French sculptor Frederic Bartholdi's original sketches for the Statue of Liberty— the famous lady with the lamp standing on the pedestal of an Aztec pyramid. A local artisan has made copies to sell to the tourists, if they ever return.

Will they?

Since 9/11, irrational fear and toxic bigotry have imposed an informal blockade on Baja California's non-maquiladora economy. Now nativists in San Diego are clamoring for the complete closure of the border.

It would be a catastrophe. A Siamese twin might as well saw away the flesh connecting himself to his brother. Both would die in the end.

After teasing ERRE one more time, I head off for dinner with Omar and his wife. The weather is still delightful and we find a cozy Italian restaurant crowded with nonchalant and fearless diners. For a quiet evening, at least, the mask of the red death slips off the face of Tijuana.

Mike Davis is the author most recently of In Praise of Barbarians: Essays Against Empire (Haymarket Books, 2008) and Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb (Verso, 2007). He is currently working on a book about cities, poverty, and global change.

Copyright 2009 Mike Davis

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