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The Founding of Tijuana

Tijuana is often referred to as the world’s most visited border town. The history of Tijuana is brief, compared to Rome or Mexico City, but this little town has made a name for itself around the world. The city of Tijuana is situated in a region once inhabited by the Kumiai, an indigenous tribe of Yuman-speaking hunter-gatherers. Europeans first arrived in 1542, when the Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo toured the coastline of the area, which was later mapped in 1602 by Sebastián Viscaíno. In 1769, Father Juan Crespí documented more detailed information about the area and Father Junipero Serra founded the first mission of Alta California in San Diego. The missionaries came with soldiers and range animals and taught the Indians how to make wax candles, clothes, soap. They also introduced the Indians to ranching. At that time, few Mexicans lived in this Baja California area along the present day border. It was a land composed mostly of brush and desert, suitable for stock raising but little else. More settlement of the area took place near the end of the mission era when José María Echendía, governor of the Californias, awarded a large land grant to Santiago Argüello in 1829, then the commandant of the San Diego presidio. This large cattle ranch covered 10,000 hectares and was known as Rancho de Tia Juana. The community was a small settlement of ranch houses, born from the working ranch and its vaqueros (cowboys).

In 1889 mining activity began in Baja California, and Ensenada became the new port city of the border territory. In Tijuana, at the new international border in the middle of nowhere, a Mexican customs house was built, and the ranch became an important stop on the stagecoach road. The chance for passengers to get food and water gave birth to a popular story shared around the campfires of the traveling fortune hunters. The myth of Tia Jane may have come from a good woman, perhaps an Indian, like many of the ranch servants of those days who gave food to the stagecoach travelers passing through the area. While traveling south to the gold settlements, travelers climbed down to stretch their legs on the dusty or muddy earth outside an old adobe buildings, and to sit down at a table to drink and eat the food that the fabled cook Juana put before them before going on toward Ensenada. This seemingly insignificant moment at Tijuana was the birth of both tourism and the businesses that were spawned at the border crossing. Most of Tijuana remained a ranch community for many more years. Cattle, horses and other animals can still be found on hills around Tijuana. To this day, the area’s Mexican charros are among the best rodeo riders on Earth.

This year of 1889 marked the beginning of urban ascent for the little village of Villa de Zaragoza, then the official name for Tijuana. Descendants of Santiago Argüello and Licenciado Agustín Olvera entered into an agreement to begin the development of the city of Tijuana. By the 1890s, the area attracted many settlers, who began referring to the area as simply Tijuana. It became a municipality in 1917. In this same year, San Diego banned cabaret dancing and nightclubs. Three years later, U.S. Prohibition was written into law. Seeing an opportunity to attract U.S. visitors, Tijuana opened a magnificent casino and its residents built numerous bars and nightclubs in the town. U.S. tourists immediately began flocking to Tijuana, and the city boomed as a major playground, gambling and tourist resort.

During this era, Tijuana experienced a period of economic and demographic growth largely due to tourist enterprises owned and operated by Americans. One of the first was centered on the natural hot springs, the Tijuana Hot-Spa Hotel, built in 1885. This was followed by the construction of dog and horse racing tracks, casinos and other hotels. Mexicano entrepreneurs opened the first bull ring by 1910. When tourists visited San Diego during the Panama Exposition in 1915, they also traveled to Tijuana, which had recreation activities that were illegal in California. The Tijuana attractions, the Jockey Club, Trivoli Bar, the Foreign Club, the Sunset Inn and Agua Caliente Casino were all owned by Anglo-Americans and employed mostly American workers. This was a source of constant resentment with the Mexican labor unions and government.

By the end of the 1920s there were more than 260 businesses located in the downtown area, many of them along Avenida Revolucíon. These included many service businesses beyond the many bars. Besides liquor, Tijuana also had the attraction of almost unregulated prostitution and related vice establishments. Tijuana’s image as Sin City became world famous. During this era, schools, rural roads, paved city streets, water mains, electricity and telephones were all built from taxes on gambling and alcohol. New residents also came, among them Mexicans exiled from north of the border. They soon founded a new Colonia, Libertad, on the hill behind the ruins of the flooded and abandoned Tijuana race track (which had lost its power to the Caliente track up-river). The population grew 10 fold from the 1000 residents that occupied the city before the business boom began.

This period in the city’s growth engendered many negative stereotypes about Mexicans and border towns in the minds of visiting American tourists. These attitudes were generalized to Mexican Americans who lived in San Diego. It was not until the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas that Mexico moved to end gambling and American control of the tourist industry in Tijuana. In 1934, by presidential decree Cárdenas outlawed gambling and in 1937 the government expropriated American owned property in Tijuana. The gilded salons in Ensenada, Rosarito and Tijuana were all shut down. Most of Hollywood which had frolicked and floozied and flaunted their new movie money went away. Horse racing, whoring, drinking and prize fighting continued. Some of the casinos were converted to schools and those Mexicanos who lost their jobs were given government employment.

Today visitors are attracted to Tijuana, a bustling city of more than one million people, primarily for its shopping and entertainment opportunities. The city is a duty-free zone, and it is truly a shopping paradise, with an impressive and astounding variety of merchandise, ranging from silver jewelry, designer clothing, tile, ceramics, blown glass, glazed pottery, woven blankets, embroidered dresses, onyx chess sets, Mexican liquors and much more. You can still buy leather but now it comes from Durango and Zacatecas, a thousand miles away. Tijuana’s main street, Avenida Revolucion, is regarded by many as the world’s most popular street for shopping. Here you will find a 10 block strip of colorful craft marts, shopping arcades, boutique stores, and stalls offering bargains on a wide variety of merchandise from Mexico and from all over the world. Avenida Revolucion, is truly designed to be a “shop till you drop” experience. In addition to the hundreds of shops, dozens of restaurants and bars are scattered between the various shops in the area to help tired shoppers rest and unwind. Bargaining is expected with most street vendors in this area, but it is often considered inappropriate in the more upscale shops.

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