Amid Growing Violence, Art Flourishes In Tijuana

The Tijuana Cultural Center is the largest art exhibition space in the city. i i

The Tijuana Cultural Center is the largest art exhibition space in the city. Despite the uptick in drug-related violence in the border city, art is also flourishing there. Jason Beaubien/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jason Beaubien/NPR
The Tijuana Cultural Center is the largest art exhibition space in the city.

The Tijuana Cultural Center is the largest art exhibition space in the city. Despite the uptick in drug-related violence in the border city, art is also flourishing there.

Jason Beaubien/NPR
'The Ball' at the Tijuana Cultural Center is a city landmark. i i

'The Ball' at the cultural center is a city landmark. It also houses an Imax theater. Jason Beaubien/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jason Beaubien/NPR
'The Ball' at the Tijuana Cultural Center is a city landmark.

'The Ball' at the cultural center is a city landmark. It also houses an Imax theater.

Jason Beaubien/NPR
An art project adorns portions of the Mexican side of the border fence. i i

An art project adorns portions of the Mexican side of the border fence in Tijuana. Jason Beaubien/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jason Beaubien/NPR
An art project adorns portions of the Mexican side of the border fence.

An art project adorns portions of the Mexican side of the border fence in Tijuana.

Jason Beaubien/NPR

As drug cartels in the Mexican border city of Tijuana unleash one of the worst killing sprees in that city's history, there's also been an explosion of art.

Several new galleries have opened, including one — right on the border — in a former drug tunnel.

Artists tout Tijuana as a low-cost alternative to Los Angeles. And the city's main cultural center just opened a huge new wing.

A Growing Culture Of Art

The downturn in the Tijuana smuggling business has been good for Luis Ituarte. Late last year, he managed to open an art gallery in a building that used to have a cross-border tunnel in the basement. Now he's trying to buy an abandoned hotel just across the street.

Hotel Londres used to be flophouse, Ituarte says, where migrants would stay for a few nights and meet up with smugglers before trying to cross into the United States.

"Since the border has become so tight, they went out of business," Ituarte says. "So, we are in negotiations to acquire the hotel and to make our residency program, to make some studios out of it."

Ituarte is from Tijuana, but he splits his time between there and Los Angeles. He says space on the Mexico side of the border is about one-fifth of what it would cost in L.A.

His current gallery, Casa del Tunel, or House of the Tunnel, is in a boat-shaped building right along the border fence. Its prow juts out toward a U.S. Customs post. The previous tenants claimed to be running a greenhouse here. They would come and go at all hours of the day and night with big plant pots. Ituarte says the neighbors didn't ask too many questions.

"Here in Tijuana, you don't know who is who, you know? And if you go to the police, you maybe will go to the bad guys, so people just keep it quiet and don't say anything," he says.

The gang was eventually caught popping up through a manhole cover on the U.S. side. The authorities have since filled the tunnel with several truckloads of cement.

Artists Tackle Local Issues

Ituarte's gallery on the second floor has work mainly by local artists, which, for him, means from Tijuana and Southern California. Much of it touches on themes related to migration, boundaries, and the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico.

Ituarte says he hopes that Casa del Tunel will be a place for artists to put forward a new vision for Tijuana.

"I think we need a new city, and we need to start to look into what the future of Tijuana is going to be. Because in the past, Tijuana hasn't worked," he says.

In downtown Tijuana, the Tijuana Cultural Center is impossible to miss in the Zona Rio. The complex is dominated by giant beige globe, which houses an IMAX theater. In September, the center opened a huge new gallery next door called "the Cube."

As you enter, a sound exhibit by an artist from San Diego lines the hallway. The main exhibit is a show of Buddha sculptures from China. But another show by local artists tackles poverty, migration and other contemporary social issues in Tijuana.

Drug Violence Underlies Art

And the main social issue facing the city right now is drug violence.

Last year, more than 800 people were killed here in battles between the drug cartels. And in 2009, things have only gotten worse. The number of murders in January more than doubled compared to 2008.

"We see violence everywhere reflected in the painting, theater, dance — everywhere," says Carmen Garcia, coordinator of an arts center called Casa de la Cultura.

Casa de la Cultura is set on a hill southwest of downtown. The center has studio space for painting, dance and photography. The sound of students practicing piano echoes down the brick building's long hallways. The center offers art classes for children as well as adults.

Garcia says that when the killings spiked late last year, students stopped coming to classes after dark, and people stopped coming to concerts at night.

"Definitely. Definitely, life has changed in Tijuana," she says.

But Garcia says Tijuana remains a vibrant, dynamic city. From the second floor of the Casa de la Cultura looking north, you can see the expanding U.S. border fence and, in the distance, the shimmering skyscrapers of downtown San Diego.

Garcia says the violence, the border, the poverty — all of this underlies the art that's produced here.

"I think it's just like a reflection," she says. "The arts is a reflection of the disorganized city that we live in."

And even as people are afraid to go out at night, Garcia is convinced that things in Tijuana are going to get better soon. And she's convinced that art is going to help.

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