New Costumes Along Tijuana Border

The border crossing between San Diego and Tijuana is the busiest in the world. Many of the people who pass through are tourists, and there are about 20,000 street vendors in Tijuana who cater to them. Recently, the mayor started requiring some of the vendors to dress up in traditional Mexican clothing. The change is silly — but not at all surprising, says commentator Josh Kun. Kun is a professor of English at the University of California at Riverside.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The world's busiest land border crossing is between Mexico and the US; it connects San Diego and Tijuana. Many of the people who pass through the crossing every day are tourists going to Mexico. And when they get there, there are about 20,000 street vendors to cater to them. Recently the mayor of Tijuana started requiring some of the vendors to dress up in traditional Mexican clothing. Commentator Josh Kun is working on a book about Tijuana, and he says this plan is a little silly but not at all surprising.

JOSH KUN:

In the city of Tijuana, people are used to seeing strange things. For example, the city's most famous piece of public art is a 30-foot-tall plaster statue of a naked woman that doubles as a one-bedroom house. But most recently the majority of Tijuana oddities have been linked to the city's flamboyant new mayor, Hank Rhon. He's a millionaire eccentric who reigns over a private zoo full of over 20,000 exotic animals. His shady past as a gambling tycoon with alleged drug ties still haunts him.

But even all the scandals and idiosyncrasies couldn't have prepared us for his latest move into citywide fashion legislation. Rhon's mandate to dress street vendors in traditional Mexican outfits is step two in his attempt to clean up Tijuana's less-than-flattering international reputation. Step one was installing security cameras all over the city to help stop crime, and that hasn't worked so well. So the imposed makeover of the city's vendors is an odd choice for a second act.

Rhon says he likes the outfits because they're clean and colorful and happy-looking and will help foreigners `feel' Mexico. Now the outfits are clean and colorful and, I suppose, happy-looking. But I doubt that will cover up the fact that the impoverished people wearing them go home to houses made of recycled US garage doors, where there's no running water. As to letting tourists `feel' Mexico, he should know better than to confuse Tijuana with what most people think of as traditional Mexico. This city has always been more economically and socially connected to the US than the rest of Mexico and has long been a bastion of progressive, modern thought in Mexican society.

Dressing Tijuana vendors in folk garb misrepresents what Tijuana is all about. This is manufacturing metropolis of over two million people slammed up against the richest country in the world. These vendors are not selling ancient Mayan handicrafts or Day of the Dead dioramas. They're selling Bart Simpson statuettes, Osama bin Laden pinatas and knock-off Gucci sunglasses.

Americans have treated Tijuana as a south-of-the-border Disneyland since the 1920s, but this is the first time a Tijuana mayor has become so blinded by free-trade fantasy that he starts to see his own city as an American would. Rhon is exhibiting Tijuana's horde of tourists as if they're the bleary-eyed bears and lethargic leopards that he keeps caged at his racetrack. He's getting them all dressed up to commit a public relations fraud.

Don't worry, Americans. All is calm below the border. Old Mexico is still old Mexico. But if the history of Tijuana's knack for adaptability is any indication, it's only a matter of time before the vendors take matters into their own hands and do their own alterations on Rhon's outfits. Like tires used as staircases and Elvises made of velvet, nothing in Tijuana is ever what you think it is for very long.

SIEGEL: Josh Kun is writing a book about Tijuana. He's a professor of English at the University of California-Riverside.

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