RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

South of the border in Tijuana there's a group of people on a mission - to save the Mexican zonkey. It's a donkey painted to look like a zebra and they've been fixtures on Tijuana's main tourist strip for nearly a hundred years.

Reporter Amy Isackson has this story.

AMY ISACKSON, BYLINE: Ruben prances across the street one recent morning on his way to work, on a corner of Tijuana's famous tourist strip, Avenida Revolucion.

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ISACKSON: His workmates cluck, he looks so handsome. Ruben's hair is freshly dyed. His nametag is shiny. But both he and his boss, Victor Reyes, have long faces. Ruben, well, he's a donkey - a zonkey in local parlance.

VICTOR REYES: (Through Translator) Mexican zebra, as we call it.

ISACKSON: As for Reyes, his business - taking photos of tourists atop Ruben - has stumbled on hard times.

REYES: (Through Translator) We never had to solicit tourists. The gringos, they came by themselves, so many that we had to line them up.

ISACKSON: That was back in the '60s, in the donkeys' heyday.

REYES: (Through Translator) We were all happy. We had money in our pockets. Tijuana was pure party, night and day.

ISACKSON: Josue Beltran is a professor of history at the Autonomous University of Baja California.

JOSUE BELTRAN: (Through Translator) The gringos came excited for something exotic and to find Old Mexico.

ISACKSON: And donkeys were it. Photographers trotted them out as a representation of old times. The only problem was the donkeys were white. They didn't show up well in black and white photos - just a little ear and nose.

BELTRAN: (Through Translator) Photographers began to experiment with goats, rams and pigs. But nothing said Mexico like the donkey. It occurred to someone - we don't know who - to paint stripes so they'd show up.

ISACKSON: And so they did with women's' hair dye. For decades, business boomed. Tijuana's basketball team was named the Zonkeys. And the city began to use stripes in its logo. But with the fall of the World Trade Center, security lines at the border became interminable. The recession hit, then the drug war. People became fearful to even step a toe into Tijuana. The number of donkeys shrank from 25 to about three.

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ISACKSON: On a recent afternoon on Avenida Revolucion, a lone mariachi band crooned to about a dozen tourists and hundreds of empty bar chairs.

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing in foreign language)

ISACKSON: Sing don't cry, they belt out. It could be a theme song for Tijuana's tourist strip these days.

Reyes has settled in atop a plastic bucket. He thumbs through the newspaper next to Ruben until some tourists from Texas arrive - just his third customers all day.

REYES: OK, look at me, bonitas. One, two, three, say cheese.

ISACKSON: Sue Robel was excited to take a picture with her granddaughter Amber Ivy.

SUE ROBEL: My mom and dad were here in the '40s and they have pictures - not with a zebra but with a donkey. And so, it's like, OK, let's do it.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBERTO LANGO: (Through Translator) I grew up seeing striped donkeys and I want my grandchildren to see them, too.

ISACKSON: Roberto Lango, who runs a marketing firm, leads a group of concerned citizens who want to keep this tradition from going extinct. Next month, Lango will ask the State of Baja California to protect the zonkeys as part of Tijuana's cultural heritage. He wants the photographers to get on the state's payroll, the zonkeys at all big civic events, and for photographers to get iPads to post photos directly to Facebook and Twitter. He says Tijuana's zonkey business may have to modernize, but it will not change its stripes.

For NPR News, I'm Amy Isackson in Tijuana.

MONTAGNE: And this is NPR News.

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