Mexico-U.S. border seen here in 2017. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Miles of fencing and congested ports of entry make the U.S.-Mexico border impossible to ignore. But two San Diego political scientists have been more preoccupied with the border we don’t see — the one we construct in our heads.

“Why do San Diegans tell so many stigmatizing stories about the neighboring city?” asked Kristen Hill Maher, a political science professor at San Diego State University. “Where do these stories come from? What are they for? Who tells which stories and why?”

She and co-author David Carruthers, also a political science professor at SDSU, spoke on campus earlier this month to a group of graduate students about their new book that examines the complex relationship between Tijuana and San Diego. It’s called “Unequal Neighbors: Place Stigma & the Making of a Local Border.” 

Don’t get put off by the academic-sounding title. “Unequal Neighbors” is surprisingly accessible as it looks closely at how San Diegans perceive Tijuana and seeks to explain why this is so. It argues that decades of skewed and partial — at times outright false — narratives have had profound economic and social costs. It advocates “debordering” practices that highlight connections and interdependence of the two cities to counter local attitudes that see Tijuana as separate from and inferior to San Diego.

“San Diegans often choose to ignore Tijuana as if it did not exist or as if it were irrelevant,” the authors write. Yet they also chronicle efforts on various fronts to embrace San Diego and Tijuana as a region — through cross-border civic and business organizations, local government leaders, academics, media and other actors who promote greater integration.

“Unequal Neighbors” was 10 years in the making. The authors reviewed a century of tourism promotion in San Diego and the range of references to Tijuana — from “campy stereotypes” to promoting a “two nation vacation” to simply avoiding mention of Tijuana. 

They also (YIKES) analyzed 10 years of border coverage by the San Diego Union-Tribune during a key period — 2000 to 2010 — that saw rising drug violence and an image crisis. 

I am familiar with the latter subject, as I was reporting from Tijuana for the San Diego Union-Tribune during this period. The downfall of the Arellano Felix Organization and the battle for control of the Tijuana plaza was a major story — though not the only story we covered. When we wrote about the violence, the arrests of officers, the role of the military, were we perpetrating negative images and bordering stereotypes or simply doing our job? 

“Unequal Neighbors” gives the coverage a mixed review. “Overall more positive than the narratives we heard in previous chapters coming from ordinary residents of San Diego,” they noted. Yet “coverage on themes related to law and order still predominated, they wrote, “and the framing and placement of these narratives tended to draw upon and reproduce stigmatizing local narratives about disorder and corruption…”

Hill Maher and Carruthers also conducted scores of interviews — with civic leaders, tourism promoters, activists, intellectuals, journalists (including yours truly). They also sounded out a wide range of San Diego County residents about their attitudes toward Tijuana.

Throughout, the authors build a strong case for increasing interactions and understanding between the two cities. “We are a community, San Diego and Tijuana. Neighbors. Friends,” Carruthers told his SDSU audience. “No matter what barriers have been placed between us.”

Binational Efforts in the Spotlight

Ken Salazar, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico with Tom Reott, the U.S. Consul General in Tijuana at a press conference on November, 24, 2021.
Right to left: Ken Salazar, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico with Tom Reott, the U.S. Consul General in Tijuana at a press conference on November, 24, 2021. / Photo by Sandra Dibble

U.S. ambassador Ken Salazar’s visit to the border last week also put the spotlight on binational efforts between the United States and Mexico in the Tijuana-San Diego region. To address transborder water pollution. To build Otay Mesa East, an innovative future commercial crossing. To deter human smuggling and arms trafficking.

The ambassador, who arrived in Mexico in September, “has been very clear that he views this moment in our binational relationship as a transformative moment,” said Tom Reott, the U.S. consul general in Tijuana, during a news conference with Salazar in Tijuana that I attended last week. “We’re turning the page, and we are looking to work on each of these priority areas mano a mano with our Mexican counterparts.”

Salazar acknowledged lengthy waits at the San Ysidro Port of Entry and other ports on the U.S.-Mexico border, saying that investment in upgrades and technology can help alleviate the problem. “That’s not good for commerce, that’s not good for people coming and going across the border. It also is not good for the environment, all of those cars sitting out there for three, four, five, six hours sometimes. That’s an issue, something we have to work on.” 

Reott said the challenge has been to stop illegal crossings through the vehicle lanes. Tijuana police last summer reported the presence of citizens of Venezuela, Russia and eastern European countries who were flying in from Cancun, and then driving to the San Diego ports of entry in vehicles with California plates.

In response, U.S. Customs and Border Protection assigned inspectors to monitor the vehicle lanes  before the cars  reach the booths. Reott said that U.S. and Mexican officials have been in talks to establish checkpoints in Mexico “so that we can with greater anticipation identify risky vehicles and so that fewer CBP agents are there in the traffic instead of being at their posts doing what’s necessary for the people who want to cross legally every day.”

Also Notable

  • The San Diego Union-Tribune traveled to southern Mexico to report about immigration enforcement at the country’s southern border, which includes expulsions, checkpoints and detentions. Kate Morrissey writes that the ramped-up measures come with pressure from the United States and mirror U.S. tactics at the San Diego-Tijuana border. Her story is complemented by photographs and a video by photojournalist Alejandro Tamayo. 
  • Many asylum seekers remain in limbo in Tijuana, unable to seek protection in the United States under Title 42, a public health law first invoked under the Trump administration and still in effect today under President Biden. KPBS reporter Gustavo Solis tells of the impact on hundreds of asylum seekers at a makeshift migrant camp just south of the San Ysidro Port of Entry. 
  • Two suspected smugglers have been arrested in Mexico after the U.S. Border Patrol in recent weeks stopped several unusually large groups of people from Venezuela, Brazil and Portugal trying to cross the U.S. border, writes Wendy Fry of the San Diego Union Tribune. 
  • The closing day of a danzon festival in Tijuana on Saturday brought dozens of people to the federal Cultural Center, known as the CECUT, in the city’s Rio Zone for dancing and live music.  The tropically elegant dance that originated in 19th century Cuba is practiced across Mexico, and Tijuana has its own growing danzon movement. (FEDATI, Jesus Robles/CALAFIA CULTURAL) 

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