An Abraham Lincoln statue in Tijuana
An Abraham Lincoln statue in Tijuana on Aug. 2, 2009. / Photo courtesy of scanudas via Flickr

Environment, energy, tourism, trade, migration, crime — powerful forces bind together Tijuana and San Diego. Yet students growing up on both sides are not studying these connections. 

What if high schools in Tijuana and San Diego taught the same regional history class, and made passing it a graduation requirement? The classes would be taught in different languages, in two countries, but with the same books and same set of facts. 

Such a class might seem like a reach. Tijuana’s high schools teach Mexican history and world history in a curriculum set by Mexico’s federal government. San Diego high school students learn U.S. and world history to meet graduation requirements set by the California Department of Education. But neither side requires a regional history course. 

Let’s dream of things that never were, and ask why not — to paraphrase the playwright George Bernard Shaw. Educators from Tijuana and San Diego have already shown willingness to work on common projects — such as a program to develop bilingual teachers in Baja California.  

What would a regional history class teach? To answer that question, I turned to two border historians — Marco Antonio Samaniego, a professor at the Autonomous University of Baja California with expertise on water issues, and Paul Ganster, a professor emeritus at San Diego State University who has focused on the cross-border border environment. 

The following is a digest of our conversations, edited for brevity and clarity. 

Chapter One: A Region Created by Outside Resources

The border region that exists today was created by infrastructure, says Samaniego. He especially points to the Hoover Dam, a massive U.S. water project on the Arizona-Nevada border that since the 1930s has controlled the flow of Colorado River water to the lower basin.  

“My thesis is simple—the border is infrastructure… To me, the most important piece of infrastructure that explains the history of Baja California is called Hoover Dam. It lowered the flow (of the river), reduced the amount of water that came to Mexico, and opened lands for agriculture. The reason that Los Angeles and San Diego grew is [the] Hoover Dam. 

Tijuana also grew thanks to Colorado River water imports. But it’s not just imported water that has allowed growth on both sides, Samaniego says. We live in a region that does not produce its own products. You have to bring it in from outside. If you go out to eat in Tijuana, wherever the oven is turned on, they’re using gas that came from the United States.” 

Hoover Dam / Photo via Shutterstock

Chapter Two: From Tourism to Science: The strength of cross-border connections

Ganster says tourism has been one of the strongest connections: “The growth of tourism to San Diego in the early 20thcentury had a strong component link to Tijuana, where tourists first went down to tour curio shops and various entertainments such as bullfights and horse racing. And then during Prohibition to enjoy the boom of cabarets, bars, casinos and restaurants.” 

The relationship remains fundamental, says Samaniego. Many San Diegans don’t cross to Tijuana, but many thousands do. There are more than 100,000 norteamericanos (U.S. citizens) living on the coast, many of them retired, and receiving medical services in Mexico.” 

Meanwhile, San Diego’s population has grown increasingly Latino. “The Mexican connection is very very obvious,” Ganster says. “So it’s helpful for students to understand the connections across the border and with the border.” 

There are some less-known connections, too — such as San Diego’s contribution to the development of Baja California’s scientific community. Samaniego would tell students about the role of San Diego’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography in creating the Ensenada-based School of Marine Sciences of the Autonomous University of Baja California. 

Chapter Three: Migration and Violence

For decades, migration—both voluntary and involuntary– has had a profound effect on both sides. Ganster would start by looking at the 1930s Depression and its effects both on Tijuana and San Diego: “There was a significant expulsion of Mexicans from California on the theory that foreigners were taking jobs that should be occupied by Americans, even though some of the expelled were American citizens.” 

But before long, there was a northward labor flow, says Ganster. “During World War II, the growth in manufacturing in the military sector in San Diego produced significant demand for labor locally…then the postwar boom in southern California and an increasing demand for labor, and that encouraged migration to Tijuana.” 

But how do we explain the continued flow of undocumented immigrants through the U.S.-Mexico border?   

“The explanation is that that there’s an economy that needs labor, and there are other economies that are not functioning,” says Samaniego. “I would tell them that poverty means that there are workers who cross illegally so that you can pay a low price for tomatoes, oranges, onions, cucumbers.” 

The curriculum would need to handle tough but unavoidable topics. The northward flow of drugs, the southbound flow of cash and weapons, and the continuing drug violence at the Baja California border. What should high school students learn? 

Ganster: “You have to deal with it in a sensitive way. You could show how drug trafficking affects high school kids on both sides of the border. You could talk about drug trafficking, arms trafficking and violence, and the symbiotic relationship.” 

Samaniego: “Here in Tijuana we have some of the highest homicide rates in the world. Why? Because we are by nature assassins? No, because this is where the drugs cross on their way to the United States. I’d tell San Diego students: ‘Tell your friends to not consume drugs. If you don’t consume drugs on your side, we won’t have deaths on our side’.” 

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