A 2019 performance of three choruses accompanied by the Sinfonica Juvenil de Tijuana for the 16th Festival Opera en la Calle. Photo courtesy of Opera de Tijuana

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Inside his family’s Tijuana stationery store, Jaime Romero looks forward to choruses and arias ringing through his hillside neighborhood by the U.S. border. Tijuana’s Opera en la Calle festival returns to Colonia Libertad on Saturday after a two-year absence, and thousands are expected to attend.

The city’s art scene is experiencing a resurgence this summer as COVID-19 restrictions relax, drawing out musicians and artists, and audiences eager to reconnect. This weekend, the party will be just blocks from the San Ysidro Port of Entry in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods.

Opera is the festival’s plato fuerte, or centerpiece, with Ruggero Leoncavallo’s 19th century opera “Pagliacci” as the concluding performance. But this promises to be an eclectic event, with a program that includes Jewish klezmer music, Ukrainian melodies, Spanish zarzuela pieces and selections from the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical “Phantom of the Opera.”

Opera de Tijuana, a small nonprofit, first staged the festival in this working-class neighborhood in 2003. But for the past two summers, concerns over the spread of COVID-19 forced organizers to go online. Now with Baja California’s “green light” for such public gatherings, the festival is back on the street, part of the reopening of Tijuana’s cultural scene, with concerts, art showings, festivals and other offerings coming back.

There is no charge to attend Opera en la Calle, and organizers say their aim is to draw a varied crowd — from opera lovers to those listening for the first time. “The idea is to take opera out of the theater, to take it to the streets, to the neighborhood, to make it accessible,” Maria Teresa Rique, general manager of Opera de Tijuana, told me in a recent interview at the group’s offices in Colonia Davila.

Rique is a former high school English teacher who has spent more than two decades doggedly promoting opera in Tijuana — through courses, concerts, and other events. She works closely with artistic director Jose Medina, a seasoned opera performer, with support from a small group of opera enthusiasts and scores of volunteers.

“It’s not just an activity that takes place one weekend of the year,” said Pedro Ochoa, former head of the Tijuana Cultural Center, and now the director of Galeria de Arte Pop, a small gallery in downtown Tijuana. “They have many many projects and programs all year long and that’s what I think is important. Opera en la Calle is both the culmination and launching of other efforts — events, classes, workshops, and these are enriching.”

The festival hasn’t skipped a year since its inception, despite uncertain funding — and since 2018 the elimination of federal support under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. This year, the municipal government is the main financial backer, contributing 800,000 pesos (about $38,500), nearly half of the festival’s $78,000 budget.

Opera en la Calle helped inspire FestiArte, a twice-yearly art fair launched in 2007 that showcases painters, photographers, sculptors and other visual artists. Cesar Borja, FestiArte’s founder and director, remembers how he was struck by the sight of street vendors listening to opera.

“They stopped selling so they could listen,” Borja said. “These humble people, listening to opera songs – this motivated me to also create a cultural event.”

Like Opera en la Calle and other independent arts initiatives, FestiArte struggles for funding. It was shut down altogether in 2020 and 2021 due to regulations aimed at containing the spread of COVID, leaving many local artists without a place to show and sell their work. But earlier this month, FestiArte was back for three days outside in Tijuana’s Rio Zone, outside the Cultural Center.

In Colonia Libertad, residents are preparing for this weekend’s crowds. Some will set up food stands, while others will rent parking spaces. At Papeleria Florencia, Jaime Romero expects to sell a few more drinks and snacks. But mostly, he just wants to listen to opera.

“It’s something we don’t hear every day, and we have to take advantage of it,” he said. “We’ve missed it. After so much time inside, we need to get out again.”

The festival is from 1 p.m. to midnight on Calle Quinta at the corner of Avenida Aquiles Serdan in Colonia Libertad. The music starts at 3 p.m. 

Juan Aguiar holds his daughter, Sinay, as they visit with family members through the U.S.-Mexico border fence at Friendship Park in 2017. / Photo by David Maung

Congressman, State Senator Raise Concerns About Friendship Park Fencing Project

A U.S. congressman and a California state senator have raised concerns about a U.S. government plan to replace the existing international border barriers by the Pacific Ocean — and potentially close off access to Friendship Park, for years a space where groups have gathered to play music, worship, practice yoga, or just for a chance to see family members across the international border

U.S. Rep. Juan Vargas said in a letter sent Friday to U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas: “I strongly urge you to cease all border remediation projects at Friendship Park.” The congressman said the project “would have a significant impact on safety, life, and the environment.”

State Sen. Ben Hueso on Friday issued a news release that called on DHS to pause “its plan and work with community organizations, like Friends of Friendship Park, to find a solution which preserves Friendship Park and the vision it sought to create over 50 years ago.”

Friends of Friendship Park is a volunteer coalition that for years has advocated greater public access. Members have been protesting since learning of plans to replace the fencing earlier this month during a meeting with the U.S. Border Patrol. They say the U.S. government is preparing to raise two 30-foot-tall “bollard-style” walls that would eliminate an existing pedestrian gate that has allowed gatherings.

Border Patrol has said the project is necessary to replace damaged barriers, but the agency has not publicly offered details about the replacement fencing. An agency spokesperson told the Union-Tribune last week: “In the near future we should have more information regarding replacement of gates.”

Sinaloa Cartel Member Arrested in Rosarito Beach

U.S. authorities may want to extradite a suspected drug trafficker known by the nickname “Tolin Infante,” Baja California law enforcement authorities announced on Saturday. Described as a member of the Sinaloa Cartel, he is identified in news reports with various names, including Luis Edgar Herrera and Luis Hector Herrera. He is being held in Mexico on a firearms charge and currently under investigation in the United States for drug trafficking, authorities said. “Tolin Infante” survived an attack on July 2 near a busy shopping center in Rosarito Beach, but his bodyguard was killed and five-year-old son injured. He was arrested while driving his son to a local hospital. The U.S. State Department referred to the incident in a July 4 “security alert” that cited “the potential for confrontations between criminal organizations and Mexican security forces in Tijuana and Rosarito, Baja California.” (Zeta, Punto Norte, U.S. Department of State)

Also Noteworthy

  • Meth bust: Authorities seized 5,000 pounds of methamphetamine – one of the largest such seizures in San Diego County – and arrested four Tijuana residents last week in National City. A federal court document states the suspects crossed the drugs Thursday through the Otay Mesa Commercial Port of Entry. Tijuana media reported Monday that one of the suspects, Rafael Alzua, is the son of a cousin of Kurt Honold, Baja California’s secretary of Economy and Innovation. (CBS, CNN, Union-Tribune, Punto Norte).
  • New park in eastern Tijuana: Baja California Gov. Marina del Pilar Avila announced the construction of a 320-acre public park in eastern Tijuana by Abelardo Rodriguez Dam. The future Parque Esperanto will offer sports fields, a skate park, zip lines, a bike path and other amenities. (Union-Tribune, Yahoo).
  • Tijuana journalist honored: The San Diego Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is honoring longtime Tijuana journalist Vicente Calderon as its journalist of the year. (SPJ)

Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Rafael Alzua is the nephew of Kurt Honold, Baja California’s secretary of Economy and Innovation. Alzua is the son of Honold’s cousin.

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