I have always loved Tijuana. Even when the city's future seemed at its darkest, it still contained a raw vitality and an energy that few others seemed to possess. Los Angeles has it, Mexico City has it, Tangiers has it, a vivacious bustle and friendly hum as everyday life goes on all around. I was always surprised when others, even people who lived there, were willing to dismiss it as nothing more than a waystation, a pit of cheap bars and cheap people where sunburned tourists rubbernecked through Revolución looking for weed and donkey shows.
Paradoxically, its bad reputation has changed Tijuana for the better. After 9/11 and the much-publicized drug wars, tourism slowed to a trickle, and in the absence of the tourist industry that once sustained so much of the city, Tijuana has begun to find out what it really is: not just a place where people pause before they cross the border, not just a den of drugs, underaged prostitutes, and would-be Americans who live in the long shadow of San Diego, not just a den of trafficking, but a unique fusion of cultures. Tijuana is not a city without problems (what city is?) but one where its people are transcending them to find their footing and their identity.
Much has been made of the food and arts scene there, but not as much attention has been paid to the role Tijuana's relatively new team, the Xolos, has played in the revitalization of the city.
The team's playing style is feisty and relentless, like the dogs that give the team its name, and it has served them well. They're a young team with an unprecedented streak of success: they're currently first in the Liga MX, the Mexican football league, and people are going crazy over it. After going to a game, I can understand why. Best of all, it's bringing thousands of people in from the U.S. side, a new kind of tourist, ones who see what is happening in Tijuana and adore it.
The following is the text of the story I wrote for Fronteras Desk.
The audio and more photos can be found here.
TIJUANA, Mexico — Tijuana's vibrant tourist scene has all but disappeared. But in its absence, the city is becoming a place for a new type of culture: one forged by people who live between countries and see themselves as part of both.
Tijuana's soccer team is part of that. The enormously popular Xolos (pronounced "Cholos") boasts a dedicated fan base that stretches from Sinaloa to Las Vegas.
Dean Mitchell isn't ashamed to admit it: He's a fanatic.
“So I've been a soccer fan all my life but I've never had seen success – LA, San Diego – so I had to go to Portland, Seattle, places like that to see it. But I always knew Mexico loved it," he said.
Mitchell's having a beer with friends in the dirt parking lot at Estadio Caliente, Tijuana's soccer stadium, where the Xolos are about to play a match. He lives in San Diego, but he makes the sometimes hours-long trip across the border and back every time there's a game in Tijuana.
Mitchell says it's the most fun he's had going to soccer games in years.
“The whole city's going nuts and they haven't had anything before. So you got this city with a real bad reputation and it's showing off to the League how great an experience it is to be here," Mitchell said.
Xolos is short for Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente. Xoloitzcuintles are hairless dogs, sacred to pre-Hispanic cultures and noted for their unflagging energy, scrappy tenacity and loyalty -- kind of like the team and its rambunctious, rowdy fans.
Inside the stadium, Agustín Díaz is smoking a cigarette by a food stand. He lives in San Diego now, but he was born and raised in Tijuana. Everything he's wearing has the Xolos logo on it, right down to his cape and the big stuffed dog on his hat.
“Now that we've got a team right here I'm 100 percent with them. I wear my pet Xolo, I wear my wristband, and even on my cell phone is the Xolo, the big dog and everything," Díaz said. "I am Super Xolo. Even if they go down to the Second Division I'm still gonna be a Xolo.”
Five years ago, the Xolos were a little-known Second Division team. Now they're in the lead in the Mexican League's First Division, ahead of legendary teams like Chivas and America. This means in the soccer world, they're a full-fledged meteoric phenomenon.
Wes Braddock is a principal at a San Diego County high school and holds season tickets called Xolopasses, which cost up to 3,800 pesos, or $300.
“Boy, when the Xolos advanced out of what they call the Liga de Ascenso, the Ascending League, and I was at the game that they won that put them into the American, into the Mexican Premiere League," Braddock said. "It was very similar to me, almost more emotional, than when the [San Diego] Chargers went to the Superbowl in '94. I mean, people were riding up and down the street, honking their horns, waving flags. In this city it really has been good for the image of the city and the people of the city.”
Roberto Cornejo agrees. He's the Xolos assistant general manager and a resident of both the U.S. and Mexico. Bringing together the two cities, he says, was his vision all along.
“Soccer in San Diego is very big. The majority of kids play either [recreational] or some type of club in their life as they're young," Cornejo said. "San Diego's an educated population in terms of soccer, and Tijuana has I think more links to San Diego than, say, Mexico City or farther south.”
Several of the Xolos' players are from the U.S. side, like midfielder Joe Corona, who grew up in south San Diego County and has played with the U.S. Men's Under-23 team.
“In the academies we're trying to develop players. If they make it pro with us, that's great. If they're able to get a college scholarship and get their college degree via soccer and through their training then that's just as good for us," Cornejo said.
This Sunday the Xolos play Chivas in Guadalajara. If they stay in the top four, which is likely since they're currently number one, they advance to the league playoffs.