For Tijuana's Imagemakers, Name Game Is Serious Business

Dallas survived "Dallas." Miami may have even profited from the pastel hues and cool style of "Miami Vice."

But when Mexico's largest producer of television dramas came up with the idea for a soap opera called "Tijuana," the city fathers of this much-maligned border metropolis were not amused.

Revealing just how sensitive Mexico's fourth-largest city is about its poor image, business leaders and officials joined forces, going so far as to register the city's name as a trademark.

Mexico's Televisa broadcasting corporation threw in the towel. It may still produce a border drama, but it won't air as "Tijuana."

"We aren't against the soap opera," says Tijuana Mayor Hctor Osuna. "We just wanted the truth to be told.

"Unfortunately, this city's excellent economy, its openness to the world, and the opportunity it provides thousands of Mexicans from less dynamic parts of the country are not what this program was going to be about."

The man who wanted to make the show, a longtime soap opera producer with Televisa, admits "Tijuana" was going to take up such issues as immigration, migrant smuggling, worker exploitation in both the US and Mexico, and the drug trade all woven into the obligatory love story. "Twenty pictures were made about Al Capone, but that didn't ruin Chicago's reputation," says producer Ral Arauza.

The controversy is the latest battle in Tijuana's ongoing war to give the city the good international name that many civic and business leaders - both here and across the border in San Diego - say it deserves. They point to Tijuana's official 1.1 percent unemployment rate, its impressive infrastructure improvements, and the city's emergence as a high-tech manufacturing center as the elements of a story that should be told.

"It's really a one-sided rap that Tijuana gets," says Chuck Nathanson, director of San Diego Dialogue, a transborder economic and civic partnership project run out of the University of California at San Diego. "This is the city that led the way to Mexico's political pluralism, a city that has had to deal with doubling in size over 10 years but which has become ... the place Mexicans come to to better their lives," he says. "The problem is the media go for conflict and tragedy."

Enrique Mier y Tern, an industrial-park developer, says his city should really be seen as the pole of attraction in a Mexican demographic and economic evolution that is comparable to the boom in the Southwest United States. "But we have maybe a half-dozen narco-juniors [children of wealthy families who have become involved in the drug trade] out of 1.5 million people, and that's what makes the news," he says.

Tijuana may indeed be Mexico's Sun Belt city. The problem is that what Mr. Nathanson calls "conflict and tragedy" keep raining on the image parade.

Tijuana has had a shady name in the US ever since the Prohibition era, when Americans came to frequent the city's seedy cantinas. Prostitution flourished.

Its reputation turned black in March 1994, when presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was gunned down during a campaign stop in one of Tijuana's slums. The city also lost a reform-minded police chief that year in an ambush. Frequent street gun battles among warring drug gangs have made Capone's Chicago seem tranquil.

Yet Tijuana's promoters say it is unfair that the drug trade be the focus of Tijuana's image. It is that "unfairness" that motivated Jos Galict to act.

The Tijuana businessman's foray into civic image-building began in 1995. With no one's permission - "This is the freest city in Mexico," he says - he sent a painter to brighten the city's concrete overpasses and bridge supports with flowers and butterflies.

The murals couldn't help but attract the attention of the mayor, who asked him to help in an official campaign to boost civic pride. Mr. Galict also founded something he simply calls the "image group," which every two weeks brings together about 30 business leaders interested in ways to improve Tijuana's reputation. It was the image group that finally nixed the "Tijuana" soap opera.

Mayor Osuna recalls when Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo recently came to Tijuana to dedicate some new low-income housing. Osuna suggested Mr. Zedillo ask some of the new homeowners where they were from, and the first woman he asked said she had left Mexico City only six months earlier.

"She was so proud, she said that here in Tijuana she had fulfilled a dream that after years in [the capital] had never come true.

"I think," Osuna says, "that's a story worthy of a television drama."

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