Ticky-tacky Tijuana. Two cultures meet on uneven ground; food for thought for the sidewalk anthropologist

WELCOME to the Mexican-American schlock exchange. Beggars on every corner. Store owners who put you in a half nelson as you walk by. Merchandise that only an odd-lot jobber could love. Tijuana is nothing if not the bargain basement of the American marketplace, where mostly tacky stuff gets pushed at mostly outrageous prices.

Nor can it be credited with much indigenous originality. A prizefight poster between Juan (``Idi Amin'') Hern'andez and Gerardo (``Rocky'') Valero gives an appropriate feel for the tendency to appropriate cultural symbols from just about anywhere.

But give the place a break.

Tijuana may not be la verdad de Mexico. Yet it is what it is. And if you drop your preconceptions about what it should be, you might have an illuminating and fun time.

Tijuana should be, and is, a sidewalk anthropologist's dream - the mingling of two great cultures, like the meeting of two seas, with a frothy representation of sediments from both. Hence, multitudes cross the international border (it's a mistake to change your dollars to pesos on the way across, by the way - dollars will spend better and buy more) in search of Jordache jeans and Chanel No. 5. And what you get in the street populace is a poly-saturated representation of all things American.

The small boy singing ``La Bamba'' for nickels in front of a clothing store, for instance. He's picking up the song of a Hispanic singer (Ritchie Valens) produced in the American pop culture, with the music repatriated to Latino surroundings. It's played back out of tune by a Mexican kid who only knows that the music sounds right and will cadge a tip from passing American tourists.

And so it goes in a world where ``Hecho in Mexico'' and ``Buy American'' share a mutual identity crisis.

In a small shop on a Tijuana side street, I found a clutter of Mexican sombreros, aviator sunglasses, and blankets of questionable ethnicity. The elderly couple who ran the place were gracious and distinctly soft-sell, an uncommon trait among shopkeepers here. They spoke to me in elegant Spanish about this and that. And then they asked me where I came from.

``Boston?'' they both gasped almost in unison.

Yes. The same. Beantown. City by the polluted harbor.

``We love the Boston Celtics,'' the man said, pulling me by the arm to a corner of the shop where one could find, yes-indeedy, a Boston Celtics T-shirt. Back there, he expostulated at length on the current problems of the team. ``Los viejos, senor, the older players - they simply cannot carry the whole season.''

``I told my son,'' the woman interjected, ```Do anything you want when you grow up, only be like Bob Cousy''' (the legendary Celtics guard who now announces the team's games).

I purchased a pair of sunglasses - which broke before I got through customs on the way back - and made for the street.

The street is to Tijuana what a gallery is to a museum. Here, you bump up against the town's polyglot culture. In recent times, this culture has undergone a face-lift. Tijuana wants the world to forget its colorful if somewhat sordid past, to shed the city-of-ill-repute image and become a real, first-class tourist resort.

This will be no small task. Based on its continuing reputation, Tijuana is currently off limits to most military personnel after curfew. One sailor in San Diego explained it to me this way: ``Well, you see it does happen that some of our guys will go down and get beat up by some of their guys, and then we'll go down with some more of our guys and....''

Maybe that's why the Fielding guide to Mexico doesn't cover Tijuana. An editorial assistant at the company supported this decision by saying, ``Well, we don't cover Baja California, either.''

The world could probably live without a guide to the Baja. But Tijuana?

Tijuana deserves better than that. The whole noisy, tumultuous frenzy of the place, it's sell-sell-sell mentality, and the pushy aggressiveness of its street life may put some people off. I found it extraordinarily absorbing. In the faces of street urchins, who have grown too wise too early in life, you could read the hard map of lives pressed down to the bare necessities. And yet you could see the teen-agers wearing what any self-respecting Valley Girl and Boy might aspire to.

You can find the upgraded Tijuana represented in such attractions as the new $30 million cultural center with its performing-arts center, museum, and Omnimax cinema, offering a 180-degree screen. Also, a general effort is under way to make the streets more presentable, the shopping more modern.

Then, there are still byways where one stumbles over the variegated street life of a Mexican-American city.

On a feast day, the crowd from a church spilled out into the street. Inside, incense blended with singing. People were pressed together in the vestibule, peering in at the ornate gold-leaf altar and decorations.

Meanwhile, two young men pushed their way back and forth through the crowd, carrying candles from the basement to sell in the street fair outside.

Out there, in the carnival, a young boy hit four balloons in a dart game. Before he tried for the prizewinning fifth, he crossed himself - and missed.

Nearby, the Mercado Municipal was filled, not with tourists, but with hardworking Mexican breadwinners.

They eat tortillas and argue over vegetable prices. The whole place was filled with the aromas of food, the music of human voices. And the thing you find in abundance in Tijuana: flat-out, unabashed life in the open. If you go

Tijuana is 17 miles south of San Diego. You can get there by Mexicoach (which takes you directly to downtown Tijuana) or by Greyhound bus or the trolley, which leave you at the border (a short walk from downtown).

If you've rented a car in the States, ask the company if you can take it across the border. If you are traveling in your own car, you can get insurance in San Isidro, right across the border, according to the Mexican Government Tourism Office; policies are available for as short a period as one day. There are also agencies like AAA and Sanborn's at US border towns.

There's a helpful tourist information booth as you cross the border.

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