TIJUANA — A few years ago, actor Carlos Niebla took a job sorting tomatoes for a Carlsbad grower. He observed that the owners rented cardboard dwellings to "the little people," the illegal workers.
"I began to worry about what you call the wetbacks," Niebla said. Although personally well-treated, Niebla says he witnessed a system of bribery and paybacks involving the farm owner and U.S. immigration officials, in which the owner paid immigration agents a fee to return captured illegals, then took the fee out of the workers' pay.
"Why is there injustice--these kinds of things done to people--and I can't do anything?" Niebla asked himself.
Niebla's response was to act in socially provocative plays. "Almost all the plays I have done (since then) are political or social in nature, not commercial," he said.
He has performed Genet's "The Maids," an absurdist examination of identity, for inmates at the La Mesa Prison in Tijuana. He has given more than 100 performances of "The Zoo Story," Edward Albee's two-character play about class distinctions. Most of these performances were done in productions of no more than a week's duration.
Earlier this month, Niebla gave an impassioned one-man performance of an account of the bloody Cristero Rebellion. A rapt audience at a Tijuana nightclub listened as he recounted the irony of the violent reaction of members of the Roman Catholic Church to the enforcement of anti-clerical portions of the new constitution in the 1920s.
Many of Tijuana's artists are as committed as Niebla to creating socially responsible art or preserving Mexican cultural traditions.
Politically committed artists are a tradition in Latin American countries, said Paul Ganster, director of the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias at San Diego State University.
"Broadly speaking, in the 20th Century, Latin American artists have been very much attuned to politics," Ganster said. "Because of press censorship and . . . political oppression in various Latin American countries, one of the best ways to comment about society is through art, whether literary or in paintings or drama."
In particular, the ties of Mexican visual artists to political and social issues have "not been paralleled in any contemporary culture," according to the Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Art. This tradition grew out of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Ganster said, and is seen in the highly political mural art of internationally acclaimed individualist artists such as Orozco, Siqueiros and Rivera.
Mexican children "love to write and read poetry and perform skits on Mexican history," much more than their peers in the United States, Ganster said. "(Their) tradition of theater is very strong, probably stronger than that in our own culture."
Tijuana artists are inclined to provoke local awareness of border issues, including the impact of the migration from the south of Mexico, U.S. cultural imperialism, the class system, government corruption and problems of the poor.
Such intense political and social orientation is relatively rare among United States artists primarily because of the difference in the natures of the two countries, according to Joseph Nalven, assistant director of the Institute for Regional Studies.
"We're concerned here with the aesthetics--how things will affect the quality of life, the cost of my property," Nalven said. "In Tijuana, you're concerned with the brute force of living. They're still the Third World."
Arguably the most socially concerned artists in Tijuana are members of Grupo Teatral Los Desarraigados. Formed 15 years ago, the troupe performs primarily for blue-collar audiences, often in factories and neighborhood plazas.
In rock music, the members of Mercado Negro (Black Market) have revamped their heavy metal act in favor of one with more socially oriented messages that remind listeners of government corruption, drug dealing and a world on the brink of war.
Artist Gerardo Navarro, 23, who produced some critically praised drawings and paintings seen in San Diego a couple years ago, has since "moved on to political things, things that deal with the self in relation to society."
Navarro's "Prometeo a Diario," a multimedia performance art piece that combined live performances with slides of Tijuana scenes, the cartoon character Popeye and pornography, was performed twice at the Rio Rita nightclub in August.
"It's beautiful to be in the center of a city that's growing," Navarro said. "As an artist you reflect like a mirror. You have to look and say this is how we are.
"I can walk along Avenida Revolucion, getting all these sounds, two or three languages. But I have to be careful not to lose myself. It is all so commercial."
With performances such as "Promoteo a Diario," artists are pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable in this mostly conservative city. Fine arts photographer Jaime Miranda Marquez was gratified at the reception of some of his nudes in an exhibition at the Centro Cultural Tijuana.
"It was like breaking a taboo; it was the first show of nudes" at the Centro, Miranda said. "The commentary in the newspapers, all of it was favorable. It wasn't like the Puritans on the attack, nothing like that."