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Southern Exposure : In Tijuana, Many Don't Know Who Bob Dole Is, but Civic Boosters and Politicians See the GOP Convention as a Chance to Recast the City's Image

August 12, 1996|ROBIN ABCARIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TIJUANA — Never mind the ugly iron fence. Never mind the long exhaust-scented waits to get across the border into the United States. And never mind the huge "Welcome Bill" billboard left over from some other politician's visit to the region.

Tijuana is trying in its own way to capitalize on the massive influx of upscale migrant workers into San Diego this week. They are journalists, you see, and they just keep coming and coming and coming.

Political activists here have seized the opportunity to excoriate the Republican Party for its hard-line stance on immigration. City boosters hope to sweeten the place's unsavory image. And entrepreneurs, naturally, want a piece of the gobs of money changing hands during the GOP convention.

As for the rest of the population, however, there seems little interest in the American political passion play north of the border, and only the vaguest idea about the man about to be crowned.

"Bob Dole?" said Pedro Gracia, a 23-year-old municipal police officer when asked if he knew the name. "No. I don't think so."

"Most people don't really know who Bob Dole is," said an appointee of the governor of Baja, who asked not to be identified. "Some people know who Pat Buchanan is, because he wants a 2,000-mile fence on the border.

"But they definitely know who Pete Wilson is. And they don't like him. All the fear-mongering and scapegoating."

They also know the word "Riverside," said a labor official who represents maquiladora workers. It has, apparently, become a kind of shorthand for the physical abuse of illegal immigrants, the way the phrase "Rodney King" means police brutality.

"We understand the sovereignty of countries," said Alfonso Martinez Guerra, a federal deputy (or congressman) who was attending a conference to discuss, among other things, a bilateral immigrants'-rights march on Washington in October. "But recent events are changing the idea we have of the United States as a leader of human rights."

Indeed, what is perceived as an immigration problem north of the border is perceived as a human-rights issue to the south.

A huge banner draped across a fence to catch the eye of drivers returning north through the border here features the Statue of Liberty with this message: "Ningun es illegal." (No one is illegal.)

*

Despite the tension over the immigration issue, Tijuana sees itself as an integral part of the San Diego economy, part of a huge "border region," that rises and falls economically with its northern neighbor.

"We have this saying," said Baja Secretary of Tourism Juan Tintos Funcke. "When California sneezes, Baja gets pneumonia."

This is why the massive media event that is the GOP convention could not be ignored.

"We said, 'Wow, an estimated 15,000 members of the media will be in San Diego," said Tintos. "They'll have two stories in mind for Tijuana--drug traffic and illegal crossings."

This doesn't sit well with Tintos, who has spent the last 18 of his 37 years promoting Baja's sandy beaches and Tijuana'a abundant shopping possibilities. (This season's hot theme in blankets and pinatas: El Jorobado de Notre Dame.)

So, last May, he met with a group of "top-notch" businessmen at their weekly golf outing. They admitted they had squandered the opportunity to promote Tijuana in 1988, when the Super Bowl came to San Diego, in 1992 when the America's Cup came to San Diego, and even as far back as 1984 when the Olympics came to Los Angeles. The coalition formed Grupo Imagen Tijuana, and raised $70,000.

"I know it's not much," said Tintos, "but I opened a [Tijuana] paper this morning and someone was saying it's disgusting the state is spending $70,000 to bring Republican tourism to Baja."

The group hired a San Diego public relations firm and developed a campaign: 200 videos, 500 press kits. A third of the budget was spent on a newspaper ad.

On Sunday morning, if they could find it in the hefty special Convention edition of the San Diego Union-Tribune, visiting journalists would see the fruit of Tintos' idea, a full-page open letter to the citizens of San Diego, "Tijuana: The Untold Story."

To paraphrase the campaign: Despite the 1995 crash of the Mexican peso, Tijuana is in the midst of an economic boom, with a mere 1% unemployment rate. . . . We know there is an immigration problem, but most of those immigrants are from far away places and we don't especially want them, either. . . . And those drugs you keep reading about? They don't originate in our city. They're just passing through on their way to you, among the most voracious consumers of illegal drugs on the planet. We in Tijuana just happen to be "geographically unlucky."

In the video, an announcer says: "To most of the world, the border area must seem like a war zone . . . an open sewer that throws garbage of every kind into the United States."

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