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California and the West

On the Border, the Best of Both Worlds

Culture: Upscale fronterizos live, work and play in two countries. Some see them as vanguard.

June 25, 1997|ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TIJUANA — An international border stands between Norma Ojeida and her job.

Every morning, Ojeida drives from her suburban San Diego home to Baja California, where she heads the social studies department at a Rosarito think tank.

She's got plenty of company. Her U.S. border community, Chula Vista, is jokingly dubbed "Chulajuana," because it is becoming a de facto suburb of Tijuana.

Ojeida is one of the tens of thousands of people who commute to work across the San Diego-Tijuana border every day. They are among the most affluent and socially mobile of the region's fronterizos--"borderlanders"--whose personal, professional and educational lives transcend the uninviting corrugated steel fence that slices through the gullies and canyons of the border badlands.

These upscale fronterizos lead rich, complicated lives. They live in Tijuana and send their children to San Diego private schools, some as far north as La Jolla. Some live in San Diego and enroll their children in Tijuana schools.

Children graduate from high school on one side of the border and go on their first date on the other. They have the traditional nochebuena supper on Christmas Eve in Tijuana and unwrap their gifts the next morning in San Diego.

Far from seeing it as a hassle, many fronterizos feel they get the best of both worlds.

"You have the luxury of living where you want, working where you want, having the identity you want," Ojeida said. "It allows us to take what we want from both sides and ignore the rest."

In an era of increasingly global trade and cultural ties, these bilingual cosmopolites represent the border vanguard, analysts say.

"The ability to negotiate the two worlds is where the future of the region lies," said Chuck Nathanson, the executive director of San Diego Dialogue, a policy center that favors cross-border integration. "Those with these demographic advantages have career advantages and leadership advantages."

If the cross-border fronterizos belonged to one country, the bustling Tijuana-San Diego metropolitan sprawl would be their capital.

About 40,000 people commute from the Tijuana area every day to work on the U.S. side of the border, according to a study by San Diego Dialogue. Tijuana is home to many Mexicans who hold U.S. citizenship or visas granting them free or regular entry to the United States. Thousands more operators of maquiladora assembly plants, entrepreneurs and executives head south to work in Tijuana.

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The high level of trans-border mobility is tied to the relative prosperity of both cities. San Diego is the most affluent city on the U.S.-Mexico border. Tijuana is the only Mexican border city that is more middle class than lower income.

That means many Mexican fronterizos come to San Diego with plenty of cash to spend--an estimated $2.8 billion a year.

"This really does stimulate the creation of a regional San Diego-Tijuana society as well as economy," said Peter Smith, the director of Latin American Studies at UC San Diego. "This . . . will mean more pressure for cultural integration at all social levels.

"That means bilingualism in the workplace, increasing acceptance of Mexican workers, and in some way rethinking San Diego's place in the regional and world economy."

The sprawling Tijuana-San Diego urban area is one of eight major twin cities that dot the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, a dynamic binational region of more than 11 million people.

"Historically, the border has been viewed by central Mexico as the barbaric north, a frontier where civilization had not been established," said Maria Sobek, a Chicano studies professor at UC Santa Barbara. "Now . . . in the popular imagination, there is a fascination with the border. It's simmering with energy."

For impoverished Mexican fronterizos, crossing into the United States legally is generally not an option. Illegal crossings are tougher than ever.

For the wealthier fronterizos, straddling two worlds can mean difficult lifestyle decisions. Even seemingly simple choices raise highly personal identity issues, shaping families' traditions, values and daily lives.

First, fronterizos must decide where they live. Some, like playwright Gabriela Johnston, never quite make up their minds.

Johnston is a U.S. resident--but not yet a citizen--who is a production manager at Radio Latina, which has offices in Tijuana and a studio in Chula Vista.

She is married to sculptor Kim Johnston, an Anglo U.S. borderlander who speaks working Spanish.

They shuttle between a house in Playas de Tijuana--a Mediterranean-style beach community of clay-tile roofs and flaming sunsets--and a residence in San Diego.

The couple pays close attention to Tijuana television border-crossing updates, the fronterizo's equivalent of Los Angeles freeway reports. Three years ago, northward crossings could take an hour or two; today they take less than 20 minutes.

When U.S. border inspectors ask Gabriela Johnston where she lives, "I tell them I live in the region--in Tijuana and San Diego. It annoys them, but it's true."

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