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California and the West

Marriages Made in Tijuana

Culture: Latino men in San Diego, looking for women with traditional values, are heading south. But other complex issues can arise later.

March 01, 1998|ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Nick Inzunza, scion of a prominent border family, did not speak more than a few words of Spanish until he was an adult. But not long ago, Inzunza stood up before dozens of his Mexican fiancee's relatives and solemnly asked for her hand in an emotional Tijuana ceremony that seemed worlds away from the freeways and strip malls of Southern California.

Like a number of his Americanized Latino friends and acquaintances who are dating south of the border, Inzunza found love--and a return to his Mexican roots--in Tijuana. He went to the altar in November. His brother will marry a Tijuana woman in July.

"It's like going back to the Old Country to get married, except the Old Country is just 20 minutes away," said Inzunza, 27, who works as an aide to a county supervisor.

Driven by demographics, cultural nostalgia, family ties or sheer geographic coincidence, these young Latinos underscore the increasingly mobile transnational forces that the Tijuana-San Diego border share.

Rudy Murillo, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman in San Diego, says cross-border marriage is an old tradition. He himself was encouraged to go back to Mexico to find a wife, though he ended up marrying an Irish American woman.

Although there are no statistics, Murrillo believes that the trend is increasing with the growing populations of back-to-back twin cities whose residents increasingly view the other side of the border as a drive across town.

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More than 40,000 people cross the border to work every day, according to a study by San Diego Dialogue, a think tank that fosters cross-border relations. The study says that each month, 200,000 more cross north to San Diego, mostly to shop. And for the 300,000 who cross south to Tijuana monthly, the most common reason is family and social visits, it said. Thousands of affluent Tijuana high school students attend San Diego private high schools or state universities.

But as the border region becomes more interdependent, the intensification of cross-border social life reveals a complex web of cultural myths and realities that seem to define each side.

One big advantage of the Tijuana singles scene, some U.S. Latinos say, is that it allows them to step away from ethnic stereotyping--or even slurs--in Southern California.

In one quick drive, they feel magically transformed from "minorities" to highly eligible bachelors from a prosperous elite, according to Inzunza. And if they have only a few Latino haunts to choose from in downtown San Diego, Tijuana--and its pulsing array of discos, bars, cafes and nightclubs--is all theirs.

"We walk into a singles bar in [San Diego's] Pacific Beach, and it's like, 'Here comes the kitchen help,' " Inzunza said. "In San Diego, in the eyes of the majority, you're the son of the cook, the gardener or the maid. In Tijuana, you are an educated, dollar-earning American who speaks Spanish. You're at the top of the food chain."

Even those who say they have never experienced overt discrimination have heard enough stories to feel that they are perceived differently by white peers, even in sophisticated social settings.

"I've had friends tell me about going to get an award in a tuxedo at a black-tie dinner, and Anglo people will be like, 'Can you get me a drink?' " said Julio Galindo, 28, a Latino professional.

For Galindo, Tijuana had another allure. When Galindo moved to San Diego in 1995, he wanted to meet "someone like Mom"--the gentle Mexican mother who brought him to Moline, Ill., as an infant 28 years ago.

"The Latinas I dated in Illinois were pretty Anglicized. They had lost a lot of their culture," said Galindo, the executive director of the Barrio Logan Non-Profit Institute in San Diego, which mentors Latino children from grade school to college. "It's a conservative trend. We're looking for those traditional, religious values. We're trying to find that person Dad married. Maybe they can also help us with our Spanish."

Galindo married a Tijuana fashion designer last year, and they now have an infant son, Alec, named for one of the Irish immigrants who defected from the U.S. Army and defended Mexico in the Mexican-American War.

Some U.S. Latino men also believe that single Tijuana women are not as worldly as their American counterparts--and are more likely to be traditional wives.

"A lot of American women, they become a lawyer and it's like, boom, they're out of the house," said Raul Fontes, 28, who sells electrical products for a San Diego company in Tijuana, where he met his girlfriend.

"In Mexico, a woman is judged by how good a mother she is," Fontes said. "I couldn't really go out with a girl who put her career first."

Though there is no hard data to back it up, many young people say it is more common for young American men than women to marry south of the border. And some U.S. Latinas believe that it is because gender roles are more traditional on the Mexican side of the border.

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