It's midnight in Tijuana, and inside the Nuevo Ferrari junkyard on the deserted boulevard Diaz Ordaz, dancers in matching red-and-yellow mechanics' uniforms balance on rusting steel railings. Sound artists blast cavernous mixes from a hollowed-out Volkswagen van. Spray paint stencils of wrenches and demolished cars cover four stories of towering cement walls. There are TV screens to watch, T-shirts to buy and, outside, DJs spin icy house music in front of balletic makeshift auto sculptures.
On the junkyard roof, beneath the burnt-out Ferrari sign and in front of stacks of crushed car frames, an audience of bundled-up young Tijuanenses sit in upholstered car seats salvaged from Ford Rangers and watch a local indie film, which ends with a kid telling his father that he wants to be a rapper, not a mariachi singer. Off in the distance, Tijuana looks like the most beautiful city on earth, a swelling ocean of flickering hillside lights that spill out in endless waves.
The junkyard's makeover was the conceptual centerpiece of "Yonke Life," a multimedia art event that, in September 2002, put Tijuana filmmakers, VJs, dancers, DJs and visual artists in conversation with co-conspirators from nearby San Diego. The gathering at the yonke--gringofied borderspeak for "junkyard"--was the perfect setting for a public window into the bustling Tijuana art scene of the new millennium: an unsuspecting cathedral of low-maintenance cultural recycling where vehicles crushed into scrap are given new life as parts for new creations. Between the invited performers and the paying audience, "Yonke Life" was a who's who of the Tijuana pop art scene--writers mingled with rave kids, painters chatted with DJs. It only took a few days for the Yonke Web site to be updated with commentary that weighed in on the event's cultural significance as a hallmark of the new Tijuana art boom.
But the boom can't be called a renaissance because nothing is being reborn. For the first time in the city's short century-plus history, Tijuana is witnessing a sweeping artistic birth--the development of a diverse and multifaceted artistic tradition. Which is not to say that Tijuana has never produced its own writers, painters or musicians, or that it hasn't been the subject of artistic attention. In the 1980s, Tijuana was a key subject of the Border Art Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronterizo, a pioneering binational collective that included artists from Tijuana, San Diego and Mexico City.
Nor is it to discount the roles of Baja's leading cultural institute, the Centro Cultural Tijuana, founded in 1982, and inSITE, a border art exhibition that has been attracting experimental artists from around the world since 1992. But Tijuana has never experienced what has been happening since the late '90s: a generation-based cultural flowering that is, little by little, transforming the city once best known as a Third World amusement park of devastating poverty, strip shows and quickie divorces into a major cutting-edge hub of Mexican art and a globally recognized pop cultural capital.
Visual artists such as Marcos Ramirez (who goes by "Erre"), Tania Candiani and Raul Cardenas exhibit at the Whitney Biennial and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Salvador Ricalde, Julio Orozco, Giancarlo Ruiz and Ana Machado have helped galvanize an indie video scene that didn't exist until the '90s. Veteran novelists and poets such as Rosina Conde, Luis Humberto Crosthwaite and Roberto Castillo, along with acclaimed newcomers Carlos Adolfo Gutierrez Vidal and Heriberto Yepez, are seeing their work included in English-language literary anthologies north of the border.
The scene has even spawned its own design-heavy culture magazine (Sube Baja), its own record labels (Static, Mil), its own upstart TV network (BulboTV) and a hipster cadre of Internet bloggers who offer instant diaries of their daily lives, from manifestos of boredom to tales of losing a passport and not being able to cross to San Diego to see the premiere of "The Matrix Reloaded." "This city fascinates me," reads one recent Web entry. "It nourishes me with multiple forms. But it also cages me. It limits me. . . . I need to reinvent my experience. Reinvent myself so I'll have something new to offer."
Most agree that the turning point came in 1999 with the birth of the Nortec Collective, a group of local electronic musicians who, at packed parties throughout the city, started mixing traditional Mexican music with glistening techno and house sounds. The music gave Tijuana's twentysomething generation its first organic soundtrack--a direct reflection of Mexican border life at the turn of a new century. It also earned Tijuana its best international PR in years: Major newspapers and magazines were writing about something other than lost tequila weekends, narcotraficantes and migrant border deaths.