EDITOR NOTE: The San Diego and Tijuana region are two heavily-dependent communities with a complicated symbiotic relationship. This book gives great definition to our community and lifestyle, catalyzed by a border in-between.
Imagine a place that’s not San Diego, but it’s not Tijuana either.
Instead, this third municipality is a synthesis of the two cities with its own distinct language and leaders. Drawing on the best of both worlds, it has its own citizens; its own unique culture and rules.
That’s the idea that author and former journalist Michael S. Malone explores in his new book “El Tercer País: San Diego & Tijuana.” The book was showcased recently at the Tijuana Innovadora, an annual event highlighting the strengths of Mexico’s northern border city. It was sponsored by a group of binational leaders such as San Diego civic leader, real estate developer and philanthropist Malin Burnham, Mexican businessman Lorenzo Berho, former border czar Alan Bersin, and Jose Galicot, the president of the Tijuana Innovadora, among others.
We spoke with Malone about the project and what surprised him most about the San Diego and Tijuana region. His answers have been edited for space.
What was the catalyst for writing this book?
This book was born of the desire of leaders — and everyday people — in both San Diego and Tijuana to tell their story of their 250-year shared history, and especially the transformation of that relationship over the past 50 years.
I had worked with Malin Burnham on his autobiography, and apparently he had really liked working with me, and he wanted me to help tell the story of how Tijuana and San Diego formed this mutual friendship and accomplished their development over the last 20 years.
It has been nothing short of incredible, this melding together of two great cities from two different countries and cultures into a mutual friendship and a shared future.
It was remarkable how this partnership arose not from the work of governments but out of relationships between private citizens formed in schoolyards — like soccer moms watching their kids play on the sidewalks and then making playdates. It formed through the friendships between everyday people.
Now, as we have these supposed border crises everywhere, San Diego and Tijuana stand as a model of a binational community working collaboratively toward a shared destiny.
What surprised you the most while writing it?
Things that I never imagined, sitting on the outside, which I think even a lot of people in San Diego haven’t noticed.
Where do Tijuanenses go when they want a good deal on retail products go to shop? To Las Americas. They go north across the border to that shopping center — the giant retail outlet stores — right there in San Ysidro.
And where do San Diegans, more and more, go for a low-cost medical care? To Tijuana.
So you have the shoppers coming north and you have the doctors and nurses and patients going south to Tijuana. Well, that just throws the entire historical precedent upside down. And you begin to look at this place in a very, very different way.
The Tijuana Symphony comes up and plays in San Diego; there’s all sorts of Padres fans who live in Mexico and come up for games; thousands of doctors get up every morning and drive south to their offices in Tijuana.
Ironically, even as the wall went up, the locals have been figuring out solutions on how we get rid of the border.
Tell us about the cover and the title. (El Tercer País is Spanish for “the third country.” The photo’s perspective is from Tijuana looking north to buildings in San Diego.)
I wanted to call it “the third country” because wandering around that area I began to realize that an entirely new culture was being created …
It really is a separate world right there, and as you stand in line trying to get across the border from the south, and you’re looking around, talking to people ... and you go into the shopping center in the north ... you begin to realize that this is not a distinctly American place and it is not a distinctly Mexican place.
The cover of the book is a picture of the two cities together, and it’s sort of like those first shots from the moon of ‘What does the earth look like from the moon?’ No one had ever seen the whole earth before those photos. The photo looks at the whole region together.
Your book looks at the history of the development of San Diego and Tijuana together.
Tell us about that.
One of the things I discovered in writing this was the realization that I never had before is that San Diego was actually a big, developed city by the 1890s. You had the Hotel del Coronado. You already had the Port. You had the tall buildings. You had the Grant Hotel. You had all these things. Tijuana, in 1880, was a farm, and the border was basically just a dirt road and you just crossed the road.
So San Diego has always looked upon Tijuana as this little dusty village and it kept that attitude.
It didn’t help that by the time Tijuana started growing into a real city, you had the Mexican Revolution. And then you had the Battle of Tijuana, so the city is on fire and the people of San Diego come down and sit on the hills up above the border. As the battle takes place, they’re watching as women and children refugees are streaming across the border.
There’s this new growing attitude about Tijuana. It’s not a village anymore. It’s a town and it’s lawless.
Then in the ‘20s and ‘30s and ‘40s, San Diego gets to export all its sins down to Tijuana. Oh, prostitution? Go down to Tijuana. You want booze? We have Prohibition, but you can go buy all the booze you want in TJ. Drugs? TJ.
The problem is many San Diegans have never been to Tijuana lately. So, that image still exists today.
What is the future for this region?
Many of the businessmen and leaders — like Malin Burnham and Jose Galicot and James Clark — who have formed these relationships between the two cities are thinking, “Look at what we’ve accomplished, this far, over the last 20 years. But it isn’t institutionalized. It isn’t formalized. There’s no guarantee that this is going to keep going this way and we’re getting older.”
Everyone’s looking around going, “Can we maintain this after we’re gone?” Or, will it just slide back into the two cities looking warily across the fence at each other? Can we maintain this momentum that we have?
You know, maybe that means, in the long run, a separate sovereignty for the Tijuana River Valley there. The two cities are linked together in such a way that a lot of the federal border regulations don’t quite hold, so much so that there might even be a regional government, which would be the first in the world.
It would probably would be the first in history of two cities on the opposite sides of a border, sharing some sort of overarching governing body with some limited power, whose interests are just for that region right there.
We have a really different reality here on the ground, and maintaining those cross-border relationships is the shared destiny of Tijuana and San Diego.
Originally posted on The San Diego Union Tribune