In Zona Centro, the downtown district in Tijuana, a city on the U.S.–Mexico border just south of San Diego, DIY-chic is all the rage. La Mezcalera, a mezcal bar and nightclub that’s regarded as the city’s own Studio 54, is decorated with Simon Says consoles and old LPs. Indie Go, one of four bars that sit in the hipster enclave Callejon de la Sexta, masks its plywood décor with deep-red lighting, a wall-sized mirror, and the all-encompassing thud of a techno beat.
As for La Bodega Aragón...well, it’s just DIY.
One Friday night in May, the tiny club’s walls were still sticky with wet paint. Bartenders served drinks in the kind of plastic cups you’d find at a house party. The P.A. system was scratchy; the microphone cut out intermittently. Worst of all, the lighting was installed incorrectly. Instead of lighting up the performers onstage, a machine’s flickering red, green, and blue lights blinded the four dozen college students in the audience.
But I didn’t come for the ambiance. At the invitation of Derrik Chinn, an American who lives in Tijuana, I came to see the Guacamole Music Fest, a two-day festival put on by the University of Baja California that played host to electro bands from across Mexico and Latin America, including some of Tijuana’s best up-and-coming acts.
Colorful lasers shot into the crowd. Gray smoke was ejected from a machine. Santos, an electronic dance outfit from Tijuana, broke down the musical formula invented by Nortec Collective—a world-famous assemblage of D.J.s and producers who mix techno with norteño, an accordion-driven genre popular in northern Mexico—to its basest parts: over a humongous four-to-the-floor beat, a young man used a laptop and a USB keyboard to fire off triumphant rave synths and snippets of accordion and tuba looped ad nauseam. As if that wasn’t enough, a live drummer added fills to the relentless groove.
When it comes to dance music, Tijuana’s claim to fame is Nortec Collective. Their mashups perfectly capture how the city’s disparate cultures often sit side by side, feeding off each other. On the opening track of Corridos Urbanos, a new album by Nortec’s Clorofila, the interplay between honking accordions and glistening synths mirrored the scene at La Bodega Aragón. In the club, young people played dance music on laptops. At the Hotel Aragón bar next door, guys in cowboy hats played tunes on guitars and accordions. Drink in hand, I freely traversed the two spaces.
But in the 10 years since Nortec first emerged, their romantic sound hasn’t evolved the way Tijuana has. Ten years ago, navy boys and college co-eds would flock here to get plastered at gaudy balcony bars. But since the September 11 attacks, tourist traffic has gradually waned. In 2008, at the height of the city’s drug violence, tourists deserted the city completely.
In their absence, locals have reclaimed the area as their own. Tourist bars have been colonized by hipsters. Shuttered gift shops and old storage spaces have turned into vintage clothing stores and bars. And venues like La Sexta House of Music and La Bodega Aragón are supporting a burgeoning local music scene, with bands like Santos capturing the rawness of it all.
By all accounts, the hipster transformation began with a mezcal bar.
In 2008, rival drug cartels were fighting a savage war on Tijuana’s streets. Victims were being decapitated or castrated. Their tongues were being cut out. The really unlucky ones would be stuffed into vats of acid.
The violence had a chilling effect on the city’s thriving nightlife. High-priced clubs and restaurants became magnets for kidnapping and violence. Locals would stay home. Or they would hang out at bars in the city’s red-light district, where they wouldn’t draw attention to themselves. Along Avenida Revolucion, the main tourist drag downtown, there were no gringos to be found.
As the months wore on, Tijuanenses eventually grew tired of staying cooped up inside, club owners and residents say. When La Mezcalera opened its doors on Calle Sexta near Revolucion in January 2009, it hit a nerve. The bar quickly took on a diverse clientele. When more and more patrons began asking for drinks besides mezcal and beer, the bar’s owners emptied out an old storage space adjoining the front room, painted the walls, added a disco ball, and opened up an incredibly chic, if modestly-sized, nightclub.
Within a year, according to Sergio Gonzalez, a co-owner of La Mezcalera, over a dozen bars opened in the area.
“Without realizing, I think they began a revolution in Tijuana’s nightlife,” Lorena Cienfuegos, the co-owner of Indie Go, told me. “We started consuming music from our country, rather than importing it. We started going out—that was something we were [previously] afraid of because of the violence.”
Tijuana may be a vice city, but musicians and club owners say it’s a conservative one.
“In general, Tijuanenses tend to play it quite safe when deciding which shows to attend,” Moisés Horta, who plays in the band Los Macuanos, told me via e-mail. “It’s never really been an issue of musical quality so much as production value. The undecided spectator will more often than not lean toward the party with the biggest budget, the glossiest flyer, and the swankiest venue.”
When I visited, La Bodega Aragón was anything but swanky—and the very antithesis of big-budget. On the second night of the Guacamole Music Fest, Antonio Jiménez of María y José, a solo electronic project, sounded like a lo-fi Panda Bear as he sang casually over sample-driven Latin grooves and simple synth melodies playing from—what else?—a computer.
In the same way that downtown’s DIY-chic runs in the opposite direction of the gaudy bars that used to define Avenida Revolucion, acts like María y José are running away from the overblown raves that have defined electronic music in Tijuana. Three years ago, Jiménez and the guys who would later become Los Macuanos—Moisés Horta, Moisés López, and Reuben Torres, all in their early 20s—started throwing “No Rave” parties in Tijuana and Chula Vista, a U.S. city just south of San Diego, where they played minimal house, funky no-wave, and “random noise,” Horta said.
“At that time, electronic music in Tijuana consisted of massive cash cows masquerading as raves, with D.J.s you’d never even heard of and music you couldn’t care less about,” he wrote. “So our response, naturally, was to create our own scene.”
María y José’s song “Espíritu Invisible” brought their scene to a new level. The song’s hypnotic groove and darkly spiritual lyrics—“And where did your great God go? / He took everything and left you the pain,” Jiménez sings in Spanish, as I’ve roughly translated—inspired them to be more personal and regional. The results show in El Fin Mix, released online by New Other Thing, in which Los Macuanos offer up danceable yet dark grooves laden with Afro-Cuban horns and Latin rhythms.
At this point, whatever they’ve created is still in its infancy, Horta says. But with homey electro bands like Tijuana’s Ibi Ego and Aguascalientes’s Capullo on the scene, something refreshingly un-electro-trash seems to be growing.
It certainly helps that there are new venues downtown.
“The proliferation of venues has definitely afforded more options, not to mention the fact that you have a large cross-section of your potential audience cramped within a relatively tiny radius,” Horta wrote to me. “There’s a high possibility that drifting spectators might accidentally come upon your show and become hooked as a result. Of course, there’s an equal chance that people might just wander out in the middle of your show. But in general, I think the possibilities are more beneficial.”
Calle Sexta, a bustling street that cuts through Revolucion, forms the center of Tijuana hipsterdom. At the corner of Revolucion and Calle Sexta, La Sexta House of Music books bands and D.J.s. Just down the street, La Estrella, one of the city’s oldest and most cherished clubs, sits right next door to La Mezcalera. Across the street, there’s the longtime hotspot Dandy Del Sur. A short walk away, the cozy alleyway Callejon de la Sexta is always overflowing with young hipsters.
Tijuana’s violence has dropped significantly since January, when federal police captured Teodoro Garcia Simental, a ruthless crime lord responsible for much of the violence. Now, hipness is expanding beyond Calle Sexta.
One sunny Saturday in June, I walked around the area surrounding Avenida Revolucion with Jason Fritz, a graduate student at San Diego State University who lives in Tijuana. A pitiful donkey painted with zebra stripes was lounging on the street—as it has been for as long as I can remember. At pharmacies, salespeople in white lab coats hawked discount drugs. Aside from that, though, this wasn’t the same Avenida Revolucion I remember from my childhood.
We checked out vintage clothing stores. We ate at a gourmet hamburger joint. At a cavernous mall once filled with indistinguishable gift shops, a painter worked in his studio, a graffiti store had designer spray cans on display, and a barista at a quaint café was making cappuccinos.
On the corner of Revolucion and Calle Sexta, La Mezcalera’s Gonzalez and his business partner, César Fernández, were overseeing the construction of a ’60s-themed diner. Construction workers were putting up posters of Andy Warhol–style Campbell’s Soup cans labeled “Pozole,” referring to the popular Mexican stew.
Around the corner we ran into Tony Tee, a local promoter, who showed us around a sleek new club he was designing called Revue, which was quite the departure from the garish balcony bars of tourist-era Revolucion. Inside, I admired a spacious D.J. booth that was under construction.
Tee was feeling optimistic.
“Instead of trying to attract the tourists, we’re gonna attract locals,” he said. “But you know what’s going to happen? The tourists are going to come, too.”
PETER HOLSLIN is the music editor of San Diego CityBeat, an alternative newsweekly in San Diego, California. Read more of his writing at peterholslin.wordpress.com