“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
This quote speaks to me on so many levels — I followed my true love and fell in love with a place & people that I never thought lovable (due to many things, included but not limited to a raging drug war), all the while listening to my evil twins the “good Wendy” and the “evil Wendy” banter regularly over what was the reality and illusion of a place called Tijuana. The inner dialog was deafening a times, but it was a way for me to deal with and overcome my fears of a place that is misunderstood, has been defeated in many ways, and has many untruths told about it. So I have decided to blog for the next week or so about Tijuana — a retrospective series if you will, from the time I learned that we would be posted there, through our departure this past month……
The cacophony in my head started the 3rd week of January 2009. Steve announced that he had just been selected to be the US Consul General in Tijuana, Mexico. He tells me this in the check-out line at Trader Joe’s (Yes – we shop there too often). This was also the day after I read this article in the USA Today about Tijuana being so violent that even the US Marines were forbidden to go down there, and exactly one week after my Grandmother (who was my best friend, muse & therapist all rolled into one) passed away. I must have had a surreal expression on my face because the clerk looked at me as if I was a character right out of the Zombie Apocalypse, while I in turn was looking at Steve in an un-charming, not very diplo-wife sort of way. I was suddenly swirling in the midst of disbelief, grief & fear all wrapped up in one, because I like many, believed too much of what I read. And so began my new reality of planning how I was going to work and be a Mom in Baltimore, commute to this dangerous place, all while worry sick about our safety. OMG – what was I going to tell my MOTHER?!?!? While the good twin started humming “Take it Easy” by the Eagles, the evil twin was already smirking and singing “narcocorridos” – ballads about the Mexican drug war.
I had 6 months to get my head wrapped around this news. The dialog between my ears was deafening. I was frightened, yet refused to admit this to family & friends. What was the point really. So I decided to learn as much as could about Tijuana. I read the “Post Report” which it is a valuable resource provided by OBC (overseas Briefing Center) which is part of FSI (Foreign Service Institute) which is part of the Department of State. I sometimes think the inter-government agencies are like a bunch of Russian nesting Matryoshka dolls!! This report included information such as local schools, importing your car, medical & health issues, security issues, housing, pet importation & quarantine, local employment for family members, housing, etc, etc, etc. I Googled “Tijuana” and tried to understand what I was getting into. In March CNN posted a video interview on the subject of safety there. Gun fights in the streets, decapitations, bodies hanging from bridges and corrupt police officers to name a few niceties. The “good Wendy” listened and then told Steve categorically when visiting, she was not leaving the house ever. My evil twin had visions of dancing in the streets wil the locals on Avenida Revolución with gunfire playing as background music. My Diplomat said “OK Dear, and by the way you have to go to get a medical clearance”. What? Wasn’t having my Social Security number and background check enough? Did I really need a chest x-ray, blood work and an exam by a gynecological stranger. UGH!
And so it began. On August 7th, 2009 we flew non-stop on Southwest Airlines to SAN DIEGO. I am good at many things, but geography is not my strong suit. Tijuana and San Diego are sister cities, and our home in Tijuana was 25 minutes south of the San Diego airport INCLUDING the time to cross an international border! So despite the jet-lag and pathological fear of flying that I have (the twins listen to music to drown out the white noise of the engines) — I thought I might be able to pull this off logistically. I was immediately struck with how densely populated TJ (nickname for Tijuana) was, how there were 24 hour pharmacies on almost every corner, and a distinct sewage smell coming from the Tijuana river. I also noticed caravans of armed military personnel. But like a dog that gets distracted by squirrels, my attention shifted to the STARBUCKS with valet parking smack in the middle of the city! I needed to get over my latte addiction. It may kill me one day.
We were met at our house (a 6 bedroom compound large enough to host 400 people in the back yard) by a gardener named Benancio and a housekeeper by the name of Rogelia who welcomed me with the nicest “Bienvenidos” I could have hoped for– a warm smile, open arms & a huge bouquet of birds of paradise. She was my first impression of the people and she rose to the occasion. I have met many Mexican people in our 3 years since that day, and she was the rule, not the exception.
I wont lie; there were several nights when I heard gunshots ring out not far from our house. To this day, Steve will tell you that they were fireworks. I would have preferred white noise by the hummingbird wings fluttering in unison in my birds of paradise plant. I had also heard about bodies being dissolved in acid, so I kinda stuck to my guns the first few times I visited. Steve went to work and I worked from the confines of the house…..
This did not last very long. By September, evil Wendy had sided with Steve and was chanting “Let’s get the Party Started” by Pink, while “Breathe” by Anna Nalick was being drown out in the background. So what did we do? PARTY of course! That’s right – we hosted a welcome party for ourselves that included 200 of Tijuana’s best including political officials, local business men & women, people from the arts community, police & MEDIA!!! We were going to be plastered all over the news & local papers so that the drug cartels would know exactly what we looked like. OK – so reality check here. These people looked normal to me, no one came shooting and there is big business and the arts thriving in this city. You probably don’t know this, but if you have a Samsung TV — it was most likely manufactured in Tijuana. AND – if you know any one with a pacemaker – TJ is one of the largest producers of heart valves & pacemakers. The list goes on.
The truth is while the singing “gemelos” clearly heard the “fireworks”, they NEVER saw any signs of violence with their own eyes. Thus, the noise started to slowly settle and the girls compromised on “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel. From there we stepped out together, and by December were singing Christmas Carols as one & delivering gifts to a local orphanage.
I am a Baltimore girl, so here are the facts — In the most violent year in Tijuana, there were still more homicides in my home town per capita. Sure – I wasn’t going to totally let me guard down, but at least there was a bit of a beautiful duet emerging. More about venturing out next time.