An Opera Festival Holds the Seeds for a Tech Revolution in Tijuana

6/2/14Follow @samquinones7

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social norms that emanate from Mexico’s capital.

“Tijuana is very outward looking—north to the U.S. and east to Asia,” said Derek Footer, a San Diego tech investor who has been working to establish a hardware incubator to work with Tijuana’s maquiladoras. “If you go to Mexico City, businesses there are very locally oriented. There’s a lot of navel gazing. In Tijuana, people are very conscious about the rest of the world.”

Tijuana was isolated from the rest of Mexico through its early years. It once took several days just to drive the hundred-mile road from Mexicali to Tijuana. San Diego provided far easier access to the rest of the world.

Even when connected to the rest of Mexico, Tijuana was viewed as barely Mexican, a distant backwater too close to the gringo and too far from what was considered the important goings-on in Mexico City. Federal bureaucrats demanded extra pay to work there.

Today, Tijuana lacks much of the gorgeous colonial architecture that attracts tourists to Mexico. It’s also missing much of the rigidity that arose from old Mexico’s economy. It wasn’t dominated by families with political connections, eager to use them to retain their privilege. Instead, Tijuana’s economy was populated mostly by people who had made their lives outside of Mexico’s social hierarchy, people who learned how to provide for themselves.

Tijuana Opera Street Festival stage

Tijuana Opera Street Festival stage

That’s what opera fans did when they created the festival. It’s what budding tech entrepreneurs have set out to accomplish as well.

Proximity to the United States made the city attractive to Mexicans anxious for change. Those who stayed found that the city’s vibrant and relatively free economy allowed them a decent life without having to leave Mexico.

Because those people were leaving areas impoverished by political corruption, Tijuana also acquired a decidedly anti-central government bent. Just across the border, people could see other ways of running a government, or an arts group, or a business.

It’s no coincidence that Baja California Norte, the state farthest from Mexico City and closest to California, and which includes Tijuana and Mexicali, was the first to reject Mexico’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). In 1989, the center-right National Action Party’s Ernesto Ruffo won the governorship, a crucial step toward ending Mexico’s political monopoly.

Tijuana’s first opera fans subsisted on performances they heard on California public radio and television, and that they saw in San Diego. So, too, the city’s tech upstarts have looked north for inspiration.

“It’s the influence we have from the U.S. and San Diego,” said Miguel Marshall, a Tijuana entrepreneur. “We see California.”

The independence of spirit so evident in Tijuana has sparked its music and arts, as well as the entrepreneurial impulse that has begun to thrive in the city’s high-tech world.

“Mexico is transitioning from a poor country to a middle-class country,” Footer said. “It’s not the United States, but it is much farther down the path than people realize. Tijuana is one place where you see that.”

Sam Quinones is a former Los Angeles Times reporter. You can reach him at samquinones7@yahoo.com or www.samquinones.com Follow @samquinones7

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