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

6/2/14Follow @samquinones7

On the first weekend in July, Tijuana holds its annual Opera Street Festival in the Colonia Libertad neighborhood just east of the San Ysidro border crossing near San Diego.

Seven thousand people converge on the rough-hewn Mexican neighborhood, founded by migrants, smugglers, and plaster statue makers.

A hundred yards from the wall that separates the U.S. and Mexico, organizers erect a main stage and block off two streets for art booths, clowns, jugglers, and wandering minstrels. Singers from the city’s robust opera scene mount the stage to perform a Saturday’s worth of Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner.

The festival is known as one of the great arts events in Mexico—as much for how it grew as for the music and cultural experience. So what does it have to do with technology innovation?

The Opera Street Festival embodies the same kind of self-reliance and risk-taking that characterizes the emerging tech scene in this city of 1.3 million. The currents that combined to create the festival are also bearing a growing move in Tijuana toward start-ups, risk-taking, and high-tech innovation.

Opera and music fans with more desire than cash took a risk and started the street festival in 2003 with private donations and volunteer labor, and very little government largesse—a rarity among Mexican arts groups.

Tijuana Opera Street Festival 2012 2 (Sam Quinones)They came from Tijuana’s relatively large middle class. Like middle classes everywhere, they want arts and musical instruction for their children, and this has spawned the city’s robust opera and classical music scene. Tijuana’s middle class also created a demand for fine food. All this, along with the balmy Baja California climate, helps make Tijuana a place where creative people want to live.

At the core of the middle class here are a large number of engineers, accountants, and other business professionals trained to work in the maquiladoras, the foreign-owned assembly plants that put together medical devices, electronics, auto parts, and more.

They and their children have been at the forefront of the movement for both better cultural options and new opportunities in tech innovation.

Geography also has helped. Tijuana grew up far from Mexico City and the 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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