Mexico’s City of Promise

Alberto Limon Padilla started with a shabby clapboard store in a working-class neighborhood. He went on to build Tijuana’s first shopping mall and today presides over a business empire.

Aurora Pelayo came to Tijuana a penniless single mother to work in a factory. Today she is secretary-general of the Baja California Democratic Revolutionary Party.

Justina and Rafael Brambila opened a street-side taco stand, La Especial, on Avenida Revolucion when they came from Jalisco in 1948. Today it is a 180-seat restaurant, though the original stand still draws crowds. Their son Alfredo is a successful Tijuana gastroenterologist.

“We came here with nothing, worked night and day, and thanks to God, we prospered,” said Justina Brambila, who will be 90 in March.

“People come from all over Mexico to find work here. Just look at all the ‘help wanted’ signs,” she said. “People bad-mouth Tijuana. They’ve called it Tijuana the Sinner, Tijuana the Pervert. Now they should call it Tijuana the Refuge for Everyone. Because that’s what it has become.”

If the pulsing crisscross of the border is this city’s heartbeat, the legions of immigrants who flow into Tijuana from all over Mexico are its soul. The newcomers lured by the promise of a job and a better life have reinvented this former bawdy backwater into a teeming city of more than a million people where the dream of making it can become a reality.

Its fabled 1% unemployment rate attracts men and women looking to work hard and break free of the barriers to upward mobility that are found in many Mexican cities where land is scarce and those born poor are condemned to die with nothing. Today, only 40% of Tijuana citizens were born here.

“Tijuana is the American dream for Mexicans,” said Nick Inzunza, a member of a family prominent on both sides of the San Diego-Tijuana border. “It means jobs. People come here to work hard and get ahead. It is the land of opportunity.”

Like the American dream, Tijuana’s is something of a myth. It is highly unlikely that a poor Mexican will become a millionaire here, Inzunza added.

“The last time I heard about a poor Mexican Indian who came from Oaxaca and hit the big-time was Benito Juarez, and he’s been dead a hundred years,” Inzunza said, referring to one of Mexico’s most beloved presidents. “Everybody loves that story–‘he started with nothing’–but it’s almost never true.”

Success is relative. For the newly arrived, it can mean simply having a job that can feed, clothe and shelter the family. In a country facing its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, anything beyond that is an achievement.

So in Tijuana, most real-life Horatio Algers are like Juan Jose Espiritu, 23, who came from Guadalajara when he was 13 with his divorced mother and got work cleaning a stained-glass window studio to help support his five younger siblings.

He now earns $480 a month–the salary of many police, teachers, journalists and bank employees–creating Tiffany-style windows with peacocks and ships.

He dreams his good fortune will give his younger siblings educational opportunities he was denied. He says he won’t allow them to quit school to work, as he did.