US – Mexico border: Tijuana on the right, San Diego Border Patrol offices on the left. 

by Jorge Angeles.

My name is Jorge Angeles, I am a 33 years old. I was raised in Tijuana, Mexico and lived there for the first 27 years of my life. Subsequently, I moved to Southern California to be with my now wife. I was raised in an upper-middle class, conservative Catholic household. Attended Catholic school all the way from kindergarten through high school (to say that after 15 years of religious education I was fed up with their cult, is an understatement). After high school, attended and graduated from medical school. Upon moving to the US, I was struck by the amount of options that one has in the medical field that are not just being a practicing clinician. Currently I am researcher at UCSD.

WHERE DID YOU GROW UP?

Cerro Colorado, the highest point in Tijuana. Used under CC license, labeled for non-commercial reuse. Photo by Danneephotography of DeviantArt.

I grew up in Tijuana, Mexico, the border between the United States and Mexico. To say that Tijuana does not have a good reputation is perhaps an understatement. The city is known to many as a hedonist paradise where drugs, sex and violence are common. And yes, that was all there, in a very specific part of town. The reality for most who grow up there is that, as the fifth largest city in Mexico, and one of the most active borders in the world, Tijuana is a bustling city with thriving businesses, a spectacular culinary scene, growing arts scene, and tons of cool bars and restaurants.

Tijuana is the northernmost city in Mexico, in essence making it the gateway to Latin America. Being so close to the US is, at least in my opinion, a tremendous privilege. A privilege not because we get to be close to the most powerful country in the world, but because it allows us to be exposed to two very different cultures. Just a few minutes drive in either direction and you are in a different world. Different languages, different people, different religions, different music, different everything! I consider myself very lucky to have been raised there. I think to a certain degree I now can consider myself bicultural.

I remember as a young kid, crossing the border on weekends with my parents and being captivated by the contrast between the two places. Whereas Tijuana was built haphazardly, buildings of all shapes and colors crammed together, and people driving and walking on the streets without much regard for the law (I often think that, at least when it comes to driving, the laws are more like suggestions); in San Diego, everything was neat and tidy, people followed the rules no matter if they made sense or not, all buildings looked alike, and everything was spaced out.

Another thing that always struck me as completely different was the relationship that people had with their food. In Mexico, food is a central part of the culture; it always seemed to me that in the US, cooking and eating is almost like a chore, something that needed to be done as efficiently as possible. You don’t even have to get out of your car to order and eat.

In my household, meal time was pretty much the only time of the day and the only reason that the whole family would get together. It was at the dinner (in reality it was lunch, but that is due to the cultural difference of “comida” vs cena – more on that later) table that we had the most lively and the most somber conversations; that we saw our father, that we were praised or punished. During family meals, each family member has a task: my mother and I would cook and serve, my father would provide and bless the meal, and my brothers were in charge of clearing the table.

WHERE ARE YOUR PEOPLE FROM?

Never really thought about who my people are. In Mexico, if you are not part of a minority group or native tribe, I don’t think that people classify themselves as having “our people”. We are all just Mexican. If I have to be more specific, my people would probably fall under the category of Mestizo, which is a mix of Spanish with indigenous blood.

There are indeed many different indigenous groups in Mexico. According to the Secretary of Culture there are around 68 different ethnic groups spread out across the country. However, for those of us that are not part of those indigenous groups, namely the Mestizo population, for the most part we are all just simply Mexican. Some are bronze-skinned, some are fair-skinned; some are brunettes other are blonde. But in the end, there is no clear distinction between groups as there is the United States, we do not have a classification system that categorizes people as African-American, Mexican-American, Asian-American, etc.

Although not directly answering the question, there is one thought I have been mulling on for a while now. It is the issue of being part of a “dominated” culture.

Viceroyalty of the New Spain 1800 (without Philippines).

Since its inception, Mexico – or more accurately “New Spain,” as it was called from the time of the conquest to the conclusion of the Independence War in 1821 – has been shaped by a more advanced culture coming over and destroying the existing one. It took me more than thirty years and an off-the-cuff comment from a Spaniard for me to realize this.

It was my first day in Barcelona, I had just gotten off the plane and was supposed to pick up the key to the apartment where I would stay. When talking to the front office attendant, I could not understand everything he said so I asked “Mande?” (In Mexico, mande is considered the formal and proper way of stating that you did not understand what the other person said, kind of like saying “what?”). The moment I said that his face was one of disgust.He said “You are from Mexico right?” I got a bit defensive about it (Other than the cab driver, he was the first person I talked to in Europe!). But then he pointed out something I had never considered:the original meaning of “Mande”.

Mande actually originates from a more formal expression which is “Mandeme” or in English, “Command me”. This was taught to us as the proper way, but it was really the way indigenous servants and slaves were supposed to address their masters. So here I was, thinking I was being all proper, and in reality, I was placing this dude I had never met, and would probably never see again in my life, on a pedestal.

I keep wondering what other customs we have that reflect that we have been a conquered people. Keep in mind that Mexico’s history is full of foreign invasions. Right after Mexico became an independent nation the French came over and beat us. Right after that, the Americans came in and took more than half our land. So what impact has this had on the culture? I am not sure. I am no historian, anthropologist, or sociologist. But it seems reasonable to me that a country that has been fucked with for its whole existence will have some pretty serious unresolved issues that surely reflect in their culture

La Malinche, detail from the “Monumento al Mestizaje” by Julián Martínez y M. Maldonado (1982). Currently in the Jardín Xicoténcatl, Barrio de San Diego Churubusco, Mexico city. Photo by: Javier Delgado Rosas

A possible example of this social complex, is the term “Malinchismo” which describes a person or attitude that prefers the foreign over the national. The term comes from the name of Malinalli, a woman that was given to Hernan Cortes as a slave during the conquest of what is today Mexico that served as a guide/interpreter. According to many historians, it was only because of her, that the conquistadors were able to forge alliances with rivals of the aztecs. Thus, setting the stage for the conquest of the whole civilization.

Regarding the relationship between Mexico and the United States, I think it is a love-hate kind of thing. One the one hand, we despise the Americans for taking advantage of us in a moment of weakness, invading our country, taking over more than half of the territory, the multiple US interventions across Latin America and, more recently, because of the US policy that has been one of the key drivers of the drug war in Mexico. On the other hand, you have this deep admiration of the efficiency, business acumen, progress, safety and freedom that characterize America. This set of conflicting feelings are very pervasive in Mexico, especially amongst those of us that grew up in the border region. Now, these feelings are not just a result of what happened 150+ years ago, they are still being fomented by contemporaneous economics and politics. Mexico, is still a country that largely depends economically on trade with the United States (and the money that people living in the US send back to their families in Mexico), this very skewed relationship between the countries, one in which one country has a lot of power over another, I think further reinforces the resentment that is a key part in the culture of a conquered people.

 

WHAT DO YOU EAT?

Cooking is very important to me. Some of my earliest memories are in the kitchen with my mom helping her make tortillas. When I was young she would always make classic Mexican dishes with her own little twist.

 

Tijuana style hot dogs. Photo from erench.com – used with permission under CC license, image labeled for noncommercial reuse.

We ate lots of classic Mexican food, lots of beans, rice, tacos, tortas, tamales, tostadas, sopes, mole, pozole, etc. We would also eat some American meals like hamburgers and hot dogs (TJ Style)*, but that is about it. By the way, if you have never tried Tijuana style hot dogs, you are missing out. Wrap the sausage in bacon, top it with chopped tomato and onions, crushed potato chips, sauteed mushrooms, grilled onions and the salsa of your choice. A modern-day delicacy.

As I have gotten older (and moved to the US) I now eat a more balanced diet. Mainly vegetables, meat, nuts, fats, and some fruits. I avoid any type of processed food (with a few key exceptions: Mexican style tomato sauce, bullion, and hot sauces); if it comes in a plastic bag or box I generally avoid it. I typically make everything from scratch. However, I do not restrict myself from anything, but since I eat pretty healthy throughout the week, if I go to a restaurant and want some bread, beer, or dessert, I will not hesitate.

Jorge E. Angeles