Publication Date

December 1, 2009

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

Less than 20 miles and a short drive or trolley ride from the U.S.-Mexican border, San Diego has long been shaped by its close-knit relationship with Mexico. The quick jaunt from the downtown convention and tourist quarters to Tijuana skirts the historically Mexican and Mexican American communities of Logan Heights, southeast San Diego, Imperial Beach, and San Ysidro. It is a reminder of the area’s history as part of the Spanish Empire, the Mexican Republic, and, more recently, a vibrant transnational metroplex. Just across the border, the visible shantytowns perched along the hills of Tijuana emphatically underscore that the region is home to dramatic inequity, interdependence, and conflict. It is here where the flow of goods and capital encouraged by NAFTA and free trade is juxtaposed to the ever-increasing militarization of the border and control of people crossing from one nation to the other.

Of course, complexity and contradiction are nothing new to this borderland. From a small outpost of less than a thousand people at the turn of the 19th century to a global city of more than two million, Tijuana has conjured competing images in the minds of San Diegans. On the one hand, Tijuana has often been associated with immorality, violence, and perversion. On the other, it has been identified as a place of desire and emancipation from the constricting character of life north of the border. The city’s growth was fueled by migration northward during the Mexican Revolution and prohibition in the United States during the 1920s, when “red zones” catered to American tourists seeking alcohol, prostitution, and gambling. Vestiges of this history are still evident along the Tijuana/San Diego border, with its distinction as the busiest land crossing in the world. A stroll through the popular shopping, restaurant, and nightlife districts along Avenida Revolución or a visit to the nearby beach resort of Rosarito reveals college spring breakers, U.S. military personnel on leave, and vacationing families co-mingling with locals. Though the beauty of the region’s rocky coast and arid desert may seem to stretch seamlessly from San Diego to Tijuana, east to the quaint border town of Tecate, and south to the fresh lobster haven of Puerto Nuevo and the bustling port city of Ensenada, it doesn’t take much to remember that the border determines much of life and society in these parts. More than an extension of the Mexican Northwest, the U.S. Southwest, or even a combination of the two, the San Diego-Tijuana borderlands defy simplistic classification and are home to a myriad of people, experiences, and history all their own.

If the border has long been the preferred metaphor to describe San Diego’s history with Mexico, it is a “bridge” that has come to symbolize the checkered past of the city’s own Mexican origin population. In April 1970, the state of California announced plans to build a highway patrol substation on a small piece of land under the Coronado Bridge just southeast of downtown San Diego in Logan Heights, the oldest Mexican barrio in the city. At the height of the Chicana/o Movement, the residents of Logan Heights protested, claiming the last thing their neighborhood needed was more police. Instead, they took over the little piece of land and with their own picks and shovels began to build a park. Practicing the self-determination and community control advocated by the era’s militancy, the park was soon home to playgrounds, grassy fields, gathering areas with an Aztec inspired pyramid-shaped kiosk as centerpiece, and, most notably, spectacular murals painted on the towering pillars of the bridge’s underbelly by Chicana/o artists exhibiting stories, images, and icons of pre-Columbian, Mexican, and Chicana/o history.

Nearly 40 years later, Chicano Park is a short, 1.5-mile cab ride away from the AHA meeting hotels in downtown San Diego. The park remains the heart of Logan Heights, having inspired community centers, health clinics, and community businesses in the surrounding area, including longtime institutions like the restaurant Cuatro Milpas on Logan Avenue, where standing in lines that stretch out the door is well worth the wait. An afternoon spent “under the bridge” at Chicano Park is a stark reminder of the resiliency of San Diego’s Chicana/o community and its past struggles for dignity, autonomy, and equality. The annual Chicano Park Day celebration in April; the park’s status as a focal point for marches, protests, and political rallies; and, simply, everyday use of the park by the people of Logan Heights and San Diego, remind us that the legacy of the park is also about building a bridge to a better future.

Though much more might be said about San Diego’s rich and eventful Mexican and Chicana/o history, the city’s borders and bridges are a starting point for finding clues to how those who live there make sense of the past and struggle in the present.

Luis Alvarez is associate professor of history at the University of California, San Diego, and author of the forthcoming book, The Power of the Zoot: Identity and Resistance in U.S. Youth Culture during World War II.