By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The new, two-Floridas-long peninsula, a scraggly Italian boot missing its heel, was cradled by the sea, by the Pacific on one coast and the Gulf of Mexico on the other. Monsters lived on the Pacific side. There were hadrosaurs, those gigantic 23-ton duck-billed beasts with a thousand teeth and bones that made it to 50 feet, and ammonites, 100-pound snails with ram’s horn shells, and hyracotheriums, horses as small as the dogs that now rule Tijuana. They were joined by camel, bison and mammoths, until they all ended up as brittle bone in rock.
Now there are new monsters. The Pacific breeds them: Anarrhichthys ocellatus, wolf eels and wolf fish, and Mirounga angustirostris, four-ton elephant seals that are known for the look of anguish permanently written onto their faces. They cry “gelatinous tears” and are “infinitely sad,” Baja historian Fernando Jordan once wrote. “Seeing them causes two sensations: one of nausea, one of compassion.”
The seals huddle at Elephant Beach on the northern lip of Isla de Guadalupe, the peninsula’s missing knuckle that floats leagues west from Puerto Santa Catarina. Animals roamed the island until the end of the 19th century, when hunters emptied it for skins. Now it’s nothing but goats, cats and endlessly reproducing rats that pick the land bare. Biologists call the island “The Biological Cemetery.”
And yet some believe that all of Baja’s animal and marine life began farther north of Guadalupe, off the coast of Tijuana itself, on the Coronado Islands that lurk at the edge of the Pacific horizon like floating fossils of another era. According to local myth, the islands were once home to Cyclopes and dragons. Mermaids slithered off rocks, sirens sang to Spanish explorers looking for the magic kingdom of paradise.
In Esplandian, the island was ruled by a queen.
In Tijuana, the island is ruled by a king.
Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters.
—Francisco de Goya, Los Caprichos
When it came time for the people of Tijuana to choose a new mayor in 2004, neither the myths about Hank nor his supposedly criminal dealings could keep him out of office. At the polls, the few who cast their vote (roughly three out of every 10 Tijuanenses voted in the 2004 election) didn’t seem to care much about Hank’s past. They cared more about his promises for the future. Hank and the PRI party he inherited from his father squeezed a victory by Jorge Ramos, whose party, the PAN (National Action Party), had held power in Baja California since 1989. Hank filled his campaign with promises to remodel Tijuana in the image of San Diego, improve the living conditions in poor colonias, squash the drug cartels, pave roads and remodel schools and, most of all, to make Tijuana a safer city. One of his campaign billboards pictured Hank holding his hand steady above a caption that read “A Mi No Me Va a Temblar La Mano.” My hand will not shake.
Throughout the campaign, Hank argued that he wasn’t so different from Tijuana itself. Like the city, he had a bad reputation that needed cleaning up. Like the city, he was a victim of the media. Like the city, he only wanted to make himself better.
So he did what any renegade tycoon running for office in a city besieged by extreme poverty would do. He made his personal bank account public record. The logic was that if the people knew he was worth $500 million, they would think that he would never steal from them. The logic, twisted as it was, worked.
“The problem was that nobody talked about how he made all that money,” the poet Roberto Castillo Udiarte said one recent Saturday morning. “When I asked one guy why he was voting for him, he said, ‘He has giveaways, parties for Mother’s Day, bicycles. That’s what I need: someone who will give me something. Trust me, he will win, because people want someone who will give them something without taking from them.’ ”
It’s barely 10 a.m., and Castillo is plowing through micheladas and shrimp tacos on a balcony overlooking the sea in Playas de Tijuana. The tacos are wrapped in wax paper on a plastic table still wet from the morning fog, and a one-man norteño band starts to play “La Frontera Roja,” a classic from Los Toucanes. “The red border they call it,” sings the man in the cowboy hat and brass belt buckle while rattling off piercing drum rolls on a snare draped from his neck. “For all the blood that runs through it.” Just down the beach, the rusting border wall that once ran 50 yards into the Pacific is in the midst of a face-lift, leaving a stretch of sand that, for today at least, is the only part of the Tijuana–San Ysidro border that is not marked by a wall, a fence or ?a gate.
“When he won, the first photo published of Hank in Frontera showed him sitting right in front of a big portrait of himself, but with his face painted like a clown,” says Castillo. “It was absurd. Was that intentional? Is he laughing at us?”