By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Tijuana novelist and essayist Heriberto Yépez agrees with Castillo’s critiques of Hank, but views the mayor as part of a larger international trend. “Wilhelm Reich explained that Hitler came to power because the masses were afraid of freedom and Hitler assured them they would not have what they feared,” says Yépez, whose new novel, A.B.U.R.T.O, imagines the life of Mario Aburto Martínez, the Tijuana maquila worker who put a bullet in the head of PRI political candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in 1994. The hit was once rumored to have been engineered by Hank’s father. “It’s the same reason Tijuana elected Hank, California elected Schwarzenegger, and the U.S. elected Bush. We live in an epoch of absolute mediocrity, of fleeing from freedom.”
Since taking office, Hank has been a mayor of unpredictable whim, using his enormous wealth to slowly turn all of Tijuana into an extension of his Caliente kingdom. First there was the matter of changing the color of the city taxis from green to red (the color favored by the PRI). Then there was the matter of installing 300 high-definition video security cameras throughout the city, echoing a similar move years before at the racetrack. Then there was the party he threw last year for Father’s Day. In a country where Mother’s Day is almost a national holiday, Hank brought 11 of his kids to the city’s first Father’s Day bash at the Palacio Municipal that included cell phone and television giveaways and appearances by dads dressed in Batman and SpongeBob costumes. The lion from the D.A.R.E. anti-drug campaign also made an appearance.
That image came into public question last summer when Hank cut down 15 trees in Tijuana’s oldest park in order to throw the city a 116th birthday party. The problem was that nobody from the city was invited to the red-carpet gala, only select members of the city’s elite who paid $300 for tickets (proceeds went to DIF, the national child-care organization led locally by Hank’s wife). There were performances by the Baja California Symphony Orchestra and La Banda Musicale della Polizia di Stato, an Italian police band that Hank flew in from Rome. The menu included salmon mousse and filet mignon. Six blocks of security kept the rest of Tijuana out. “Never has a commemorative for the city divided a city so much,” Juan Carlos Domínguez reported in Zeta.
Being festive is what this administration has been all about,” says Tonatiuh Guillen. “Whatever it is, the anniversary of Tijuana, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day. It’s been about parties, and then the controversies surrounding the parties. It’s the sense of a circus, the old corporate idea of offering the people some sort of entertainment and diversion from the service aspects that they actually need. Maybe they’re waiting for 2006 to do more important things but for now there’s just tremendous inertia, and a real poverty of public debate.”
Adds Yépez, “The city will have the same destiny as Hank’s racetrack. It’ll become a place for populist fiestas and, ultimately, a zoo for the PRI.”
Perhaps Hank’s strangest move was his decision last July to require Tijuana street vendors to wear folkloric outfits (much like the ones found on waitresses at Mexican restaurant chain Sanborn’s or in a “Mexico” exhibit at Epcot). Hank told the press he likes the outfits because they are “clean,” “colorful” and “happy-looking,” and will help tourists “feel Mexico.”
Unfortunately, the people wearing them go home to houses made of recycled U.S. garage doors where there’s no running water. Most of Tijuana gets the cruel joke: The outfits are an overt attempt to disguise the very poverty that Hank — who only months before hired Cirque du Soleil to perform at his birthday party — had so vehemently promised to cure.
But perhaps more than anything, the coerced fashion makeover showcases Hank’s NAFTA heart. A black-sheep offspring of the Salinas administration that signed on NAFTA’s dotted line, he is Tijuana’s first truly free-trade mayor, seeing his own city as an American would (Hank does, after all, own a house in Vail), a south-of-the-border Disneyland that must be safe enough for Americans to gamble, lose their virginity in massage parlors, buy cheap Viagra and Retin-A, and have their fat liposuctioned at $15-a-day “molding clinics,” yet exotic enough that they think they are still traveling back in time. Old Mexico, despite the fact that Tijuana is a manufacturing metropolis of more than 2 million people where thousands of job-seeking migrants arrive each day. Forget that the vendors are not selling Maya handicrafts, but pirated Tom Cruise DVDs and knock-off Gucci sunglasses.
“If you look at Tijuana as an outsider,” says Tijuana writer and blogger Rafa Saavedra, “then I suppose Hank could seem a very Tijuana mayor. But you have to question what Tijuana we are talking about. He represents a vision of Tijuana that does not exist, one that’s anchored to the past, one that reduces the city to a wannabe prototype of an idealized San Diego.”
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