In Portland, Oregon it’s pretty easy to tell when you’re in a bad neighborhood. You might have a hard time finding one these days but boarded up, graffiti covered buildings, rusty old cars up on jacks, trash, broken glass, and pot holes will be a dead giveaway. A bad neighborhood stands out.
In Tijuana, it’s a little different. Upscale, gated-communities with smooth streets, new cars in the driveways, and kids on bikes stand out. You know you’re in one because you were invited and a guard with a gun checked you in at the gate.
The problem is there’s a whole city outside those gates where dilapidated buildings, broken glass, crappy old cars, and pot holes are the norm. Even the trendy, beachfront area I live in looks like a war zone.
The other day we went to a friend’s 60th birthday party in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Mexicans in TJ give parties in a Salon rather than in their homes. It’s a lot like the practice in the United States of renting a church basement or Event Space at a Hotel for a wedding reception except it’s a lot more common. Instead of a McDonald’s or Starbucks on every corner there is a Salon de Eventos.
While parked in front of the derelict building Siri led us to instead of the Salon, one of us sees, above an equally crappy building on the next block, the sign, hand painted in uneven block letters, “Salon de Evento”. As if on cue for one of those Kids Say The Funniest Things shows, my friend’s kid says, “Hmmm, kinda sketchy looking.”
She isn’t wrong. But a general rule of thumb is if the person throwing the party is respectable you can assume the event location is ok. Maybe. Probably. Ojalá.
We park the car, hoping we can get the hell out of there before it gets dark. But since Mexican parties are notoriously open ended it might be a little tricky. The philosophy I’ve come to embrace here in TJ is “Life is dangerous. Proceed anyway.” With that in mind, we find the entrance, look back longingly at the car, and head up the stairs.
The stuffy, claustrophobic air of the stairway gives way to the delicious, smoky scent of carne asada. At the top of the stairs, we are greeted by the guest of honor, Paulina, dressed to the nines in a 50s-inspired party dress complete with diamond tiara. After the kissing of cheeks, she shows us to a table.
The room is huge with a disco ball casting rainbow colors across a white tiled floor. There’s a DJ setup in one corner spinning American Rock n’ Roll oldies, an overflowing gifts table, and a multi-tiered cake fashioned from cupcakes.
The birthday girl’s brother, dressed like Fonzie, brings a bottle of Gran Centenario Reposado and two shot glasses to our table followed by shrimp tacos, chips, guacamole, and salsa. An adorably dressed little girl approaches the table and wants to know if my friend’s daughter understands Spanish. She does. Shyness is forgotten and they run onto the dance floor.
Sixty years brings with it some rewards. Paulina has spent most of her working life cleaning other people’s houses; her family doesn’t have a lot of money. But, man, do they know how to celebrate a life.
Suddenly, the DJ stops and a troop of Mariachi come up the stairs playing Paulina’s favorite Juan Gabriel songs. Surrounded by friends and family, her daughter taking pictures, her handsome grandsons line up to take turns dancing with her. She cries.
We didn’t sneak out early, before we knew it the evening was over and people were kissing goodnight. The car was where we left it, and in one piece. Turns out the neighborhood wasn’t even a little bit sketchy.