Tijuana ~ from Rancho to ~ Metropolis

By Brian Daley & Jens Kolbowski 1999-2000
Tijuana, located just south
of the California-Mexican border, is frequently considered through research, a place where dreams can come true. This article on the town of Tijuana will cover the history of the area. It will explain the relations of the United States, and Tijuana. The growth of the border-city is described along with the people who live in Tijuana. The main industries, the maquiladoras, are explained. And finally, the complicated river that binds two countries that are different in many ways is explored.

The Natives
In centuries past, the California peninsula was inhabited by tribes of natives, notably the Pai Pai, Cochimi, Kiliwa, Cucupa and Kumiai. The Kumiai settled in the area we now know as Rosarito naming it UACUATAY (which translates to "the big house") and trace of their everiday life such as arrowheads, stone kitchen utensils, mortar, etc., have been discovered. These artifacts provide a rich source of information regarding their lifestyles. Today, in the area of San Jose de la Zorra just 30 kilometers east of La Mision Village, descendants of the Kumiai can still be found. 

The Mixtecs were from the area in the south of Mexico. They had built one of many rich cultures during the time of the Aztec rule. Because of deterioration in the quality of the land largely due to soil erosion, the Mixtecs were forced to migrate to other states and cities. A group of these Mixtecs went north to the border, and, in 1860, formed the Colonia Obrera or Worker’s Neighborhood, on a group of hills overlooking San Diego Bay. Many Mixtecs still work in the farms surrounding the city. The border city of Tijuana was founded in 1889.

The Name
There are different views on the origin of the name for the town. One belief is that it came from an ancient Indian word, "Tiguan", meaning "close to the water." Another view holds that the name came from a ranch, Tia Juana’s (Aunt Jane’s) Ranch, owned by the Allegro Family. The Allegro Family partitioned the ranch into various family decided to divide the ranch into sections of a city grid in the Tia Juana Valley. 

The City
"Tia Juana, the last town in Southern California . The boundary line passes through it and cuts it in two, the American half consisting of a single street of  frame buildings and a few scattered houses. The American part has a live air but the Mexican part is the deadest  place imaginable." (Note: Probably the California town would have looked just as dead except that, due to the floods in 1891, the old town was washed out and the remaining buildings were moved to higher ground near the border.) (from Let's Ride the Dam Train!, A sketch from the pen of Hiram H. Bice, Editor of the National City Record, edition of  May 5, 1892). This probably was the beginning of Tijuana, "from ranch to metropolis" (Rosas, 1998, "The City")


Phase One – Entertainment

The building of a railroad, from 1906 to 1919, to connect the cities of Los Angeles and San Diego to the east led to a great jump in the tourism and recreation industry of Tijuana. The railroad crossed the border in Tijuana and Tecate, a city nearby, and the increased traffic opened up new opportunities to the Mexicans. Tijuana became an outlet for Southern Californians, such as movie stars and other celebrities. They flocked to Tijuana and the surrounding area to experience the fun and entertainment. Not long after, racetracks and casinos sprung up. They helped support Tijuana’s economy during the Mexican Revolution. This was the first phase of Tijuana’s development.

Phase Two – Working North

The second phase, lasting from about 1940 to mid 1960s’ was a result of growth in the San Diego area and a steady increase of Mexicans looking to migrate north. The addition of two new military bases in Southern California increased the number of people there who discovered Tijuana’s entertainment. The town was growing at a tremendous rate. Tijuana was the new place to get somewhere in Mexican life. Numerous Mexicans from the south were looking to find jobs in the agricultural industry in the southwest states of Arizona, California and Texas. These jobs provided cheap labor for the ranchers and the opportunity for many Mexicans to make a better life for themselves. Tijuana was the way to get out of the country. Tijuana therefore became a staging area for further migration (Schatz, 1998, "History of Tijuana").

Tijuana is one of the most traveled and largest border crossings in the world. In recent years illegal immigration from Mexico to the United States has been considered a national problem. Even politicians base their platforms on the continuing issues faced in Tijuana. This border town serves a purpose that is not as highly publicized but is very important to the well being of the country of Mexico. Tijuana is a gateway for the restless and motivated to get out and live in the north, away from the problems facing Mexico. According to National Geographic, if the border were tighter and young Mexicans weren’t allowed to escape then rebellion would break and Mexico would become unstable. Former mayor of Tijuana, Héctor Osuna Jaime said, "Mexico hasn’t had a big social uprising because we have this escape valve, if there was no place to go, they’d have to make a solution here" (Parfit, 1996, pg. 105). In contrast, those who are not lucky enough to move north spend time peering through the fence and envision what could be.

Physically, the three miles of fence can be intimidating, especially at night when it is lighted. Illegal and legal crossings occur every day and every night. The international marketplace on which Tijuana has placed itself has allowed the border to become wider and easier to pass for the many who wish to "escape" the troubles of Mexico. Tijuana and its shanty houses and stores are built up to the fence, like children with noses to the window, all longing to be on the other side (Parfit, 1996, pg. 97). On the contrary, San Diego has kept its distance from the fence and the very different Tijuana.

Phase Three - Maquiladoras

The third stage of development is still in effect, today. During 1961, two new programs were started, called PRONAF, Programa Nacional Frontiero, and BIP, the Border Industrialization Program. These programs were designed to spur the growth of business in the Border Area. From the BIP, a new industry began. Maquiladoras, assembly plants, were a direct result of the BIP, an effort to entice industrial and commercial business to the border. Tijuana remains a center of production for textiles, electronics, and foodstuffs in the world.

Maquiladoras, which means assembly plant in English, was started in 1965. The first one was built by Fairchild Industries. The Mexican government needed to industrialize their country. They implemented the BIP (Border Industrialization Project), now in 1998 there are thousands of maquiladoras in Tijuana. There are many reasons why the industry has taken off like it has in Tijuana.

Cheap labor is a large reason for the boom. Labor in Tijuana’s maquiladoras cost much less than that of labor in the United States or Japan. Many United States and foreign companies such as Sanyo, Ford, General Electric, and thousands more have invested large segments of their business in Mexico’s maquiladoras industry (Parfit, 1996, pg. 107). Due to the estimated seven million television sets constructed in this part of the world, Tijuana is considered the television capital of the world (Parfit, 1996, pg. 107).

NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, established in 1994, led to the removal of some tariffs, taxes, on the import and export of goods throughout Canada, the United States and Mexico. This has also led to an increase in the maquiladoras industry.

The peso devaluation in 1994 hit the area hard. The workers who had to deal with inflated prices on goods were not getting the great rewards that came to the large companies. More and more companies came to the region. The maquiladoras and the businesses in San Diego have found a way to coexist. Many of the workers commute back and forth over the border. Some factories have "twin" plants that do the specialized tasks in the north, and tasks that need labor intensive work in the south.

Physical Characteristics
The River

The Tijuana River is a great part of Tijuana, and it is also a river of problems. The river rolls back and forth between the United States and Mexico. It runs through the heavily populated areas of Tijuana, then up into southern San Diego and out to the ocean.

A major problem with the river flowing through the city is the sewage. Due to rapid population increases, Tijuana does not have an adequate sewage system. In addition, most sewage drains to the river. An estimated twelve and a half million gallons of sewage per day rush through in the river. The dirty situation has caused friction between the residents of San Diego and those in Tijuana.

Another problem faced is the use of each country on each side of the border. The southern side is located in a concrete channel, and with expansion, the ever changing landscape of the river beds have forced the relocation of thousands of homeless or those in poverty. The maquiladora industry is driving the changes in the river, more factories are built that need more room, and the river is the one to sacrifice. The north side has large open plains that are engineered to hold the water. There is a saltwater marsh that is home to endangered birds and plants. The estuary is important to the migration needs of birds all along the coast. Contamination of the river threatens the survival of many of the estimated 370 species of birds. It is not only the sewage that is the problem for the Estuary; the toxic waste and pollutants from the maquiladora industry have also forced a quarantine of the area many times and threatened the sanctuary’s serenity.

Finally, environmentalists constantly raise the concern that the immigrants who are chased through the Estuary cause the disruption of the surroundings and more birds get hurt.


The history of Tijuana is short, but over the years the city has had the unique advantage of forming and molding its own little niche in the world. The tourism and recreation business was only the beginning in Tijuana’s industrial future. The fence looms and casts a shadow over the city of Tijuana. Maquiladoras are significant to Tijuana’s success as a city and its role as a key player in the industrial world. Legal and illegal immigration is a weight that many think should be stopped. The United States government spends many dollars trying to control the influx of Mexicans trying to find the way to "Tijuana [and] The Border, [the] Magnet of Opportunity" (Parfit, 1996, pg. 94-95).

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