“The huge U.S. investments in Mexico increase the differences”

Borders are prototypical wounds in the landscape as well as political creations. The most discussed border these days is that between Mexico and the U.S. In cross-border twin cities like Tijuana and San Diego, social separation comes together with economic cooperation. But what will change if Trump really builds his wall? An interview with Tito Alegría, an academic in Tijuana and border expert.

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The border between Mexico and the United States © Wikimedia commons / Tony Webster

topos: Tito, many of those involved with architecture and urban design are intrigued by the idea of Tijuana and San Diego forming a trans-border metropolis. You are not as enthusiastic, however. In 2012 you published an article called The Transborder Metropolis in Question. What are your arguments?
TITO ALEGRÍA: In a way the idea of having one metropolis, one city, simply extending across the border was more possible many decades before than recently. And under the influence of Donald Trump it will become even more impossible. The reason is that Tijuana and San Diego are, economically and politically, still very distinct systems. Even if they are very open to each other, they are still different. Wages, social systems, political mechanisms – none of this fits. The trans-border economy and the huge investments the United States makes in Mexico, are even increasing these differences. And the differences, for instance in terms of income, are increasing.

topos: The opening that has occurred in the last few years hasn’t brought the systems closer together?
TITO ALEGRÍA: On the contrary, it provokes differences. It works like this: Opening up the market is one key condition for significant investments. These investments then occur where there are low wages and low costs. The greater the wage differences, the greater the investments. If the differences are smaller, then there is less investment and ultimately less economic or social interaction. This interaction depends on differences.

topos: Does that mean that the “one city” idea, i.e. the trans-border metropolis, as a whole is uninteresting, that it is not worth pursuing?
TITO ALEGRÍA: What is a city? Essentially, every city is a collective construction. It is not just made by law. It is the interaction of people that makes a city. However, that is not all. You also have to have border-crossing companies and economic rules of behavior that are the same on both sides. We cannot have the same rules here with the vastly different salaries. People’s strategies for living are different, their problems and needs are different – at least when you look at them as a group, not as individuals. The question is not whether I, as a researcher, like it or not. My motivation is irrelevant here.

topos: And still, what is your motivation, your vision of San Diego and Tijuana together?
TITO ALEGRÍA: First of all, I want both cities to grow, economically and culturally. The differences between both cities generate an interaction potential among them. Barriers, institutions of what I call “bordering filters”, decrease this potential realisation. They are an impediment to potential interactions. However, this potential is not decreased by existing differences.

topos: Historically, the concept of a strict border is not at the heart of this region.
TITO ALEGRÍA: True. It was only in 1924 that the US Border Patrol was established. For the first time, Mexicans needed documents in order to cross the border. At that time, there was no indication of a border in the  landscape. And even from then on, the accumulation of more and more institutions as impediments for interaction, although this occurred gradually, was by no means a linear process.

topos: The barriers never really stopped the flow of people.
TITO ALEGRÍA: Of course not. The economic opportunities of crossing the border, for people, products and ideas, has grown steadily. That is why people are taking such huge risks to go to the other side.

topos: Now there is the looming threat of the new, ultra-high “Trump Wall”. A game changer?
TITO ALEGRÍA: Take a macroeconomic point of view: More important than his symbolic wall are the changes he wants to make to the NAFTA agreement. But how much will NAFTA really change? I think not too much. The economic forces in the United States who have an interest in free trade are too strong. The most powerful companies in the world are producing here in Tijuana right now. They are making cars, TV sets and computers here. I expect there will be some minor things that have a high degree of symbolic value for Trump. He just wants to say “Look, I am bringing workers back“.

topos: You do not sound too impressed by Trump.
TITO ALEGRÍA: Trump certainly is a gross man. But for Mexico or Latin America as a whole, I don’t expect him to bring too much change. Not more than Obama anyway. Did you know that people were dispelled from the United States about 2.5 million times under Obama? A lot of them had to leave their families there. Now they don’t know what to do with their lives here in Mexico. Many of them have come to Tijuana.

topos: Sounds like a rather bleak situation. And indeed there is poverty to be seen in the streets here. On the other hand, one can also witness a lot of real estate investment, with money from the United States.
TITO ALEGRÍA: True, there are big real estate projects financed with money from abroad. There is one United States-supported block with four towers, offices, hotels and apartments. The other projects are financed more with money from Mexico City or Guadalajara.

topos: Which is good, as they are not impacted by Trump.
TITO ALEGRÍA: Yes. In general, one must say of course that such investments are a good thing for Tijuana. The problem is that they appear without any city planning, are few in number and oriented to a small number of families. You have huge high-rises along narrow, inner-city streets. This will cause traffic problems, and eventually they will lose their value. But the space is still there. And it will be rented.

topos: Are you sure? In Europe, in cities such as London, Berlin or Munich, we see apartments financed with Russian money that are then mainly empty.
TITO ALEGRÍA: Not for long I think. In the end, capitalism always demands capitalisation. This is true worldwide, just as much as it is in this remarkable city of Tijuana…

topos: …a city you seem quite attached to. Are you from here?
TITO ALEGRÍA: No, I am an urban immigrant. Most people are. More than half of the Tijuana population was not born here. People come here from all over the world, even from Africa. I did some research on that. The only nationality that is completely lacking is that of the Chinese. A strange thing given that we have 300 Chinese restaurants in Tijuana.

topos: Why is this?
TITO ALEGRÍA: When the census officer comes, the doors remain locked.

topos: There is no Chinatown in Tijuana?
TITO ALEGRÍA: Tijuana is such a heterogeneous and tolerant place that no one needs to establish a quarter for its own culture. Heterogeneity means that no one can claim the right to impose its own way of life, and thus other groups don’t need to develop a spatial identity. I have published an article about this situation titled “Tijuana Mexico. Integration, Growth, Social Structuring and Governance”.

topos: So identity is a key problem in Tijuana. Is it an identity-less city, a place of sheer fluidity?
TITO ALEGRÍA: No. Take me. I have been here since 1987. Some of my friends came at the same time. That does not seem too fluid to me.

topos: But do you and your friends identify with the city?
TITO ALEGRÍA: In a particular way, yes. The identity of Tijuana is not weak. It is multiple. Maybe some cities make the establishment of such multiple identities easier than others. These are open cities. However, such open cities also face specific problems, such as the drug trade. This is a global, big-city phenomenon. In Tijuana, however, the drug industry has been active for a long time…

topos: Driven of course by the cartels. What is the solution to that?
TITO ALEGRÍA: Drug legalisation. We have to legalise the demand. Then the underground supply side in Mexico will have a crisis.

topos: Most drugs are not produced in Mexico.
TITO ALEGRÍA: That is a misconception. Most are. Marijuana, heroin and pills. And this is an economic factor. However, the quantity of jobs provided by the cartels is hard to measure.

topos: A strange kind of specialisation…
TITO ALEGRÍA: Very strange and very problematic – like specialisations are in general.

topos: But the drug topic aside, specialisation is the key to Mexico’s recent economic success. Most flat screen TVs sold worldwide are from here, and not, as one would guess, from the Pearl River Delta.
TITO ALEGRÍA: But why is that good? We are a small boat in the middle of a big ocean. Specialisation makes us dependent. Each time the United States has an economic crisis, so do we. When US consumers don’t buy, we don’t produce. During the 2008/2009 crisis, unemployment here was at almost nine per cent. Three years before that, it was at one and a half per cent.