The geography of San Diego is unlike most American cities. Snaking up in a narrow band inland to the north, with the bulk of the city sandwiched along the Pacific coast, a section of the city sits along the United States-Mexico border, cut off from the rest of the city by about 4 miles. In many respects, this is quintessentially Californian, but the presence of the international border right on the isolated segment of the city also sets San Diego apart from other major cities in the state, and the country.
San Diego also has a unique status in many respects among American cities. By far the most populous city sitting on an international border, San Diego is often ignored when thinking about the major cities in the United States. With Los Angeles only a couple hours to the north, and with San Francisco considered the “other” major city in the state, San Diego is often buried in the pack, despite being one of the Top 10 cities in terms of population.
On the other side of border, Tijuana has also been considered an ignored city in Mexico. Far from the rest of the country, with a reputation as being merely a stopover on the way to the U.S., the city may also be in the Top 10 cities in terms of population in Mexico, but its peripheral status has long left Tijuana as one of the cities with the worst reputations in the world. And if San Diego isn’t respected, more often than not, TJ has been thoroughly disrespected on both sides of the border.
Into this situation came the Xoloitzcuintles of Tijuana. Founded in 2007 after a history of failed pro soccer clubs in the city, the club made a serious push to move up the ranks of Mexican soccer, reaching promotion to the Mexican Primera in 2011. From there, they quickly moved from a team that sought to remain in the top division to one that was competing for a title. In December 2012, just three seasons after entering the top division, Xolos won the LigaMX championship, qualifying for both the 2013 Copa Libertadores and the 2013-14 CONCACAF Champions League in the process.
With the title, and with the remarkable story of Club Tijuana, people on the American side of the border, many of whom had been watching for months, expressed happiness over the league title. And some San Diegans claimed the title as their own. The major newspaper, the San Diego Union-Tribune, gave the Xolos title a front page spread the next day, and Union-Tribune sportswriter Mark Zeigler, counted the title among those of San Diego’s professional teams:
Of course, some San Diegans did agree with Zeigler, and others were far less polite in their rejection of his assertion that the championship should be celebrated by San Diego.
On one hand, the point that Tijuana is not part of San Diego is certainly factually correct, and the reluctance to cover and follow Mexican soccer on a regular basis on the American side of the border certainly has merit. Even with the Xolos’ title, there are many San Diego residents who have never heard of them, who don’t have any knowledge about the title.
All of those points fail to recognize the demographics of the region. Although San Diego County has people of different races and class statuses living all over the place, the American fanbase for Club Tijuana tends to get bigger the closer one gets to the border. Driving through La Jolla or Rancho Santa Fe, the wealthy areas farther to the north, one seldom sees the round red, white and black Xolos crest stickers on the back of cars. But farther to the south, in San Ysidro or Chula Vista, the stickers are ubiquitous. San Diego residents who say that the Xolos aren’t part of their city, at least in an indirect sense, are clearly not paying attention.
When one drives along the border, on either side, the distinction is stark. For much of the Mexican side, the city of Tijuana backs up right against the wall. Houses, streets, and the giant Mexican flag are visible from the American side. The American side is largely depopulated, however. Yes, there is a city feel to San Ysidro, which sits right on the border, but except for that, much of the American side is characterized by grasslands and cell phone towers on the rolling hills.
It is clear that the border is real. Anybody who crosses from the American side to the Mexican side can be forgiven for feeling like it isn’t for a moment, as their car is waved through, or they simply pass through the spinning gate on foot without having to wait or show any identification. That ease of passage is repaid, and then some, by the hours it often takes to cross into the U.S.
But the border can often be ignored in a figurative sense, if not literally. An outlet mall sits on the American side, and backs up to the border fence. One can shop for shirts, coats, watches, and glance out the window and see the fence, numbers painted on as points of reference. The mall is popular with Americans, Mexicans, and other nationalities, with many shoppers bringing or buying large suitcases to fill with their purchases. Spanish and English are spoken in equal measure by the customers and store employees. And while they aren’t sold anywhere in the mall itself, there are always shoppers wearing Club Tijuana jerseys at the mall. An indication that the Xolos have gained popularity in recent years is to talk to the American fans who haven’t ventured to TJ yet, but who are desperate to buy a jersey. Stores that carry them in San Diego often sell out quickly, sometimes within a day.
In December, Club Tijuana spent a week of their preseason training for the 2013 Clausura season at Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres baseball team. Inviting media to one day of the training, the Xolos also welcomed newly-elected San Diego mayor Bob Filner to the ballpark.
The centerpiece of Filner’s visit was a speech to the club, delivered in a combination of English and Spanish. Flanked by club captain Javier Gandolfi and Joe Corona, born and raised in San Diego County, Filner’s Spanish wasn’t flawless, but he was giving it an honest effort in praising the Xolos’ title. “¡Viva los Xolos! ¡Campeones de futbol, campeones de nuestra corazon! (Long live the Xolos! Champions of football, champions of our heart!)” San Diego’s mayor exclaimed, further expressing his wish that the city of San Diego could see the Xolos play games in the city.
The border certainly exists between San Diego and Tijuana. But the links between the cities may be growing stronger, and a soccer team may be responsible for bringing two disrespected cities together.