San Diego/Tijuana

One Region Two Countries

Jonathon Glus

THE FRONT, a gallery and performing arts space that serves the communities of San Ysidro and Tijuana, sits on a busy thoroughfare only a few hundred yards from the busiest border land crossing in the Western Hemisphere. A program of Casa Familiar — a social service organization that operates senior and affordable housing to health services to youth programming in facilities scattered in and around San Ysidro’s well-loved Beyer Park — THE FRONT was opened in 2004 as a passion project for artists living and rooted in San Ysidro, the southernmost neighborhood of San Diego. Today, THE FRONT is the unofficial cultural heart of the border artists community.

Linda Caballero Sotelo, an artist and now the director of the New Americans Museum, refers to the border as an “accident of geography.” Linda was raised in Tijuana and attended parochial school in San Diego. Linda is convinced there is both cultural and political will to move the region forward with arts and culture leading the way.

The question at hand may not be the will or the resources, but really, how to model what’s happening outside of the arts sector as we know it. How can cultural policy better advance one metroplex governed by two federal and philanthropic systems and multiple local jurisdictions? How can artists and culture bearers help the region address the pressing issues of migration, homelessness, and water policy.

The Conurbation

Emanating out from the actual border — north into the United States and south into Mexico, sharing the Pacific coast to the west and reaching the California desert to the east — are two profoundly different but inextricably linked metropolises. Zona Metropolitana de Tijuana, or metropolitan Tijuana, is the fifth largest city and urbanized region in Mexico, while metropolitan San Diego is the eighth largest US city.

Together they form the San Diego-Tijuana, Baja California conurbation, home to more than 5.5 million people. The US side of the region is larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. The Mexican side is nearly as large. The conjoined siblings lie entirely in the land of the Kumiyaay nation, sharing geography, commerce, history, and culture.

The cultures of two countries in one community is baked into the region’s DNA. Almost constant northbound migration brings a host of humanitarian burdens to Tijuana, but ultimately helps ensure Tijuana’s comparatively fluid identity and creative openness. San Diego’s institutions continue to stretch their understanding of audience and community. Each bring their country’s biases and class and economic structures.

Cultural Institutions

Cultural institutions anchor the region and many have “bi-national” baked into their mission.

Tijuana Cultural Center (CECUT) opened in 1982 as the largest center for art and culture in Mexico outside of Mexico City. As a federal institution, its mission is to provide cultural education of the entire country, with an emphasis on the Baja region. Nearly forty years later, CECUT serves more than a million visitors a year and deeply reflects the region’s artists and culture.

The San Diego Symphony reached a milestone in early 2018 by performing John Luther Adams’ “Inuksuit” at the border. The initiative was nearly ten years in the making and literally played on both sides of the fence. Musicians from the Symphony were joined by musicians from Baja. By 2018 the wall between the two cities had grown from a single steel mesh fence to dual, parallel fences and partial walls with a swath of no man’s land in between. The past relative ease of informal, ad hoc, or spontaneous music or spoken word by that time was replaced with layers of federal and regional approvals. The symphony received its final approvals within hours of the performance.

The San Diego Art Institute has built the art and artists of the border into its mission. Board members are actively recruited from throughout the Baja-San Diego region, and audiences often reflect the commitment. Board member Arturo Rodriguez is a Tijuana-based art dealer who has evolved his gallery space into a working arts education space. La Caja Galeria represents 19 artists, all from the Tijuana-San Diego region. What was only recently a traditional white wall exhibition space is now a workspace where more than 10,000 school children and young adults have had hands-on art making experience with gallery artists. His business model shift is intentional, “We need to build audiences and teach the intricacies of art making. We’re investing in the future of the region.”

On any given weekday school buses from throughout the region ascend on Balboa Park. The seventeen cultural institutions compromising the “Smithsonian of the West” host tens of thousands of school-aged children annually. Along with the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown and LaJolla, the San Diego Museum of Art, Fleet Science Center, Natural History Museum, Mingei International Museum, and others provide intensive curriculum-based education and hands-on practical instruction. Importantly, thousands of the children travel from public and private schools on the Mexican side of the region.

Funding for this large scale cultural hub is derived from a patchwork of foundation and government sources.

Artists Work/Projects

Francisco Morales, the Mexico City native and director at THE FRONT, describes being a “border or bi-national artist” as a “personal decision” for those who cross the border “culturally comfortably.” He defines a “transborder artist” as someone who thrives regionwide.

The number of artists who identify as “transborder” continues to grow. To a great extent educational and economic systems encourage this fusion, as the universities in San Diego continue to increase the number of bi-national students enrolled while the high costs of San Diego drive artists, creatives and culture workers across the border for affordable live and work space. Galleries have followed, initiating global collaborations with artists and galleries in Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, and throughout the Americas. Collective Magpie, a transborder artist collective, exemplifies this movement.


Given this robust, often fervent cultural production, sustainability and archival documentation are practical, central questions to philanthropy and government, along with questions of identity and belonging.

Jennifer dePoyen is the executive director of Space4Art, a longtime downtown San Diego artist live/work space. She points to downtown San Diego gentrification — and the accompanying high costs and lack of practical work space — as the key driver pushing artists east into rural, mountainous California and south a dozen miles to central Tijuana.

Prominent degree programs at universities and colleges in the region continue to attract artists of all disciplines, in particular acting and directing, art theory, studio, and Chicano studies. The university systems provide ample opportunities for artists to stay in the region. Increasingly, not just young artists, but faculty and cultural workers at all points in their careers consider or move to Tijuana. Urban myth calls for as many as 30% of San Diego-identifying artists and cultural workers now live in Tijuana. (This isn’t codified, but is a priority of the San Diego Commission for Arts & Culture to better understand.)

Navigating two federal and local systems can be daunting for even the largest cultural institution. For small organizations and individual artists, it can be ruinous. Californian Lawyers for the Arts (CLA), the longtime statewide legal service organization for artists and creatives, has tooled its San Diego office to serve the direct needs of working bi-nationally. Real estate, employment contracts, insurance, taxes, copyright protection, etc., are elemental components of bi-national artists’ livelihoods. CLA has expanded is focus on border-related issues to an annual conference, now in its third year. In 2020, the conference extended its focus to border cities worldwide, in an effort to share best practices and common culture unique to border cities.

Government/Cultural Funding

The governments of Tijuana and San Diego have a longstanding commitment to cooperation. Biannually the mayors of the two cities sign a joint agreement addressing trade, climate and environment, transportation, arts, culture, literacy, and more.

An overriding challenge with governmental cooperation is the differences in timing and structure. The centralized Mexican government appoints senior level officials every two years, and with the changes, priorities and resources shift. Among the most influential drivers in the cultural life of the region are the Ministry of Culture for the state of Baja and IMAC, the Municipal Institute of Art and Culture of Tijuana. The vast majority of Baja’s cultural funding flows through those agencies. Leadership of both agencies follow the protocol of changing biennially. On the US side, the City of San Diego is the region’s largest annual arts funder, however individual philanthropy directs the largest overall amount of support to arts and culture.

The Model of Non-Arts Infrastructure

Lessons for greater cultural sustainability in the region may reside outside the arts. Sociologist Larry Herzog frames the ebb and flow of regional power and protocol in response to external political and economic shifts as “debordering” and “rebordering.”

The 1994 NAFTA agreement profoundly reduced physical, legal, and economic barriers on both sides of the border, consequently expanding the number of residents electing to live on one side and work or educate on the other. Culturally, institutions such as the CECUT flourished from the perspective of audience diversity. The events of 9/11 brought a profound change to the cities’ shared ease and fluidity, with a rapid escalation of security. We rebordered.

Most recently, federal immigration and trade policies have wreaked havoc on our land border. Daily crossings have been challenged, and importantly, so have critical issues such as work visas for exhibiting artists, dancers, and actors, let alone audiences.

However, as in many urbanized regions, the Tijuana-San Diego region has over the years created cooperative government agencies and agreements to address critical joint concerns and implement efforts. Transportation, environment, trade, and tourism are among the efforts. Massive planning initiatives set a vision and collective investment drive implementation.

What would a bi-national cultural planning initiative prioritize, and how could a bi-national cultural funding structure operate? Are we there yet? I suggest we are.

Culture bearers carry our history and traditions. Artists reveal and art elevates our collective humanity. Art responds to bordering and debordering and the implications therein. It forms a cultural glue that supersedes, and in the most desirable form, it leads.

A bi-national regionwide cultural policy could galvanize the efforts of government, philanthropy and individual generosity. It would address practical and fundamental challenges such as sustained access to arts education, affordable housing for artists and cultural workers, and the power of culture bearers to tell our shared stories. It could also identify efficient strategies for the arts to address issues of homelessness and environment. And it could create mid- and long-term funding streams for region-wide cultural initiatives.

The role and responsibility of funders and agents of cultural policy in a region as complex as the San Diego-Tijuana conurbation will be adaptive and responsive to models which are not the norm for the US nor Mexican arts infrastructure. Our work can transcend the border. We need to design for community. At our best, we, the gatekeepers, will have one purpose: to ensure the individuals we serve have the resources to create and experience arts, culture, and creativity on their own terms and of their own creation.