A New Breed of Younger, Hipper Expats Flock to Tijuana

A year ago, Jill Holslin’s San Diego condo was foreclosed on. A professor of Rhetoric and Writing at San Diego State University, she made a radically unconventional decision—she walked away from her home and moved 15 miles south across the US border into the city of Tijuana.

Holslin’s not alone. A new breed of expatriates are leaving the US and calling Tijuana home. They are younger, hipper and speak Spanish. They love the culture and don’t live in the city simply because of the cheap rent. They are reinventing the face of Tijuana, once a mecca for American retirees moving to the city for its affordability.

Many of the expatriates of old returned to the US after 9/11, when federal authorities stepped up security at the US-Mexico border and waits to cross the border became much longer. “Fast Pass” or “Sentry Passes” became more expensive.

My neighbors know me and look out for me. I’m the “guerita” (white girl) on my block. I do speak Spanish and I understand immigration and border issues. I love it here.

— Jill Holslin, a professor at San Diego University who lives in Tijuana

Now hipsters are moving to Tijuana, drawn to its emerging arts and fashion scene.

Living simply in a small two-bedroom house, one and half miles from the beach, Holslin admits life in Tijuana isn’t always perfect. There are occasional blackouts, and when the city works on the streets, she and her neighbors may lose water for the day. But in general she says she’s really happy with her decision.

More On This...

“The first question people ask is always about safety.  The answer is to do your research and find the safe areas.  I’m not afraid, but I don’t do crazy things. I like living in a big city. I feel safer here in the same way that I feel safe in New York. TJ stays open and awake until 3 or 4 in the morning. There are always people around. My neighbors know me and look out for me. I’m the “guerita” (white girl) on my block. I do speak Spanish and I understand immigration and border issues. I love it here,” Holslin says.

But even though Tijuana gets a bad rap, crime is dropping. It used to be one of the 50 deadliest cities in the world, but this year did not make the cut, according to a list compiled by the Citizen Council for Public Safety and Criminal Justice.

This year, the Mexican government released some stats showing a more than 40 percent drop in the number of homicides in TJ.  Authorities credit the drop in crime to President Felipe Calderón's crackdown on drug cartels.

For Holslin, it isn’t the $375 rent she pays that motivates her. It’s her real affinity for what she calls a dynamic and organic music and art scene. She says she felt as if living in San Diego she was missing out on the most important happenings in the region.

Derrik Chinn moved to TJ in 2007—for love, he says.  He lives in a neighborhood called Playas. It’s maybe 15 minutes from the border and two blocks from the beach.  It’s a modest split level two-bedroom, one and half-bath house.

He’s from Ohio, and says when he first moved to California, he was told TJ was ugly and very dangerous. “None of my friends would go there. But I always wanted to live in another country.”

Chinn now runs his own very popular tour company called Turista Libre—Rad Tijuana tours. The New York Post, among others, has covered his off-the-beaten-track tours, and he’s successfully been able to make a living for himself as tour guide and freelance writer, at the low monthly rent of $250.

Chinn believes one of the reasons the city has gotten such a bad rap is because the average tourist who comes to TJ assaults and abuses the city.

“They come here to do things they don’t normally do—drink, hire prostitutes, buy drugs. It’s a respect issue. They feel they can do whatever they want,” he said. “Nothing has happened to me here in terms of crime. I speak the language and I have a respect and appreciation for the culture.”

The downside of living in the city, in a developing country, with over a million and half people, and the busiest border crossing in the world, is mostly just big inconveniences—huge potholes, loss of water, and sometimes the propane gas tanks run out and customers will have to contact the gas company to refill them.
But for Chinn, none of the daily annoyances outweigh his commitment to this foreign city he loves.  He’s currently looking for a teaching position in a local elementary school, to add to his rooster of gigs.

Photojournalist David M. (he prefers not to use his full name) has been living in TJ for 16 years.  He lives in a house somewhere between the Playas neighborhood in TJ and the city of Rosarito Beach.  He pays $380 a month in rent.

"To say its all safe here would be a lie.  But to say it’s Beirut would be a lie as well,” he said. “There are dangerous neighborhoods, and you have to learn where those are.”

One expat, Vivian Marlene Dunbar, says there a few different types of expats living in TJ.  She’s been in the city for the last 20 years.  She says she believes there are some “undocumented” Americans, who’ve lived in Mexico for years, but work and get paid in the US, without ever applying for a work permit or registering with the Mexican consulate.

Some are retired and wealthy. They live in their own little enclaves in beach towns and do all the necessary paper work.  “They live in beautiful houses they’ve purchased, with all the amenities, and they’re a huge part of their communities,” Dunbar says.

“Others are men (many are veterans) who come for the cheap women and cheap healthcare.  They go to the Red Light district with every check, and spend a lot of their money. They don’t speak Spanish and they don’t respect or care for the city or its citizens.”

Dunbar says when she came to Tijuana the first time she didn’t see poverty or despair, but an endless variety of art, culture, music shops, and interesting markets and street vendors.  “People here may be poor, but their spirits are good. It’s a more friendly and embracing place for me as an older, retired woman--more than in the US. They respect the old, and I feel more safe here.”