In a spectacular glass-paneled building high above Tijuana, Javier Plascencia and his associates mix an assortment of locally grown avocados, beans, corn, and chilis and turn them into creative concoctions that dazzle the eye and the palate at the same time.
Plascencia is at the forefront of a new culinary movement that has taken Tijuana by storm, gradually transforming the image of a gritty city once known more for its low-end bars, painted donkeys, and gunfights in the streets.
Today, tourists from Southern California are more likely to visit the city to sample one of its innovative restaurants, its craft breweries, or the locally grown wines from the Guadalupe Valley just south of Tijuana than to spend the night dancing and drinking in a bar.
As Tijuana has developed over the past 20 years, its relationship to America’s southwest has changed dramatically as well.
Not far from Plascencia’s restaurant, Boxell has become one of the leading animation companies on the West Coast, working with Hollywood film studios to produce segments for many of their most popular movies.
Another local company, started by a Mexican engineer and an American entrepreneur, produces small drones for the U.S. market, supplying photographers, amateur scientists, and hobby enthusiasts. Still other companies produce airplane parts, medicines, and sophisticated biotechnology.
Gone are the days when Tijuana was the television capital of the world, filled with factories that did low-end assembly work. Many of these still exist, but they are increasingly complemented by high-end manufacturing and knowledge production, creating a new symbiotic relationship with cutting-edge industries in the United States.
As Mexico’s middle class has grown—income has increased roughly one-third in real terms over 20 years and educational attainment by 50 percent—Mexico has become a major consumer of goods produced in the American Southwest, from food to technology.
All of the U.S. states in the Southwest depend on Mexico as their principal export market; Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico depend overwhelmingly on exports to Mexico for their manufacturing jobs. And there is a new phenomenon of Mexican companies establishing their own factories and production plants in the United States.
Sigma Foods, now based in Arizona, has become the largest hotdog and lunchmeat supplier in the United States.
Lala Dairies, now based in Texas, is the second largest milk and dairy company in the United States. Once upon a time these were big Mexican companies that supplied the local market in their own country, but they have moved north across the border, creating jobs as they go.
Taken together, these changes, all driven by greater prosperity in Mexico, are transforming the way that people in the American Southwest relate to Mexico and vice versa.
By Andrew Selee, the executive vice president at the Wilson Center and a former long-time resident of Tijuana, is at work on a book titled Mexico and the United States: Intimate Strangers.