Ever since fears of drug violence stemmed the flow of American visitors to Tijuana, the city’s tourism officials have been trying to draw tourists back by promoting its emerging new food, art and culture scenes.
But even as officials tout a newer, hipper Tijuana, vestiges of the city’s older, kitschier tourism economy are still kicking.
Take plaster piggy banks.
Martin Montellano, a souvenir vendor at the border, would like you to consider one as you sit in the long line of cars waiting to get back into the U.S. Ten bucks. Less if you haggle.
He has them in dozens of characters: The latest box office hits like Batman or Spider Man. Mickey Mouse (though he has a kind of creepy gaze). An oversized Tweety Bird. The Virgin Mary, or for the impending holiday season, how about a Santa Claus?
They’re all brightly painted, displayed in neat rows at his merchant’s booth, one among many that line a little traffic island surrounded by the lines of cars. Almost all of the vendors here sell these piggy banks.
“Thirty years, I’ve been selling here,” Montellano said from in front of his post one recent afternoon, as cars idled nearby. “My dad’s been selling them for 60 years right here.”
Indeed, these piggy banks have been a mainstay of Tijuana’s tourist scene for decades. College revelers out for a night of debauchery, families taking weekend trips down the Baja coast. When times were good, and they had a hundred pesos left to blow before crossing back into the U.S., why not buy a piggy bank?
He said he used to sell up to 200 or 300 in a single weekend.
But the violence fears that drove tourists away in the last decade took their toll on piggy bank sales, as they did on all businesses here. Now Montellano said he’s lucky to sell 40.
Still, in the hilly residential neighborhoods that rise above the city’s downtown, piggy bank production is churning.
Behind his home in a working-class neighborhood, Edmundo Gonzalez employs four workers at a piggy bank workshop. They mix plaster and pour it into molds, then shake the mold by hand until the plaster dries. The whole thing takes just a couple of minutes, and they crunch these out by the hundreds.
On a recent afternoon, one worker peeled a mold away to reveal a perfectly formed, white plaster donkey. He carved a coin slot into it, then set it out to dry along with hundreds of other Disney characters, superheroes and baby Jesuses piled in the courtyard or on wooden shelves. Nearby another worker painted the dried ones using a paint gun.
A street vendor can sell one of these piggy banks for as little as two or three dollars and still make a profit on what he paid a wholesale producer like Gonzalez. It’s not a big profit, but Gonzalez says it’s more than they would make if they worked in one of the many foreign manufacturing plants in Tijuana, where you can make less than ten dollars a day.
“That’s why it’s still a good business even though tourism is down,” he said.
In fact, Gonzalez’s daughter has a workshop behind her house next door to his. So do neighbors down the street and in surrounding colonias. Plaster is cheap, so that keeps production costs low. So does a general disregard for Disney and other company trademarks on the characters the Tijuana artisans cast in plaster.
On Fridays and Saturdays, pickup trucks and mini-vans filled with piggy banks descend these hills and producers deliver them to vendors’ booths near the border.
That’s one of the benefits of having so many local plaster artisans, Gonzalez said, even if it drives prices down. A special request can be cast in plaster within days. And stock is easier to replenish quickly.
Other goods for sale near the border – like sombreros and leather sandals, are shipped in from the interior of Mexico. Many of the Aztec print blankets for sale in Tijuana are made in China -- yes, Mexican blankets from China. But plaster piggy banks are produced right here, in Tijuana.
“It’s really something that Tijuana has given to us all,” Gonzalez said. And that’s a contribution he’s proud to be a part of.