Tijuana Colonias

Occidente Nuevo: Recycled Tijuana

Anthony Paul Marchetti’s photograph from the exhibition Occidente Nuevo: Recycled Tijuana

In their first exhibition of this work in Tijuana in April of 2013, photographers Anthony Paul Marchetti and Laura Migliorino continue in the tradition of a number of Tijuana and San Diego artists who have focused on the innovative methods of “construction by necessity” in Tijuana’s colonias.

This new show features photos of Tijuana’s fascinating and sometimes disturbing built environment.

In their artist statement, the photographers explain:

The exhibition, Occidente Nuevo: Recycled Tijuana plays off Robert Adams’s seminal series The New West, a stunning photo essay about newly developed tract homes that sprang up throughout the barren western landscape during the mid 1970s.

In an ironic departure from Adams, this work captures a new west created from the debris of what has now become the old west. Housing developments in Tijuana, Mexico are being created through re-use of old housing stock from the San Diego area.

The process of relocating entire houses and cast-off housing debris has been occurring over recent decades, resulting in several Tijuana neighborhoods built almost entirely out of recycled architecture. These homes have been passed down generation-to-generation, and inhabited with pride.

Local San Diego and Tijuana artists share this fascination with the neighborhoods of Tijuana.

Photographer and border artist Maria Teresa Fernández focuses on the unique aesthetic qualities of the random combinations of materials in the dwellings of community members in the most vulnerable informal settlements of the city. Her 2011 exhibit Architects by Force/Arquitectos a la Fuerza  featured photographs of the community Chilpancingo, now demolished by the City of Tijuana to make way for the channelization of the river.

Tijuana artists Ingrid Hernández and Alejandro Cartajena have been working on these themes for the past decade.  They will contribute photos from their own large bodies of work to explore this theme alongside the Minnesota artists in this show.  (The two have exhibited their work along with  Marchetti and Migliorino in Minnesota as well).

And in particular, the widely celebrated border work of architect Teddy Cruz has examined the “entreprenuerial energy” and “high density co-existence” in Tijuana’s colonias. In both scholarship and critical practice, Cruz has sketched the outlines of a vital cross-border cycle of consuming and discarding, reusing and reinventing housing materials–discarded by affluent homeowners in the United States and picked up by Mexican entrepreneurs and builders for a second life in Tijuana.

It was this productive cross-border cycle that inspired Migliorino and Marchetti to document the houses of Tijuana’s colonias.


I interviewed the photographers in April 2013, and learned a little more about their process.

Laura Migliorino was in a show with Teddy Cruz at Minnesota’s Walker and the Carnegie Museum in 2007 when she first learned about this phenomenon of houses transported across the border from San Diego to Tijuana.

Migliorino recalls, “Teddy and I started chatting at a panel discussion at the Carnegie Museum and he introduced me to this phenomena of Tijuana houses which had been literally flatbeaded, hoisted off their foundation–flatbeaded in total–and taken over the border. I thought this was totally fascinating: that you virtually have an entire city built out of the debris–architectural debris–from the United States.”

And the enthusiasm was mutual. “After I told Anthony,” Migliorino says, “he got on a plane and flew out.”

Anthony Marchetti made his first two trips to Tijuana in 2009 and early 2010. Migliorino joined him later on the trips in 2010, and the photographers completed the project in six trips of 4-5 days at a time.

Travelling with a guide, Hector Lizarragga of Rosarito, the photographers criss-crossed the city, driving for ten or twelve hours a day. Migliorino recalls, “We would get up at 7:00 in the morning and we would shoot until we lost the light. Sometimes we were so fried that I felt like we were drunk.”

Although they had originally planned to rent a car and drive around Tijuana themselves, the artists were relieved to have help: “We could never have completed the project without Hector’s assistance,” Marchetti told me.

Lack of a pre-existing history of this phenomenon made the initial stages of the project more challenging. Marchetti notes that on his first trip, he didn’t take any photographs at all, and it took a while for the pair to find the types of structures they were looking for.

Marchetti explains, “There weren’t any images online, we couldn’t find any images anywhere. Most everybody in Tijuana knows about this phenomenon, but they didn’t really put it all together.”


1941, the Linda Vista Federal Housing Project begins (Defense Housing Project #4092)

The story, as did the houses, begins in San Diego. Historian Mary Taschner and architect Christine Killory completed studies of this boom and the housing policies that followed, published in the Journal of San Diego History.  Killory writes that at the onset of WWII, San Diego experienced a severe housing shortage as factory workers in war support industries arrived for new defense jobs. In 1940, approximately fifty thousand people moved to San Diego increasing the ranks of defense industry workers to 90,000, with more expected in the coming years.

The sudden economic boom prompted a massive crisis that the city of San Diego was reluctant to face. Christine Killory notes, “In the twelve months prior to March 1942, 32,000 families and 6,000 single men had filed applications with the local Homes Registration Bureau.”

Taschner describes how the crisis put tremendous pressure on workers and their families. “For over a year, aircraft workers and their families poured into San Diego at the rate of 1,500 a week. The results were immediate — there was no place to live. People trudged the streets looking for a place to sleep, any kind of place. Stories filled the press about families sleeping in their cars or even in all night theatres for lack of a better place. People shared hotel rooms with night shift workers using the room during the day, while day shift workers slept there at night. Some beds were never cold.”

And yet, in spite of the crisis, San Diego city leaders refused to establish a Housing Authority that would have enabled them to manage and build public housing for the new workers. As Killory explains, “The businessmen, realtors, lawyers, and architects who comprised San Diego’s civic elite had fashioned a strategy for growth based on tourism and military development, and excluding such distasteful aspects of industrialism as the immigration of undesirable groups—racial minorities and the poor. The plan was predicated on a process of urban decentralization whereby the entire city, supported by extensive federal military investment, would be available for the construction of single-family housing.”

Thus, in 1941 in response to a crisis that was now beginning to threaten the war effort, the federal government acted unilaterally, appropriating land in San Diego and building twenty separate federal public housing projects throughout the city.  The largest project was in Linda Vista, where 3000 homes were built for over 13,000 people—in a miracle of mass production—in just 300 days.

Yet, San Diego city leaders continued to consider these communities and the people in them mere temporary residents of San Diego. And so they did little to create the infrastructure that would enable Linda Vista to develop into a long-lasting, close knit community. In spite of well-designed urban plan for the Linda Vista community, neither the City of San Diego nor developers were willing to pay for the construction of the parks and public spaces, shopping malls, costly sewer and water systems and schools that were envisioned in the master plan.

Killory writes, “When the Linda Vista Federal Housing project opened in 1941, the one route in and out of Linda Vista was a narrow, winding, very dangerous two-lane road usually clogged with traffic, its grades too steep for buses to negotiate.”

When the war was over in 1945, there was widespread support in San Diego for the immediate demolition of these neighborhoods.

As Killory explains, “Post-war, San Diego created a new form of slum—tracts of bungalows abandoned first by their original residents and then by mass transit. As opponents of subsidized housing had hoped, there was widespread support for razing the wartime housing to build houses for returning soldiers and their families.”

Over five thousand dwellings were automatically reclassified from temporary to permanent so they could be sold and relocated in unincorporated areas of San Diego County, where the building codes were less restrictive or nonexistent. Some of the demountable housing was partially refurbished and retained for further use; some was sold to Mexico.


Given the hostility of San Diego city elites to the possibility of permanent working class neighborhoods in the city, it is no surprise that this history, like the history of the houses themselves, was so hard for the photographers Migliorino and Marchetti to piece together.

Thus, the project contributes as much to local history as it does to photography, filling in a huge gap in our understanding of urban development. While many Tijuanenses are familiar with the use of garage doors and other discarded industrial materials to build homes in the new outlying settlements of Tijuana, what is less well-known is that the history of this cycle of repurposing and innovative borrowing began back in the 1940s and 50s.

Migliorino notes, “There were tens of thousands of homes transported. The buyers would transport these homes to the San Ysidro side, where the Walmart is now, and he would take them over to a lot where the Home Depot is in Tijuana. And potential buyers would go and buy their houses there.”

“One compound we saw was owned by a woman named Christina, she had four or five houses of barrack housing, and her grandfather had brought them down. We heard about one man, Federico Chavez, who had a big business selling these homes. And supposedly his daughter Marta Chavez is still in the real estate business.”

“Essentially, as I understood it,” Migliorino continues, “there’s a long tradition of Mexican construction workers in southern California. When the war ended they were going to destroy these houses, and people were, ‘well, we will just take them off your hands.’  The Mexicans are the ones who came up and took them. It became a relationship between developers and Mexican brokers over a period of time. So when the next wave came, the same thing happened. The Mexican brokers came in and took them away.”

Much of what the photographers learned came from conversations with the Tijuana homeowners themselves.

Migliorino notes, “They seemed to know a lot. It depended on the family, but most of them knew quite a bit about the houses. And for most of them it was their parents and grandparents who brought the house down.  The grandfather, or the father, brought it down from San Diego, and passed it down through the generations.”

And, Migliorino recalls, the pride of ownership was clear in conversations and in the condition of the homes:

“These were family homes, and so they were very interested in the history of their houses. And they were really excited that somebody else was interested in their house. And they were all very proud of it… They were all working on their houses, expanding this, remodeling and adding on. The homes are very much about a legacy for the families.”


Anthony Marchetti’s photographs in Occidente Nuevo focus on the houses themselves, while Laura Migliorino pairs portraits of the families with their homes.

Marchetti’s work explores space and place, and the sometimes troubled relationship between humans and the built environment. Shaped by the strong lines of architectural detail, Marchetti’s evocative photos explore the human intervention in landscape, the visual traces that form narrative and memory.

Accompanying the Occidente Nuevo: Recycling Tijuana project, Marchetti has developed two other series focusing on the built environment of Tijuana, “Little Boxes” and “Ruinas.” Marchetti’s photographs of endless rows of tasteful but lifeless Mexican modernist cubicles built during the recent boom in Baja California evoke Adams’s vast suburban landscapes and gesture toward the folly of unfettered development in Tijuana.

Marchetti’s photos reference and reframe  Robert Adams’s 1974 series The New West.  Devoid of the people and human touch that make houses into homes, the work might too swiftly be read as a one-dimensional, lifeless depiction of foolhardy suburban sprawl. Yet another of Marchetti’s projects—“Apartment for Rent”—gives us a more nuanced view of the complexity that Marchetti is reaching for.

Marchetti photographed apartments during what he identifies as “in between moments” after one tenant has left and before another has moved in. The simple white palatte heightens the emotion in these images of empty apartments and everyday objects: a single blue recliner facing a corner in an empty living room, a lone shelf holding a stack of neatly folded shirts and a rolled up rug, dirt stained carpet marking spaces where furniture once stood.

Marchetti’s empty rooms express both melancholy and humor as they gesture to the lives once lived there.   Marchetti explains, “Assuming the dimensions and depth of portraiture, the resulting images reveal partial narratives about people’s lives. Rooms have become containers for evidence: each mark on the wall, imprint on the carpet, and abandoned object offers a glimpse into private lives of previous residents” (Apartment for Rent).

Marchetti’s photographs in Occidente Nuevo of Tijuana’s transplanted houses also capture these details that convey  the personal choices and agency of  Tijuana’s colonia dwellers, and the details hint at a bigger story.  Delicate cast-iron grillwork, and bright colors transform anonymous buildings into genuine homes. It is precisely this suggestion of a story that give Marchetti & Migliorino’s photos in Occidente Nuevo such pathos.

Laura Migliorino focuses on portraits and engages with the tensions of suburban sprawl, drawing on the famous 1950 Life Magazine feature on the new Levittown suburbs.

In one of Migliorino’s portraits at a show at Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center about suburbs, “Egret Street” in the 2006 exhibition “World’s Away: New Suburban Landscapes” a family is standing proudly in front of the entrance to their home. The tall, smiling figures of father, mother, and preteen son and daughter dominate the photo, framed by the banal architectural details of a typical tract home garage door, with its brick trim, and Home Depot colonial style porch lantern.

The family home appears in the far background, dwarfed by the family. What distinguishes Migliorino’s portrait from the Levittown photos featuring the Bernard Levey family is that this is a family of Ethiopian immigrants, resettled in a typical American subdivision dressed in typical middle class American style.

Critical but not cynical, and intimate without being sentimental, Migliorino’s family portraits capture the tension between the anonymity and stasis of cookie-cutter suburbs and the dynamic social mobility that suburban life has always promised.  Processed as a double exposure, the photo allows the outlines of the tract house and garage to cut through the figures, as if to suggest that this American life will leave its mark.

Migliorino’s portraits of Tijuana families capture many of these same tensions, and through conversation, stories would unfold, relationships developed.

And this conversation gives the photos a genuine intimacy. As Migliorino explains,

“And so we started interacting with the locals, and that became a big part of what we were doing. We would start conversing with them about the history of their house just to see how they would respond.

I knew that I would want to pair the houses with the people. But the project is as much about the process as the result.”


Tags: , , , , ,


  1. Pingback: About the Fence: Acerca de la Cerca | San Diego Mesa College Art Gallery

  2. Maria Curry says:

    Very nice article. San Diego,s architectural history is reflected in Tijuana,s built environment in a unique way through the recycling of structures enhanced with the added cultural contributions of migrants from many regions of Mexico. We need to read carefully this unique landscape and the work of these artists is very useful for that purpose. From a historic preservation perspective, there are a lot of possibilities for interpreting this testimonies of border urban history.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *