In the short film PM (1961), Cuban filmmakers Sabá Cabrera Infante and Orlando Jiménez Leal focused their cameras on the bars, restaurants and streets of Havana’s raucous nightlife in the early 1960s. The film’s only dialogue is the overheard fragments of drunken conversation and the song lyrics washing over the small clusters of people gathered in various nightspots, whose bohemian and working-class patrons have only pleasure on their mind. The film was quickly banned by Cuba’s newborn revolution, which considered the film subversive for its depiction of a debauchery that ignored the government’s calls for moral austerity.
Heriberto Yépez’s recent book Tijuanologías (Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, 2006) concludes with an essay entitled “Tijuana P.M.” in which he takes the reader on a tour of various bars and nightclubs of his home city, much in the same manner as the famous film does. Like Cabrera Infante and Jiménez Leal, Yépez’s essay revels in the discoveries one can encounter in underground realms far-removed from duty, morality or sobriety. “Tijuana P.M.” closes a brilliant series of essays that explore the phenomenon of Tijuana as a postmodern vortex, as evoked by the likes of Néstor García Canclini, Juan Villoro, Manu Chao, Richard Rodriguez and Charles Bukowski (among many others).
As I was reading the book, I sometimes considered it as a theoretical counterpoint to his novel A.B.U.R.T.O. (Editorial Sudamericana, 2005). Beyond Yépez’s immense talent for disentangling the complex social and cultural layers of a border city such as Tijuana, what really moves the reader in these two books is the fine quality of the prose. Tijuanologías confirms what many readers familiar with Yépez’s blog have known for several years now, that he’s one of the most talented Latin American writers at work today. Yépez’s prose continuously reinvents itself from page to page: at times melancholic, others exuberant, always agile, able to register irony and sincerity almost simultaneously. At one point in the title essay, a sequence of 10 “postcards” and a coda, he discusses his own generation of writers (my translation):
“ There’s an entire generation of young Tijuana writers (whose archetype is not the writer but the DJ) who believe that the ultimate urban experience is the rave, probably forgetting that it’s actually displacement.” (58)
This analogy to the figure of the DJ offers a context for understanding Yépez’s multitudinous prose. His book is interrupted by a series of epigraphs relating to Tijuana that propel the reader in various directions, offering a textual representation of his subject matter’s multiplicity. Nothing is too arcane or commodified for Yépez’s eye as it investigates how a city like Tijuana might defy our expectations, especially for those of us who think we understand the place as a postmodern symptom.
While space and our relation to its boundaries is a central aspect of Tijuanologías, Yépez’s actual subject seems to be time, and in particular the two decades that serve as a hinge to this new millenium. That is, Yépez is mapping a series of cultural practices and situations that exist in Tijuana but also throughout Latin America. For one, there is the constant encounter with the United States and the cultural displacement and distortion this creates. Also, one might notice the paradox of cities that exist simultaneously in the postmodern era and the middle ages. Cities where artists work for global audiences and packs of wild dogs roam the streets.
Maybe the most important factor in this exploration of Latin America’s current age is an awareness of the centrality of violence in the region, both on a minor and major scale. Violence serves as a unifying force of sorts, a foundational element for Latin America, but which in recent years has taken on an unusual intensity. Yépez writes of the violence surrounding Tijuana’s drug cartels, its maquiladora factories where capitalism exerts its brutal power over proletarian masses, as well as the violence inherent in the encounter between American tourists and Mexican “natives.” Yépez is not glorifying or accepting this violence, but is instead documenting it in an effort to understand how this age moves.
In his former blog in English, The Tijuana Bible of Poetics, Yépez discussed his interest in the notion of rewriting:
”Rewriting is, as we all know, the essence of writing. Writing is knowing you’re rewriting and knowing (and this is even more important but less known) you’re going to be re-written.” (23 January 2003)
Tijuanologías is a rewriting of a city, its translation from matter to prose. One can imagine the multiple epigraphs in this book as the swivels upon which this translation is built. We shouldn’t mistake this book for a paean to Tijuana, nor is it a lament. Yépez doesn’t hope to serve as our guide to the city (although “Tijuana P.M.” does offer an insider’s often hilarious glimpse at the spirit of a place). Instead, he’s using Tijuana as a means of theorizing this moment of violence and unreality that has engulfed Latin America, when American hubris and incompetency in the region seem to be both a cause and symptom of an indefinable malaise. Of course, Latin America has never enjoyed a moment of stability since colonial times, but what cities like Tijuana reveal to those of us who take the time to notice is that “this time is out of joint.” Tijuanologías knows this and rewrites itself accordingly.