Tijuana Soccer Team Bridges The Border
Tijuana's vibrant tourist scene has all but disappeared. But in its absence, the city is becoming a place for a new type of culture: one forged by people who live between countries and see themselves as part of both.
Tijuana's soccer team is part of that. The enormously popular Xolos (pronounced "Cholos") boasts a dedicated fan base that stretches from Sinaloa to Las Vegas.
Dean Mitchell isn't ashamed to admit it: He's a fanatic.
“So I've been a soccer fan all my life but I've never had seen success – LA, San Diego – so I had to go to Portland, Seattle, places like that to see it. But I always knew Mexico loved it," he said.
Mitchell's having a beer with friends in the dirt parking lot at Estadio Caliente, Tijuana's soccer stadium, where the Xolos are about to play a match. He lives in San Diego, but he makes the sometimes hours-long trip across the border and back every time there's a game in Tijuana.
Mitchell says it's the most fun he's had going to soccer games in years.
“The whole city's going nuts and they haven't had anything before. So you got this city with a real bad reputation and it's showing off to the League how great an experience it is to be here," Mitchell said.
Xolos is short for Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente. Xoloitzcuintles are hairless dogs, sacred to pre-Hispanic cultures and noted for their unflagging energy, scrappy tenacity and loyalty -- kind of like the team and its rambunctious, rowdy fans.
Inside the stadium, Agustín Díaz is smoking a cigarette by a food stand. He lives in San Diego now, but he was born and raised in Tijuana. Everything he's wearing has the Xolos logo on it, right down to his cape and the big stuffed dog on his hat.
“Now that we've got a team right here I'm 100 percent with them. I wear my pet Xolo, I wear my wristband, and even on my cell phone is the Xolo, the big dog and everything," Díaz said. "I am Super Xolo. Even if they go down to the Second Division I'm still gonna be a Xolo.”
Five years ago, the Xolos were a little-known Second Division team. Now they're in the lead in the Mexican League's First Division, ahead of legendary teams like Chivas and America. This means in the soccer world, they're a full-fledged meteoric phenomenon.
Wes Braddock is a principal at a San Diego County high school and holds season tickets called Xolopasses, which cost up to 3,800 pesos, or $300.
“Boy, when the Xolos advanced out of what they call the Liga de Ascenso, the Ascending League, and I was at the game that they won that put them into the American, into the Mexican Premiere League," Braddock said. "It was very similar to me, almost more emotional, than when the [San Diego] Chargers went to the Superbowl in '94. I mean, people were riding up and down the street, honking their horns, waving flags. In this city it really has been good for the image of the city and the people of the city.”
Most of all, he says, it brings residents of San Diego and Tijuana together and showcases their similarities rather than their differences.
Roberto Cornejo agrees. He's the Xolos assistant general manager and a resident of both the U.S. and Mexico. Bringing together the two cities, he says, was his vision all along.
“Soccer in San Diego is very big. The majority of kids play either [recreational] or some type of club in their life as they're young," Cornejo said. "San Diego's an educated population in terms of soccer, and Tijuana has I think more links to San Diego than, say, Mexico City or farther south.”
Several of the Xolos' players are from the U.S. side, like midfielder Joe Corona, who grew up in south San Diego County and has played with the U.S. Men's Under-23 team.
In the last two years, the team has expanded northward, opening youth academies in San Diego's South Bay and in Riverside County.
“In the academies we're trying to develop players. If they make it pro with us, that's great. If they're able to get a college scholarship and get their college degree via soccer and through their training then that's just as good for us," Cornejo said.
This Sunday the Xolos play Chivas in Guadalajara. If they stay in the top four, while is likely since they're currently number one, they advance to the league playoffs.