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From The San Diego Union-Tribune, Monday, Aug. 12, 1996:

Center of affection

In fast-changing Tijuana, Teniente Miguel Guerrero Park is a picture of traditional Mexico: couples courting, church bells ringing, tiny girls in frilly dresses with dripping ice cream cones.

“You don’t need to search for Tijuana’s identity, because her face is right here,” said Ricardo Fitch, a 34-year-old businessman, strolling through the city’s oldest park one recent Sunday afternoon. “You just have to stop and search for her features every once in a while.”

In 1996 1-year-old Marco Antonio Ramirez Campos sat among the pigeons that flocked to Tijuana's Guerrero Park.

Not just for the birds: On a recent afternoon, 1-year-old Marco Antonio Ramirez Campos sits among the pigeons that flock to Tijuana’s Teniente Miguel Guerrero Park. The park is the closest Tijuana comes to having a main square, or plaza mayor — the common link of towns and cities across Mexico.

(John Gibbins / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Pigeons fluttered in all directions as he stepped down a broad shaded walk. Bursts of laughter rose from behind the central kiosko, or bandstand, where Beto the clown worked a growing crowd.

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Mention this lushly landscaped little piece of downtown to longtime residents and they may touch your arm and start to cry. They’ll tell you how their parents fell in love there, how as children they leaped down the steps on roller skates, how the whole town gathered for Mexico’s independence fiestas to shout Viva Mexico!

Bring newcomers from Mexico’s interior to the ornately forged benches, by the tall trees with the trunks painted white, past the old man who sells popsicles from a little cart, and they won’t feel so far from home anymore.

“People have an affection for this park that they don’t feel for any other,” said Tijuana parks director Constantino Seamanduras.

That’s because it’s more than a park: Teniente Guerrero Park is the closest that this sprawling city comes to having a main square, or plaza mayor — the common link of towns and cities across Mexico.

“Because Tijuana has no plaza, Teniente Guerrero Park is our equivalent,” said Fitch, whose ancestors came to the region in 1825.

Tijuana is one of Mexico’s fastest growing — and fastest changing — cities. Sixty percent of its 1 million residents were born elsewhere, in states such as Jalisco, Michoacan and Sinaloa. Located far from the Mexico’s dominant center, the city is better known for breaking traditions than keeping them.

But the people who love Teniente Guerrero Park want to make sure this square block of the city remains unchanged. They despair over the litter, the often empty kiosko, the patches of lawn that need resodding. The park is not just a memory of who they were. It is who they are.

“It’s something that’s alive for us still,” said clarinetist Miguel Bravo, director of Tijuana’s Municipal Band. His 86-year-old mother still lives a block away on Avenida Mutualismo, in the house where Bravo grew up.

Now 64 years old, Bravo still goes to the park for early morning exercise — joining other longtime Tijuana residents in circling the park. And when he brings the band to play there, “I live my childhood again.”

The park was founded by women: Maria Luisa Viuda de Perez, the widow who 73 years ago donated the land; and Josefina Rendon Parra, the schoolteacher who led the Tijuana Women’s League’s in building the park. They planted the date palms and eucalyptus trees that now tower there — donations of San Diego’s Balboa Park.

Its name celebrates a local hero, Miguel Guerrero, a Mexican army lieutenant who repelled a 1911 attack by the filibusteros, invaders from across the border, when Tijuana was just a village.

Like Mexico’s ubiquitous plazas, the park is always open. It has no fence, just bushes surrounded by a sidewalk where boleros shine shoes from small wooden stands, and hammer-wielding carroceros offer to smooth out dents of passing cars.

Beto the clown worked in Tijuana's Guerrero Park on Aug. 6, 1996.

No Bozo: Beto the clown worked in Guerrero Park on the weekends in 1996.

(John Gibbins/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The park sits across from St. Francis of Assisi Church. At one time, its location put it in the center of town. Now the center has moved elsewhere. Go there early in the morning and find vagrants sleeping on its lawns and benches, or immigrants waiting to cross to the United States. Don’t go there at night, the park staff warns.

Today, most of the original families have moved away, far from the park. The children and grandchildren are more likely to spend Sundays at Tijuana’s country club, the Campestre, says Fitch, or across the border at La Jolla Shores or Balboa Park.

“Maybe they come to the park once a year.”

If Tijuana’s band doesn’t play there as often, it’s because its musicians now have other places to go: Tijuana is made up of hundreds of colonias, and they need music, too, says Bravo.

“Unfortunately, the city has grown so much that it’s no longer a question of just one park,” he adds.

Don’t skate, the signs now order at Teniente Guerrero Park. Don’t step on the grass. Don’t litter. But the crowds are oblivious. They picnic on the lawns, skate on the walks and leave behind bags and wrappers.

“They haven’t really sunk roots in the city, they don’t feel affection for Tijuana,” says Fitch. “I don’t think they act this way back where they’re from.”

But newcomers take quickly to Teniente Guerrero, transplants like Maria de Jesus Perez Sarmiento who recently made her first visit. Since last year, the mother of eight from Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, has lived in a shantytown with her daughters and twin sons.

“It’s pretty, but there should be music, to make people a little bit happier,” she said, as her sons chased pigeons and her daughter and son-in-law embraced.

Nearby, 10 little boys stood at attention, laid down, stood up, saluted, laid back down again, as Beto the clown badgered and mimicked their actions. “Applause for the chocolate soldiers,” Beto ordered, and the crowd of young parents and little children laughed with delight.

Many were probably not born in Tijuana. But if any were frightened or homesick or alone in the city, or wishing they could be somewhere else, at this moment it didn’t show.

“I think if these children stay, if they don’t go,” says Fitch, “there will come a time when they will love the park too.”

Source: This post first appeared on sandiegouniontribune.com

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