My trips to Tijuana have always included strolling down the main tourist drag, la Avenida de la Revolución — dodging panhandlers, buying up pottery, and stopping for snacks of tacos, or even better, sizzling bacon-wrapped hot dogs. I’ve also ogled and smirked at the notoriously cheesy zebra-striped donkeys. Little did I know about their fabled history. About their role – dating to the 1930s – as a tourist photo-op representing the mythic Mexico of sleepy ranchos, guitar melodies, bright serapes and dreamy señoritas. During prohibition, New Yorkers might have escaped to Cuba for “wet vacations.” But Californians had Tijuana.
I contemplated this little-known history at a Santa Monica Museum of Art exhibit appropriately titled “The Donkey Show.” The exhibition occupied just a small room, but it used every inch of the space, as well as the airwaves. One step inside the room and I heard American-sounding tunes ranging from the ‘20s to the ’60s that were all about Tijuana, curated by scholar Josh Kun.
It presented the perfect backdrop to take on some browsing. On one side of the room, a long case displayed artifacts related to the music I was hearing – sheet music, album covers, playbills and photos. A similar case in the center of the room presented photos, curated by Jim Heimann, of tourists posing with the donkey, either riding atop the poor creature or seated on the cart behind it.
Asian visitors dressed in wide sombreros, sailors with cigarettes, and arm-locked couples all grinned up from the pictures. In some photos, the donkey was brown, in others; painted with white zebra stripes. That trend started in the 1940s, apparently to make the animals stand out more on poor-quality, war-era materials. The nearby walls, too, were covered with photos in the same tones of black, white and sepia. Seen together, they represented a narrow but deep slice of Tijuana culture seen through decades of history.
The walls on the far sides of the room featured larger works. On one, a mural was painted of an Aztec warrior carrying an Aztec princess draped in his arms, against the backdrop of a tall temple. It is a classic Mexican image depicting the legend of the tragic love between Popocatepetl and Iztacchiuatl. Do Tijuana’s donkeys, perhaps, offer us a tale just as epic? On the other side of the room, a photo from the exhibition was blown up to cover the entire wall, making it almost-life size. In the photo, we see a Tijuana from the 1930s or 1940s. Several men and a couple of younger boys stand in the shade of a small shack, cameras, serapes and donkey at the ready for the next passerby looking for a quaint photo-op. Their attitude is not particularly welcoming or inviting. Instead, their body language communicates a sense of inevitability, that all they need to do is wait for you, the tourist, to approach. There will always be tourists in Tijuana, and there will always be a desire for donkeys, they seem to say.
The donkey trend has even reached Los Angeles. At Olvera St., a fake donkey, sans stripes, greets visitors at one end of the Mexico-styled street, just another piece of “local color.” I took a photo there with a friend a few years ago. Now, I have to wonder: Will I end up in a museum someday, my face chronicling yet another chapter in the history of the Mexican donkey?