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Mexican Mods Helped Reshape the Cartel-Ravaged City of Tijuana

Tijuana's mod scene might be tiny, but that hasn't stopped them from throwing parties every month or raising their kids to keep on carrying the torch.

by Alex Zaragoza
Dec 15 2014, 3:25pm

Adam Hernandez at the Tijuana a Go-Go party. Photos by Vito Di Stefano

It's Saturday night at Moustache, a small bar in downtown Tijuana. Every month, mods from the local Baja crew throw the Tijuana a Go-Go party here, spinning James Brown, ? and the Mysterians, and the 13th Floor Elevators to a crowd of skinheads, suedeheads, rude boys, and Mexican mods. If it wasn't for the green-haired girls standing outside, drinking 40s out of brown paper bags, we could easily be in some London basement club 50 years ago.

But this is a relatively recent sight. Not so long ago, Tijuana was the front line in a vicious inter-cartel turf war; close to 500 people  ​were murdered here in the last three months of 2008 alone. And even if you weren't directly involved, you'd inevitably end up affected in some way: Kidnappings and public gun battles were a regular occurrence, and drug gangs would often hang their victims from bridges—or simply pile up their bodies in the streets—as a threat to their adversaries. Tijuana, a border city that's long relied on the US tourist trade, quickly became somewhere that no tourist would ever want to visit.

However, while American college kids stopped coming down to Tijuana to get shitfaced on cheap tequila, locals and longtime nightlife regulars kept partying, opening bars and restaurants for themselves and their friends. Six years later, with the annual body count cut in half, it's these individuals who have helped to reshape Tijuana into the  ​cultural landmark it is today. Among them were the city's mods, who carried on hosting club nights despite all the violence around them.

"The mod scene in TJ is small, but being a Mexican mod isn't all that different from being a regular Mexican," says Tijuana a Go-Go DJ Astronauta Jackson. "We all like to get fine and dandy, shake our hips to the oldies but goodies and get wasted by the end of the night. It's all about the music mainly. If you want to pop on a Fred Perry and some shiny shoes, cool. It's all the same people getting together and listening to the music."

Mods emerged in Cold War Britain as a response to the class struggles and expectations leveled at the UK youth of the time. They dressed in expensive Italian suits, dragged their Lambrettas around, discussed art and philosophy, took a bunch of speed at all-night underground parties, and beat the shit out of people for wearing leather jackets. Everything was good for those with a scooter and a Caesar cut. But as certain figures from the counterculture scene drove it into the mainstream, things began to fizzle, with young men and women of the 1970s tending to choose hairspray and swastika patches over braces and Chelsea boots.

However, after the success of 1979's Quadrophenia, the subculture began to enjoy a renaissance. It was around this time that a small contingent of Mexican dandies adopted the culture for themselves, with Tijuana's new mods collecting records, throwing parties and riding their refurbished scooters through the city's potholed streets. More than 30 years later, that same lot are still around, only older and grayer (time has a tendency of doing that to you), and accompanied by their kids, who are into the mod scene, though may not completely identify with it.

"Some people join a subculture, then, after a month, will switch to another, then another," says Ricardo Jimenez, a 27-year-old suedehead and historian hanging out at Tijuana a Go-Go. "With the mods, that doesn't happen, because there are so few of them. It's not exclusive, though; if you're into the music, they always welcome you. It's all about coexisting and communing."

Tijuana a Go-Go rages until near daybreak. The music plays on as a fight breaks out and a drunken kid is carried to the pavement by the bartenders. The mods keep dancing until it's time to go home. They'll be back a month later, and a month after that.

The Hernandez family outside La Ciruela Electrica in Tijuana

Guy and Miriam Hernandez—who are 51 and 46, respectively—were part of the original Tijuana mod scene in the early-80s. Unlike most of their friends from the era, who got married, had kids and eventually stopped subscribing to the subculture's ethos, Guy and Miriam continued. They now live in a small house decked out in midcentury finds and even raised their kids mod, dressing them in vintage 60s clothes from the day they were born.

While flipping through records at La Ciruela Electrica, a tiny Tijuana record shop named after 60s psych band the Electric Prunes, Guy, Miriam, and their sons Adam, 21, and Gael, 13, tell me that, for them, being mod isn't a fad; it's their entire way of life. 

"A lot of people get married and they change. I don't know why, but, you know, that's their thing," says Guy, who, along with Miriam, has been throwing 60s dance parties in Tijuana every month for the last six years. "We didn't change, because being mod is what we really like. When you do something you like, you do it for the rest of your life."

"That's when it becomes a lifestyle. You start looking for the clothes and the records and it just becomes who you are," adds Miriam. "I don't know what's ever going to stop us from being mod or partying. Death? Other than that, I don't see us stopping. Now there's this younger generation who can say this was always their lifestyle. They can say, 'I was born mod.' If they want to change later, that's their choice."

Adam and Gael don't seem to be in a rush to give up their mod heritage, though. Even though he's teased at school, Gael doesn't have an urge to dress like his schoolmates. "They dress kind of ugly," he says, refusing to take off his vintage shades because, as he says, they make him look " perrón," or "badass."

While the Tijuana mod scene might be tiny, social media has allowed its members to connect with those with shared interests in other parts of Mexico and the US. The scenes in Mexico City, Monterrey, Puebla and Nuevo Leon are all going strong, and mods from Los Angeles have ridden down Tijuana to DJ at some of the 60s parties in town. They've created a network of torchbearers for the British subculture, spanning a range of nationalities, ages and sexes. 

"That's one of the advantages of the mod movement," laughs Guy. "Whether you're 20 or 40, you look good when you're a mod."