So Tijuana and San Diego are closer than they appear; they share an economic horizon. And the very walls tell a story about an evolving hybrid culture. The teenage graffiti artists of Tijuana took the border by storm in the early 1990s, splattering bilingual graffiti across the port of entry, the shopping centers on Agua Caliente Boulevard, the trolley that runs from San Ysidro to downtown San Diego. Contradicting the complaints in California that social ills ooze north from Mexico, "los taggers" were mostly English-speaking, middle-class youths who commuted to schools in San Diego or former immigrants who brought back the hip-hop/graffiti craze with them. An enterprising Tijuana youth from a wealthy family that owned a garment factory in Los Angeles tapped a curious and lucrative market. He opened a corner store on Agua Caliente Boulevard called Madness. It was a paint-drenched clubhouse for taggers which sold the tools and regalia of the trade: baseball caps, baggy jeans, ski masks, backpacks for toting spray-paint cans on clandestine "bombing" runs in which the youths taunted police by adorning their scrawled monikers with the number 1036, the police code for "fleeing suspect." When the officers of the elite Special Tactical Group caught the taggers, they administered street justice by spraying them head to foot with their own confiscated paint cans.
"All of the fashions of the United States arrive sooner or later," said Federico Benitez, the bespectacled, reformist police chief who in early 1994 organized an antigraffiti campaign by police and social workers. "The movement of people back and forth is large. It brings these influences."

The graffiti craze burst the confines of working-class neighborhoods in Tijuana, catching on with children of Mexican millionaires and with nonconformists in their thirties--"what in other times would have been called hippies," Chief Benitez said. In fact, the taggers were the latest in a procession of defiant trans-border subcultures: the zoot-suited pachucos of the 1940s, the hippies of the 1960s, and the cholo gang members of today. A more destructive form of this cultural ferment swallowed up a group of Mexican-American gang members from the Logan Heights barrio of San Diego in 1993. Recruited as traveling gunmen by the Arellano drug lords, the young men of the Thirtieth Street gang ended up in the middle of the murder of the cardinal of Guadalajara; they were hunted down while their bosses disappeared and the mysteries of drugs and politics went unsolved.

In comparison to the young narco-soldiers, the graffiti "crews" were mere nuisances. But they caused a lot of indignation and discussion in Tijuana about insidious foreign influences on local youth. The crews were hundreds strong and had names like Fool Krew, Homeless Altamira Punks and HEM, the Spanish acronym for Made in Mexico. "I like the name HEM because it's 100 percent Mexican," declared Bens, seventeen, a rebellious rich kid sitting cross-legged on the counter of the Madness store. His tag adorned a giant HEM insignia on a white wall across the boulevard from Madness dated 1993, the year of the tagger invasion. Bens (as in Mercedes) had lived for two years in Southern California with cousins who were avid taggers. He did not work or go to school, and he spent nights at a time without seeing his family, whom he described sourly as "muy stuckup." Bens and his crew spoke a rollicking Spanglish patois full of terms like lonche (lunch), raite (ride), underground, wannabes, get-a-life.

"What do I have to do with Mexico City or Sinaloa, if I spent my life shopping here in San Ysidro at Ralph's and Safeway?" growled another graffiti artist, eighteen-year-old Fran Ilich, slurping a Coke at a Jack-in-the-Box a quick walk north of the San Ysidro port of entry. Ilich was edgy and skinny with short disheveled hair, an appropriately bohemian-looking leader of Tijuana's guerrilla counterculture. He was also an aspiring novelist, journalist and filmmaker. "Before being Mexican, I am from Tijuana. Taggers, raves, techno--those are words you can't translate. I have to like this transculturation, this hybrid language: that's what I am."