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Postcards from Tijuana: La Mona, A Concrete Tijuanense Queen

Jason Thomas Fritz.

Rising a triumphant five stories from a refuse-strewn ravine, Tijuana's "La Mona," Armando Muñoz Garcia's 18-ton naked-as-the-day-you-were-born sculpture/home, is the architectural incarnate of the ingenuity and absurdity that defines this most surreal of cities.

The most extraordinary example of the populist architecture that typifies Colonia Aeropuerto, a hardscrabble Tijuana neighborhood, La Mona bears a striking resemblance to the Statue of Liberty, if not her pert, better looking younger sister. Superficial Yankee resemblances aside, the grassroots audacity that La Mona represents, accentuated by her defiant while alluring pose, is 100 percent Tijuanense.

A Concrete Pinky is the New Middle Finger

Muñoz, a self-taught sculptor-turned-architect who dropped out of school when he was just 11 years old, originally envisioned his female form-follows-function architectural tour de force as a statue to mark Tijuana's 1989 centennial. With aims to have it placed in the already statue saturated central part of the city, where everyone from U.S. President Abraham Lincoln to Aztec ruler Cuauhtémoc is monumentalized -- and nearly every episode in Mexico history is commemorated, often times garishly so -- Muñoz approached city officials with his idea. To no one's surprise, they roundly rejected him. Undeterred, Muñoz not only ignored Tijuana's establishment, but he crafted the city a statue on a scale even grander than the one initially proposed.

Photo: Jason Thomas Fritz.
Photo: Jason Thomas Fritz.

And he built it in his own backyard

Early on in the process, Muñoz realized that his construction methods would leave the statue hollow, creating a space that would allow him to live within his masterpiece.
The statue was completed in 1991 -- two years too late for the city's centennial (hey, it's the thought that counts, right?). Though Muñoz gave her the graceless name "Tijuana III Millennium," in time she became known simply as "La Mona," or "The Doll."
Muñoz's belated birthday present to his hometown has become something greater than just another of the innumerable civic monuments dotting Tijuana's cityscape. It's a contemporary urban fairy tale about a man who, against all odds, built himself a home in the shape of woman, and then lived inside her. And with outreached arm pointing skyward and pinky finger raised to indicate Tijuana's geographic location on the upper left hand corner of Mexico's map, La Mona has become the unofficial symbol of this city.

The Tijuana Arc. Photo: Jason Thomas Fritz.
The Tijuana Arc. Photo: Jason Thomas Fritz.

Civic Lessons

Perhaps it is fitting then, that Tijuana's most iconic structure is tucked away in a residential neighborhood in a corner of the city that few tourists ever see. Certainly, Muñoz's brand of risqué populist "anarchitecture," never stood much of a chance of being placed downtown alongside the city's officially sanctioned kitsch in concrete -- a life-size reproduction of a colossal Olmec head in the tourist district, some 1,800 miles from where the originals were discovered.

So it isn't surprising, that just a decade after Muñoz presented Tijuana his proposal, city bureaucrats unveiled plans to celebrate another milestone -- the dawn of the new millennium -- with a $700,000 stainless steel arch at the foot of Avenida Revolucion. City boosters trumpeted the architectural plagiarism cut and pasted from an uncited Mid-Western source as Tijuana's answer to the Eiffel Tower. Tijuana's signature addition to the city's skyline, however, had much more provincial inspirations. It was nearly indistinguishable from Eero Saarinen and Hannskarl Bandel's Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, albeit in a more petite form, and vulgarly adorned with an arena-style JumboTron at its center.

By the close of the year 2000, Tijuana's 200-foot arch had yet to be finished, missing the year-long start of the new millennium.  And sometime later in the collection of years between its completion and the present, the Arch's electronic video screen in the sky stopped working altogether.

Photo: Jason Thomas Fritz.
Photo: Jason Thomas Fritz.

The Point at Which Postmodernism and Postadolescence Intersect

Age has been unkind to La Mona. While barely out of her teens, she looks well beyond her years. Cracks in her facade have prompted Muñoz to begin a restoration of the city's beloved symbol, employing the architectural version of cosmetic surgery to reverse the signs of aging. Even the woman who inspired La Mona's form -- one of Muñoz's ex-girlfriends -- recently complained about her appearance. "Lately, every two or three months, she will come and say, 'Hey Armando, give me a shower, comb my hair or something,'" Muñoz said.

Even in La Mona's unkempt post-adolescence, neighborhood NIMBY-ism hasn't been an issue, as Muñoz's idiosyncratic gesture to Tijuana has been universally embraced. "The neighborhood is famous now," Muñoz boasted. "No one has a different opinion other than good things."

Like much of the aspirational architecture of the neighborhood -- sprouting rebar on the uppermost levels, always awaiting the next addition or more permanent materials -- La Mona, too, is a work in progress. While the pace is slow, Muñoz is painstakingly restoring the symbol of this city, starting at the toes and working his way up, building an even better version of his muse. The last time I visited, he was already at her hips.

Photo: Jason Thomas Fritz
Photo: Jason Thomas Fritz.

 A Tale of Two Cities

Tijuana's urban landscape is cast from negotiations between an authoritarian past and a democratic future. Taken together, the two monuments symbolizing the city -- in their sanctioned and unofficial forms -- offer fitting metaphors for the radically divergent currents shaping Tijuana.

The "officialists" -- corrupt, incompetent and rooted in Mexico's top-down political history -- built the city its uninspiring, expensive arch, even as many city residents lacked basic services like water, trash collection and sewage hookups.

This is the current that fails to see Tijuana -- the second largest city in the West Coast, save for Los Angeles -- as anything other than an inferior appendage to San Diego. And rather than embrace the city's globalized future, harvest the creativity of its citizenry, or capitalize on its distinct brand of chaotic urbanism, those in power remain mired in nostalgia, incapable of imagining a Tijuana without intoxicated American college students and twenty-dollar gringo day trippers, even though they stopped coming long ago. But Tijuana continues moving forward without them, despite their yesteryear orientated gaze.

Although Tijuana's first 100 years belonged to the officialists, the succeeding century will be a story defined by the grass-roots dynamism, popular resourcefulness and creativity emerging in the spaces created by official neglect. This is the future of Tijuana -- spirited resilience personified in that concrete and rebar, in the form of a monumental nude towering 55-feet skyward they call La Mona.

Muñoz has traded his Tijuana digs at La Mona for his latest work, entitled "Eve of the Sea," just south of the city near Puerto Nuevo. While it isn't finished just yet, it's nearly there. And it's even more impressive than La Mona. Muñoz perfected his building techniques, and has created a home that is much more spacious, and livable. This time, in the form of a giant mermaid, with upper part of her nude torso -- even more well-endowed than La Mona -- shooting out the water, which doubles as the home's swimming pool.

Like the aspiration architecture of La Mona's neighborhood, Muñoz always dreams bigger. While the completion date for "Eve of the Sea" is just around the corner, Muñoz already has plans to sell the property to finance his next project, a 150-foot building that he boasts will be the tallest sculpture home in the world.

And while Muñoz no longer lives in Tijuana, he still sees himself as part of the solution that the officialists continue to ignore. In a region still reeling from a steep drop of in tourism because of drug violence, Muñoz believes he can play a instrumental role in getting tourists to come back, if only give a chance.

"I don't want to say I'm the savior of Baja or that I'm the only one who has the salvation," Muñoz told San Diego CityBeat. "I'm just going to propose my work as something that could be iconic for Baja. I'm convinced that this kind of creation is very attractive to foreigners, because people keep coming to see [it]."

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