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Old 07-04-09, 07:35 PM   #1
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Default Art Hangs Where Underground Border Tunnel Once Existed

Art Hangs Where Underground Border Tunnel Once Existed

What: La Casa del Túnel

Where: Calle Chapo Márquez 133 Colonia Federal, Tijuana

Friday, Saturday and Sunday, by appointment only


Drug traffickers were the first to see opportunity in the oddly shaped house near the border fence in Tijuana, digging a tunnel from the house to a parking lot in San Ysidro. Now artists have taken over, determined to pierce the international boundary in an entirely different way – with painting, poetry and music.

The weekend opening of La Casa del Túnel, Tijuana's newest independent cultural space, brought strains of accordion, applause and laughter to a normally quiet residential enclave west of the San Ysidro border crossing.

“Transformation is the key word. Transform what you have, make it better,” said Luis Ituarte, 65, a Tijuana-born artist and the center's founder. “Something that characterized the city in a negative way is being transformed into something good.”

It has been more than five years since authorities discovered the tunnel beneath the triangular two-story house on Calle Chapo Márquez, about 75 feet from the border fence. The passageway included ventilation, electricity and a pulley to carry marijuana to the San Ysidro parking lot. U.S. authorities found bundles worth more than $2.3 million.

More than a year after that April 2003 discovery, they found a second illegal tunnel coming from the same dilapidated house.

Fast forward to this past weekend: Photographs depicting environmental themes covered the freshly painted walls, including a series showing flowers growing out of Tijuana potholes.

As the lights of Tijuana's hillsides flickered in the distance, a crowd gathered Saturday on the rooftop Cafe EcoVerde. They clustered at small tables, sipped red wine and filled the night with the murmur of conversation.

Among the center's first visitors were David and Naomi Sobo, retirees from North Park who have been coming to Tijuana since 1947. “We've watched Tijuana grow into this tremendous cosmopolitan city,” said David Sobo. “It's really vibrant.”

Also attending was Francisco Nuño, a longtime resident of the surrounding community of 125 families, called Colonia Empleados Federales. Nuño, a native of Tijuana, considered moving away when the tunnel was discovered. He has now decided to stay.

“This has been a 180-degree turn for this street,” said Nuño, 60. “We hope this can be a pilot plan, not just for this street, but for the entire city.”

The center's opening is the culmination of a dream for Ituarte, who worked in cultural affairs for the city of Los Angeles and continues to teach art there part-time. In 2004, Ituarte helped form the binational Border Council of Arts and Culture to promote the region's artists.

The house on Calle Chapo Márquez offered enticing possibilities. It was built in the early 1960s by Gabriel Moreno Lozano, a prominent Tijuana resident who held various government posts.

A longtime tenant of Lozano's had been subleasing the bottom floor when federal officials seized the property. Authorities returned it to the Lozano family in 2004 when they were cleared of any connection to the tunnel.

Approached by Ituarte, the family agreed to a long-term lease. In need of funds to fix up the house, the border council found key support from the Los Angeles-based Annenberg Foundation, which has contributed more than half the $200,000 raised so far.

Another important supporter is Adolfo Nodal, a Los Angeles-based curator who has worked for years alongside Ituarte building relationships with Tijuana artists.

“It's one of the most interesting cities in the world, as far as I'm concerned,” said Nodal, who is also president of the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Commission. “It's sort of an end of the earth kind of place, where people come and collect. Places like that really nurture culture.”

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