Christian Rocha, Doctoral Candidate, History
Figure 1. The inner courtyard of the Archivo Historico Municipal de Tijuana (AHMT), former site of Tijuana’s municipal government.
To visit the Archivo Histórico Municipal de Tijuana (AHMT) is to experience the sensory overload typical of urban life. The building itself is an uneventful structure painted in pale brown, a color devoid of any obvious political party associations. The surroundings of the complex, however, teem with life. The archive is located in the midst of the old centro, uncomfortably close to the epicenter of the city’s red-light district. The AHMT shares the intersection of Calle Segunda and Avenida Constitución with a 7-Eleven, a supermarket that has a name with regionalist undertones, and a pharmacy that displays ads in English. The border wall dividing Tijuana from San Diego is less than a kilometer away. Plastic papel picado in the Mexican flag’s colors hangs by a nearby McDonald’s, the obligatory reminder that one is still in Mexico. Even the mere act of walking into the archive’s building triggers the senses. One has to navigate the throngs of pedestrians marching along busy Calle Segunda, hear the noise of traffic rushing away from downtown, and even smell the invariably nauseating stench emanating from the trash can at the corner of the block. A more adventurous researcher may even decide to savor the taste of the city during lunch by eating a shrimp taco at a neighboring “hole in the wall.”
As a historian of Tijuana’s urbanization, I am particularly concerned with depicting the texture of city life in my account of the boomtown’s history between 1955 and 1993. Yet, how can a historian access the sensorial experiences of the past? How can we bring the smells, colors, or sounds of 1950s Tijuana back to life without ever having been there?
The interior of the bland AHMT building holds the key to tapping into the historical sensory experience of the period: the permisos de ambulantes. These documents are the result of a bureaucratization of street life that started as early as 1955. The typical application contained information about the ambulante’s place of residence, the goods he or she wanted to sell, and the area of town where the person would work. Some of the folders also include relevant documents regarding potential organizational memberships or letters of recommendation supporting the applicant. Most of the permisos also contain a picture of the vendor. One can even verify an applicant’s literacy status by checking whether he or she was able to provide a signature. The permits, and the paperwork necessary to obtain them, then, are a singular window into street life during the period between 1955 and 1982.
Figure 2. The inner courtyard of the Archivo Historico Municipal de Tijuana (AHMT), former site of Tijuana’s municipal government.
A sensory portrayal of Tijuana’s centro can be reconstructed in part from the information in the permisos de ambulantes. The documents suggest a vendor’s contribution to the city’s cacophony, odors, or visuals. Three elements have to be considered. First, the specific itinerant has to be identified and associated with a given space that can be described and analyzed. It is difficult to account for a vendor’s contribution to the overall urban atmosphere otherwise. A second step is to appraise the sensory output of the items or services sold by the vendors according to the permit. Distinct goods contributed to the area’s smell in different ways. The stench of shoe polish, for instance, was not the same as the aroma of fresh fruit. Similarly, a trinket was more likely to make clanking noises than a bag full of cigarette boxes. The third element is to consider the mere impact that the vendor had by performing his or her role at a given site. A taquero by a row of bars was likely to attract clients. The sounds of drunk customers ordering tacos contributed to downtown’s cacophony even as the rest of the city slept.
The files of just three street vendors help us recreate the atmosphere of the blocks near the AHMT building during 1958. At the time, the complex served as Tijuana’s municipal seat of government. Ramón Arroyo was a constant presence at the corner of Calle Primera and Avenida Revolución. He stood at the invisible boundary between the respectable side of downtown and the edge of the red-light district. A blind cigarette salesman, his voice should have served as a warning to the respectable tourist that he was approaching the lurid underbelly of the city. The next block over, closer to Tijuana’s seedy district, Javier Loza Bustamante sold tacos and other comestibles. The third itinerant worked just one street north from the AHMT building. Alejo González was a shoeshine on Calle Primera and Avenida Constitución. It is conceivable to imagine how a municipal employee may have walked down Avenida Constitución for a quick lunch at Loza Bustamante’s stand just two blocks away. The bureaucrat could have passed by González’s chair, possibly overhearing him talk with a customer or smelling the shoe polish, before crossing Calle Primera. At this point, the employee may have been able to overhear Ramón Arroyo as the cigarette salesman walked his predetermined route centered around the intersection of Calle Primera and Avenida Revolución. It was only a few steps to the bureaucrat’s lunch destination after this. The alluring smell of grease and meat would have welcomed the hungry employee. We have no record of the quality of Loza Bustamante’s food. Yet, his relatively short stint as a documented downtown taquero suggests that the taste of the tacos may have been not the best in town.
We get another glimpse of the area’s density of street commerce from the complaint of an itinerant candy saleswoman. María del Refugio Pérez worked at Parque Teniente Guerrero, located five blocks away from the current AHMT building. Frustrated with the high density of ambulantes in the area, she requested the municipality to change her zone of operations in March of that year. She asked the authorities if she could instead work one block away from Alejo González’s shoe shinning operation. It was a fruitless effort. The authorities promptly rejected her appeal claiming that Calle Segunda was already overwhelmed with itinerant salesmen. Then, our hypothetical bureaucrat would have encountered many more ambulantes on his way to lunch at Loza Bustamante’s taco stand. Each one of these vendors could have further contributed to the overall sensory overload of the centro.
Ultimately, the permisos de ambulantes are just one of the different tools available to feel 1950s Tijuana. They bring together the lives of Tijuanenses otherwise absent from the historical record, the quotidian experiences of the old centro, and the sounds, smells, and sights of a past living city.
 AHMT, PM 411.5/2426
 AHMT, PM 411.5/2657
 AHMT, PM 411.5/3051
 AHMT, PM 411.5/2451, “Tijuana, B.Cfa a 19 de marzo de 1959”
 AHMT, PM 411.5/2451, “2622 a 20 de marzo de 1959”
Figure 3. The permiso de ambulante for María del Refugio Pérez for 1958-1959. AHMT, PM 411.5/2451