By Pablo Jaime Sainz
Fidel is tuning up his guitar. Just a few feet from the San Ysidro border, Fidel is getting ready for work.
He puts on his sunglasses, fixes his hair, and starts walking towards the bus station.
Then, he starts screaming near a bus door: “Centro! Tercera y Dax! Downtown! Third Street! This bus is already leaving!”
The passengers hurry to get on the bus, trying to get to their destination as soon as possible. Once the driver sees there are enough passengers aboard, he starts driving away.
Fidel jumps on the bus with his guitar by the side.
He goes all the way to the back door and the melody begins.
La Puerta Negra, Cuando era un jovencito, Un día a la vez, Triste Canción de Amor...
Some passengers greet Fidel, while others put their heads on the window and try to go to sleep.
After singing two, three songs, Fidel asks politely: “Ladies and gentlemen, forgive me if I’ve bothered you with my music, I’m just trying to make a living by bringing a little bit of music to your ears. As you might have noticed, I’m not the best of singers or the best guitar player, but I do it with all my heart. If you find it in your heart to give me a coin, I would greatly appreciate it. God bless you!”
Then he starts walking along the aisle, people handing him coins (one, two pesos, a quarter) and one old lady even hands him a dollar bill.
Fidel thanks the passengers again, and once the bus gets to downtown Tijuana, he starts announcing the streets: “Tercera y Negrete! Tercera y Madero!”
Finally, Fidel gets off the bus, and starts walking towards the next bus across the street.
Riding a bus in San Diego is, for the most part, boring. The sign tells it all: “No drinking or eating permitted. No radios or loud music. No fun allowed. Go to sleep.” Rarely can you start a friendly conversation with the bus driver. So, riding a bus in San Diego is really lame.
Not so across the border, in Tijuana.
Okay, the busses here have no air conditioner, they’re not as modern, and they pollute like hell, but the “feeling” is more interesting than the one you get from riding a bus in San Diego. Also, it is cheaper: Only 50 cents of a dollar.
True: Riding the bus anywhere is a hassle, it’s much better to have your own vehicle than to depend on public transportation. But let’s assume you have to ride the bus, I bet you’ll like the Tijuana experience much more.
Why?: The live music you can enjoy while aboard that funky, old bus. Probably you’re wondering if the busses I’m talking about are some of those provided by local clubs that carry American tourists from the border to Revolución Avenue. Well, no. I’m talking about regular busses regular Tijuana people ride to get to work.
The live music on the bus is provided by musicians, usually guitarists, who instead of playing on a street corner, they play inside the bus.
Usually the songs played by these urban musicians are Norteña and Banda hits, although some do play pop ballads and rock and roll classics in Spanish. There are no official numbers of how many bus singers there are in Tijuana. But on a recent afternoon in the busses that run between the border and Downtown Tijuana, I counted more than 20.
For the most part they are males in their 30s and 40s, like Fidel. But there are also many children, who can be of Indigenous descent, and women.
“Everything we’re doing is bringing music to the people while we earn a living with a decent job,” said Chuy, a man in his mid-20s that even though was born blind, is a master playing the accordion on Tijuana busses. Wearing a Texana and boots, with dark sunglasses, Chuy told me he usually makes about 100 to 150 pesos on a good day.
Chuy has a partner, Sergio, who helps him get on and off the bus. Both of them make a duo (Sergio is a guitarist) that would make Los Tigres del Norte want to hire them.
Then there’s also a man who calls himself Brother Cool, who said he was born in East L.A. but now lives in Tijuana.
“I only play rock and roll classics,” he said, with his guitar on hand. “Most of the guys here only play Rancheras, but I have a taste for oldies. I can’t complain: I earn a living playing the music I love!”
The bus drivers let the singers aboard the bus because the singers are also “gritadores”, or “screamers”, where the singer starts screaming that the bus is already leaving and is heading in so and so direction.
“This is a great profession,” Fidel said. “I get to meet a lot of people, I get to make people happy with my music, and I get to feed myself and my family. All aboard this old bus.”