TIJUANA, Mexico -- Like many cities in Mexico, Tijuana has long embraced American sports such as baseball, basketball and football as part of its sporting diet. Up until 2011, the city was without a top-level pro sports franchise of its own, a void filled by Xolos, who currently compete in the country's top soccer league, the Liga MX.
Even with the city embracing soccer, Tijuana is in a lot of ways an extension of Southern California fandom. Sports bars in trendy neighborhoods are mostly filled with memorabilia and pictures of regional legends such as Tony Gwynn, LaDainian Tomlinson and Kobe Bryant, among others. Vendors of traditional Mexican art and knickknacks -- commonly called curios -- will often reflect the biculturality of the region with luchador masks, sombreros and ponchos emblazoned with American sports logos.
San Diego, Tijuana's neighbor to the north, has a well-documented title drought, which if not remedied soon, will likely garner more national attention as time wears on, especially now that the Chicago Cubs and the city of Cleveland have exorcised their demons. Despite that, the region's teams have a hold on Tijuana locals. One of them, however, is the most popular by far -- the San Diego Chargers.
Victor Arce, 61, has been a Chargers season ticket holder since 1994, the season the team made its only Super Bowl appearance. Raised in Tijuana, Arce recalls going to his first Chargers game as a teenager, and later being captivated by the famed Air Coryell era.
As an adult, Arce moved to San Luis Rio Colorado, a small border town in the Mexican state of Sonora, about 166 miles east of San Diego. Stoked on by his fandom, he gladly endures a six-hour round-trip to and from Qualcomm Stadium, still not dissuaded after hundreds of game days.
"I'm usually out of the house at 6 a.m.," Arce says. "I cross the border through Yuma, Arizona, and drive west on I-8. By 9 a.m, I'm at the stadium, and I start cooking for my tailgating group." After the game, usually ending at around 5 p.m., Arce holds a second round of tailgating for his group, a diverse cadre that includes Carlos Cardenas, a 60-year-old accountant, and Carlos Escalante, a 30-year-old coffee shop owner. Arce returns to San Luis Rio Colorado at night, usually arriving home at midnight, about 18 hours after his departure.
Amidst uncertainty regarding the team's potential move to Los Angeles, Arce, a dentist, says he won't renew his season tickets if the team moves north. If that were to happen, his six-hour round-trip would become 10 hours. However, he'd keep rooting for the team and attend an occasional game, a notion supported by his group. "It's definitely not the same, but I won't stop supporting the team," Escalante says.
Still preferring a potential Chargers home game in Los Angeles than getting his NFL fix from the team geographically nearest to his location, Arce concurs. "Sometimes people will ask me why I don't root for the [Arizona Cardinals]. I went to my first Chargers game in 1973 or 1974. I'm a fan for life," he says.
Such loyalty is common among Bolts fans south of the border. It’s a been a long relationship.
But, Chargers-sanctioned events in Tijuana have been few and far between. After a 2002 visit included players and staff, there have been only a few official events since. Two included one-time Chargers DE Luis Castillo. "Though I'm Dominican, people adopted me as [if I was] Mexican," Castillo said in an interview at the time.
If the Chargers were to exercise their option and relocate the team to Los Angeles, the disconnect with their Mexican fan base would likely become bigger. "It's safe to say that those who grew up with the team would still stay fans," says Tony Alvarez, the Chargers' announcer on its Spanish-language flagship in Tijuana, XHFG 107.3 FM.
"[But] future generations might not have a reason to keep rooting for the team if they leave," he warns.
Alvarez argues the city would likely experience a phenomenon more commonly seen in places like Mexico City, which is too far from any NFL city to claim as its own. Middle-aged fans grew up watching the Cowboys, Raiders and Steelers dominate the league in the 1970s, while younger Mexicans who follow the league gravitate toward recently successful franchises such as the New England Patriots.
Though nearly impossible to gauge how many people from Tijuana and farther south make the trek to Chargers home games, anecdotal evidence suggests Mexican fans have been a consistent part of proceedings at Qualcomm Stadium for decades. Cardenas, for instance, says he has been a season-ticket holder for 33 seasons. A part of Arce's tailgating group, he says it's common for fellow countrymen to detect the sights and smells of a traditional Mexican cookout and say hello before or after the games.
Like Arce, Cardenas rises early for a typical Chargers Sunday. Tijuana's wait times for motorists and pedestrians consistently rank among the worst along the U.S.-Mexico border, sometimes delaying travelers more than an hour. To avoid the long wait times, Cardenas applied for a special border crossing badge from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to expedite travel. "Before I got that, I had to be at the border before 6 a.m.," he recalls.
Cardenas makes his outings a family affair, purchasing a total of four season-ticket packages per year. For the 2016 season, it meant an investment of nearly $4,500. Currently, about 21 Mexican pesos are worth one U.S. dollar. In January 2016, the ratio was closer to 18-to-1.
Even if the Chargers were to freeze prices, Mexican fans like Cardenas making pesos could still be paying more for the same ticket because of the currency fluctuation.
"It's a problem. It gets harder to pay each year, but I do it because I love the team," he says. Despite travels in the past to support them in New Orleans, Indianapolis and even Miami for Super Bowl XXIX, his family would also dump their season tickets if the team moves, blaming the 130-mile trip from Tijuana to the Bolts' new city.
Extrapolating distance into a round-trip for 10 home games (including the preseason offerings) means Tijuana residents would log more than 2,500 miles -- and countless hours on Southern California's freeways -- in a single season for trips to Los Angeles.
Fans like Escalante, himself a season-ticket holder since 2011, rebuff the notion. "If I'm going [to Los Angeles] that many times in a year, I'd rather go somewhere else, like Disneyland."