It's a rare sighting in Tijuana, but every so often, amongst the buses cutting off cars full of unbuckled kids, speeding taxis and motorists who see stop signs as mere suggestions, you'll hear the zippy, wasplike sound of a scooter zigzagging through the chaos. Most of the time, you turn and find it's just a delivery boy on a motorbike stocked with rotisserie chicken or pizza orders. But sometimes it's a mod.
Mod culture originated in post-World War II England with beatniks talking art, jazz and existentialism in London cafés. It reached its peak and commercialization in the mid 1960s, thanks to bands like The Kinks and The Who and cultural icons like the fashion model Twiggy, who brought the look and sound of mod to the masses. Sharply dressed working-class British kids rode scooters to underground dance parties that played R&B, soul and rock music. These Peter Pan dandies sported European-cut suits, A-line dresses and shaggy or androgynous asymmetrical hairdos and focused their lives on having a good time rather than serving as loyal subjects of the Queen of England.
The subculture spread around the world and eventually landed in Mexico after the release of the seminal 1979 mod-culture film Quadrophenia, which was based on the 1973 rock opera of the same name, written by The Who's Pete Townsend. In the early '80s, it clicked with a small group of people in Tijuana who fell in love with the sounds, the fashion and the lifestyle that mod culture promoted, despite it having originating 6,000 miles away. The British Royal Air Force roundel badge serves as the subculture's symbol, and Mexican mods proudly display it on the lapels of their tailored jackets. They've adopted the mod life and made it their own, holding scooter rallies and club nights in Tijuana that cater to their tastes. If there's one thing that unites youths of different ethnicities, religions and geography, it's a desire to let loose and upset their parents by wanting to be nothing like them.
Guy Hernandez, a 49-year-old who holds the monthly mod club night Tijuana a Go-Go, was at the forefront of the original wave of Tijuana mods, drawn into the scene by the style and the music. Some 30 years later, he still scoots around town in his skinny suit, hunts down vintage clothes and records and lives by the same ideals as the original mods across the pond.
"At first it was just the Vespa," he tells me in Spanish during our initial phone conversation. "Once I was in, I realized it's not just the bike; it's also a way of life. It's the ideals and the style of the '60s. You just make it your own in this day and age."
Hernandez's wife, Miriam Jimenez, says those principles are simple and haven't changed since the '60s.
"Mods have always been working-class people," she says as she tucks her '60s-style bob behind her ear. "They work to look good, to go to the club and to maintain their scooter. Even now, that's us."
"But it's not just about getting a scooter and dressing retro," Hernandez adds. "You also have to read, to be informed and to be able to talk to any person about the culture."
Bring up anything from mod history and music to where to buy vintage shoes in Tijuana, and Hernandez and Jimenez can give you detailed accounts.
Christine Feldman, author of We Are the Mods: A Transnational History of a Youth Subculture, says that mod culture was "founded on a collage of international styles and cosmopolitan attitudes.
"I think that's why [the subculture] traveled so well in the 1960s and still does so now," she explains via email from Australia. "In my book, I talk about how the original London mods wanted to look as worldly as possible despite their working class backgrounds. I found similar cross-cultural styles in Germany, Japan and the U.S. While I have not studied mod culture in Mexico, I am certainly not surprised to hear of a current mod scene there."
It's a recent Saturday night, and Hernandez, Jimenez and their 18-year-old son Adam have come to Moustache, a small bar in Tijuana's downtown nightlife hub, to party at Tijuana a Go-Go. They look like the dedicated followers of fashion that The Kinks sang about in 1966. Hernandez and his fellow culture comrade, Mac Caraveo, take to the turntables to share their favorite records with a crowd that ranges from first-generation Tijuana mods, now older and gray, to teenage rude boys and skinheads. The duo plays music of the era from around the world; groovy, hip-shaking tunes blare out of the speakers in English, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Chinese.
"I like to play music in Spanish from Mexico, Central America and South America, because a lot of people don't know about all the really good groups that were around from those parts," Caraveo says. "I want people to hear it and how good it is."
Jimenez says she feels she has a "black soul" and is often playfully teased by her son for being "black and proud," referring to the 1968 James Brown classic "Say it Loud—I'm Black and I'm Proud," because of her affinity for soul music. These are people who live beyond borders of time and space from within a border city.
Between beers, Jimenez says that mods were scarce in the '80s and that the numbers haven't grown since then. Saying there's 20 of them might be pushing it.
"Not to sound conceited, but we were the only mods back then," she says. "There have been some moments where, all of a sudden, everyone will start wearing the style. But it's just the style, not the entire package. When another style comes in, everyone leaves it behind."
Looking at Jimenez, you realize that being a mod takes some dedication. Her entire outfit consists of vintage pieces she found at Tijuana flea markets and second-hand stores. Finding those pieces is a real hunt—a fact she wears as a badge of honor.
"I feel Tijuana mods have more merits than the English mods because they have everything available to them at arm's reach," she says. "For someone in Tijuana who likes the style, it's harder to find stuff."
Hernandez chimes in, "It's not easy like with skaters, punks or cholos."
Finding clothes isn't the only hassle. Scooter parts are rare in Tijuana, and finding records isn't easy, either. Sergio Torres, owner of one of Tijuana's oldest record stores, La Ciruela Electrica (which means "the electric prune," a tribute to the psychedelic L.A. band The Electric Prunes) says his role in the scene is to provide easier access to mod music.
"It's very valuable for this new generation to remain interested in this type of music," he says. "Some of the records you heard Mac play are rare albums. They're very valuable. Some have taken 30 years to find."
The obstacles seem to only compel the Tijuana mods to continue on. It's not just a fashion statement; for them, it's a movement.
"I'll be a mod forever," Hernandez de clares. "To be a mod is not like having a cold that will go away. The movement becomes part of your life. It's normal. It's important that the movement doesn't die. That's first and foremost."
Asked why he feels so passionately about keeping mod alive, he's at a loss for words. Perhaps the fact that he helped create the scene in Tijuana has something to do with it. He wants to see the subculture's legacy live on. Over the years, the first generation of Tijuana mods has seen it ebb and flow and, as things usually do with time, evolve. Other subcultures related to mods, like rude boys, skinheads and scooter boys, have come, and people have branched out. In the mid '90s, the Britpop-music movement renewed the mod aesthetic and appreciation for all things British. Tijuana saw a new wave of mod kids sporting Blur and Oasis pins on their parkas, along with the roundel. More than 15 years later, Tijuana a Go-Go brought in the newest generation of mod kids, including Hernandez and Jimenez's son, Adam. Dressed in his fitted maroon suit, he represents the future.
"More than anything, I was influenced by my dad," he says. "I listen to oldies and all that, too, because it's the root, but I'm more into the new wave that was mod in the '90s and early 2000s. I guess you can call it indie mod.'"
And so another branch grows.
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