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Audio-Visual Exploration of Myth and Reality in Tijuana Subject of New Exhibition
The Donkey Show is a blend of 200 rare tourist photographs, vintage nightlife ephemera, and pop songs.

SANTA MONICA, CA.- The Donkey Show, an audio-visual exploration of the intersection of myth and reality in Tijuana, Mexico, opened at the Santa Monica Museum of Art and will be on view through April 16. The exhibition is guest curated by cultural anthropologist and graphic design historian Jim Heimann and author and music critic Josh Kun.

The exhibition runs in Project Room 1 concurrently with Al Taylor: Wire Instruments and Pet Stains, the first American museum survey of work by this important and prolific artist, and in Project Room 2, Daniel Cummings: Recent Paintings.

The Donkey Show is a blend of 200 rare tourist photographs, vintage nightlife ephemera, and pop songs. It explores American expectations, misconceptions, and fantasies of Mexico featuring two different donkeys—one actual, the other imaginary. Featured are tourist donkey cart photos from the early 1900s to the 1980s, alongside rare Tijuana nightlife, burlesque, and vice ephemera. The images are joined by a soundtrack culled from dozens of American pop, rock, and blues songs about the make-believe Mexico that awaits U.S tourists once they head south of the border. Like the donkey show of legend, the exhibition plays with the power of the border’s bait and switch: the show promises the forbidden but delivers cultural history and critique.

For more than a century, millions of Americans have donned sombreros and posed for tourist photographs on top of donkeys in the border city of Tijuana. Situated in front of a painted backdrop of “Old Mexico,” souvenir pictures are snapped by the Mexican entrepreneurs who have been playing a local joke on American tourists looking for “the real thing” and getting Mexican make-believe. For almost as long, one of the greatest urban legends in all of California history has been the Tijuana donkey show, the much-rumored, often-referenced, but never proven south of the border sex show that is perpetually referenced in songs, Hollywood films, and high school locker rooms.

For decades it has lurked in the dark corners of American fantasies about what lies just below the borderline—that capital of boundless vice and sombrero-clad savagery where morals drown in tequila, men offer their wives and sisters for the right price, and where only the taxi drivers/tour guides know the way to the donkey show.

“The myth of the donkey show proliferated as Tijuana’s reputation as a den of ill repute grew in the American mind, from U.S. sex comics such as Tijuana Bibles and early U.S. smut films set in Tijuana, to local burlesque and prostitution houses,” said Heimann.

Adds Kun: “The trip to Tijuana soon became a rite of passage for California teenagers, memorialized in movies such as Big Wednesday and Losin’ It, which featured Tom Cruise leading the Tijuana charge, and TV shows such as Moesha and The OC.”

Beginning in the late 1880s, Tijuana was fertile soil for American investment and American tourism, an early hub of hot springs, horse races, casinos and bullfights that exploded once Prohibition went into effect. American newspaper, railroad, and entertainment moguls poured money into the small dusty town (in 1900, population of only 242) that was a short carriage ride from San Diego, creating a haven for vices unattainable on the other side of the border. It didn’t take long for Tijuana locals to start cashing in on the distortions that Americans were expecting to find, giving the tourists what they wanted to see: “old Mexico,” “the sleepy Mexican,” the Spanish señorita, the fat mustachioed bandido. By 1938, the Mexicans who ran the donkey cart photo stands began to paint black stripes on their animal stars so they could be better seen on the increasingly inferior film stock. Ever since, not only have millions of tourists sat on top of donkeys posing as “Mexicans,” they’ve sat on top of “zonkeys” posing as “Mexicans.”

The striped donkey has become something of an official Tijuana mascot, lending its name and image to local bars, local industry, and as of 2010, even to a new city basketball team (Los Zonkeys). “The striped donkey is characteristic of the city,” Tijuana journalist Aida Silva Hernandez once wrote, “It is the history of Tijuana.”

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