Tijuana’s painted burros, known as ‘zebras’, have been a fixture on the streets of this border city for decades, posing with Hollywood stars and casual tourists alike for the perfect souvenir photo.
But spiralling drug violence across the border from San Diego, including shootouts along Tijuana’s main thoroughfares, has the burros’ owners fearing their trade may become the next casualty.
“Before this attracted a lot of people,” Victor Manuel Reyes said as he waited for customers along a nearly empty Revolution Avenue. “A lot would say ‘Oh look, the Mexican zebras’ They’re famous. A lot of people around the world would get their picture taken with them.”
Lately, Reyes said, business has been going down “like the Titanic.”
Reyes said his job was already hard enough, requiring painstaking labour and an unthinkable amount of hair dye and toothbrushes to apply black stripes to his “zebra,” Ruben.
During his 25-year career standing in front of Reyes’ colorful cart, Ruben has had a few brushes with fame — including American actor Gregory Hines, who had a photo taken with him in 2000. Reyes said Ruben also attended the wedding of the daughter of Tijuana’s eccentric former mayor Jorge Hank Rhon, a dog track owner and self-proclaimed billionaire who keeps a private zoo with 20,000 animals.
Historians say photographers here started painting donkeys in the 1940s so the light-coloured animals would not fade into the background in black-and-white photos.