‘The OC’ didn’t talk down to teens, but it gave Tijuana a bad rap – KCRW

The teen drama “The O.C.” turns 20 this year. In an infamous episode of season one, the group of mostly privileged Newport Beach teens goes to Tijuana for a weekend of unsupervised partying — and one character overdoses on painkillers. 

Tijuana is the hometown of freelance journalist and TV writer Alex Zaragoza, who tuned into the show every week. “At least for me as a college student watching this show and why I became sucked into it — it never talked down to teenagers. It didn’t really have the after-school special feeling of teenage shows that had come before it,” she tells KCRW. 

Zaragoza was born in Chula Vista and moved to Tijuana at age 12. She went to high school in South San Diego. 

“I was crossing the border every day for school. And my nights or when I would go out on weekends, I would go out in Tijuana because it’s very culturally part of life, especially for young people. I think I started going to bars and clubs when I was about 14 or so. I can’t speak for all Mexicans but … our family parties, our weddings, our quinceaneras, our baby showers, they’re going to 3-4 a.m,” she describes. 

Seeing the Tijuana episode for the first time gave her mixed emotions. She says by that point, she was constantly defending the border town to people. The episode only fueled the notion that it was a place where bad things happened.

“The episode has this low hum of danger. … We’re going to party, and we’re going to drink. … Marissa [played by Misha Barton] gets a hold of some pills that Summer [portrayed by Rachel Bilson] bought. She takes a bunch of pills, and then there’s three sketchy Mexican men looking at her and leering at her like they’re gonna do something. She has to run into the street.”

She adds, “That was hard for me, especially at a time when I was still trying to understand my identity … especially as somebody that comes from two different places and two different cultures and that interacts with both cultures on a daily basis.” 

The episode also shows Americans’ lack of respect for Tijuana when they visit.

“You’re told to treat it like garbage. People throw their trash on the street. Kids come and they get drunk, and they’re peeing on the streets. And then they get arrested and they’re like, ‘Why am I getting arrested bro?’ … They treat it as the bottom of the barrel. And they treat the people in the same way, especially when you have this very American entitlement that you’re to be catered to … but the respect isn’t mutual.”

Now 20 years later, Zaragoza laughs at the episode. 

“Look at this dumb episode with these dumb white kids. It’s just ridiculous. … I stopped trying to prove anything to anyone. I am happy with where I’m from. I love where I’m from.”

As a TV writer, Zaragoza hopes that Tijuana wouldn’t be portrayed this way in today’s media landscape. However, stigma against Mexican and Central Americans still exists — and she wants to see that represented honestly. 

“I think the difference in that episode is … no one is told, ‘Hey, it’s wrong to treat this place this way.’ And maybe the difference would be that now someone would speak up and say, ‘Hey, we shouldn’t act this way because we should respect other cultures,’ which didn’t happen. It was just taken at face value.”

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