Some people call them zonkeys, or, in Spanish, “los burrocebras.”
No, they’re not really an exotic species whose local habitat is confined to the hot, gum-stained sidewalks outside the bars and curio shops of Tijuana’s Avenida Revolución.
But the fake zonkeys are probably Tijuana’s most enduring cultural icon.
As the centennial of the zonkey approaches, preservationists held a conference in Tijuana’s city hall to talk about the history of the beasts.
The first known photo of a tourist posing with a donkey in Tijuana is from 1914.
Josué Beltrán, a professor at the Autonomous University of Baja California, said painting zebra stripes on the donkeys didn’t start as a cheesy gimmick. In the age of black and white photos and rudimentary cameras, light-skinned donkeys often didn’t show up.
“They started to experiment to see in which way the donkey can be seen in the pictures,” Beltrán said of that era’s street photographers.
“They just have the idea to paint the stripes and create the illusion that instead of a donkey, we have a zebra.”
Now Tijuana’s zonkeys are endangered.
Zonkey owners could once make $80 or more selling photos to tourists, Beltrán said. But now they’re lucky to make a few bucks.
Tourism has plummeted due to drug violence and long border waits.
Ubiquitous digital cameras haven’t helped, said Aidé Mendoza. She took over her father’s zonkey business fifteen years ago.
“People come and want to take a photo themselves, and not pay,” Mendoza said.
“But for us it’s a business. We’re not standing out there for the love of art.”
A group of citizens is pressing the Baja California state government to declare the zonkeys cultural patrimony.
It wants money set aside to help zonkey owners advance their business skills. It wants to get veterinary students to work with the zonkeys — to improve their health and living conditions.
And the group is developing teaching materials so local kids can learn about the history of their city, straight from the mouth of a zonkey.