Tijuana Zonkey’s bring smiles and an uncertain future

It's a Tijuana tradition. You're grandparents probably have a Zonkey photo.

Written by Lencho
Paint a donkey to look like a Zebra and you will undoubtedly draw attention.  Slightly confused, curious and definitely intrigued, whether you are six years old or fifty years old, that is the feeling most will have when they walk past the Zonkeys of Tijuana.  These Zonkeys have been an icon on the busiest corners of Mexico’s most bustling border town for ninety-nine years.

The first photo of a tourist with a donkey in Tijuana is said to have happened nearly a century ago in 1914.  At that time a photo of a tourist on a light skinned donkey was a technological and magical accomplishment.  Donkey’s have light colored hides, from gray to white and often the photos that were produced from the crude black and white camera was of a person sitting on what looked to be a ghost of a donkey.  So somewhere in the 1940’s the Donkey’s earned their stripes.  Unlike their Zebra cousins in Africa the Mexican “Burrocebra’s” stripes were there not to create confusion for lions, leopards and other predators but to help the animal stand out in the photo.

1944 tourist photo
courtesy of Jackson Library,
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Since the 1940’s Zonkeys have been a mainstay on the streets of Avenida Revolucion.  For over half a century if you were a kid and visited Tijuana and didn’t have a photo of you on the back of one of these evolutionary marvels, you could spend years in therapy trying to understand the laws of denial and absence.  These animals have become such an important part of Tijuana culture and history that the city’s professional basketball team is named in their honor, the Tijuana Zonkey’s.

Pick a sombrero!

Tijuana Zonkeys spend their days standing, eating corn and bringing smiles to the faces of young and old passer bys.  At night they walk back with their brightly painted carts, hats and blankets to quiet subterranean stables off Calle Sexta. 

Hello Donkey
Information on the side of the cart

It is uncertain how much longer the Zonkey’s of Tijuana will be around, after all the reason to paint the stripes in the first place was to ensure the animals could be seen in the poor quality of black and white photographs of the times.  But now with 14 megapixel photos coming out of every tourists phone and camera the Zonkistas are struggling.  A picture taken for you on a Zonkey will cost you $10.00 and to take a photo with your own camera it is customary to give at least $5.00 to the Zonkista that cares for the animal, remember both the Zonkistas and the Zonkeys need to eat. 

Zonkeys are an important part of Tijuana and as connected to the city as Shamu is to San Diego, in fact maybe more so, as you will not find another animal of its kind anywhere else in the world.  So what’s next for Tijuana’s longest running tourist attraction?  Only Industrial Evolution can tell.  Perhaps the best thing to do is to go back to the old days of black and white, rudimentary cameras and show the new hybrid, hi-tech children just how magical an image on a piece of paper can be.

The author busy at work

Editor's Note: We are putting together the world’s largest archive of Zonkey photos.  Do you have an old photo of you or someone you know on a Zonkey?  Please email me a copy of your photo.  Spread the word.

About the writer: Lencho is a freelance travel adventure writer with a genuine love and curiosity of the world with a particular affinity for Latin American cultures, people, food, wild spaces, urban places and a seeker of human smiles and laughter.  Lencho.MexicoVisitor@gmail.com


Anonymous said…
Brings back memories. I have one of those old black and white photos from the 80's
Anonymous said…
Most of the pictures show dejected donkeys. Time to stop this. Its outdated and animal abuse
Anonymous said…
^^let's ban anything thats different ^^