San Ysidro – the town that San Diego would like to forget

Poorest in the county

Joe Ayala:  “I wouldn't want to live here.”
  • Joe Ayala: “I wouldn't want to live here.”
  • Image by Craig Carlson

Try to picture the incongruities of the place: San Ysidro embraces the new branch of the Main Attraction, a strip joint boasting more than $100,000 worth of lights and sound paraphernalia, whose owners figure there are fortunes to be made from Tijuana customers deprived of such flashy lewdness in their own city.

Four years after the big flood of 1916, the one that wiped out the Little Landers’ colony, Cy Buehrer bought six acres here and started a chicken ranch.

Four years after the big flood of 1916, the one that wiped out the Little Landers’ colony, Cy Buehrer bought six acres here and started a chicken ranch.

The residents of San Ysidro are the poorest and most unemployed in the county, and yet there are six bank branches in the community situated within a mile of each other.

Ayala’s patrol car can't travel a block without passing graffiti scrawled by the 'Sidro Boys.

Ayala’s patrol car can't travel a block without passing graffiti scrawled by the 'Sidro Boys.

San Ysidro’s Jack-in-the-Box sells more fast food than any other Jack-in-the-Box in California. Its Big Bear market alone sells more eggs than the other twenty-eight county Big Bears combined.

The local Safeway does the highest gross per square foot of any store in its national chain. San Ysidro is a part of the City of San Diego, lying sixteen miles and two cities (Chula Vista and National City) to the south of city hall.

"The regular middle-class people here don’t push their kids to go to college.”

"The regular middle-class people here don’t push their kids to go to college.”

The city's boundary around San Ysidro is accomplished by means of a narrow strip of city land shooting out into the bay just below Logan Heights, coursing southward underwater, and surfacing onto dry land just below Chula Vista. San Ysidro’s community boundaries are roughly the Mexican border and three freeways: Interstate 5 on the west. Interstate 805 on the east, and Route 117 to the north; its cultural boundaries are almost completely Mexican — its schoolchildren don’t draw little pictures of birdies in crayon skies; they draw border patrol helicopters. They don’t play cops and robbers on the playground; they play la migra and pollos, immigration and aliens.

Andrea Skorepa: “Nobody is willing to forgive anybody for anything that happened twenty years ago!"

Andrea Skorepa: “Nobody is willing to forgive anybody for anything that happened twenty years ago!"

When the border trolley station was inaugurated last month, there was a big party with barrels of margaritas, a band, Mexican dancers, several politicians, and most of the San Ysidro community leaders.

Ralph Garcia: ‘‘I ask the border patrol, ‘What you want me to do?'"

Ralph Garcia: ‘‘I ask the border patrol, ‘What you want me to do?'"

Everyone celebrated. But privately most of the locals see the trolley for what it is: a new way to speed Mexican shoppers and returning tourists out of San Ysidro and into downtown San Diego.

Some even express resentment that the poor residents of San Ysidro are subsidizing the upscale downtowners by having to pay a dollar both ways to travel short distances to the unemployment office or the fields, while the short hops downtown only cost a quarter. True, that’s an oversimplification, but that’s the way people in San Ysidro see things. And here’s another one: the trolley amounts to official recognition of what the alien smugglers have known for decades — San Ysidro is the new Casablanca, the jump-off point for one of history’s great human migrations, and there’s big money to be made in easing the trip. The difference between the trolley and smugglers animates the pervasive sense of dissonance in San Ysidro: the trolley’s purpose is to bring in Mexicans to spend money, and it’s met with parties and speeches; the poller os bring Mexicans in to make money, and they’re met with jail time. San Ysidro hosts one transportation system’s fiesta while simultaneously hosting the other transportation system’s battleground. The result is a community whose identity is as fractured and blurry as the numberless trails snaking up from Mexico over the dusty hills, across the trolley tracks, and down to the boulevard.

Mexicans have a saying: pueblo chico, infierno grande, little town, big hell. It applies to San Ysidro, whose 14,000 inhabitants are almost all of Mexican extraction, if not citizenship. It’s something of a suburb to Tijuana, that really grand hell to the south that provides eighty percent of the deposits in San Ysidro’s banks, ninety-eight percent of the egg and offal customers at its grocery stores, and most of the burger and French-fry eaters at its hamburger stands (Jack-in-the-Box has grossed as much as $5000 on a good day.) The community is also a colony for American business neither owned nor staffed by San Ysidrans; the flow of money is not circular here, it is linear. Most of it doesn’t come from the community, and most of it doesn’t stay in the community. The flow of politics naturally follows. San Ysidro’s town hall is at the skyscraper end of the trolley tracks, sixteen miles north, far from the din of small-town enmities held with white-knuckle determination by separate groups maneuvering to represent an amorphous and unrepresentable border culture. Though it might not be any different now (and could be worse) if San Ysidro hadn’t legally grafted itself onto San Diego, the hell of it can probably be traced to July 16, 1957, the day the formerly unincorporated community voted for annexation. Of the 696 votes cast that day in San Ysidro (Nestor, Palm City, and South San Diego also annexed then), a margin of only forty-two votes separated those in favor of annexation from those opposed. Ever since, consensus here has been about as common as donkey shows in contemporary Tijuana. “You could have 13,000 San Ysidrans on a planning committee and still not have full representation,’’ quips Hank Davenport Barberis, a county operative who worked in San Ysidro for a year assembling its current economic development plan. Regardless of its internal disharmony, San Ysidro's place in the big picture, its geopolitical destiny, has been at the mercy of powers outside itself since annexation. And the town’s identity has become that of a benign but self-conscious Frankenstein assembled by committee, kept alive from the outside and programmed to its masters’ purposes. “San Ysidro’s dead,’’ says an Hispanic banker whose branch is on San Ysidro Boulevard, right next door to another bank and within sniffing distance of a McDonald’s, a donut shop, the Main Attraction, and a new Radio Shack. The banker gestures outside with a sweep of his arm, answering a visitor's puzzlement at the seeming vitality of the boulevard, “None of this is for the people who live here. The place is dead now.’’

Across the street from the bank lives a ninety-seven-year-old man who came to San Ysidro in 1920, and probably nobody can tell you more about the way it used to be than Cyrus Buehrer. Gazing through his picture window, which he does a lot these days, Buehrer has an unobstructed view of the McDonald’s, the freeway behind it, and the river valley in the distance to the west. Four years after the big flood of 1916, the one that wiped out the Little Landers’ colony and devastated the Tia Juana River valley, Cy Buehrer bought six acres here and started a chicken ranch. It was his second start in San Diego. The first was in 1906 when he came to the Hotel del Coronado and went to work as a baker. He left for northern California in 1909, the same year the Little Landers established their vision of an agricultural utopia in San Ysidro. Santo Ysidro is the patron saint of farmers, an appropriate name for the rich agricultural land in the area that was nearly perfect (but fatally flawed) for a small community of idealistic farmers. The colony was an experiment in intensive, one-acre farming, inspired by a philosophy (“a little land and a living, surely, is better than desperate struggle and wealth, possibly’’) taken from a turn-of-the-century back-to-the-land movement. For seven years the plot farmers built houses, cut roads, and cooperated in selling their excess output at a farmers market in downtown San Diego, and the project worked fairly well until the rampaging Tia Juana River washed away the crops and possessions of one hundred families, drowned two settlers, and destroyed twenty-five homes. When Cy Buehrer arrived in 1920, there was just open pasture land where the little farms had once nourished, and the village consisted of the San Ysidro Hotel (still operating), a post office, a couple of grocery stores, a restaurant, and two dozen or so houses.

Buchrer’s foggy eyes hold a perpetual gleam, as if he’s been in on a ninety-seven-year-old running joke. It’s somehow funny to him that he should be talking about San Ysidro’s early days while the golden arches loom just outside his window. He explains that there was a horseracing track just across the border in Mexico prior to 1916, but that it, too, was demolished by the flood, and racing didn’t start again until 1920. “Because in 1917 when the war come along, they didn’t re-build the track,” he says. “ ’Cause you know how it was — er, no I guess you don’t — everything was rationed. So they didn’t rebuild it until 1919.” The track, its casino, and bootleg liquor seem to have played the major roles in establishing San Ysidro after the Little Landers were ruined. The majority owner of the race track was Baron Long, who also owned the U.S. Grant Hotel in San Diego. The track casino, called the Gold Room, and a restaurant of the same name were owned by San Ysidrans Marvin Allen, Frank "Booze” Beyer, and a man named Withington, as Buehrer recollects. The track and casino were just across the bonder, at the end of San Ysidro Boulevard, and up to the left, near where Colonia Libertad is now. Tijuana was just a few saloons, and Booze Beyer also owned one of them, the Tivoli, named after the famed amusement park in Copenhagen. Cy Buehrer, who was a good friend of Beyer’s, says that most San Ysidro residents in the Twenties were either horsemen, casino workers, track workers, bartenders, or businessmen — all working in Tijuana. Booze Beyer evidently did more than anybody as a booster of San Ysidro. He donated the town’s library in 1924, and it’s still the town’s library. There are three streets and an elementary school named after Booze Beyer. Many townspeople never knew his true given name. “Why’d they call him Booze?” repeats Buehrer, smiling wryly. “Because he took pride in the fact that he drank a quart of whiskey every day!” This was during Prohibition, and Mexico was wet. High rollers the likes of Beyer were living and vacationing in San Ysidro to harvest the pleasures blossoming just below the border. Buehrer says the racing season was 125 days long, from December into March, and it attracted Hollywood people down for the gambling, glamour, and liquor. He remembers Dad Crippen and Fatty Irwin, big-time horsemen from the East who kept houses in San Ysidro. There were a couple of locals named McNally and Johnson who ran distilleries just over the boundary. Buehrer says McNally lived in San Ysidro and sold his whiskey in Mexico for a dollar a quart. Black marketeers resold it on this side of the border for three or four times that. Buehrer recalls with glee how McNally was caught by two U.S. Customs officers as he was crossing over with a truckload of whiskey. He was sent up to McNeil Island, the federal prison on Puget Sound, for eighteen months. “When he came back he met the two officers and shook hands, no hard feelings,” relates Buehrer. “And to prove it he gave ’em both five gallons of whiskey. No sooner did he give it to ’em but he turned right around and reported ’em! One was named O’Neill, and I remember him because his wife was on the school board.” Buehrer also served on the school board, and later on the irrigation district board, and in 1926 he was president of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce.

He and other old-timers remember the community as a self-sufficient little village with its own water supply, school, library, recreation hall, garbage collection system, and volunteer fire department. The Mexicans were far outnumbered by the Anglos until the mid-Fifties, says Buehrer, and until the early Forties, when Mexico started insisting that Tijuana businesses employ Mexican workers, San Ysidro’s inhabitants mostly made their living across the border. The chamber of commerce hired its first trash man, Mr. Wilms, in 1926, and paid him three dollars a week to go around and pick up garbage in his wagon pulled by two horses. He dumped the refuse over the first hill to the east. “It was just a nice, friendly little town,” says Buehrer. San Ysidro Boulevard was paved during the Depression by the WPA. The Bilasco Theater, the only movie house ever to open in San Ysidro, was erected in the Twenties across the boulevard from the hotel. It never did show talkies. Mrs. Nora Youmans, who is seventy-nine and has lived in San Ysidro for fifty-five years, played the piano accompaniment to the silent films. She also played the piano at the Community Congregational Church, at the schools, and at most of the town’s funerals. “It was just a nice, friendly little town,” echoes Mrs. Youmans. The Bilasco was converted to a USO during World War II, servicing the Army and Navy men stationed at nearby Brown Field. Up until that time, Cy Buehrer knew everybody in town by their first names. “I don’t know half a dozen people in the town anymore,” he says, forgetting that it really isn't a town now.

Water is what did it in, just as it had once wiped out the original settlement in 1916. But this time the problem wasn’t too much water, it was too little. When Buehrer was appointed to the San Ysidro Water District board in 1935, Lorenzo Judd ran the Tia Juana River pumping station at the foot of Cottonwood Street, and water usage was charged at a flat rate of $ 1.50 a month for a house on a standard lot, or a dollar a month per acre. There were no meters and there was no limit on how much water one could use. Water prices never grew much, but the water table began to drop drastically as Tijuana got bigger and started making huge demands on the river before it crossed northward into the U.S. Also, raw sewage began to flow across the border. Finally, in the late Fifties, about the same time the Mexican population in San Ysidro eclipsed that of the Anglos, the water became unpotable. Ocean water had seeped into the depleted water table. Guaranteed access to a fresh-water supply was the principal argument for San Ysidro’s annexation to San Diego in 1957. But less than twenty years later, in the early Seventies, a bitter and abortive movement to de-annex from the city arose in spite of the security provided by municipal water supplies. It briefly arose again in 1980. Cy Buehrer has a simple, time-ripened assessment of the complicated de-annexation issue: “It’s a Mexican town now,” he says with a smirk that turns his declaration into a punch line.

De-annexation certainly wasn’t funny in 1974 to the movement’s leader, Juan Orendain, though now he’s quick to laugh mirthlessly about San Ysidro’s strange hyphenation with the gringo city to the north. Sometimes the whole situation is just too much for Orendain to believe. “Our needs and San Diego’s needs are at logger-heads,” he begins. “First of all, we’re at the biggest port of entry in the country, and we don’t have zones for warehouses, zones for truck parking! Why should commerce be underdeveloped here? Because the people downtown [in San Diego] want it closer to them. . . . You’re not going to see somebody from San Ysidro elected to the city council or appointed to the planning commission. . . . We didn’t want the trolley; it’s taking people away from here. Nobody asked our opinion of it. . . . Lucy Kiilea [who represents the district] is very nice, but who’s she gonna listen to? Us down here or the people closer to downtown, where the votes are? Leon Williams never has been able to find his way around down here, and Jim Bates [who represented the district in the early Seventies] was probably the worst councilman we’ve ever had. He set people against each other, telling one group the Mexicans were coming, and telling another group the rednecks were coming. Basically, it just makes no sense for San Ysidro to be a part of the city.”

If Orendain’s biased views tend toward tirades, he’s merely an extreme example of the deep vein of resentment toward the city that is easy to find among San Ysidrans. There is a common belief (which, however, the facts don’t support) that San Diego uses San Ysidro’s low-income population figures to acquire more federal “block-grant” monies, which are not spent proportionately in San Ysidro. Hoteliers are miffed that they pay the eight-percent transit occupancy tax like other hostelries, but literature from the city’s convention and visitors bureau barely mentions San Ysidro, heavily touts Tijuana, and didn’t even show San Ysidro on its maps for visitors until recently. There are San Ysidrans who agree with Orendain’s contention that the San Diego police assigned to the area are an “army of occupation,” since almost none of them live in San Ysidro and few are bilingual. “It’s different when the cop is also your neighbor,” says Orendain, who believes the same attitude applies to local school teachers, most of whom don’t live in San Ysidro.

But even for people who were never in favor of de-annexation, resentment toward the city was fueled by the political maneuverings that marked the de-annexation fight. Particularly galling was the way the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), which oversees formation and evolution of local governments, at first gave Orendain’s group the go-ahead to collect petition signatures in favor of secession, and then was attacked by city politicians for not requiring an environmental impact report as a prerequisite. The politicians knew that the cost of an EIR was well out of reach for the proponents of de-annexation. After LAFCO’s sanction of the process (sans EIR) that would ultimately bring the the de-annexation question to a public vote, the City of San Diego and the State of California filed suit against LAFCO. This held up the process and clouded the issues for more than a year, and after LAFCO was compelled to reverse its decision, Orendain’s group filed suit against the agency. The whole de-annexation movement petered out in 1976 for lack of money, after it had degenerated into factious bickering. The questions of whether the area had a sufficient tax base to support its own municipal services were never aired dispassionately. The politicians claimed the de-annexers were just a small group of greedy developers set on making fortunes after they took control of the community, and the proponents of de-annexation charged that the politicians were greedy for the tax money brought in by San Ysidro, and that the official strategy was to throttle development in the Tia Juana River valley so as to direct development into areas more advantageous to downtown interests.

“If the mayor just hadn’t gotten his ego involved,” muses Orendain. “It was the first real challenge to Pete’s authority, and he had to keep San Ysidro at all costs.” There is a lingering feeling within San Ysidro that Wilson and his people on the city council double-crossed the community when in the early Seventies plans for the cement-lined Tia Juana flood control channel were scrapped. Shelby Currie, current president of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce, says it was “the weakness of Pete Wilson in getting the flood channel built” that sparked the de-annexation drive. The channel would have stimulated commercial development in the area, such as has been accomplished in the Rio Tijuana area after Mexico completed its part of a defunct international agreement to contain the river. The city reneged on a'decade of planning for the channel by citing the need to preserve the natural environment of the flood plain and by invoking the then-fashionable war on urban sprawl. The planned Playas border crossing near the ocean hasn’t been mentioned since, and the river valley has been tagged a “wasteland” by some San Ysidrans. Upscale San Diegans call it “open space.” The area is still subject to massive floods, despite the dissipator dike system opted for by the city.

Above the flood control battle, and the question of San Ysidro’s ability to provide police and fire protection and deliver water and sewer services after de-annexation, hovered the most salient and delicate issue. “The most insulting part,” huffs Orendain, “was when they said we weren’t capable of ruling ourselves.”

Some people in the community don’t share Orendain's umbrage at this notion, and a few even agree that local rule may be impossible. “Yeah, San Diego kind of holds us in check,” says Andrea Skorepa, who used to teach in the San Ysidro schools but now heads a local social service agency, “but it also acts as a buffer because politics can go so berserk here. Left to our own devices we might tear ourselves up.” As a teacher Skorepa was involved in the recent skirmish on the San Ysidro school board, about the only governing body San Ysidrans feel they have direct access to, interest in, and ability to influence. The other assorted bodies, including two tussling chambers of commerce, the local planning group, Rotary Club, women’s club, and sundry combinations of people clustered around key leaders, all agree on one thing: the need for them all to set aside enmity and unite in order to speak with one voice. But that's where their consensus begins and ends. An attempt to form a town council comprising the various factions showed promise for a while last year, and then slowly dissolved into quarreling. The International Chamber of Commerce, not to be confused with or seen talking to the regular chamber of commerce, last October voted to de-annex from the city, figuring the area’s tax base had grown enough and that the recent flooding in the river valley, along with the city’s proposal to build a sewage treatment plant in San Ysidro, had sufficiently riled the natives. The newspapers dutifully heralded the bold announcement to seek secession. A few months later, no such bold announcement accompanied the collapse of the stillborn movement, another casualty of San Ysidro’s endless in-fighting. “The factionalism goes back decades,” says Andrea Skorepa. “Nobody is willing to forgive anybody for anything that happened twenty years ago! There are still people who wouldn’t set foot in the San Ysidro clinic [completed in the early Seventies] if they were dying, because of all the strife while it was being built.” Strife has almost become a rite in San Ysidro, a custom necessary tp every undertaking. You need not look past the school board to see it at its best. In 1978, when state testing in the five San Ysidro elementary schools showed the pupils to have the lowest test scores in the state, the local school board went into a spastic fit and almost destroyed itself. The first priority became blame, and at one point angry parents actually withdrew more than one hundred students from the classrooms and started their own alternative school. It didn't last long. Eventually a coalition of parents, teachers, and administrators initiated recall drives aimed at board members. Bitterness and humiliation over the students’ low achievement scores divided the community into groups, each with its own wreath of blame to hang around someone else’s neck. The issues branched out. Parents were flabbergasted when the superintendent and the board president bailed out a principal being held for child molestation. Another board member was reported by teachers to county authorities for child neglect. Three members of the board were recalled in late 1978. One year later, two of the board members elected to replace the recalled members were themselves recalled, having sealed their fate by firing a popular superintendent, allegedly without a fair hearing. In the midst of all this, state funds were yanked from the district, whose budget of about five million dollars was halved when California contended that it was not entitled to state money since it had not provided summer classes for handicapped children. The district maintained they could only find nine such children who wanted the schooling. Only last-minute emergency legislation averted the loss of money. A battered peace has since fallen over the district. “For a while there,” says Skorepa, one of.several teachers fired during the ruckus, ‘‘I thought the whole system was going to come apart at the seams.” The original problem, low student test scores, is usually explained by pointing out the difficulties the young students have with the English language. New curriculums and a strong bilingual education program have been activated.

But the final irony of it is that many of the concerned parents at the stormy school board meetings who railed about lousy education are themselves less than fluent in English. So while the children are pushed to learn the official language of the U.S., they live in a community in which it is very easy, in fact no problem at all, to get by speaking nothing but Spanish. The Big Bear displays plastic Mexican flags in its windows, and colorful painted signs inside proclaim Una Gran Compra! (A Great Buy!), and Llevela por menos dinero (Take it for less money). Along the boulevard are several businesses that will file your income tax for you, fill out documentation papers for you, even register your car with the DMV because you can’t speak English. It’s part of the incongruity of the place that a child is penalized in school tests because he can’t speak English, but who is being raised in a world that functions primarily in Spanish. Young people are caught in a cultural crossfire. ‘‘The regular middle-class people here don’t push their kids to go to college,” explains Skorepa, who does a lot of family counseling. “Many of the parents are more Mexican than Chicano, so there’s not a lot of political or cultural awareness. Parents just want their girls to have babies and their boys to get a job to support the kids. . . . The system is real scary to a lot of parents, and because the family structure is so extended, there’s often somebody in the family that’s undocumented. So they’re reluctant to file income tax, or file for Social Security, and there aren’t many welfare rip-offs. The family takes care of itself, but it causes a lot of conflict to young people. The parents are asking them to subscribe to Mexican rural values but the kids are growing up in a U.S. environment.”

Actually, people like Skorepa and Father John Blethen, who runs the Villa Nueva apartments, San Ysidro’s largest subsidized housing project (1800 people on a fifteen-acre patch of ground), say that the typical family in San Ysidro is headed by a single mother. Blethen (Villa Nueva is run by the Augustinian order of the Catholic Church) says that probably half of the 390 families in his complex are headed by women. The fathers who live there work in primarily manual jobs, like at NASSCO, or in the canneries, or as field hands, custodians, gardeners. Blethen’s observations of the labor pool coincides with the findings of the county’s recent economic development plan for the area. That plan also found that fifty-four percent of the population was living below the federal poverty level, which is measured as an urban family of four with an annual income of $5050. Blethen also points out that he knows of no one in Villa Nueva who was actually raised in San Ysidro. There are old families in the community, such as the Lopezes, the Esparzas, the Castros, and the Sotos, but local observers believe that most of the people living in San Ysidro are relative newcomers who have close family ties in Tijuana. Also, Mexican citizens are said to have bought many homes in the new housing tracts that have gone up in the last few years, where they reside on visas with no intention of becoming U.S. citizens. They commute to work in Tijuana.

Situated as it is at the confluence of two great cultural rivers, the standard social barometers of either the U.S. or Mexico don't apply here. For instance, the population of San Ysidro has slightly more than doubled since 1969, but don't make the assumption that the area's police force has similarly expanded. The number of police officers assigned to the southern division has remained constant at just over forty since the late Sixties. The crime statistics are relatively low when compared to. say, Logan Heights, and yet the police believe the city’s highest concentration of junkies (in relation to population) resides in San Ysidro. “It’s not cheaper, it’s just much, much easier to get balloons of heroin in Tijuana,” says Patrolman Joe Ayala, a veteran police officer in San Ysidro. Informants have told the police how it's done. “You pay twenty-five bucks apiece for the balloons over there, swallow ’em, and walk back across,” Ayala says. “Then all you gotta do is take a bunch of Ex-Lax and deal.” Concerning crime statistics, Ayala says that there aren’t fewer crimes perpetrated, but there are fewer reported. “They’d rather take care of their own problems,” Ayala explains to me as he drives his prowl car down the quiet boulevard late on a recent Friday night. “There’s a lot less Community Alert groups down here than elsewhere. It’s the attitude. A son will beat the shit out of his dad for hassling his mother, rather than call the cops.”

Shoplifting is the crime most often reported, and it’s usually the local Safeway, Big Bear, or Alpha Beta manager who calls. Grocery men in San Ysidro figure one out of ten customers will steal something, and the miscreants aren’t always young men. “Last week I put a fifty-eight-year-old woman and her sixty-three-year-old sister in jail for shoplifting at Safeway,” says Ayala, barely believing it himself. “You wouldn’t believe how many women shoplifters from Mexico we catch. And the worst part about it for ’em isn’t being booked or being held in jail; it’s the embarrassment of having handcuffs put on ’em and then being drug through the middle of the store. The minute they see it coming they drop to the floor, beg, fake heart attacks, proposition you — it’s unbelievable. It’s the humiliation before their peers that’s the worst. And chances are, they’re related to somebody shopping in the store, so word will get around.”

Oddly, this principle works in reverse for the young gang members in San Ysidro, the ’Sidro Boys. For one of them to be arrested in front of his comrades is something of a triumph, a validation of his toughness, an opportunity to show his defiance before authority. One of the respected signs of status within the Hispanic underworld is a tattooed teardrop beside an eye. It signifies an incarceration, jail time in The System, and symbolizes its wearer’s right to cry inside for the pain of his people. And even though Ayala’s patrol car can't travel a block without passing graffiti scrawled by the 'Sidro Boys, gang trouble here isn’t as common as it is farther north, and it doesn't even compare to the nightly robberies, beatings, and occasional killings of the aliens crossing the border. Rival gangs seldom make it down to San Ysidro, and the home boys are short on transportation to other turf, although the trolley is starting to catch on with them.

When Ayala is asked about Juan Orendain’s lament that almost no police officers assigned to San Ysidro actually live here, making the force, in Orendain’s phrase, “an army of occupation,” he thinks a moment as his patrol car rolls slowly past the border trolley station and loops around the cul-de-sac at the bottom of the U.S. “How can I say this tactfully?” he muses to himself. He’s worked San Ysidro for seven years, and has that same glimmer in his eyes as Cy Buehrer, something that expresses an appreciation for the improbability of the place. The car has coasted past the Jack-in-the-Box, plenty busy, before he answers. “I wouldn't want to live here,” he says finally. A phlegm-green border patrol car speeds past. “We have officers who have their roots here in San Ysidro — the Gonzalez brothers — they were raised here, and they don’t live here. ” Ayala gets a call for backup support before he can explain more, but he really doesn’t need to. He accelerates past the Sportsmen’s Den, the town’s infamous bar, past the Mobil station that was once owned by Roberto de la Madrid, governor of Baja California Norte, past the Casa Blanca, the white house on the comer of Smythe and San Ysidro Boulevard that was once known in the alien smuggling underground as the place to get to and hide under to await passage north. The house is clearly visible from the border. Since its owner was jailed, new safe houses have cropped up in the area. The border patrol plane circles the hills to the east of San Ysidro as Ayala heads up into one of the newer housing tracts. A radio call cancels the need for his assistance before he arrives at the scene of trouble with some young people, so he shows me an interesting feature of the area. “You’ve got the very old and the very new here,” he says, “and almost nothing in between.” He drives up Alaquinas Street in the La Mirada subdivision, the first new housing tract built in forty years when construction began in the late Sixties. “Look at this,” he says with a grin. He drives by a row of weathered, comfortable tract homes that are nearly fifteen years old, eclipsed in midblock by an endless line of brand-new, sand-colored, weak-looking houses lining both sides of the street. It looks like a block of Mira Mesa spliced to a block of North Park. Anywhere but San Ysidro the effect would be bone rattling. Here it’s just another incongruity.

Tracts like this radiate out from the center of San Ysidro, the boulevard. The oldest part of the community is just east of San Ysidro Boulevard. Many of the houses there were built in the 1920s on close, circuitous streets with serpentine dirt alleys in the back. Dusty wooden fences, graffiti inscribed, square off backyard gardens and cottage industries. Babysitting, auto repairs, sewing, and baking are part of the small-scale industry conducted in the older sections of San Ysidro. As the area develops to the north and east the streets become wider, the alleys straight or nonexistent, and the yards more conventionally prim. One sees a lot of front-bumper passes for entrance onto Navy bases here, and fewer Mexican license plates. One even sees a few condos going up.

Ayala turns his car around and heads back toward the border. It’s a slow night for the cops. San Ysidro Boulevard is nearly empty, save for the ubiquitous border patrol cars and vans, and a few dusty clunkers with Mexican license plates. The patrol car crosses under Interstate S, which is buzzing with traffic going in and out of Mexico, all of it passing San Ysidro by. Ayala drives south and then pulls through the RV lot beside the Motel 8. All is quiet and still. Rowdies don’t stay here. Many of the guests are cancer patients taking treatments in Tijuana at the Bio-Medical Center or near the beach at the Centro Medico Del Mar. The motel runs a van back and forth across the border several times a day, dropping and picking up its guests at the clinics. Ayala patrols through the RV park now and then; one of the most dangerous areas at night lies directly to the west: the Tia Juana flood plain.

Ayala cruises northward a short distance until he’s just past the Frontier Motel, then he points the car across the flood plain and turns out the lights. “Nothing but field between here and Mexico,’’ he says, peering into the blackness. “This is where the local pukes wait to rip off the wets. That’s one of the biggest problems down here. The aliens get beat, robbed, raped, and most of it goes unreported. They usually don’t want to file reports, and you can’t force ’em to be victims. The suspects are usually the pachucos from Colonia Libertad [which abuts the border above the customs station on the east side of the freeway], and the aliens don't want to tell the border patrol they’ve been victimized for fear of being turned over to the Tijuana police, a fate worse than death. Also, if a guy’s hurt real bad and has to go to the hospital, the border patrol will say, ‘Hey, we don’t know if he’s an illegal alien,’ because they have to pay for the treatment. And the hospital doesn’t want to get stuck with the bill, so they do the minimum work on the guy to keep him from dying, and then say, ‘Hey, go to the Red Cross in Tijuana.’ ’’ Ayala gestures south, toward the giant city whose twinkling lights hug the rolling hills, offering no promises.

At that moment aliens were probably lumbering across the parking lot of the Jack-in-the-Box, or the Safeway, or even the police substation. They were probably crawling through the drainage tubes that lead from the rear of Thrift Village, just yards from the border, under San Ysidro Boulevard to a secret place behind the Rico Mac taco shop. They were probably climbing fences up near Cy Buehrer’s place and running through Nora Youmans’ yard. They may have been piling into cars behind the Sportsmen’s Den, or buying a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter at the local 7-Eleven for the perilous trip to L.A. They may even have been hiding in the bushes separating the two halves of Interstate 5, or hunkered down in the trees in front of the Holiday Lodge Motel, across from the police substation. San Ysidro’s life goes on around them, and despite them. Border patrolmen have chased them through the laundromats, the grocery stores, down the aisles of Long’s Drugs, and have captured them hiding beneath the dresses at the Aaronson Bros, store near the bus depot. “The people down here are just used to us running around and the aliens running around, too,” says Border Patrolman Wayne Kirkpatrick, who wears that same comical look that appears on some people who’ve spent a lot of time around San Ysidro.

Ralph Garcia will probably never get used to the border patrol running around, and certainly he’ll never develop that comical expression. He owns the Sportsmen’s Den, San Ysidro’s main bar. The border patrol has raided his place several times looking for aliens and smugglers, and word has gotten around. Garcia says his business has fallen off drastically because of the raids. Sitting on a Naugahyde upholstered stool at his bar one afternoon, he says to a customer, ‘‘I ask the border patrol, ‘What you want me to do? Check everybody’s papers who come into my place?’” The only English being spoken in the bar is Garcia’s broken version; the rest of the men nursing beers or playing pool chat in Spanish. A man with his back to the bar renders running commentary on the game of eight ball underway. The hard, coal-eyed, no-crap-taking barmaid isn’t worrying about the cocktail napkins. The gringo customer talking to Garcia is out of place here. He asks the proprietor if smuggling goes on in his bar.

“I’m no pollero, I got too much to lose,” says Garcia with a pained expression. “My house, my business. . . . I’m not against Immigration. If they’d just ask me to come into my bar, if they’d just talk to me first. But no, they surround the place and come running in yelling and screaming.” A man enters the bar with a sizzling Mexican woman who’s made up mightily with crimson lip gloss, spiked red heels, designer jeans, and a sheer white blouse. She takes a seat by the door, overlooking the pool table. The pool commentator becomes suddenly more authoritative in his formerly playful admonitions to the pool players.

“The day before yesterday a car was parked out front with a bunch of people inside,” continues Garcia. His eyes haven’t missed the action down the bar. “It was a ’65 blue Chevelle. Immigration came and checked everybody’s papers, and they were all polios. The people in the car said the driver was inside the bar. Immigration stayed right in front, watching to see who drove the car away until one-thirty, when the bar closed. Still nobody drove it away. So they towed it. How good you think business is with Immigration out front all night?”

With the woman looking on, the pool commentator has turned loud and adamant about the exact placement of the racked balls on the table. Garcia sees the shove match starting between the commentator and the player. “I asked the border patrol, ‘What you want me to do?’ ” he says as he steps off the stool and bounds toward the men. who are now in a full-blown argument. □

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