Baja boom towns: Las Quintas, San Antonio, Real Del Mar, La Paloma, Castillo del Mar, Costa del Sol, Villa del Mar, Costa Bella, Calafia

So far from God, so close to the United States

Road to Real Del Mar. “We opened the golf course last week. We’re going to have 18 holes, 7 lakes, 51 bunkers."
  • Road to Real Del Mar. “We opened the golf course last week. We’re going to have 18 holes, 7 lakes, 51 bunkers."
  • Image by Byron Pepper

High over the Tijuana-Ensenada toll road, in the midst of bald, colorless hills, the orange stucco bridge of Real del Mar stands in antiseptic isolation. Square towers and a multitude of purple flags give it the look of a fortress, as do its deserted roads that wind their way uphill through ghostly rows of auctioned, vacant lots. In its setting, it comes as a surprise. Peasant smallholdings thick with maize surround it. Yet this is not a remote secret barracks of the Mexican army nor the long-abandoned set of some gaudy science-fiction movie. This is merely the unfinished beginnings of what will be Baja’s largest golf course. The windswept lots, the rectangles of scrub are the sites of future villas for weary, city-hating Americans. The first signs of a future master-planned dream town to be called Las Quintas.

"The real estate bonanza in full swing."

"The real estate bonanza in full swing."

The roads have not yet been finished over this 100-acre site. But the tarmac rises as far as Las Quintas, or what will be Las Quintas. And there you find the developer’s office, perched amid baskets of rusted steel wire, Ingersoll-Rand machines, and incoherent fragments of luxury villas.

From this height, miles of glittering coastline are visible. An azure ocean edged with tumbledown chocolate cliffs. Coarse, treeless hillsides tip down toward the sea, unbesmirched by anything more than a thin scumline of development along the freeway. Wind howls around the offices of Radar Communications, SunCor Development, and the Frisa Group, and through the construction sites, the empty avenues of fluttering flags. In the office, a scale model of Real del Mar sits in a sunlit room. It shows an equestrian center, stables, a full-scale marina, swimming pool, barbecue park, and the masterpiece of “the great Mexican golf course architect” Pedro Giiereca Gurrola. At the center of the park will stand a colonial clubhouse designed by Marco Carrasco and built by craftsmen imported from central Mexico.

"La Jolla was exactly like this in the ’50s."

"La Jolla was exactly like this in the ’50s."

A lonely young sales rep, sitting nervously in what seems like a remote outpost of an alien civilization, spouts the party line for newcomers. “Real is being put together by Grupo Frondoso, which is Mexico’s biggest luxury residential developer, and the Frisa Group, who also did this charming development in Cancun, which you see here on the wall. Senor Gaspar Rivera Torres is the head of the Frisa family corporation, and they’re going all out to make Baja a showcase for Mexico’s economic renaissance. So here we have the plan for Real, which has about 100 empty lots that we’re going to sell mostly to Americans. Principally people from the Los Angeles area. We’ve sold about a third already.”

Oasis resort. "So much empty land so close to so many hungry people."

Oasis resort. "So much empty land so close to so many hungry people."

The scale model, if one looks closely, has gay little red flags crying SOLD outside the rows of Monopoly houses.

“We opened the golf course last week. We’re going to have 18 holes, 7 lakes, 51 bunkers, natural slopes on every fairway. It’s being managed by these people in Phoenix, SunCor, one of the mega-developers in Baja nowadays. And the equestrian facilities are going to be spectacular too. We think that people with money want their horses with them. And the people who are going to be here...are they going to be paupers? No, I don’t think so. I don’t think so at all [he beams vindictively]. They’re going to be people with...well, horses.”

Oasis resort

Oasis resort

He blankly scans the sea view, the tawny, barren mesas studded with little agaves, the brutal, gorgeous sweep of land rolling down toward breakers in the distance.

Real Del Mar

Real Del Mar

“One day,” he says, “it’s going to be beautiful. Like La Jolla. The whole coast is going to look different. The Mexicans are opening an aquatic park at Puerto Nuevo to rival Sea World. It’s being built by a Mexico City consortium called Grupo K, who built the big McDonald’s in the Tijuana suburb of La Mesa.

“All the land around San Antonio and Rosarito is being developed. SunCor has about $400 million in assets, so they can afford to make it the best golf course in Baja. Look at that. Sculpted straight out of the mesas. They’ve even planned to incorporate the local wildlife into it. People in California will have seen nothing like it. And this is just the beginning. In a few years, the Baja coast will be unrecognizable. It’ll be the property boom of the next century. And it’s going to change the peninsula forever.”

Almost as soon as he finishes speaking, a tint-windowed white Mercedes sedan with Los Angeles plates crackles up into the parking lot, and two roundish, ursine fellows with reflecting shades disembark carrying tooled-leather attache cases. The visit is unexpected but obviously welcome. The rep closes our conversation abruptly, rushes out to greet them, and begins warbling like a frenzied mating bird. “Welcome to Real del Mar! A golfing man, eh?”

Three ties shoot up into the air, held horizontal by the driving wind. The men shake hands. And in a moment they are gesturing toward the four horizons, babbling excitedly.

Highway 1 south from Tijuana, as it cuts through cliffs encrusted with peeling shacks, is now one gigantic rollercoaster strip of real estate billboards for luxury homes along the coast. Their man-size letters are lit up at night: Bancomer, Century 21, Dream Homes, Costa Bella, Your Place in Mexico, LOTES SE VENDE. At Antonio del Mar, now a narrow resort village of pink-tiled villas spread out alongside the La Costa restaurant, the signs thicken as you near Rosarito. And one of the few free-lance American real estate agents working the “Gold Coast” between the border and Ensenada has her name raised resplendently high there: Diane Gibbs.

Diane has not been nativized. Dashingly and formidably un-Mexican in a pair of gold-studded sunglasses and alligator shoes, she bounces out onto Calle Roca with fearsomely blow-dried hair and an Oklahoma twang.

“The only Yankee gal agent here. But in the juiciest property market there is.”

San Antonio is only half built. Driving around its streets you see that it is peppered with narrow slots of dull, sand-colored grass, every one pre-sold. She explains, “The ownership laws in Mexico are very complicated. Since the Revolution, it’s been technically illegal for aliens to own land in what they call the Prohibited Corridor, the strip of land that runs 100 kilometers from all of Mexico’s borders and 50 kilometers inland from the coasts. President Salinas is changing the laws that govern this corridor for the first time in 70 years. This will allow foreigners to own property in the corridor. But right now, and up to now, they’ve been leasing the land, technically speaking. When you want to buy a house in Baja, you have to go through a bank trust and make a formal petition in Mexico’s not title ownership. And some of the leases are only for ten years.

“But now all that is about to change. So there’s going to be a huge property explosion in the border area. That’s what all this building frenzy is about. Salinas is going to make alien property ownership a reality, perhaps even by the end of the year. That’s why San Antonio is filling up. Look at the lots — all sold, every one. A 45-foot-by-100 goes for $65,000 now; a 23-by-60, $41,000; a 60-by-70, $75,000. Prices are soaring, and Americans and middle-class Mexicans are snapping up everything they can get their hands on. This place is already 50 percent American, I’d say. Maybe more.”

Every scrubby spare inch of the village has been sold off — narrow spaces between existing houses, tracts of shelving grassland perched over the cliffs, rectangles of wasteland crammed against the road. Diane Gibbs continues, “What they say about the La lolla comparison is true...La Jolla was exactly like this in the ’50s. And San Antonio will be completely developed in about five years.

“At first, though, I couldn’t figure out why the Mexican banks would want to give up the old system of financing foreigners’ property, which was so profitable for them. They just made a straightforward killing on the bank trusts. A cabinet minister explained it to me, and it’s simple: the trust fees connected to title ownership insurance. The Mexican banks are rubbing their hands. They’re going to make much, much more money than ever before. And for doing nothing.”

The few miles along the cuota (toll) road to Rosarito and just beyond show the real estate bonanza in full swing. In the shadow of the town itself lurks a brooding cluster of massive Pemex propane gas holders and a sprawling electrical plant, which is already exporting energy to the U.S. Behind this lies a subdivision called Rica Mar with 100 lots for sale and only three remaining unsold.

“Two years ago,” Diane points out, “each of those lots would have gone for about $75,000. Now they fetch between $95,000 and $100,000, more or less. Ricardo Flores from Mexicali is developing it and is going to make huge profits. And you can’t even see it from the road. All you see is the gas containers. Notice also that there’s absolutely no begging around here...that’s because the construction boom is employing people 100 per cent. Laborers are getting about $90 a week for five and a half days and the maids about $20 a day.

“But it’s the brokers who are going to make the biggest killing out of all this. Because this whole area is going to skyrocket. Think about the maquiladoras. There are 500 maquiladora companies in Tijuana, and after NAFTA, the property market is going to burst like a volcano. The executives need houses.”

South of Rosarito, a multitude of modular developments along the cuota break up the jagged, brooding coastline into packets of half-completed construction. These are interspersed with auctioned slots of bare earth. The new master-planned towns are called La Paloma, Castillo del Mar, Costa del Sol (with its unfortunate suggestion of Spain’s great tourist abomination), Villa del Mar, Costa Bella, Calafia. And the blazing signs everywhere scream “;Se Vende! ;Se Vende! ;Se Vende!” On twin hills by the sea, dazzling white slogans etched into the soil proclaim, in giant letters, and without a trace of seditious irony,; VIVA MEXICO! and HOME SITES!

Diane reels off the prices of the lots flying by: “Punta del Sol, 35-by-90, $37,500...34 lots likely to double in five years, and I’ve sold seven of them myself. What’s new to Mexico in this boom is the emergence of what they call performance bonds, which are common in the States. Basically, a performance bond is an undertaking by a large insurance company to underwrite the quality of infrastructure in any development. If the infrastructure isn’t up to scratch, the company pays you back. This is a way of building up Mexico’s infrastructure piecemeal and bringing Baja’s up to California’s quickly. It means larger developments are easier to do because the services underlying them can be put in locally. And that’s exactly what’s happening here on the Baja coast. You saw the electrical plant. That’s ours. We don’t have to depend on Mexican central government to keep our power going.”

By the crusty, carbuncular little fishing village of Popotla, the rust-colored lots shadowed by billboards begin to thin. There, an abandoned modernist arch looms over the road, the wreck of some failed attempt at development decades ago. Instead, on the left side of the road, peasants have set up a home furnishing business, selling thousands of quarter-size terra cotta donkeys, Venus de Milos, cattle skulls, and cactus pots. The lanes of curios go on for miles, feeding the empty front rooms of the luxury condominiums on the other side of the freeway. And then, near La Mision, they fade out. The hillsides flecked with desert marigolds and ice-plant fall straight down to the sea, with not a rusted tractor in sight. Just behind the surf, teenagers hack out chunks from floating, tan-hued kelp fields to sell by the roadside. The scarlet rock pools at the bottom of the cliffs are unpopulated. Porpoises nose their way through the swell barely 20 feet beyond.

This is the edge of the downward-moving juggernaut of development. “It will,” says Diane neutrally, “go down as far as Ensenada and probably beyond. How far, I haven’t a clue. Perhaps as far as the end. That’s the way these things go. So much empty land so close to so many hungry people. It’s only a matter of time. Nothing else.”

Before turning back, we dip into the dark, touristy bar of the La Fonda hotel. Soused, decaying Americans with florid cheeks and fluffed coiffures sit there in comradely disarray around the mariachis, slurping saline $1 Margaritas. Diane waves to everyone. A weary recognition in return. The pot-bellied mariachis are screaming, “No soy nada. ;No soy nada!”“I am nothing!” A sentiment that seems to catch the foreigners’ mood admirably. Outside, in the period lobby, they’re selling plastic sombreros and alabaster cacti.

Over the beautiful, untouched beach, coils of kelp turn in the surf. And you have the queasy feeling that if a bulldozer suddenly came crashing across the sand ready to make mincemeat of the view, no one would bat an eyelid. Another concession would simply be made to the inevitability of change, and life would go on. Provided, of course, that the Margaritas still cost a buck and the sunset arrived on time.

A few miles back up the coast, the choking, wind-swept construction site of the Costa Bella Club is already halfway toward its mission. Even though the buildings are still just concrete shells, there is an air of valiant struggle about the machines and grim-faced workers carving a niche for civilization in this stony wilderness inhabited by pelicans and gulls. The air is hazed with powdered cement, and back on the dry, crenellated hills, plots of maize alternate with sinisterly smoking fields of burned stubble.

The developer is Dorado, a large Tijuana company presided over by Saul Flores Guerrero. Finances are handled by Multibanco Mercantil Probursa in the same city. I am shown round the site by Saul Flores and by the Probursa’s Carlos Guillermo Gonzalez Romo, Subdirector Fiducario Regional.

“Costa Bella will have 100 units of roughly 800 to 1500 square feet,” Flores explains. “We have about three and a half acres here and a thousand feet fronting the ocean. It’s a campestre road here, a non-service road, with water and electricity and nothing else, so we have to put in the infrastructure ourselves. We’re going to have our own private sewage treatment plant, because the environmental laws that the state government in Baja is putting into place are tough. It’ll be more or less gated, too, 24-hour security, with a decent wall. On the second and third levels, the apartments will go for $142,000. Lower down, $79,000.”

The sales office is plastered with glossy oil paintings of the Dorado group’s other projects: Hacienda del Estero, a 230-acre subdivision in Ensenada, and the condo complex of Punta del Sol. We go into the gloomy, messy hulk that will someday be one of the three landscaped buildings housing the condo units, over a wobbly gangplank, into dusty arcades dripping with wires and cables. On the far side of the narrow, corridor-like unit is a single glass window/door framing the sea, and beyond that, neat lawns creeping to the edge of a small cliff. Eventually, Flores says, there’ll be a miniature putting green. And a Jacuzzi.

“For American buyers, we set up what’s called a fidecomiso. That is, a 30-year trust with a 30-year option, with the Probursa as trustee. That’s according to the law of 1971, which permitted bank trusts to be given to foreigners. It means that a Mexican banking institution keeps nominal control of the land, and the foreigner sort of leases it. It’s going to change. But right now, that’s how we do it.

“People are right to call this the Gold Coast. Not only because of NAFTA, but also because of the Pacific Rim. Mexico is going to be the drop-off point for the whole of the Pacific Rim, and when they build the new railroad linking Mexicali, Tijuana, and Ensenada, you’ll have not only a Gold Coast but a Golden Triangle, too. It’s in that triangle that the real action is going to happen.”

We go back out to the mud-caked forecourt swarming with churning cement mixers and workers with whitened faces dusted with the acrid powder clouds. In the burning heat, the place looks tense and strained, the same weave of girders and steel rod basketwork that you see everywhere along the freeway. The same pylons and tin construction huts. The salespeople and the managers looked pleased, however. The project is surging toward completion, and the units are largely pre-sold. Handsome profits all round. The engineers show me to the road and doff their hard hats. “When you come back,” one of them says matter-of-factly, “it won’t be a building site anymore. It’ll be a village.”

And when should I come back? “Oh, let’s say a month or so. In a year it’ll look like it’s always been here. You wait. It’ll look like Capri. Better than Capri. Like the Costa del Sol. jHasta luego!”

One of Baja’s few English-language newspapers is a peculiar ex-pat broadsheet called The Baja Sun, published in Ensenada. It has a pugnacious U.S. editor in the form of one Mr. Gene Elliot, a retired trainer of Special Forces who pens a roiling little column called “A Blue Eye on Baja.” It is famous for scandalous apercues such as, “C’mon, folks, we have two sexes,” and “Cats are like Baptists. They raise hell but you cain’t ketchum at it.” This is nitric regional wit at its best. But on the subject of Baja’s imminent development, the voice grows more concentrated and more somber.

“A hundred years ago, Porfirio Diaz coined the phrase about Mexico being ‘So far from God, so close to the United States.’ But President Salinas has decided that, investment-wise, being close to the U.S. is all that Mexico has going for it. And being close to God, so-called, didn’t get it anywhere. Now 25 years ago, the ex-CIA chief, I can’t recall his name, stated in a Playboy interview that the greatest threat facing this country was not Communism, as everyone assumed, but the poverty of Mexico. That was prophetic. Nature abhors a vacuum, and you can’t have a rich-poor divide that works.

"America now wants Mexico to be rich and competitive, to get its shit together, and Salinas is probably the only Mexican president since the Revolution who is smart and uncorrupt enough to know what the country has to do to prosper. He’s attracted what I think is about $24 billion worth of investment since his investiture — $18 billion into the market and about $6 billion into real estate. He knows that the population is very young, so there are relatively few old people to provide expensive care for. Petroleum is going to work in Mexico’s favor in the long term also, because it’s a finite resource. And his devaluation of the peso worked because he did it sensibly. Twenty old centavos a day, or about 2.5 percent, instead of 466 percent in one year, as in 1987. That’s three zeros off the money, which makes it real money again.

“Now, Mexico has a foreign exchange surplus and is growing fast. It has the most profitable stock market in the world. The economy, amazingly, has stabilized. All the major foreign securities firms and banks are pouring into Mexico after the change in the law in June ’89. That was when the old law prohibiting more than a 49 percent ownership of a Mexican company by a foreign concern was repealed.

"Now we have Mexican banks like Bancomer owning banks in San Diego like Grossmont. The commingling is going on all over the place.

“They’re going to privatize the Ensenada harbor; there was meant to be an auction in Texas, and that port already handles more civilian traffic than San Diego, with cars from the Far East and so on. Tijuana is already larger than San Diego, because it always underestimates its population. And Baja now has 40 percent of all the foreign-owned companies in Mexico.

“Now, all this has to be borne in mind when you consider other revolutionary changes that have happened in Mexico over the last five years. The Mexican banking system was only computerized about two years ago. And when they were privatized, the old landed families for once didn’t snap everything up. Instead, coalitions formed on the Bolsa, the stock market. That was a watershed. It went hand in hand with two other significant changes.

"First, unionism was overhauled, totally changing the country’s industrial structure. And then, the aduarta, the customs, was radically reformed. The entire border customs staff was changed in one night, between shifts, because Salinas didn’t trust them. Basically, the country’s entire infrastructure is up for sale. The whole thing, roads, electricity, sewage.

“And this is being tied to the dismantling of the ejido system. That particular piece of revolutionary legislation, which was supposed to have given land to the people in perpetuity, only encouraged a loot-and-pillage economy, because investors could never see the point of doing it properly. Why make long-term investment work for the region if you’re not allowed to own anything? The end result was that the peasants, sitting on largely unusable land, simply leased it out to Americans who used it for short-term profit. The law as it stood made that inevitable. Now the tables are turning because Americans are realizing that if the changes in the laws really stick, Mexico is the place to put long-term investments.

“Consider this. Anything turning over less than six percent in the United States is, in real terms, actually making you a loss. Now, if you buy Mexican cetes, or shares, you are guaranteed, literally, a return of 17 percent. About 14 percent after inflation. A cetes is a certificado de la tesoraria, a government underwritten bond. You can buy them anywhere. And people in San Diego are buying millions of them because you can make more money in Mexico with these things than absolutely anywhere else in the world. The dollars are pouring in there, and that’s what’s underlying much of the boom in Baja.

“The only cloud on the horizon is a political one. Who succeeds Salinas? A Mexican president can’t be re-elected. He can only hand-pick a successor. You have to hope that Salinas does his change too.

“Most Americans still don’t realize that they don’t actually own the land they think they’ve bought for ridiculously small amounts of money. At least not in the formal title sense of the word ’own.’ I mean, in this office here we can execute a sale, but we can’t finalize it. Yet I’ll bet that by the year 2000, Americans will be owning most of the land here in the real sense. In fact, these two things are going to go hand in hand, the creation of foreign-owned private property and the emergence of Baja as a model for the rest of Mexico for decentralized economic semi-autonomy.

“Here, there is a great deal of historical resentment toward Mexico City. And Baja is determined to go its own sweet way. I can see it happening right now under my own nose. That’s the way state and federal officials are going. Our Governor Ruffo is the first Opposition figure to hold office in the Republic’s history, and the border area is going to be a laboratory for Mexico. You have the tourist and property development along the coast on the one hand and then Mexicali on the other.

“Mexicali is the other side of Baja’s development coin. It’s going to be the model for industrial development, as Ensenada and Tijuana will be for tourist and trade development. If 1 were you, if you want to complete the picture, I’d get down to Mexicali. The border is surely going to decompose, and Mexicali is going to be the boom town of the next century. Believe me. A city like that is going to be a developer’s Klondike for the early 21st Century. A speculator’s fantasy come true.”

From Interstate 8, the sprawl of California’s desert metropolis is not at first obvious. At the junction with 111, which takes you south into Calexico and the border, the slums of El Centro merge into dusty railroad sidings, flaking industrial warehouses, and more empty lots cluttered with “For Rent” signs. But this time it is tracts of desert sand beaten by a more bitter sun. New malls and commercial centers have mushroomed everywhere, from the north side of El Centro to Calexico’s strip next to the frontier fence. And beyond that, into Mexicali itself, which is now effectively a continuation of the same city. A chaotic web of development is crystalizing along these arterial desert roads. And as Mexicali’s population soars, it is set to become, if both sides of the border are included, one of the biggest cities in California.

The old railroad lines embedded in the center of Lopez Mateos Boulevard take you into Mexicali’s gritty and suffocating heart. Because it was founded only in 1909, Mexicali, like most of the Mexican frontier towns, has no zocalo, no central square or colonial grid. It’s a sprawl of pell-mell concrete arcades, telephone poles, strips of colchones, fridge shops, automotores lots, and endless residential areas baking in some of the highest heat of the American continent. What also differentiates it from the graceful cities of the Mexican interior are the vast American retail palaces popping up all along the length of Lopez and Independencia.

Take the construction site opposite the Hotel Lucerna, Mexicali’s down-at-heel Ritz, at the corner of Independencia and Juarez. Huge concrete designer cubes rise from one corner among pyramids of bricks, tubing, and cement bags. One completed sign sits at the top of a towering blue pole (Blockbuster Video), and a red-and-white Jack In The Box cube, not yet installed on high, lies in the middle of a paved courtyard.

This is Mexicali’s mall for the next century, the jewel in its future crown of modem shopping paradises. Its progenitor is a young architect and developer by the name of Rick Pedraza.

By the door of the concrete shell that will be Mexicali’s first Jack In The Box (the arcade facing it will be a Blockbuster store larger than any in California), the blond-haired, middle-aged owner of the Mexican franchise, who has the strange honor of being the man who brought the first American fast-food chain restaurants to Mexico, stands in 116-degree heat in a dapper straw boater. Around him, grunting, dark-skinned workers sweat in pale billows of burning dust. It is by now a familiar scene.

“Did you know,” he says cheerfully, “that the Jack In The Box in Hermosillo is the biggest and most successful in the world? Mexicans love Jack In The Box. You know why? It’s that sound of tinkling computers. The air-conditioning. The novelty. It’s like China and India...there’s no competition, so the fast-food places are gigantic. Ever see the McDonald’s in Moscow or Mexico City?

It’s exactly like that. There’s a huge Carl’s )r. here in Mexicali already, and the lack In The Box is going to be as big. Baja’s made for it. Why? Because Mexicans have money but nowhere to go.” Across the blazing courtyard, under the white arcades of the half-built Blockbuster building, surrounded by a mesh of girders and steel pipes, Rick Pedraza, in a silver hard hat, explains how his mall is going to look. “We’re going to cover the whole courtyard here with a big orange fabric roof, like those cheap taco stalls that I really like, because the heat is so incredible and you can’t stand in the sun. We’re going for very deep, powerful colors, because our market research shows that Mexicans love intense colors, which American designers don’t dare use. Actually, most of the paving and materials are from the States, and we used a German company for the surfaces. And that’s typical. If only Americans would realize how much they could sell to us and stop complaining about NAFTA.

“Anyway, the problem with the frontier is that the towns don’t have anything urbane about them. The model for a lot of Mexican architects and developers now is Latin-European. Those European cities that have been beautifully looked after for hundreds of years and which are the root of Mexico’s great colonial towns. Of course, in Baja you can’t do that because the overall environment here is hostile. It’s determined by car-orientated developers imitating American models of 30 years ago. Despite the fact that Americans are coming to realize that the whole thing was a soulless mistake anyway. I have a house in North County, San Diego, and I can honestly say that there is no enjoyable urban experience there. I have to drive to the Del Mar Plaza to get even a whiff of it.

“Well, in the desert you have the climate, which is brutal. But that is not going to stop people wandering around boulevards as they do in the rest of Mexico. That’s what we’re trying to build here, a boulevard. Yet the Mexicali town council is insisting that we orient the whole thing toward cars. If Baja is going to be developed along those lines, it’ll turn into a hellhole. It needs to be developed by people who want to leave something lasting. I mean, developers are basically rapists. I grew up in Uruguay and Colombia, and I saw what developers from places like Miami did there. Holiday Inns all over the place, totally messing up the coastlines. Unfortunately, they know this area is going to be the

Hong Kong of the Western world. They know they can get away with L-shaped malls made of shitty stuff that the desert dust discolors in three weeks and still make huge profits.

“Here, I persuaded them to take lower returns and make the walls out of this high-tech fiberglass that will stay white when the dust storms come. The whole thing is beautifully made, right up to the sidewalk around it, which will be Mexicali’s best. It’ll stand out completely in a town where everything is shabbily made. Even the Hotel Lucerna over there, the best hotel in town, is shittily built. Mexicali is going to be a really big city, and it can’t afford to be developed like the capital of a banana republic.

“Why can’t we build proper towns? Well, we can. It’s a matter of ideology. Nobody has ever built anything like this in Mexicali before, and for the first time the influx of foreign capital into this country can be used to develop it, not rape it. Ironically, you actually do that by giving it more freedom.”

We stroll around the site’s perimeter. There is a tool yard and a little key place, a sign reading Aluminio y vidrio. “I wish we could own that land, too. I tried to see if we could buy it, but it didn’t work out. We’ve increased the value of their land no end, and that ripple effect in land prices will grow throughout Mexicali.

"It’ll drag the whole place upwards. All you need to make an economy work is a carrot and a stick. It’s simple. All a city needs to do is sell itself as an experience and it doesn’t really need industry. Look at Paris. They have the biggest budget in the world for flower beds, and they’re making billions. Thirty-six million visitors a year. All right, we’ll never be Paris, but that’s the general idea. If all goes well, Baja will simply sell itself.”

We amble around the glossy red logo cube, toward the hideous traffic of Independencia. The future sales staff for Blockbuster, all young girls in pressed white blouses and navy skirts, are huddled in the shade of the arcades, licking ice creams that drip almost instantaneously onto their shoes. “Development is a duel between rapists and architects. I always think what a shame it is that San Diego wasn’t built a hundred years earlier than it was. It’d be a city. What’ll happen here is anyone’s guess. It can go either way. Hell on the one hand or profitable purgatory on the other.”

A suave, boyish executive sporting a pair of creased kakhi shorts and tassled brogues now appears from the plaster-dusted inner sanctum of Blockbuster. Engineer Rolando Gutierrez, Blockbuster’s Director de Operaciones.

“Heard the joke about the monolinguist?” he announces without warning, shaking everyone’s hand and preparing to tell what will obviously be a very lame joke. “A person who speaks three languages is trilingual. A person who speaks two is bilingual. And a person who speaks one is an American. So, am I right or what? It’s true, isn’t it?”

Everyone nods sagely, as if the bloated entity to the north were indeed self-evidently a nation of 250 million fearsomely stultified monolinguists.

Once he has gotten over the mild thrill of insulting Yankee ignorance, though, Gutierrez turns bitterly to the yokels on the southern side of the fence. He’s one of the frustrated 40-plus generation of professional Mexicans, educated in the U.S., with that nervous mixture of cosmopolitanism and chauvinism that has always characterized his class. Undecided as to who to chide loudest.

“Our problems with Mexicans are different. They don’t understand economies of scale. They’re not used to high standards of service. So all the Mexican video stores were furious with us. Actually, we’re a Mexican company licensed from the Blockbuster Corporation. But whereas before a company here had to be both constituted in Mexico and made up of 100 percent Mexican shareholders, the shareholders now can be anyone. So our planning decisions in Baja have to be made with reference to shareholders who can be majority American.

“But what’s happening in fact is that these Mexican franchise companies are building bigger and better stores in Mexico than in the U.S. There’s less competition here, so they can make truly enormous profits. The Carl’s Jr. in Tijuana, for example, is twice as big as anything you’ll see in California. One reason is that when the Americans negotiate contracts for empty lots to develop, they can get a lot more out of Mexicans than they can out of other Americans. So there’s a psychological side to it. And then, the markets are so big and relatively unsaturated. There are one and a half million people in Mexicali, and we’ll get 4000 to 5000 people a day at this mall. And Mexico is a rich country. It’s just that its development was always in the hands of bureaucrats.”

His face suddenly has a look of what can only be called haunted exasperation. As if history had kept dealing the wrong hand over and over and there was little to do about it.

“We inherited that from the Aztecs. Tenochtitlan dominated the country just as Mexico City does now. And they abuse their power. I know for a fact, for example, that Mexico City manipulated the last census to show that Baja has less people than it actually has. They’re screwing us, because we don’t have taxation with representation. In other words, we pay more tax than we get back from the center.

“And then, Baja was always the seditious state. All the Mexican revolutions started here, including the present one. You know what they used to put on cars around here during the last elections? ‘Be a patriot, kill a chilango.' Chilango is a derogatory name for a person from the capital. You know what would be amusing? If Baja ceded from Mexico and California ceded from the United States. Now that would be an interesting outcome. California for us was always one unit. And it’s going to be one unit once more, I hope, with two-story Blockbusters leading the way.”

Judging by the frenzied labor milling around the rising concrete cubes, he may well be right. Some of the workers, with hard mestizo faces, gawk at the European middle-class Mexicans in their silver hats and their norteamericano guests with blank, gimlet eyes. Are the latter wizards or simple, construction-crazed overlords? The motorists waiting out the red light at the Independencia intersection cast the same side-long gazes at the huge sky-blue poles towering overhead. The poles as yet have no meaning. Nor do the bare gray stone cubes. The idea of a Parisian boulevard here seems impossibly remote, as does that of a Jack In The Box that will nobly stand the test of time. More likely, the rapists will have the day. And the Prohibited Corridor, tacky but grittily authentic today, will be little more than an air-conditioned dream tomorrow.

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