I didn't recognize where I was. "Things have changed a lot," said Jorge Rodríguez, leading me out of the rain, into his two-story cinder-block house. "I came to Los Arenales looking for new horizons," he said. He offered me a seat on one of two couches tucked into his living room's corner. A bay window at my back filled the room with gray light. Directly across from me, in the dining room, Rodríguez's wife ate a bowl of soup resting on a yellow plastic place mat. Beyond her, in what appeared to be the family room, a computer sat on a large wooden desk.
Beyond the family room, through an open door, I glimpsed a patio and garden where rain pattered across blue tiles and dripped from ferns. From the garden, several kinds of birdsong and twittering drifted to where I sat.At the bay window, Rodríguez had watched me stare at his house. I was standing in the middle of the street, not on the raised sidewalk. Rain washing down the pavement lapped at the toes of my shoes. I must have seemed a demented middle-aged gringo who somehow wandered into this neighborhood behind the central bus station in southeast Tijuana.
"I came to Los Arenales when I was 41 years old," Rodríguez said. "I was an attorney in Mazatlán, Sinaloa. It wasn't easy starting a new life at 41 years old. I came here looking for new opportunities. For my children."
Rodríguez became pensive. He lifted a guitar from the coffee table between us. He strummed it while he talked.
"I came here with my family in 1991," he said. "There was nothing here but a big dump and a lagoon. My mother-in-law was living here. It was what every bus coming to and leaving from Tijuana saw. A big mess. I figured that they'd have to do something with the land eventually."
Why hadn't he gone to look for new horizons in Mexico City?
"Personally, I never liked it because of all the problems there. Juvenile delinquency. Traffic. That all causes stress. Large cities are dehumanizing. When I got here to Tijuana, it was a little more provincial. But there were a lot of sources of work here and a lot of cultural and economic opportunities for my children.
"When we got here, there were probably about 250 houses. Little rooms, really, made out of cardboard. Many didn't even have a roof. There was no electricity. No water. The people lacked the basic necessities."
While Rodríguez spoke, I remembered the first visit a friend and I made to Los Arenales on Christmas morning 15 years ago. On Christmas Eve, one inch of rain fell. Hundreds of cardboard shacks sank in stinky mud. The rain caused outhouses, pits dug behind each shack, to overflow. Men scrambled to dig trenches to divert the sulphurous water from these shacks. Two men scrambled to dig a trench to divert the black water from a large crèche they built. In the crèche, swaddled in white plastic, baby Jesus, a gringo doll, lay nestled in wood shavings. One of the men said of the crèche, "We made it for the Baby. For our God. We love God."
Everywhere we walked that morning, we sank in ankle-deep mud. Roosters, prissy about their feet, perched on old tires and upturned buckets. Pigs rooted in filth. Women trudged through mud, down to the odorous lagoon, where they dipped their buckets and hauled water back to their cardboard shacks.
Missionaries of Charity Fathers, a male branch of Mother Teresa's Order of the Missionaries of Charity, had settled in Los Arenales. One of the brothers whom we met that morning, a young man who came to Los Arenales from India, told us, "These people would be almost middle-class in Calcutta. They have walls, you see. A place to live."
Fifteen years later, Jorge Rodríguez's home looked, by Mexican standards, middle-class. Los Arenales looked, by Mexican standards, middle-class. Cars lined paved streets. At the corners of these paved streets stood pay phones. Satellite dishes perched on rooftops of two- and three-story homes. Through the windows of these homes, I saw computers, televisions, stereos.
Almost every house had a garden in front. When Rodríguez saw me staring at his home, I was admiring a rampant thatch of bougainvillea blooming over his driveway. Some vines were as thick as my wrist. They supported heavy clusters of pink blossoms. Pots of philodendron and red geraniums lined the front of the home. Pine trees and a banana tree grew beside the driveway. Two doors down, a lemon tree was so heavy with fruit that the lemons obscured the leaves. Along the streets of Los Arenales, eucalyptus, California pepper, and jacaranda trees swayed in the wind and rain. All around Los Arenales, acacias sent up dense clusters of acid yellow flowers, incandescent against the dark sky.
"Things began to change in 1993, 1994," Rodríguez told me as we sat in his living room. "When we paved the streets, the government paid for two-thirds [of the materials]; we paid for the rest.
"The changes came very rapidly. Electricity. Water. Sewage. There are older neighborhoods in Tijuana that don't have what we have."
Did the Missionaries of Charity brothers play a role in the development of Los Arenales?
"The most important thing they did, the most important thing they taught us, was to accept the will of God."
A while later Rodríguez amended that.
"They also encouraged many of the men here to stop drinking. You know, that's the way of Mexican men. To drink beer and tequila. But when the men stopped drinking, they were able to start saving a little money."
Rodríguez offered to show me the garden in back of his home. Surrounded by high walls in the Moorish, or Spanish, fashion, the garden was invisible from the street.
Rain glistened on asparagus ferns, chiles de árbol, and avocado and peach trees. In a cement tank, a tilapia swam in circles. In a large cage to one side of the garden, a dozen parakeets and finches sang and twittered. In a larger cage to the right, a blue-and-green parrot hopped from side to side and squawked.
"Dance, Malvo, dance," Rodríguez commanded the parrot.
The parrot complied.
Rodríguez told me that of his five children, four were married and worked as attorneys. The remaining child was in his last year of high school. I asked Rodríguez what his garden meant to him.
"Tranquility," he said.
Before I said good-bye to Rodríguez, he told me that one person in particular, Lolita, or Señora Dolores, had organized Los Arenales to petition the government for electricity, water, sewage, and paved streets.
"She lives on the other side of the seminary, of the church where the brothers are. She lives in what we call Los Arenales Two."
At the end of Rodríguez's street, adolescent boys had put their stereo's speakers out on the second-floor patio of their family's brick home. While they roughhoused in drizzly rain, a remix of a Nirvana song blared so loudly that I could hear it for several blocks as I walked away.
Come as you are,
as you were,
As I want you to be...
Come dowsed in mud, soaked in bleach
As I want you to be...
The Arenales I encountered on Christmas morning 15 years ago still existed at the neighborhood's southern edge, down near where the women fetched water from the murky lagoon. Around a smoldering trash heap, two mud-spattered pigs rooted in mud. Skinny speckled chickens ran about in an aimless way.
Not far from the skinny chickens and mud-spattered pigs sat a wooden house hidden behind white buckets filled with ferns. Some thought had been given to the arrangement. The many fern-filled white buckets sat atop two tiers of long shelves built with cinder blocks and wood planks. It looked almost like a primordial nursery.
I couldn't identify the ferns. I don't like ferns. They all looked like the same variety. I guessed they might have been maidenhair ferns, a kind kept on many Californian patios. But the sheer number of fern-filled buckets distracted me from the elderly man who sat on a low metal stool beside them. He wore a white shirt, blue jeans, and white straw hat. He seemed surprised to see a gringo in his neighborhood.
"Are these your plants?" I asked.
"What did you say?" he yelled.
"These plants," I yelled. "Are they yours?"
"What did you say?" He squinted at me.
"What are these plants called in Spanish?" I asked.
"I like to sit here," he yelled. "The plants are very beautiful."
A red-and-white shop sits on Baile de México, Dance of Mexico, the main street connecting Los Arenales One and Los Arenales Two. On its window the shop announces that it rents tuxedos. Plastic roses, teddy bears, ceramic figurines -- the hopeful stuff of quinceañeras, engagement parties, weddings -- fill the window. When I entered the shop, Dolores Dimas stood behind its glass counter.
"It was the floods of 1987 that brought us to Los Arenales," she said. "We were living down in Zona Rio, near the river. There were about 400 families. We had no place else to go."
Dimas, a petite woman with shoulder-length black hair, is direct and self-confident but doesn't toot her own horn. We talked for quite a while before she mentioned in an offhand way, "I spent six months in jail for my activities on behalf of Los Arenales."
"When we got here there was absolutely nothing. Everything that you now see, all the public services, all the public transport, I'm the one who started lobbying for it. About 350 families came here to Los Arenales. We started to organize as groups. For a while we were associated with a political party, the Socialist Workers Party, but it doesn't exist anymore.
"We were so successful because as a group we were very organized. Everyone participated."
I asked if Dimas came from a political family.
"No. No one was political except me. Why? Because I liked politics."
Did many people in Los Arenales come from a certain state? Did a common regional identity help them band together?
"No. It was necessity. Necessity and wanting a better way of life."
At the time Dimas and her neighbors began to organize, she said, Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari came several times to Tijuana. Dimas said she had the good fortune to speak with President Salinas about her neighborhood's problems and give him petitions.
"Three months after I met with the president, Los Arenales got electricity. That was in January 1989. The rest came after that. Water. Sewers. And in 1993, 1994, we began paving the streets. We did it all as an organized group, with help from government programs."
I asked Dimas about the trees I saw along the streets and in family gardens of Los Arenales One and Two. Where had the trees come from?
"The federal government gave them to us. We divided them up, three or four to each family. That must have been in 1990. I don't remember all the kinds of trees they gave us, but the idea was that we needed trees so that we could have a little bit of shade."
I said I wanted to see the trees from the Mexican government that Dimas had in her garden. She told me that I had to go outside the store, around the corner to the house in back. I hadn't realized that the store and the purple house with white trim behind the store were connected.
Dimas's garden consisted of a four-foot-wide plot of land on the east and south sides of her home. A few red geraniums and some maidenhair ferns grew in Dimas's garden, and ten mature trees. California peppers. A pine. What I guessed were two California fan palms, Washingtonia filifera, a native variety, had reached almost 20 feet tall.
Dimas told me that her five children were all married and gone. As she considered her garden, she said, "There was nothing when we got here.
"We built the elementary school and the kindergarten ourselves.
"Some people have forgotten what it was like."
On a Saturday after I spoke with Dimas, the heavy rains stopped for a few hours and I went to Teniente Guerrero Park, six blocks west of Revolución between Third and Fourth Streets. The park, which measures 88 meters by 88 meters, or 1.9 acres, is the only open space, the only public garden, in crowded downtown Tijuana. On weekends, parents bring their children to play on the swings and seesaws and to feed bread crumbs to the pigeons who like to hang out near the gazebo. Sometimes a school or youth-group band plays in the gazebo. Young couples lounge on wrought-iron benches and giggle and smooch. Furrow-browed men hunch over games of chess at the park's cement chess tables.
On the Saturday I visited, the park was more festive than usual. Representatives from the office of Tijuana's then newly elected mayor, Jorge Hank Rhon, were sitting at card tables, taking complaints from downtown residents about infrastructure, utilities, housing, and other problems. A twentysomething blonde in trim black slacks, Myriam Escobedo, who works as a public relations manager in the mayor's office, was on hand to discuss the mayor's plans for the park. Escobedo, who speaks English like a native Californian ("I went to school for four years at Our Lady of Peace in San Diego"), told me that the park's renovation was part of the mayor's projected community plan for the downtown district.
"Since the mayor came into office two months ago, we've been trying to have events every weekend in the park. On Sundays we have 'Family Day.' There are lots of clowns, and we bring in artists who paint. Everyone has a good time. Two Sundays ago we had a petting zoo. The mayor has a kind of minizoo, and he let us borrow the animals. We had goats, sheep, and a few other animals. We plan to bring a tiger, but we'll have to bring a special cage and make sure that everything's going to be safe.
"This park was abandoned for a long time. You can tell by that fountain over there that the park's been abandoned for a long time. We're planning a fund-raising event to fix the fountain and make other needed repairs in the park. We don't have a deadline for when this will be finished. But we plan on working on this throughout the mayor's entire administration, which will last for the next three years. We're very angry that the park was abandoned for so long. Why? The first thing that the mayor's representative to the downtown district did was to make it his top priority to renovate the park.
"We don't really have a budget for the work. We don't have the money for it. We're trying to get the community involved through donations. Some of the people who live near the park have, for example, donated some trees, and we're going to plant them. That's how we're trying to work things out, with donations and community involvement."
Escobedo told me that Teniente Guerrero Park is the only public park for the 77 neighborhoods that make up the delegación centro, or downtown district.
"It's one of the most important districts in Tijuana because it has such a great diversity of people. We have a lot of people with a lot of needs, and we have a lot of wealthy people. The park is so important to this district that we're going to make the changes slowly and see how it goes. We're going to be replacing some of the trees, because they're not in good shape. We're going to trim others. We're not going to completely renovate the gazebo, because it's old and we like its style. We'll make a few repairs. We're going to add a special area for people to picnic. We're going to fix up the chess area and start tournaments on Saturdays. We just want to make it nice again."
In a small beige building on the park's east side, Ramón Romero showed me a poster outlining the city government's 16-grade pay scale for municipal gardeners. Romero, born and raised in Nueva Italia, Michoacán, has worked at Teniente Guerrero Park for 15 years. Like the park's six other gardeners, Romero works five days a week from 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
The poster used the word peón to describe workers at the bottom end of the pay scale.
"Someone just starting to work here would make around $120 every two weeks," Romero said. "After 20 years, at the very top of the scale, he'd make $1000 per month."
Romero told me that he came to Tijuana in 1978 and worked several jobs before finding a position at the park.
"I like this work a lot. I like everything that has to do with ecology, trees, birds. I love nature. Working here reminds me of back home. For example, back home, we didn't paint our house. The outside of our house is covered with a plant. In Acapulco they call the plant moneda; in other parts of Mexico they call it hiedra. My family back home loves plants."
Romero said that when he started to work at Teniente Guerrero Park, it had few plants and no benches. For a while, things improved.
"But what happened was that the people whom the city government put in charge of parks were often more interested in politics than in managing parks. For example, the city government would give the position to a mining engineer. What does a mining engineer know about parks? And, unfortunately, because of that sort of thing, the park began to deteriorate."
I wondered if homeless people slept in Guerrero Park.
"Not so many now, but in the past we'd have 10 or 15 people sleeping here at night. Especially in the summer, there'd be lots. People come here from the interior to cross the border to find work. They get to Tijuana and don't have any place to stay, and so they sleep in the parks."
I asked Romero to take me to the place in the park he enjoyed most. We walked down one of the park's meandering footpaths, past the gazebo, to the park's north side, facing the Templo San Francisco de Asís.
"I love this part of the park because here you have all the Mexican customs," Romero said. "You have the church. You have all the children playing on the playground equipment. You have the vendors selling food and balloons. It's one of the few places like this in Tijuana."
Romero had something else he wanted to show me: the broken fountain Myriam Escobedo mentioned. Fifteen years ago, Romero started to use the fountain as a large planter. A loquat tree, an angel's trumpet, hibiscus, and calla lilies now grew where water once splashed.
"The fountain was completely neglected. I had to do something. So I began to plant things in it. The statue in the middle is Don Quixote."
Four or five feet tall, painted black, the statue had been carved, it seemed, from a tree trunk.
"I paid an artist friend of mine, Juan, a guy I knew from Michoacán, to carve it for me. I think he went to the U.S. I'm not sure. Fifteen years ago I paid him 20 pesos to carve the statue. It took him about five hours. Why Don Quixote? I've always liked a phrase attributed to him that I learned in school, 'If the dogs are barking it means we're advancing.' That phrase always seemed very nice to me."
A few blocks from Romero's Don Quixote, 24-year-old Emilio Santos manages his family's small nursery, Las Palmarecas, on Sixth Street. White and purple azaleas, white hydrangeas, crocus, ficus, fish-tail palms, aloes, spider plants, junipers, orange, avocado, peach and plum trees vie for space in the nursery's partially shaded courtyard. Santos told me that Las Palmarecas was one of only two nurseries in all of central Tijuana. When his father opened Las Palmarecas, he said, there were very few nurseries in the city, "Now there are more than you can count."
(When I asked Santos about the nursery's name, Las Palmarecas, he said, "It's because in the past we sold only palm trees." But palmareca seemed strange to me. When I asked Mexican friends and neighbors in San Diego about the name, they shrugged their shoulders and said, "What a funny word!" I had to dig around. Palma areca, it turned out, was a Spanish common name for Areca catechu, the betel palm, which produces the famous betel nut chewed in Asia, the Pacific Islands, and parts of Africa.)
"The store's been in the neighborhood for 30 years," Santos told me. "We moved to this location 8 years ago. Before that we were in a place just behind where we are now.
"My father started the nursery. Before he came to Tijuana he sold fruit in Puebla. A friend invited him up to open the business. The friend disappeared one day and left my father with the nursery. It was lucky that the friend disappeared. Now we have two nurseries. The other one's in Colonia Jardín. I learned the business just growing up around it."
Santos led me out to the courtyard to show me the plants he took particular pride in.
"I like orange and avocado trees, personally, because I like those fruits, but this," he said, holding up what at first appeared to be a leafy basket, "is very nice."
What he held was a pot of two-foot-tall ficus saplings that, as they grew, had somehow been woven together into a kind of basket shape.
"These come from Colima," Santos explained. "They're $25. Almost all the plants and trees we have come from Colima, Acapulco, or Mexico City."
When I said that $25 for the ficus basket seemed inexpensive, Santos laughed and pointed to a three-gallon white hydrangea.
"How much do you think that costs?"
"Fifteen dollars?" I guessed.
"It's only $5," he said.
(That afternoon at the border, when I asked a United States Department of Agriculture agent about bringing potted plants across the border, she chuckled. "You wouldn't want to pay how much it'd cost you to get a permit to bring those plants across. Forget about it.")
I asked Santos which parts of Tijuana were known for having good soil.
"There aren't many," he said. "Downtown is good. This area around here is good. It has some of the best soil in the city."
Just behind Santos's nursery, down an alley named Callejón Flores, between Sixth and Seventh Streets, I saw a profusion of bright spring green. In front of a small wooden house, pink rambler roses spilled across a rusty wire fence. On the home's right, a mature angel's trumpet dangled long, creamy white flowers. A mature fig tree and a flowering plum towered over the back of the house. Beside the front door, horsetail grew in an odd round clump. Marigolds grew beside the fence. Pots of red geraniums sat here and there in the yard. Two elderly, dusty-eared spaniels trotted out the front door. They not so much barked as screamed at me while I stood looking at the plants. A middle-aged woman dressed in navy blue pants and blouse came outside to investigate the ruckus. She eyed me with suspicion.
"My name's Estela," she said when I complimented her garden. "But I didn't plant any of this. I just rent. Carlotta, the old woman who lived here before me, planted the garden. She died seven years ago. She loved plants."
Estela said she didn't know if anyone remembered who Carlotta was. I said that to me it seemed sad that Carlotta's garden had continued to flourish after Carlotta was gone. Estela neither agreed nor disagreed.
"I think there's an older garden down there," she said, pointing east down the alley.
At Callejón Flores #435, María Teresa Martínez, wrapped in a black bathrobe, her legs bundled in a black-and-crimson blanket, sat on an old beige couch. Her skin was almost as white as the long wavy hair framing her face. Her nose was aquiline. Her cheekbones, high and sharp. Milky cataract occluded her left eye.
"I came to this house in 1925," she told me, "with my mother and father. I was five years old. We came from Mexicali, but my parents were from southern Baja California. When we got here, the alley was closed at both ends. No cars could pass. You could only walk in. My father was a municipal policeman, and he lobbied the city government to open the alley. That was probably in 1930. I don't remember exactly. I was a young girl and didn't pay much attention to things."
A few feet from where Martínez sat, the ceiling had started to collapse. A ceiling panel, as large as a door, bent toward the floor. Duct tape and a sheet of plastic held it in place. Above my head a large hole exposed the roof's wood slats and, between them, slivers of blue sky.
Martínez told me that her husband, Alejandro, was for many years a journalist. From 1980 to 1990 he wrote for a newspaper called El Cuarto Poder.
"Pero ya se fué al cielo," she said. "But he's already gone to heaven."
Tijuana today didn't please her.
"It looks," she said, "like a gypsy camp. All these people come and build their homes out of cardboard."
From her place on the couch, Martínez can study her garden. ("I can't walk in it anymore. I can't walk very well nowadays.") She can see gardenia, white and red geraniums, pine, and juniper. She said her favorite flowers were the lirios de Puebla, Puebla lilies, a name I hadn't heard before.
(In Mexico, common names for plants can differ not only from state to state but from region to region within a state. After I left Martínez, I searched for references to lirios de Puebla but found nothing. Given Martínez's age, lirios de Puebla is perhaps an archaic name few people today know or remember.)
From Martínez's place on the couch, she couldn't see her favorite flowers. They sat to the far right of her front door. When I went outside to investigate, I expected to find Easter lilies. I instead saw a pot of blood-red Asiatic lilies that the wet winter and sudden springlike weather had caused to bloom.
But the oddest feature of Martínez's garden was a column of pitaya that had grown 12 feet tall. Pitaya is normally a clinging cactus, but this specimen had risen upward, clinging to nothing at all. At its top, the cactus had assumed an unusual curled shape. It looked like something that unfortunate earthlings might encounter in a science fiction movie.
I knew that pitaya was often slow to grow. Where I live in Normal Heights, a friend's pitaya has grown less than a foot since she planted it two years ago.
"My mother liked to work in the garden," Martínez told me when I asked about the pitaya.
"It's called a moon flower," said a young woman who appeared at a door I hadn't noticed on the right of Martínez's living room. The young woman's long black hair was wet and made wet spots on the collar and shoulders of the orange T-shirt she wore.
"That pitaya blooms only at night," the young woman said. "It makes a fruit that has a red skin and white flesh with small black seeds. It's very tasty."
"My neighbors eat it," said Martínez. "But I don't."
Martínez told me that she liked to read. As proof she pulled from a plastic bag beside her two Spanish-language editions of the Jehovah's Witness magazine the Watchtower. Thumbing through one she found an article on flowers that grow in Latin America's arid highlands.
"These flowers are so pretty," she said. "The people who gave me these magazines asked me to go to church with them. But I can't. My leg hurts too much."
I asked Martínez what she thought of when she looked at her garden.
"I think about my mother," she said. "I think about those who've gone on before me. I think about dedicating myself to God. Nothing else."
Real del Mar is a luxury-home development and golf resort in Tijuana about seven and a half miles south of Playas de Tijuana. Construction began on the golf resort in the early 1990s. The housing development broke ground in the late 1980s. The golf course and housing development together occupy 720 acres. On the toll road to Ensenada, traffic is often frantic: it's easy to miss Real del Mar's entrance. The first few times I drove past it, my impression was that the barren hills to the freeway's east had for an instant exploded with leafy green.
That explosion of color was La Plaza de los Caballos, the large garden and fountain announcing Real del Mar's presence. Two stylized bronze horses burst from water splashing from the ivy-covered fountain's top. Bees have made a hive in the chest of one of the horses. The bees swarm from the statue, zipping high and low to avoid the splashing water, which falls 15 feet to a pond where serene mallards paddle.
Tules, pampas grass, and willows grow around the pond. A low-growing shrub that Mexicans call oreja de ratón, mouse ear, covers the banks surrounding the garden. Alfredo Sánchez, the man who sees that the golf course stays green and that all of its trees and plants are tended to, told me that in summer the mouse ear produces tiny red flowers he happens to enjoy.
"But the problem with oreja de ratón," he said, pointing at the horse statues, "is that the flowers attract lots of bees. Hundreds of them. They love it."
Sánchez is a lean, compact man who combs his silver hair straight back. He wears a thick gold bracelet on his left wrist. He laughs about squabbles he's gotten into when crossing the border in his big black truck to pick up his kids from their school in San Diego. Born in Tijuana, raised in San Diego, he speaks English with a perfect American accent. In his affable way, he loves Real del Mar.
"It's just beautiful, isn't it?" he asked the day we met and stood before La Plaza de los Caballos.
Sánchez was present when the golf course was put in. He was, he told me, hired away from Carlton Oaks Golf Course in Santee to work on the Real del Mar project.
"I don't remember how many trucks of sod we brought in. Dozens and dozens. We also brought in and planted 750 trees. Pines, palms, willows, myoporums, eucalyptus. All the water we use is reclaimed water that's treated at a plant in Tijuana. An entire pipeline was built to bring that reclaimed water to Real del Mar. We irrigate at night, and in the summer when it's very hot, we may use as much as 180,000 gallons every evening. I have three guys who just take care of irrigation."
Sánchez told me he directs 30 gardeners. He spends $60,000 every year on 30,000 pounds of fertilizers and other lawn-care products for the golf course. He estimates that his entire budget for the course and its landscaping is around $240,000.
"Compare that to what we spent at Carlton Oaks. When I was working there our annual budget was $800,000. The cost of labor here is much cheaper."
As we drove around the course, I was surprised to see how much land Sánchez allowed wild plants to occupy. Brilliant purple thistles, Mexican daisies (Erigeron karvinskianus), sunflowers, white sage, hemlock, Queen Anne's lace, and yellow mustard competed for space on the banks and low hills along the golf-cart paths and around the course itself.
"I'd guess that probably about 70 percent of our landscape is wild," Sánchez said. "It gives us a unique look."
Red squirrels, their coats glossy, pursued inscrutable tasks across the stretches of manicured green. Above our heads soared a hawk and, very high up, a flock of seagulls. Here and there on the golf course, Sánchez's men had planted spindly young mission figs. Their leaves were a vivid lime green. Mexican daisies and yellow mustard filled the high hills surrounding the course. In the coastal sunlight, the colors of flowers, grass, and trees seemed hyperreal.
I asked Sánchez to take me to his favorite place on the golf course. He drove me to a hillock beside the clubhouse that overlooks the 17th hole and also has a grand view of the ocean. The 17th hole sits on a small island surrounded by a pond. Golfers walk to the island across a little wooden footbridge. But mud filled the pond. Sánchez said the mud was from dirt the winter's heavy rains had washed down from the hills.
"Cleaning out the pond is going to be a big job," sighed Sánchez, gazing down on the 17th hole.
I asked Sánchez if he liked the view of the 17th hole because it relaxed him.
"I just like the little island and the way it looked. When it's clean, the pond is very nice. But, no, I never come here to relax. When I look around at the golf course, it's work. I notice who's doing their job and who isn't. I notice all the details of what needs to be done. It's not relaxing to me. I'd never come here on my day off to look around and relax."
After Sánchez left me at the 17th hole, I walked down past the clubhouse to the guard booth across from La Plaza de los Caballos. A number of guard booths control public access to Real del Mar. (You pass two to get to the resort and golf course.) A sign on the guard booth across from La Plaza de los Caballos announces that a camera takes pictures of vehicles entering Real del Mar and that these images are archived for "public safety."
From this first guard booth I had a good view of the resort and, to the north, the housing development. Most of these structures are pure white. Their color, their staggered heights, the way they're clustered on the hilly terrain, suggest Greek villages, or hilltowns in southern Italy.
FRISA, a Mexico City-based group and one of the country's largest developers, built Real del Mar. I had been told that FRISA's owner, Gaspar Rivera Torres, had a ranch somewhere on the property. I walked down to the guard booth in front of La Plaza de los Caballos to meet Ciro Tlachimatzi, the gentleman in charge of the landscaping in Real del Mar's housing development. I hoped Tlachimatzi might know something about the Rivera Torres ranch.
Broad-shouldered, deep-chested, dark-skinned, Tlachimatzi was born and raised in Tlaxcala, Mexico's smallest state, which is directly east of Mexico City. His family name is of Náhuatl origin. The language of the Aztecs, Náhuatl is still spoken by many of Mexico's indigenous people. Tlachimatzi said he didn't speak it.
"Maybe my grandparents did."
Tlachimatzi has worked for 16 years at Real del Mar. His present job is the maintenance of the plants and trees in the 111 acres of parks and other public space around the development's 250 homes. As he drove me around the development, he pointed out the yucca, agave, night-blooming jasmine, calla lilies, coral trees, agapanthus, bottlebrush, pines, and acacias he and his workers tend to.
"There aren't any rules for what the homeowners can do with their own gardens. Each house has its own plot of land, and they can grow on it whatever they wish.
"We have Mexicans here, and Americans. Canadians. Germans. Some Japanese. We have everyone. A president of a Mexican bank has a home here. There's even an American congressman who has a home here, Esteban Torres. I think he was in Congress during the Clinton administration. He's not here very often. A lot of people aren't here very often. The owner of FRISA, Gaspar Rivera Torres, is here only three times a year for maybe six or seven days at a time.
"Some people are always here. There's one Canadian family here, and I don't know what they do. Whenever I passed their house, they were always at home. And then one time, they were gone for a week, ten days. When they came back they brought back these boxes of frozen fish. They said to me, 'Here, take some fish. Take some home to your family.' They were so nice. It was very generous of them. I realized that they'd been away fishing for more than a week."
Tlachimatzi drove me through quiet streets fronted by two- and three-story homes, all white, all built in a modernist Mediterranean style. Most had pocket gardens in front or at the side. Barrel cactus, dudleya, and that strange succulent called hen and chicks (Echeveria imbricata) filled many of these small gardens. A number of homes had, for a spare, dramatic effect, planted varieties of cereus cactus, a tall column-like species, in front of their exterior walls.
"The big gardens are behind the homes," Tlachimatzi told me.
We stopped on one block that had a garden Tlachimatzi said he in admired. In order to see it, we had to walk along a path that began at the end of the block and ran along the top of the hill on which this particular row of homes sat. We crunched over ice plant on our way to the path. Turning a corner, ocean breeze washed over us: these homes all had an unobstructed view of the sea.
The garden Tlachimatzi admired was wilder than the others. The homeowner had built a grape arbor over his patio. In front of the grape arbor, the homeowner had cleared a broad patch of land and planted at least a dozen different kinds of cactus on it. Farther down the hill, the homeowner had cleared more land for several rows of grapevines, olive and grapefruit trees, and an artichoke plant. Tlachimatzi pointed to something that I at first thought was a tree. It was a lantana that had been pruned and trained to grow straight up.
Tlachimatzi drove me a little farther east into the foothills, along a broad, winding paved road with cement gutters. Rows of palms, which Tlachimatzi identified as Washingtonia filifera, flanked the road. Tlachimatzi estimated that he had almost 2000 Washingtonia palms in his care. He said he employs one man whose full-time job is to trim them. We came first to a large house built in the Mexican colonial style. Ivy, red bougainvillea, and copa de oro not yet in bloom, covered the home's high walls.
I asked if this was the home of Gaspar Rivera Torres.
"No," said Tlachimatzi, "this is the watchman's house. The watchman's house for the ranch of Gaspar Rivera Torres."
At the watchman's house, we made an abrupt left turn onto a dirt road.
"This is the Real del Mar nursery," Tlachimatzi said.
Candelario Sepúlveda and three other men cultivate the 30 kinds of plants and trees they use to add to or replenish Real del Mar's gardens. A stand of Mexican sunflowers, Tithonia rotundifolia, a perennial often grown as an annual, serves as a windbreak on the nursery's south. When I visited Sepúlveda, the sunflowers weren't in bloom. But I have a single Tithonia rotundifolia in my garden at home. I knew that in late summer, the nursery's stand of Mexican sunflowers would become a solid wall of slender trumpet-shaped golden flowers.
"But we don't grow flowers for Real del Mar," Sepúlveda told me. "They're too expensive to maintain."
Some yards away, Sepúlveda and his men were burning clippings. The wind carried the sweet-musky smoke through the nursery. The smoke looked like weak gray fog. Bright coastal sunlight filtered through the smoke, giving the nursery an isolated, otherworldly feel. I kept thinking of the watchman's house, maybe 20 yards from the nursery. I kept thinking how odd it was to talk about a "watchman's house" when, from the higher points in Real del Mar, you could clearly see the Coronado bridge and downtown San Diego.
"Before I came to work here," Sepúlveda told me, "I worked in Salinas picking lettuce for a year."
Did Sepúlveda like Salinas?
"Monterey," he said. "Monterey is a beautiful town."
Sepúlveda walked me through his nursery, pausing to show me a pomegranate or olive tree he liked.
He stopped before several dozen pots of spider plant, Chlorophytum comosum. Pulling off a sprig, he said, "You know what we call this plant? We call this mala mujer, 'bad woman.' I'm not sure what the scientific name is. All the men who work at Real del Mar have different names for the plants. One guy from one state will call a plant one thing, a guy from another state will call it something else. We come up with these names like mala mujer so we all know what plant we're talking about."
(When I later looked up mala mujer, I discovered that in Texas, Arizona, and Baja California, it's a common name for a stinging nettle, Cnidoscolus angustidens. In the Dominican Republic, mala mujer refers to a plant called bristly starbur, Acanthospermum hispidum, which looks nothing at all like a spider plant.)
Sepúlveda and I passed by a eucalyptus sapling. He snapped off a leaf and held it up for my inspection. He pointed to a small white blob on the leaf's underside.
"Do you know what this is?" he asked. "It's making a lot of our eucalyptus trees sick."
I did know what it was. The small white blob was the home of the same nasty pest, the red gum lerp psyllid, that's infested so many eucalyptus trees in California. I explained to Sepúlveda that Californians had tried to control the infestation by releasing a kind of parasitic wasp that lays its eggs inside the red gum lerp psyllid. I had trouble with the word wasp, avispa. There was probably some more precise word for "little wasp," or "tiny parasitic wasp," but I didn't know it.
"Yellow jackets?" asked Sepúlveda in English. "The kind that sting?"
"No," I said, "much smaller than yellow jackets."
"Well," he said, "I hope they come down here."
Tlachimatzi and I left Sepúlveda and, after passing the watchman's house, came to an enormous round structure, also in the Mexican colonial style, with a driveway of elaborately set stones. We parked and Tlachimatzi showed me around.
"These are the stables," he said, "for the Thoroughbreds."
The high, white building surrounded a circular area carpeted in Saint Augustine grass. Doors decorated with intricate wrought iron opened into a dozen stalls paved in unfinished adobe brick. The air smelled of fresh hay and horse manure. Massive wooden benches, either antique or made to look antique, sat along the walls of the deep overhang surrounding the central lawn. Parrots in wooden cages sang and babbled. Two adolescent German shepherds dozed on the lawn.
We drove a little farther up into the hills and came, at last, to the home of Gaspar Rivera Torres. The fountain at the circular driveway's center was silent. In big clay pots surrounding the driveway, red geraniums grew wild.
"I worked here for six years as the groundskeeper," Tlachimatzi said, pulling back the dust cover from a gray Rolls-Royce convertible, its interior upholstered in jet-black leather. "El dueño would say, 'Take it out, drive it around a little. Give it some use.' He meant 'drive it around Real del Mar.' The development. Not outside. Driving it made me nervous."
The Rolls-Royce sat beside a hefty Toyota 4Runner whose tires looked unused.
Tlachimatzi led me to a garden to the right of the house, where I counted ten mature mission fig trees. Dozens of fruit ripened on a mature key lime. Rotted fruit littered the ground around a mature Eureka lemon. Tlachimatzi pointed out apricot and plum trees and three different kinds of grapefruit.
The Rivera Torres house, like the stables and watchman's home, was in the Mexican colonial style -- thick, white-plastered walls with details in brick and unfinished wood. The open-air garage where Tlachimatzi showed me the Rolls sat beside the chauffeur's room. To the right of the chauffeur's room were two large guest suites. Tlachimatzi led me to the garden at the rear of the home. When we turned the corner, I said, "Oh, my God."
The view of the Pacific Ocean and Coronado Islands that seemed so dramatic from the golf course and homes in Real del Mar was even grander from the Rivera Torres garden. We looked out over 130 acres of pasture Rivera Torres kept for his Thoroughbreds. Beyond the green expanse, the Pacific Ocean -- swaths of sparkling dark blue, gray, slate green -- and the Coronado Islands filled the horizon.
To our left, wind stirred pink bougainvillea flowers at the bottom of an empty swimming pool. Puebla tiles, their green bleached pale by sun and chlorine, lined the pool's rim.
On the patio behind us, in a bathtub-size clay pot, a Christmas cactus, Schlumbergera truncatus, bloomed. The flowers' feathery petals, neon pink and neon red, spilled over the sides of the pot, almost reaching the patio's floor. Pink and white impatiens poured from a large black metal pot suspended from the patio ceiling.
Tlachimatzi and I walked again to the edge of the garden, looking out over the pasture to the view of the sea. I asked Tlachimatzi if the view made him envious.
"I make a good living," he said. "My family and I are comfortable. There's nothing we need."
I asked if his home had a garden.
"Just a little space. Some lawn. A few pots of geraniums."
I asked if his garden pleased him.
"It's enough," he said.