Why Tijuana? That’s what everybody asks me these days. I know. These days, the headlines about Tijuana feature murder, mayhem, and misery. But here’s the thing. These days, when nobody’s going to Tijuana, wouldn’t you know it? I can’t help thinking about Tijuana…
At the risk of sounding nostalgic, I’m getting nostalgic about the place. Like, in the Blind Lady Ale House in Normal Heights the other night, I got to talking with this binational fellow, Gonzalo. About, natch, TJ. “The TJ I love is no more,” he said. “It has lost its identity. Look what’s gone: the bullring, the Jai Alai, Agua Caliente racetrack, the casino. TJ never was beautiful, but at least it was different. And now, nobody goes down there anymore. It’s empty.”
He got me thinking. What is Tijuana turning into? East L.A.? What about the violence? And, yes, if you’re a turista, you do have that thing in the pit of your stomach. Let’s call it wariness. You wonder, Why risk it? What is Tijuana to me, anyway?
Well…why climb Mount Everest? Because it’s there. And TJ is here, and it’s so much more than a rock. This place where we live — on either side of this crazy line — it’s like ET and Elliott, fingers outstretched, touching. Ping! Two civilizations meeting. When you go through that clanking gate, magic happens.
Bottom line is, I just love the place, problems, differences, and all. So think of these stories as pictures at an exhibition. A retrospective, okay? Scenes from one guy’s experience over the past few — heck, several — years stepping across the line to the Village by the Sea. Ti Wan, as the Kumeyaay called it.
SIXTEEN YEARS ON THE BRIDGE
Most times I go down, there he is on the footbridge across the Tijuana River, like a good omen. Jorge. He has a movie star’s face, with intelligent eyes and long dark wavy hair. And useless legs. He lost them to polio, when he was one year old. He looks 30 but says he’s 40. He scoots himself around on a skateboard, with his bag, a heavy construction-glove for his scooting hand, and his box of cellophane-wrapped four-tablet Chiclet chewing-gum packs. The box is still two-thirds full. Not a good sign at this end of the day. “Hey, Mr. Ed,” he says. “¿Como estás?”
“Hey there, Mr. Jorge,” I say. “Muy bien, gracias. And you?”
“Mas o menos,” he says. And I know mas o menos means hard times. I know he’d be much cheerier if things were even a little bit good. It’d be muy bien, or excelente, or bien, bien. Not today. “No tourists,” he says. “They stop coming. This is worse than after 9/11.”
For seven years I’ve been saying hi to him here, with the dry hills of El Norte as a backdrop on one side, and the giant national flag of Mexico and TJ’s oversized bicycle-wheel reloj (clock) on the other. Oh, and then there’s the garbage-strewn concrete spillway below, the proud Tijuana River wafting up its interesting smells.
This bridge is a good-enough location for a business like Jorge’s — selling gum as a way of inviting donations. It concentrates the foot traffic of people heading toward the bars of downtown. But it’s not the greatest place for a 40-year-old legless man to spend his working days.
“How are your children?” I ask.
He says they’re fine, but I have to wonder how he gets by. With a wife, kids, and a couple of grandkids, Chiclets can’t do it. He’s the only Mexican man selling Chiclets here; the others are Mixtec mothers. Their children weave back and forth across the bridge as point men, to keep after you if you show the slightest hesitation or weakness.
I buy a couple of packets. Hand Jorge the three single dollars I have in my pocket. At this point, I usually head on toward Mischief Lane, where there’s good eats, and where Dr. Solorio the dentist has his business — when I can afford him.
But on this day, Jorge is packing up and leaving. Turns out we’re going in the same direction.
“You walking to the centro?” he asks, when we get to Avenida Negrete.
“Yes,” I say.
“Me too. I’m going home.”
So we walk — well, I walk. Jorge scoots along on his skateboard, his legs crossed meditation-fashion, using his hands to push himself. When we come to bumps — and there are a lot of them, lumps, broken curbs, and potholes that his skateboard can’t navigate — he lifts, levers, and tips himself up and down like a gymnast.
We get up to Third, then where a little alley, Callejón Zeta, dives off it, he stops. “My house is down here,” he says. “Would you like to come?”
I can’t believe a callejón so close to el centro would be unpaved, but this one is. It’s narrow, dusty, with cinderblock walls and little houses oh-so-close to you on either side. Jorge maneuvers his way along until we come to a white, wrought-iron security door. He pushes it open and rolls on in. I follow him down a low, narrow passage, where washing hangs on a line strung from the ceiling. We enter a square room. There’s one large bed, a bookshelf with a TV on it showing one of those Mexican telenovelas, a microwave, peach-pink walls, a torn picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe, other religious pictures, a microwave, a fridge, and, just this side of the door to a second room, crowded four-level shelves, a bottle of gas for cooking, and a stove.
Two women, a couple of kids, and a baby sit around, on the bed and in a chair. “I am Juana Ynez Gonzalez,” the younger woman says from the bed. “Jorge’s wife. And this is my old friend Maricela Navidad.” Maricela, seated in the chair, extends her hand.
Jorge offers me a soft drink. Soon we’re into how he keeps a family going, selling Chiclets. “We pay $240 a month to live here,” he says.
“And every week we’re late, we pay another $10,” says Juana Ynez.
“But what can you do?” Jorge says. “I have to be close to the bridge. Otherwise, I can’t get there. I depend on it.”
Jorge was born in the state of Colima, on the mainland Pacific coast of Mexico, in a fishing port called Tecománpeseta. “My dad was a campesino. He was hired to climb coconut trees and cut down the coconuts.” Jorge says he was fine till he caught polio at the age of one. “It’s a picturesque village,” he says, “but if you can’t climb the mountain and collect limes, or chiles, or bring down loads, it is impossible to survive there. I went to a home for the disabled when I was a young kid, but every day they put us onto the streets to beg. For me, it was impossible to survive in Colima. So I came to TJ when I was 19. Here, it’s difficult but not impossible.”
He found work in a maquiladora. “But they took advantage of my disability. Where they paid others 1500 pesos a week [about $120], they paid me 480 pesos. That’s about $40. It was discrimination, and Mexico has laws, but nobody enforces them. Back then I had to pay $100 a month for rent and pay for transport to get there and back, and food, and water and light…. I was fired after five years for complaining, and you know what? Selling Chiclets on the bridge, with no boss, and no transport, and not having to get up at 3:30 in the morning just to get to work, I made more money. Until the economy and the violence. The last three years have been bad. Really bad. Wednesdays, for some reason, I usually come home without a single peseta.”
That’s when the family, and especially his son — the younger one who has a job as a waiter — have to pitch so that no one goes hungry.
“I was a waitress,” says Juana Ynez. “We met one night when I went for a beer and a dance at the Valentina, across from the Adelita in the Zona Norte. I knew right there that he was serious. And he has been a good father. Yes, I have to help him with his disability, and he has terrible hemorrhoids, sitting on his patineta [skateboard], but he has not failed us. I love him too much. And every day, every day, he goes up to that bridge. After 16 years, that takes courage.”
“I don’t believe in being sad,” Jorge says. “I have life, and I have las fuerzas [my powers] to fight for it. And it’s mostly good on the bridge. People know me by now, and they buy Chiclets when they can.”
But, man, I’m thinking this guy’s a hero. I couldn’t do it.
This is when I notice Maricela, the neighbor, near tears. You can see flashes of a beauty that must have floored the guys back in the day. The big eyes, the swept-back hair, the laugh lines that still get exercise — just not now.
“My son, Jesús, is paralyzed,” she says. “He dove into a shallow pool in Toluca. We keep hearing about cures, but we can’t do anything about it. He has a wheelchair, but an electric one would mean he could be independent. We have no social services to make that happen. It’s so different with your government. It cares about people like Jesús.”
Wow. I ask if she couldn’t get him seen to in San Diego.
“It is too expensive, even if we could get him across. Thousands of dollars. We’re thinking of applying to Cuba because they have excellent programs for paralyzed people, and they don’t cost so much, even with the airfare.”
Then the little place is swamped by kids, and grandkids carrying bolis, ices on sticks, which Juana Ynez went out to buy. Maybe it was an okay day for Jorge after all. Blanca, their grown daughter, who arrives with her kids, says that her husband, who is in construction, is out of work. They often come across town — they rent not far from the cathedral — to share in food here. “Yes, Papá is very brave,” she says, “but he has a big temper.”
Not today, though. The kids have Groucho Marx masks they keep putting on the adults. There’s lots of laughs. I feel a little envious at the real family thing they have going. Outside, in the alley, I slip Jorge a Jackson. Seems the least I can do. “It will help with the rent,” he says, though about an hour later, when I’m on my way back to the border, I spot him coming out of a liquor store with a few cans of cerveza. I don’t say hello again. Hey, the guy deserves a beer, and a beer in peace. Por el placer de ser.
THE SPANISH REFUGEE
The other day I was in at Toñico’s, the paella place on Jalisco Avenue, up beyond the top of Revolución in the Colonia América section. It’s still a cozy Spanish eatery, with great guitar music, serving good paellas. But instead of the Great Old Man, Toñico himself, coming out from the kitchen, it was a gal, really pretty and with a face full of life. “I’m Yolinda, his daughter,” she said. “My dad died.”
Oh, boy. I flashed back ten years to that first, best time.
It was my friend Lois’s idea, after our first bullfight…
“Go, go!” Carla had said, the day Lois called. My true love refused to see bulls killed as a show, so Lois and her friend Kay and I went to the bullfight. By the time it was over, we were high on the vino tinto and the crowds, and, yes, the blood and the heroic trills of the trumpets. As dusk glowed red over Tijuana, we came bowling out of the downtown bullring like blood-drunk Romans. We stood outside, near where they were cutting up the carcass of the last bull. I felt guilt. I felt exhilaration. I didn’t feel like going back to América.
“Where to?” I asked.
“There’s only one place,” Lois said. “Follow me.”
She turned left down Agua Caliente, heading toward Revolución. Ten minutes later, we made a left again into scrappy Avenida Jalisco. About a hundred yards up, the lights of Paellas Toñico’s shone, a lone commercial building with its own dusty parking lot.
There were five of us now. Me, Lois the librarian, Kay the teacher, a Teutonic straight-backed guy who “worked for the government” at the San Ysidro border, and his beautiful Guatemalan wife. We sat down at the red-clothed tables, surrounded by black-and-white photographs of matadors kneeling in front of befuddled toros, or parading shoulder-to-shoulder into the ring. Soon we were sharing more red wine, from Ensenada’s Guadalupe valley, and digging into a pile of yellow-rice paella in a giant iron dish, with langostas and shrimp and the pink tongues of shellfish, scattered with electric green peas.
Toñico, the host, Lois told me, was Antonio Joven, a political refugee from the civil war of the 1930s in Spain. A Republican who opposed Franco’s fascists. He’d come to Mexico, opened restaurants in Mexicali and Tecate, and finally, here in Tijuana.
I thought that was pretty much all I’d hear about Toñico, until, late in the meal, Toñico himself appeared, portly, middle-aged, looking more like a retired bricklayer.
He sat down beside Lois, stared at a red-stained empty wineglass for a long moment, then threw his head back and opened his mouth. With a startling cry, he burst out into a tortured Spanish song. A Gypsy lament, Lois whispered. I couldn’t tell if it was flamenco, or something else, but the passion he put into it, with no guitar, nothing to back him, was stunning. His voice echoed off the walls. It bounced off the Van Gogh sunflower painting, back to the crates of Baja vino tinto stacked on the stairs, and down into the lower eating area where two cumpleaños — birthday — parties were sitting at long tables. After each story-song, the whole restaurant clapped.
Man. I got caught up in the magic, as that gravelly voice pounded out pain and pathos in words too thick for my hobbled Spanish to understand. I could see some folks, mostly men, nodding agreement, eyes filling as Toñico sang directly to them. They’d grunt, “Así es.” (“That’s it.”) And “Sí, Señor.” And when he hit and held a high note, there were cries of “¡Valiente!”
“Ah,” Toñico said. He coughed. “My voice is thick tonight.” He took a sip of whisky on ice. “I am from Spain,” he said, “but Mexico gave me the cup of life. I was born in Zaragoza in Aragón. My father believed in the Republic. He was assassinated by Franco’s fascists. I was an electrical technician working with elevators in Barcelona. I too was a liberal. After that, I was forced to seek refuge in France. I lived in Paris. I was pure Republican, not Communist. My uncle, Don Mariano Joven, had been governor of Madrid. He was a marvelous man. He sought political asylum in Mexico, where he flew the Bandera de Honradez, the Banner of Honesty. I chose Mexico for asylum because he was here. When I arrived, he said, ‘Don’t worry anymore. You are in the country of liberty!’ ”
Toñico came to live in northern Mexico “buscando la vida — trying to survive.” He brought something with him. “Ever since I was a child, I was a fanatic about Gypsy music, a fanatic for flamenco. When I came to Mexico, I found out they had it here too. But my flamenco was stronger. I worked [and sang] in the best places in Mexico. For 40 years I have been living off that.
“Pure flamenco is very hard to sing. There are so many styles. Canto jondos, like soleares, siguiriyas, cañas, carceleras… In some ways, the bullfight and flamenco resemble each other, because in each it is the spirit with which you do it that is important.”
Toñico’s wife arrived with some coffees. She brought small brandy glasses with them, just as José de Jesús Castillo — J.J. — arrived with his guitar and sat down. Señor Joven put his head down and hummed to himself, tuning his voice, getting himself in the mood. Then he started to sing again, croaky, but concentrated.
“La vida es un libro abierto…
Life is an open book
Which is going to teach me to live
But after I’m dead
What am I going to care?”
Ten minutes later, J.J. stopped playing. In the emptiness, Señor Joven tapped an empty wineglass with a fork.
“Una carcelera,” he explained. His tapping was like tapping against prison bars. “A song of the incarcerated.”
“I am the sadness of the Gypsy
Looking only at your face
Don’t come over to me crying
At the bars of the jail place.”
As he sang, his blue eyes stared intensely at me. In El Norte, we’re not used to men sharing direct emotions with other men. We feel threatened. I tried not to blink.
“The words of these songs,” he said, “are the landscape of the poor.”
’Course, Lois, Kay and I, and the government guy and his wife, were blown away by it, probably more than we’d been by the bullfight. Before we tracked out into the night, the Guatemalan wife raised her glass for one last toast.
“Por el placer de ser,” she said. “To the pleasure of being.”
SONGBIRD: HUMMINGBIRDS AND CACTUS JUICE
It’s turning into one of those days. I was wending my way up Constitución toward Pasaje Rodríguez to see if my friend Willy Clauson felt like a bracing mawnin’ cactus juice. He’s the one who turned me on to this. He used to suffer off/on diabetes, Type Two. But a taxi driver turned him on to the cactus cure on his first day back in TJ, a decade ago; he claims he’s been diabetes-free ever since. So I’m a disciple, in this, and with his music too. The man’s an unsung legend, an aging folksinger who knows Pete Seeger and first brought “La Bamba” up from Veracruz. He created “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” from a traditional Southern revival song. Plus, in his mid-70s now, he’s still composing a song a day and recording them, right here in TJ.
It’s not just the cactus juice that’s brought me down here. It’s my anniversary — the lovely Carla and I have been married a dozen years. Now that I’ve got a little digital Olympus recorder, I thought, Why not ask Willy to record a love song for Carla? In Spanish.
I come into the pasaje, up to the little museum he runs. But, what? Closed. “He’s off for the summer in Sweden,” says the lady who runs the hair salon down the pasaje.
So I figure, seeing as I’m already here, I might as well check in on Marcello, the art-gallery guy. He’s an Italian architect and “aristocrat,” so the buzz goes, who has set up his “Galería Internacional d’Arte Tijuana” right here, opposite Willy’s museum. Last we talked, Marcello was awaiting shipping containers full of art from Italy.
Except, all I see is a rolled-down security door. The lady from the hair salon gives a silent thumbs down. Another dream hits the dust. Or maybe he’s moved — let’s hope.
Maybe I should go up to Bolería El Shorty’s sidewalk shoe-shine booth, join the doctors and businessmen who frequently gather there at this hour — 10:00 in the morning — food and guitars in hand, for an impromptu singing breakfast. They set themselves up around El Shorty, as he whip-cleans businessmen’s shoes. No guitar? No problem. El Shorty can draw a guitar out of his bolería — shoeshine stand — quicker than you can draw a six-gun. These guys are good. Surely they could come up with a “Happy Birthday” number for Carla.
So I wander up to Fourth, and there he is, El Shorty, Salvador (“Chava” for, uh, short), sitting like a Swiss Guard in his booth, teaching a kid to play a tune.
“Ah, no,” he says, when I ask about the others. “Nobody’s coming till tomorrow.”
Dang. Maybe I could get some mariachis.
But then I remember being in this pickle before, trying to find something special for Carla, and discovering…hummingbirds…
I was searching out this health place in my favorite part of town, on Niños Héroes. I got there about 2:30 p.m., that sleepy time of the afternoon when shopkeepers sweep out their shops and men talk on street corners like they had all the time in the world and mariachis turn up to wait for the evening’s business.
Opposite the Lázaro Cárdenas school I saw the sign, Botánica el Paraíso — Paradise Botanicals. All greens and yellows and reds. It was a place for pharmaceutical roots and natural cures, and also a fuente de sodas — a soda fountain — serving fruit and vegetable drinks.
Inside, a large golden Buddha seemed happy lording it over the soda fountain. The fruit-juice squeezer-gals all wore green. On the other side of the shop, the pharmacy people wore white coats and served as street doctors to a constant little crowd of people coming in for natural cures. Out back, they had actual full-size statues of angels and biblical figures for sale.
Racks of fresh fruit lined the soda fountain’s green walls. Pineapples, bananas, oranges, papayas, apples, grapefruit, watermelons, and ones I didn’t recognize. Ismael, who stood behind the cash register, said he could make any vegetable or fruit drink I wanted. “People come in every day for drinks,” he said, “to help their liver, or kidneys, or to lower their cholesterol. Diabetics come for a drink of cactus and orange and lime and other fruit. That costs around $2.50.”
I saw they had a tuna sencillo (simple) sandwich for three bucks. So I ordered that and a fresh veggie drink and sat down at one of the tables. I couldn’t help watching two guys loading cures into boxes. Some were dried fruit, others sticks, others dried herbs. One box was labeled concha nácar. Mother of pearl shells, $3 each. “You put lemon juice into the shell, stir it around, and apply it to your face,” said Pilar, a girl in a white coat, from the herbalists’ counter. “It’s great for the complexion,” she said, “for healing scars, and for making your face lighter.” She had a fruit called guajes, which is good for bronchitis, nutmeg to clean out your stomach, “star of the sea” sticks, a remedy for the kidneys, and a marblelike stone you grind to help stimulate circulation.
I was just about to ask Pilar about a stack of little shimmering green things in a glassed-in display when another guy, Amparo, brought out my lunch on an orange tray. The sandwich and a jugo de verduras (squished-vegetable juice). I had pretty much finished by the time Pilar finally came over. I pointed to those shiny green things in the cabinet. “What are they?”
“Colibrí. Hummingbirds. Three dollars each.”
Dead hummingbirds? I asked if they were for regular eating or for curing ills, by, say, grinding up their tiny livers. Pilar laughed. “Only for the ills of the heart. You put one of these in your pocket, when you’re going out to persuade somebody to love you. People believe they will help, as an amulet.”
I was, well, enchanted. This ranked up there with getting mariachis to sing under a balcony.
As it turned out, though, I didn’t buy a hummingbird that day, and I’ve regretted it ever since. Instead, I got something from my friend Herminia, who sells shell necklaces and silver at a spot near the border, right where the yellow-cab drivers wait to ambush incoming tourists. Herminia was a woman with the time to teach you things, like how to count in Mixtec — i, ibi, uni, comé, ng-ng… — and I’ve watched her baby grow up in a sling around her shoulder. That day, I bought two silver bangles, and Carla loved them.
But I’ve never forgotten about the hummingbirds, luminous green, warming in your pocket against your pumping heart.
So here I am, crossing Constitución, heading back to Niños Héroes.
So how much better was it in the “good old days”? Seems an eon ago, but in the ’90s, moving to Baja was the coolest thing. ’Specially after Titanic was shot in Rosarito. Yet it was also a place where many went to lick their wounds, when life had left them hanging out to dry.…
1995: THE MOBSTER’S MOLL
Even before eating, my friend Joe wanted to leave.
Here’s why: we were admiring the view out on the cliff where a colony of trailers sat halfway down the old highway between Tijuana and Ensenada. The mighty Pacific thundered far below. If it hadn’t been for the freeways behind us, and the 80-year-old Halfway House restaurant in front of us, and, okay, the trailers, we might have been at Cape Horn. It was wild. It was windy.
Joe and I were on our way down to Ensenada to check out the wreck of the SS Catalina, which used to run between L.A. and Santa Catalina Island. (These days, the old girl still sits in the mud, still waiting for a rescuer.) We stopped for a snack at this little ol’ way station, just ’cause that’s what everyone from Old Hollywood used to do — or so they say — and as we pulled up, a gringo lady walking by stopped to say hello. Five minutes on, she invited us to take in the spectacular view from her cliffside trailer’s garden, a few yards from the restaurant’s buildings.
When we were nearly there, the lady, Karla (not to be confused with my Carla), suddenly called her three dogs, all bitches, Lizzie, Dizzie, and Loco. Dizzie cut across the parking lot to investigate Joe, and Joe held out his hand to greet the canine. Grrrr — chomp! Dizzie ignored the hand and clamped her jaws onto Joe’s ankle. “Aargh!” Joe jumped a yard in the air, kicking. Karla didn’t even notice. “Come here, my darlings,” she said. “Come to Mama.”
And so, back in the restaurant, Joe was not a happy camper. While I tried to get with the spirit of a place where, at various times, Ronald Reagan and Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey are all supposed to have eaten, drunk, and danced, he was plotting blood and revenge, like maybe launching the damned animal clear off the cliff.
Get some food and drink in him, I figured, and the revenge thing will fade.
Karla came through the restaurant door.
“Don’t do it,” she said. “We love it here —”
“Your dog bit me,” said Joe.
“— but we don’t eat the food.”
Too late. Joe and I had already ordered.
My beef tacos arrived. I chomped in, and, hey, the meat was rico. Dark red picante sauce, plus the juices from the bottom of the pot, squelching with flavor.
Joe’s had the chile relleno and an enchilada. We sat in a sunny tea-room atmosphere, with a few yards of grass outside the windows, and then whoa! That cliff, the massive drop to the great and glorious Pacific.
The restaurant’s been in business since 1928, at least. That was the date on the photo inside by the bar. Back then, it looked exactly the same, except for the cars parked outside, Model Ts. The building was and is a white, almost-suburban house, with the restaurant at one end and a dark bar with space for dancing at the other. Old wooden floors and white stone fireplaces. Legend had it that a Señor Gonzales was driving by in his Buick during the Great Depression, came in, talked to the owner, and swapped the place for his Buick. Three generations later, the Gonzaleses still owned it.
“We’re all poor-but-proud expatriates here,” Karla said, looking down the line of aging American barflies. “I just cannot afford to live in America. Here we get million-dollar ocean views, and at ver-ry reasonable rentals, darling.”
We finished up, then followed her to what looked like her permanent spot at the bar. We took our seats. She took a drink from her glass of red wine and lit a cigarette.
She leaned in close to confide, “I’ve had three loves in my life. But the love of my life was Seymor. Like me, Jewish. I’m originally from Israel. But — show you how crazy love is — he was a mobster. He murdered someone for the mob. Went to jail for it for 19 years. When he came out, the mob was waiting for him — with his fee. Two million dollars. That’s when I met him. It was — love! Marvelous! He was…everything. He swept me off my feet. We went everywhere. He had style! Then, three years after he got out, he got lung cancer. Died. Even though he didn’t smoke! Three beautiful years–”
Karla swallowed hard. Clearly, the loss was still painful. Me, I wasn’t eating a thing, my loaded fork’s in a holding pattern. I couldn’t believe it. Mob. Murder. Love. Death.
She touched my arm. “You really like the view? Well, you might be able to have my trailer after me. I’m dying too, you see. These.” She pointed at her cigarettes.
I stared out through the window to the blue sea.
Teresa Gonzales came over, asking if I wanted dessert. Ice cream, crème caramel?
But Joe was muttering about rabies and getting back before dark. I gave Karla a goodbye hug.
“Life’s a bitch,” I said and jumped into Joe’s truck.
He rubbed his ankle. “Yeah,” he agreed. “A bitch with fangs.”
2004: STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS
Al Capone and I have something in common.
The connection started when I decided to head for Rosarito. Someone told me about a local curandera. I was looking for an herbal remedy for this nervous thing Carla had going. She worried she might be getting allergic to her cats. She was coming out in a rash. Her grandma used to do something with native plants. She wanted me to find out what was what.
No problemo. Any excuse. So I headed south, and…this is why, despite the problems, I love Baja California: A hundred yards past the clanging turnstile, I came upon two Customs officers, a man and a woman. She slung her arms around him and planted a big long kiss on his cheek.
Then I was in a yellow-and-white people’s taxi de ruta, heading for Rosarito. Forty minutes. It cost me all of two bucks. There were eight people packed into three rows. I was the token gringo. One of the two passengers in the front seat handed the driver sample after sample of sunglasses to try on, hoping to sell him a pair.
“Stop!” said the second passenger sitting up front. The driver pulled alongside a verge bursting with greenery and wildflowers. The passenger jumped out, ran into the grass, swiped a handful, hopped back in. He folded the greenery into his bag and turned around to the rest of us. “Alfalfa for my rabbit,” he said.
I had a problem, I suddenly realized: I’d started the expedition too late in the day. Sure enough, when I got to the building where the curandera saw patients, her room was closed. People outside told me to come back later. That evening, maybe. So I decided to fill a couple of hours by heading farther south. I caught another taxi de ruta ($1) and directed the driver to a dirt road just south of the Fox Studio complex where they shot Titanic. Popotla, the rocky-point fishing village founded by squatters, sits at the bottom of that road, and restaurants on stilts stick out over the Pacific. Carla and I had had one special time down here, back when we got hitched. I loved the place because it hadn’t been Puerto Nuevified. Still had that ramshackle wild Baja feel.
I walked down to where the dirt road ended at a little rock-protected cove. I asked a guy carrying some whopping live crabs, “Is Pedro still here?”
“You mean ‘Loco’?” he said. “Sure. Loco just sold me these crabs.”
I did mean “Loco.” People in Popotla called him that because he didn’t care about money. If you’re hungry, he’d cook you up a fish, right on the spot. You could hang out at his place as long as you want.
The guy with the crabs gestured over a shoulder, back to where the road dropped down to a horseshoe-shaped bay.
I saw fishing boats hauled up on the sand. Fish piled on a couple of white plastic tables underneath an umbrella. Red snapper, some calico bass, I thought, and others. I recognized a half-finished-looking mess of a place up on stilts, with sand blowing in from the cove. A guitar sounded from the dark spaces beneath. A wood fire glowed in a rusty sawn-off oil drum, fish cooking in oil in a big pan on the grill.
Out from the shadows stepped the man they call “Loco.” Pedro García Barceló. He emerged with his hands outstretched. I hadn’t seen him for seven years, but nothing seemed to have changed. Not his place, his face, his fire, his little paradise. First thing he said was “Ready for some food, my friend?”
Was I ready? It was after five, and I hadn’t eaten since I left Carla, late that morning.
Pedro led me to the tables on the beach. The light was fading fast. He picked up one of the red fish. “I’ve got these huachinangos,” he said, “or these mojarras. Or that’s cabrilla — calico bass — cooking on the fire right now. Would you like some of that with some embellishments from the molcajete?”
Sounded fine to me. Back at the oil-drum fire, the whole calico was sizzling away. Pedro got me a chair. He set it near the table where the guitarist played in the gloom. Vicente. I listened for a while — the man was good.
Pedro slapped a chunk of the fish into an oil-fried corn tortilla, with cilantro and tomatoes and radishes and fried cebollitas (spring onions). No plate, no cutlery, no big deal. I took a bite. Rough, hot, bony but beautiful. Bottom line: it had flavor, the taste you only get if the fish is really fresh. I chomped through the whole thing in two minutes flat.
“Another,” said Pedro. By now the fire was the main light. The mottled horizon was blocked by buildings straggling out along the isthmus. The cove went from cheery, scuddy blue to inky black in the space of two tacos. A ghostly white-hulled fishing boat glided out through the bay, headed for open water. Farther south, shore lights glittered, and then the restaurants along Popotla’s quarter-mile drag started to turn on their electric lights. Last time I’d been there, I swear they used lanterns.
Cerveza — I remembered where everybody got it. I walked past where Pedro was pouring bags of ice into open vats, bringing the fish from the tables, to store for the night. Up the dark steps I went, to the little dirt road, and a pool of light, where shadowy figures gathered around Señora Alberta’s. She and her husband and sons ran a tiny tienda, selling supplies and smokes and beer. Her son Alberto got me a cold caguama (“sea turtle”) of Tecate for $2.50. I took it back to Pedro’s just as he hauled off the next fish. During the day, he also steamed them in herbs in aluminum wraps, half deep-fried, then laid out flat, surrounded by oil-fried corn tortillas, with cilantro and tomatoes and radishes and fried spring onions.
People were gathering ’round. Miguel was having a drink and a chat before he took a couple of red snapper back to his wife, inland from Rosarito. He used to live in Long Beach. Had to come back home to Mexico. Pedro gave him a special price because he was in hard times. Nick was a German guy. He meant to go back to L.A. the previous night but drank too much and ended up sleeping in Popotla. He said he was a wandering missionary. Paz was a tall, reserved Native American, from south of La Paz. Someone asked if he was from the Guaicura people. He nodded. It was hard to tell if that was a definite yes.
Soon we were all sitting in the smoke, murmuring, listening to Vicente. He sang a song from Peru, while the rest of us chowed down on Pedro’s fish tacos, I’d guess you’d call them, passing the caguamas, and watching the night waters. It was beautiful — I mean, the whole feeling was beautiful. Two miles south, there was Puerto Nuevo, with 35 restaurants all charging tourist rates. But in Popotla, someone like Pedro could still exist, getting fish from his friends when they sailed in, selling them to locals who wanted fresh fish, and cooking up simple meals for people who stopped by and didn’t mind roughing it.
“Ah, Popotla,” I said.
“No no,” Pedro said. “Not Popotla. Newcomers call it that. This is Rancho Cuevas. There are caves around here. Ancient caves. And — hey. See this?”
He searched around for a moment, then hauled a piece of volcanic rock off the sand.
“Part of a molcajete. I found it out in the bay. It could be 3000 years old. People have been using molcajetes and tejoletes — mortars and pestles — around here longer than that.”
It went on like that into the night. Music, talk, just listening to the slap-slap of waves. More fish. Tossing bones onto the sand. Pedro shoveling out the sand back onto the beach from the little concrete forecourt where we’d gathered. Nick went up to Alberta’s tienda and bought a big candle. Except it didn’t want to stay alight.
Finally, I had to go. Pedro would only let me pay him $5.
“Don’t forget, get baptized,” said Nick, when we shook hands. He was going to sleep there again. “The only reason they started baby baptisms was because the Black Death in Europe was killing so many babies. They didn’t want them dying before they could be baptized. Now you should do it when you know what you’re doing. Okay? Tschüss, man.”
“Whatever, man,” I said. “Uh, ‘Tschüss’?”
“Sure, means ciao in German.”
Pedro and I took the shortcut through the big field behind Popotla. We felt our way through the tall dry grasses toward the road, it was so dark out there. “Careful for snakes,” he said. Right. Finally we spotted the shadowy silhouette of three cottages clustered together.
“Al Capone,” Pedro said. “He built those houses. After the Mexican government closed down Agua Caliente, he moved here, with his bodyguards. It was 1934.”
Who’da thunk it? Al Capone and me, we both loved the same place. Guy can’t have been all bad.
I stood for 20 minutes or so in the dark, waiting for a taxi de ruta to come by, heading north. Thank God, I thought, for people like Pedro.
Then I remembered. Lord. Carla! The curandera.
It was about 10:00 by the time I got to Rosarito. No sign of the curandera. I had to do something, but it was also critical that I didn’t get stuck down there for the night. Had to make it back to the line in time for the last trolley. I caught a late taxi de ruta from Rosarito.
There was a second passenger, a wizened elderly lady who could’ve passed for a curandera herself. When I explained my dilemma she said, “The best thing for your lady for allergies is lime juice. Tell her to squeeze half a lime into a glass of warm water and mix in honey. First thing in the morning. That washes toxins from her body. She must keep at it, though. Nothing happens instantly. It’s better that way.”
So that was what I took back to Carla.
“What did the curandera say?” a sleepy Carla asked. It was 2:00 a.m.
I couldn’t lie. “Never found her,” I said. “I’ll try again on the weekend.”
“Okay,” Carla said.
And suddenly, Popotla — the fire, the fish, and Al Capone’s houses — seemed like a dream, and I couldn’t help wondering: does crossing the border do something to us? Tempt us to become another person, in that other world next door to our own?
I went into the kitchen and put the limes I’d bought at the last taco place before the line into the fridge.
Update: Recently I’ve heard news reports that drugs being smuggled up by sea to the U.S. were launched from Popotla. Uh-oh. The dog, as they say, is always barking.
But what if you can’t get to TJ? Or don’t want to? Don’t worry. If Mohammed can’t go to the mountain, the mountain has to come to Mohammed. Over the past few years, there’s been a rash of classy taco shops opening up all over San Diego, places like Calaco Grill, Funky Garcia’s, Cantina Mayahuel, and Lucha Libre, all under the moniker “gourmet tacos.” And aside from quality, there’s the spread of the “Taco Tuesday” phenom across the landscape. Call it a reconquista, via your stomach.
But my prize for Most Original Tacos still goes south of the border. And Javier Campos Gutiérrez is the man. He began his career in Jalisco with a taco stand, just like everybody else. But he had a secret weapon: he was trained in sauces. You can tell. Tonight, I’ve walked La Ermita (“the Hermitage”) Norte Street down from Gustav Díaz Ordaz Boulevard (an extension of Agua Caliente), just to meet the great Campos Gutiérrez and eat his tacos. You know you’ve arrived when you find yourself in a crowd of people lining up around a little house that has been added on to several times.
Why’s Gutiérrez so famous? For starters, he invented the quesotaco. Brilliant idea, using griddled cheese as the actual taco shell, one that has spread to places like London, Ontario, and, yes, San Diego, to restaurants like Calaco Grill, in the Gaslamp. But Gutiérrez’s pièce de résistance has to be his other invention, the dessert taco. You’d walk a mile for this baby: a crispy cheese tortilla, with thin-sliced beef, onions, mango purée, and on top, purées of strawberry and cherry, with a handful of chopped pecans. So-o delicious. The man’s not afraid to combine sweet and savory elements.
On nights I’ve been here, people have come all the way from L.A., San Diego, and even Mexico City — the ultimate compliment — just to sample the 30 different salsas he has on hand at any one time on things like smoked trout (try it with smoky salsa roja and crema) or New York steak (try it in a taco with shrimp and mushroom).
After an hour at La Ermita, you can’t understand why fellow Diegans would not come pouring down to Tijuana. Yes, the bullring, the Jai Alai, Agua Caliente racetrack, the casino — they’re all gone. And yes, la violencia is truly scary. On the other hand, like that other energetic, violent city, Chicago, Tijuana’s a toddlin’ town, and a helluva town to miss.
’Specially when you live right next door.