- Our little hills forever near
- Tell us your secret rare,
- Through progress of change you never care?
- Though they plow up your cover of greens and browns,
- Disturbing your colorful restful mounds?
- We humans would learn from you the way
- Of patience and peace for every day,
- Just taking what comes of sunshine or rain,
- Trusting God’s care will forever remain.
Gloria Esterbloom, a longtime resident of Bonita penned this poem in her 1954 memoir, Our Beloved Valley, expressing admiration for the environment and an anxiety of what man does with it. Specifically, she was worried for the Sweetwater Valley, where Bonita resides, and how progress looms as a threat. It is this same worry of expansion and penchant for the pastoral — despite numerous real estate developments and population changes — that has kept Bonita as a defiant answer to the urbanizing world around them.
Esterbloom and her husband John were ranchers. For them Bonita was an agricultural town that harvested lemons, raised dairy cows, and benefitted from the labor of Mexican migrant workers, or as Esterbloom called them, “little brown men.” It had been that way since she moved to the area in the early 1900s. Yet, in the second half of the 20th Century, Bonita, as with most near-city agricultural communities, began to display suburban characteristics.
In the 1970s and 1980s, developers built large housing tracts throughout the valley and along the hills and canyons. Bonita Vista High School and Bonita Vista Middle School were established in the late 1960s. Shopping centers opened along Bonita Road. In the coming decades, Bonita’s population exploded from about 500 in the 1950s to more than 6000 by 1980. In 1976, Esterbloom died at the age of 79 while Bonita transformed before her eyes.
I live in my childhood home, which sits within one of the large housing tracts of Bonita. Our house overlooks the southern portion of Bonita Long Canyon, which lends its name to our housing tract. The canyon branches from the Sweetwater Valley and stretches for three miles, shooting southeast toward Eastlake. The suburb looks like a collection of boxes, some white, others pink, all with red roofs, snaking along the rim of a canyon. Though our address indicates otherwise, some Bonitans hesitate to call where we live Bonita. It makes sense. For most of Bonita’s lifespan, Bonita Long Canyon, the top of Corral Canyon Road, was just a canyon with grassy hills and a few dirt trails. As an unincorporated community with its geographic center gutted by decades of annexation battles with its neighbors Chula Vista and National City, defining the borders of Bonita can spark debate. Plaza Bonita shopping mall used to be the Bonita Golf Course and Little League baseball field until it was annexed by National City. Rohr Park, which is at Bonita’s center, was annexed by Chula Vista. Perhaps our home got lost in the tangled mess of shifting borders.
If there does exist a concrete border between Bonita and the rest of the world, the border is atmospheric. Bonita of today is one large suburb, yet the lines between the constructions of man and the movements of the wild are blurred. The atmosphere is marked by a willingness to incorporate nature as a part of man, homes and businesses swelling throughout the once vacant little hills of Esterbloom’s Bonita, and in turn, remembering that man is merely a part of nature.
My home overlooks a canyon. The only thing separating our blue-tiled swimming pool from the wildlife below is a rusted white fence and some chicken wire. Beyond the fence, packs of coyotes, rabbits, rattlesnakes, and field mice live among the seasonal grasses, California lilacs, monkey flowers, and cacti of the coastal sage scrub. Before we added the chicken wire, baby rattlesnakes and rabbits were found at the bottom of our pool, their bodies outstretched, surprised by the rectangular pit of chlorined water interrupting their dry, grassy home. In spring, sometimes in the middle of the night, coyotes give birth to pups. The cries of a dozen or so can sound like hundreds of puppies yelping and shrieking. My neighbor’s dogs bark back. Its owners wake in a panic, irritated by the commotion at such a late hour. A commute and work await tomorrow. I just put the baby to bed, hand me the earplugs. In a way, the coyotes remind us that the canyon is their home and they can scream when they please. Again, Mrs. Esterbloom’s words come to me: We humans would learn from you the way/Of patience and peace for every day.
3218 Summit Meadow Road, Bonita
Down in the valley, between Sweetwater Road and Bonita Road, a web of trails in the Sweetwater Regional Park weaves through thick shrubbery, eucalyptus and willow trees, and Morrison Pond. I decide to visit the park on a crisp autumn morning. I begin at the corner of Bonita Road and Central Avenue on the Stephanie Rossi Memorial Trail. In 1989, Rossi, a nurse and mother of three, died along the trail after being struck head-on by a motorcyclist while taking an afternoon jog. Rossi was 29 at the time of her death. A highway patrol officer said the male motorcyclist lit a cigarette while standing alongside his bike, casually pointing to Rossi’s motionless body and said, “I hit that little girl over there.”
The prints of running shoes mark the trail next to long jagged lines drawn by mountain bikes, and the tracks of horse hooves are stamped into dried mud. Brown and green horse droppings are scattered along the way. A white and red semi truck pulls out of a 7-Eleven gas station across the street. As the truck passes me, a large plastic Del Taco cup is flung out the window. It travels through the branches of a willow tree and lands on the trail, splattering Coca Cola and ice near my feet.
Aside from the Del Taco cup and a miniature plastic nativity scene with a missing baby Jesus, the trails are clean. I head under the Bonita Road bridge, and the trail turns to damp sand like a river honoring a dry holiday. Water from a creek is running nearby.
I want to understand how these trails remain usable despite the elements, so I meet with the man who helped carve them.
Mark Kukuchek is tall with a white mustache and a chinstrap beard. He greets me with a face-stretching smile and welcomes me to his home on Acacia Avenue, a quiet street near the Bonita-Sunnyside firehouse. He’s lived here for 25 years. Tall wooden trail-markers that he made with the help of the local Boy Scout troop are stacked against his yard fence.
Kukuchek tells me that maintaining the trails comes with time spent on the dirt paths, and a lot of technical work: negotiating with the county and navigating easement lines that run behind people’s homes, a golf course, and a hospice care facility. This entails a lot of paperwork and documentation, Kukuchek says while he warms up his trail horse Bandit — named for his multicolored hair that forms a black mask on his white face.
Bonita’s equestrian community is dwindling, Kukuchek says. Either people become too busy or they grow to be too old, he adds. Many horse owners have moved to Ramona, which offers larger properties. “What we have in Bonita that they don’t have in Ramona is one of the best trail systems in the world, because we all worked on it, so we’ve got dedicated trails,” Kukuchek says. “You go to Ramona, it’s all private property.” He worries people will one day forget about the trails and all the work to maintain them will be for nothing. But he sees optimism in the hikers and the growing mountain-biking community. “We’re still gonna do it, but some of it is turning it over to the next generation.”
Kukuchek is still trying to warm up Bandit. “He doesn’t want to deal with me,” Kukuchek says as he undergoes a sort of dance with the horse, moving toward Bandit, then away, then back again, stretching his arms to point, and then touching the animal’s face. “You just have to make him do stuff. He has to know you’re gonna be the leader.”
Bandit is snorting because I am a stranger and I make him nervous. At one point, Bandit looks straight at me with unflinching eyes, but Kukuchek says he’s looking past me, over toward a ditch where coyotes often cross. “Horses are prey animals. They have to be afraid. It’s their only defense.”
Though horses are domesticated animals, the constant interaction with strangers and modern inventions in suburban Bonita antagonizes their skittish nature. Kukuchek calls Bandit a city horse because he grew up among cars commuting along Sweetwater Road, trash trucks and their creaky metal claws, mothers pushing strollers, a child sitting on the shoulders of a parent — or, in Bandit’s eyes, a two-headed monster. “But they get used to it,” Kukuchek says.
Keeping a horse is hard labor — pounds of manure to be shoveled, hay to be moved, and cleaning a half-ton animal. Kukuchek laments how people say they love the country life but are turned off by the filth that comes with it. “That’s country,” Kukuchek says, pointing at a pile of Bandit’s feces. “That’s what it smells like, that’s what it looks like. Country has always looked like that. You guys have just seen these glorified pictures of horses, but you don’t see that.”
I ask why he is okay with the labor, along with the difficult work of keeping trails. A Navy veteran who served during the Vietnam War, Kukuchek says the military taught him how to do grunt work. In basic training, he recalls resisting the authority of the drill sergeant, leading to hundreds of push-ups and sit-ups. “I was a snotty kid, always being a wise ass,” he says. But one day, sitting in pain between sets of pushups, Kukuchek decided to play by the rules. “[The sergeant] looked me in the eyes, and he said, ‘You got it, didn’t you?’ He could tell: he broke me,” Kukuchek says. “And I go, ‘Yes, sir. I got it 100 percent.’”
The sergeant made Kukuchek continue the pushups and sit-ups and he complied while yelling, “Yes, sir! I like doing more sit-ups and pushups!”
Several years ago, Bandit carried a metal flagpole, an American flag, and a POW flag up a steep five-mile climb to the 2000-foot peak of Mount Miguel, which looms above Bonita to the east, a foothill of the 2500-foot San Miguel Mountain further east.
“He hates it,” Kukuchek says. Yet every few months, Bandit and Kukuchek make their ascent to replace the flags, torn by the wind.
Although defined by its natural environment, Bonita’s atmospheric bubble is not only a result of nature’s forces. Like Kukuchek’s steady efforts to maintain its network of trails, the atmosphere is also manufactured by a collection of its citizens. These citizens call themselves the Sweetwater Valley Civic Association.
Dr. Steven Schoenherr, a historian, and Mary E. Oswell, an anthropologist, trace the group’s beginnings in their book, Images of America: Bonita. The Civic Association started meeting in 1948 to “preserve the atmosphere of the valley.” Schoenherr and Oswell write, “The [association’s] first success was convincing the County Board of Supervisors to set a residential zoning standard, which meant no one could build a house on a lot less than one-half acre in size.” The group was also able to negotiate the realignment of State Route 54, the freeway that runs east-west along Bonita’s north side. The original plan intended to cut right through the Sweetwater Valley floor.
The Civic Assocation meets once each month in the Sunnyside-Bonita Library’s community room. I attend the first meeting of 2017 on a cold Wednesday evening. A wooden podium in the corner of the room bears the county’s motto: “The noblest motive is the public good.”
There is some talk about a person who keeps stealing mail out of mailboxes, fleeing in a silver Ford Expedition; about working on a new website for the group; about trying to forge a new logo in the process. But most of the meeting is spent discussing homelessness in Bonita.
As a middle-class neighborhood, the gap between Bonitans and homeless individuals is large. According to data from the 2010 census, Bonita’s median household income is $76,075, more than $10,000 above the county’s median, and higher than neighbors Chula Vista ($66,868) and National City ($43,377).
Julio Garcia, a liaison from the sheriff’s department, tells the group that in December he found an encampment in Sweetwater Regional Park. Three homeless individuals had built wooden structures with roofs, tarp walls, and a patio area. They also cut an opening in the fence behind the Kaiser Permanente Bonita Medical Offices on Bonita Road so that the three of them would have easy access to restrooms. Some members shake their head in disbelief, others chuckle.
A representative from county supervisor Greg Cox’s office, Michael De La Rosa, dressed in a button-up and dark pants and appears half the age of most of the members, tells the group that the county intends to work with landlords on implementing a voucher system where homeless individuals can use federal vouchers to access housing.
“It’s difficult coming up with the money, but then it’s going to be difficult finding locations for these landlords to accept [the homeless individuals] and for the people already living there to accept that they’re gonna have those individuals.”
Michael Seiler, the president of the Sweetwater Valley Civic Association, asks if the county can create a camp to house the homeless. He speaks in a low, resonant voice, akin to the public radio titan Garrison Keillor. De La Rosa says the homeless-camp plan is not sustainable, but Seiler contends it’s better than anything he’s heard so far. Seiler, a Navy veteran, is wearing a baseball cap with the inscription, “Stand Down,” which is an annual initiative he participates in that lends aid to homeless veterans in San Diego. “I see the same people year after year and these are veterans. I just can’t imagine it’s ever going to get better for those people. They need to be put some place — a good place, don’t get me wrong.”
“But they don’t want to go,” says Tom Pocklington, also a Navy veteran.
“But that’s what I’m saying. They shouldn’t really be given the choice whether they want to go or not,” Seiler says.
The group gives a uneasy grumble that crescendos as De La Rosa shuffles in his chair, saying with a nervous laugh, “That’s a whole other area in terms of —” He is cut off by Tony Tieber, who compares the idea to World War II internment camps that forced thousands of Japanese Americans into imprisonment. Pocklington prods the group to move on.
When you exit Interstate 805 onto Bonita Road, heading east toward Bonita, a homeless person is often the first to greet you. Brett Whitecrow, who claims to be a member of the Seneca-Cayuga tribe of Oklahoma, holds a thin cardboard sign, “I bet you can’t hit me with a quarter,” written in blue marker. He is standing by the exit intersection as cars races past, their drivers eager to get where they are going. None of them throw quarters.
“I don’t feel like I’m homeless. We got a place in the jungle,” Whitecrow tells me, referring to a colony of people who have settled among the thick trees and brush of Sweetwater Regional Park. He points out that people who don’t actually live there call it the jungle. “I call it home,” he says, smiling with his small, dried lips, placing one hand on his heart monitor attached to his hip. Aside from sign-holding, Whitecrow and his neighbors sell golf balls that they collect from the Chula Vista Golf Course next to Rohr Park. He tells me he has permission to do so, gathering 700 to 800 each day. “Everybody does meth,” Whitecrow says as he describes his community, but he tells me he’s been off of the drug for two years, preferring cigarettes and Four Loko, a malt alcoholic beverage served in a colorful energy-drink-like can. Whitecrow folds his sign into four parts as he spots a police SUV exiting from the freeway. “This is your warning. I see the sign in your right hand,” a large police officer in shades announces through his speakers while turning left onto Bonita Road. A middle-aged man and woman with lights attached to helmets pass by on their mountain bikes, doing their best to look forward while Whitecrow offers a friendly greeting. Bonita has seen a lot of rain in the past few weeks, and to escape flooding from the Sweetwater River that flows near their home, Whitecrow and his neighbors are forced to take their things and head to higher ground. I wonder how these rains compare to the rain that caused the flood of 1916 or the flood in 1980.
The 1980 flood turned the old Bonita Golf Course and Sweetwater Regional Park into lakes and swamps. Eric Long remembers the rains transforming his street, Bonita Mesa Road, into a flowing river. He tells me the water was a deep blue and from his home, Long would watch fish leaping out of the water. The 1916 flood was more violent. An abutment at the end of the Sweetwater Dam crumbled, and the torrent flowed into Bonita, unearthing water pipes, ripping buildings and bridges from their foundations, and bending railroad tracks like licorice.
If there is any cosmic meaning to such destruction, the floods reminded Bonitans that they are merely renters of a land governed by nature.
Before the Bonitans, Mexican elites who were given land grants from the Mexican government lived in the valley. Before the Mexicans, the Spanish government used the land to raise cattle to supply its soldiers. And before the Spanish called the land their own, the Kumeyaay settled along the mesas of the Sweetwater Valley in huts made of wooden poles and leaves, hunting game and fishing in the Sweetwater River. Whitecrow and the homeless of Bonita, along with the homeowners, are a part of this transient lineage.
At the end of the Sweetwater Valley Civic Association meeting, Carol Freno, who told me she has lived in Bonita for more than 50 years, stands to speak. “I am the area director for Bonita Mesa, and I just wanted to say that I regret that I have to resign my position. It’s been a great battle. Many, many times, I mean through annexation fights, and no annexation, and all of the other things,” says Freno, a former member of Preserve South Bay, which rallied against the construction of the State Route 125 toll road that now cuts through the east end of Bonita, as well as the habitat of several endangered species. “I’m just so proud that this community has remained a vibrant, active community. I wish you all well,” Freno says. She pauses and blows a kiss to the group, and concludes. “Au revoir.”
People come to Bonita for different reasons. Carl Fiorica, a civil engineer who lives in the Bonita View neighbhorhood with his wife and two children, moved to Bonita in search of an area with larger lots, a small-town feel, and no homeowners’ association. Christine Hidalgo lives in Bonita during the holiday season. She and her husband manage the pumpkin station and pinery on Sweetwater Road. They sleep in their large black RV that is parked in the pinery. And when the trucks pick up the leftover Christmas trees to be shredded into wood chips for playgrounds, Hidalgo and her husband head to San Antonio to guard gates for oil companies.
Max Branscomb moved to Bonita in 1972 when his father, a Navy sailor, was stationed here in San Diego. Like all military families, the Branscombs moved often, each stop like an indefinite layover until the Navy told them where to go next. This meant that Branscomb spent much of his childhood years as an outcast, attending 13 schools before college. Yet in his most memorable layover, Bonita, he found community and openness. “That’s why I love it so much. I still feel that warmth,” Branscomb tells me in his office at Southwestern College where he teaches journalism and is the advisor for the campus paper. “And I want to give back that love and welcome that I got as a teenager. I needed it.”
Like Freno, Branscomb aligned himself with Preserve South Bay. In 1998, Branscomb wrote and directed a satirical melodrama about the fight against State Route 125 called, The Return of the Proctor Valley Monster. According to local lore, the Proctor Valley Monster is either a Minotaur-like creature, spawned from a farmer’s bestial experiments, or a fisherman who was taken by magical moss at the bottom of a lake, turning him half-man, half-bass. In Branscomb’s drama, however, the monster was highway 125. The antagonists were a local businessman named Cadwell Von Fowle, who resembled Mr. Monopoly, top hat and all; and a woman named Ima Heartless, the department head of the California Transportation Department.
After the curtain call, the entire cast held hands and sang one of the drama’s choruses, almost as a somber pledge:
I won’t drive 125 as long as I’m alive,
As long as I’m alive,
As long as I’m alive.
Despite legal action and a report from the Environmental Protection Agency that drew negative conclusions for Bonita and the natural habitat, the Federal Highway Administration allowed the project and 125 was completed in 2007.
Branscomb tells me that along with closing many horse-ranch businesses, State Route 125 cut off a habitat corridor for several endangered species: the Quino checkerspot butterfly, the arroyo toad, and the San Diego mesa mint, a pinkish-purple plant that relied on the region’s vernal pools. “When you cut off nature and make it into islands, everything in the island eventually dies out and suffers,” Branscomb says.
To this day, he has never driven on the 125 highway.
Despite the now-decade-old highway, Bonita is quiet. Most of the noise comes in the late afternoon and evenings, from cars hurtling along multi-lane thoroughfares Bonita Road, Otay Lakes Road, and Sweetwater Road. Police sirens sometimes fill the air, but Bonita is rarely the destination as the squad cars carry on toward Chula Vista, National City, Paradise Hills, or Lincoln Acres. If you look at an online crime map provided by the City of San Diego — which plots the location of crimes, whether assault, burglary, or possession of drugs — Bonita occupies the blank spot on the map, a relative gulf of inactivity. However, on one summer afternoon in 2016, a police helicopter flew overhead, projecting through its speakers, “Please stay inside of your homes.” Behind our fence, we see three police officers running after a man. The officers caught up to him near our neighbor’s yard and with little struggle handcuffed the man and walked him back to their squad cars.
On some nights in fall, sounds from a Bonita Vista football game echo along the canyon. One hears screaming fans, the rattle of snare drums, the aggressive pomp of brass, and occasionally the announcer will yell into a microphone, “Touchdown Barons!” Then everything — the screaming, the drums, and the brass — explodes at once, into a cacophony of school pride and adolescent euphoria.
Along with the growth of the ’70s and ’80s, people of color began to move in. Forty years ago, someone that looked like me, a brown man of Filipino descent, would have been a novelty in Bonita. Today, those with brown skin and recent immigrant ancestry make the majority of Bonita. According to census numbers for the 91902 zip code, between 2000 and 2010, the white population shrunk by 12 percent, while the Hispanic population grew by 11 percent. Hispanics, Asians, and blacks are 55 percent of Bonita’s population, while 40 percent of Bonita is white. The restaurants and businesses of Bonita seem to reflect these numbers.
Mexican restaurants anchor every shopping plaza in Bonita: Graciella’s on Central Avenue, Colima’s, Lolita’s, Cotija’s all on Bonita Road, and Mango Mango, a modern take on Mexican fruterías. The Bonita Farmers’ Market has a carnecería full of cuts ready for a carne asada cookout. Tapioca Express on Bonita Road sells boba drinks and Osaka curry chicken steak with rice. Caribbean Pleasures, which operates in the historical Bonita Store location, serves Haitian food such as jerk chicken, benyen, banana fritters sprinkled with sugar, and kabrit nan sous, stewed goat.
The San Diego Association of Governments’ estimates for the 91902 zip code show that among those 65 and older, whites almost double the amount of Hispanics, Asians, and blacks in the same age range put together. But the amount of people of color under the age of 18 is almost triple the amount of whites under 18. To see what this young Bonita looks like — the Bonita that will inherit its network of trails, its businesses, the Civic Association, the white and pink boxes that sit along its canyons and hills where they may grow old enough to tell newcomers how much Bonita has changed — I decided to go where there was the highest concentration of Bonitans under the age of 18: Bonita Vista High School, which sits four and a half miles south down Otay Lakes Road from Bonita’s heart in the Sweetwater Valley.
“And one!” Sage Crawford yells while punching the air. His eyes flash like a bull’s. Crawford, a senior on the Bonita Vista Barons boys’ basketball team, had just hit a jump shot despite a muscular defender brushing against his arm. The Bonita Vista Barons are hosting a game against the Cougars of San Ysidro High School. High schoolers rub shoulders with hollering parents and the gym smells of sweat, Old Spice body spray, and nacho cheese.
Crawford, who has a wiry, 6-foot-3-inch frame, is weaving his way through defenders, scoring at will. During the second half, Crawford receives a sharp pass, rises into the air about 20 feet away from the rim and sinks a three-pointer. A large man from the bleachers howls “Boom!” The next play, Crawford intercepts a pass, dribbles to the free-throw line, and hits another shot. Making five points in nine seconds, the Barons extend their lead, and San Ysidro’s coach calls timeout.
During the timeout, a DJ wearing an Oakland Raiders jersey and hat begins to play “Chill Bill,” a trending single by hip-hop artist Rob Stone, a San Diego native. The song borrows from Bernard Hermann’s 1968 score from the horror movie Twisted Nerve. Quentin Tarantino used the whistling soundtrack in his Kill Bill movies. Once the bass hits and Rob Stone begins rapping the first verse, three girls in bright hoodies begin dancing from their seats. One of them pretends to toss dollar bills into the air.
- Said she wanna roll with me and smoke up all my weed —
- I said baby just buy dutches cause you can’t smoke for free —
- I got some loud but no money babe buy me a Fiji —
- She said you need a job, bitch fuck a job I still get cheese —
The referee blows his whistle, Stone’s rapping fades, and a man working for the KUSI news station shuffles across the court with a large video camera on his shoulder to film the Barons as they break their huddle.
After the time out, Crawford dribbles and glides to the rim. The three girls in hoodies scream and stomp their feet as he finishes the layup with his left hand. The Barons’ lead is growing and the home crowd begins to grow restless. When the Barons block a shot, a group of junior varsity Barons chant, “You got swatted!” After the Barons score another layup, the chant turns into “Go home, Ysidro!”
Bonita Vista wins 87 to 58.