I’ve been from California to Mexico many times before. When I was young, I looked at the solid colors and black lines on a map, and I saw the differences immediately. As years and technology progressed, we got the pictures from the satellites, and there didn’t seem to be any borders at all. But when you’re retired and you go south in search of winter warmth for many years, you know that the border fence and the guards and customs are artificial constructs. The border is in fact a gradation, so the place to begin the crossing is somewhat arbitrary.
Parkfield, California is a good place to start the journey. The San Andreas Fault runs through, looking like some kind of giant surgical wound that been freshly sewn on the land. This is where the Pacific Plate rubs up against the North American Plate, and like the US border with Mexico it’s quiet for long periods of time, punctuated by earthquakes of various magnitudes. The nearest city of any kind to Parkfield is Bakersfield (a Mexican city to be sure) but Mexico there is buried under a huge overburden of Republican agribusiness money and fast food franchises. The land around Parkfield is part of the true California – the California that has not significantly changed since the time that Father Junipero Serra brought Christianity and Spanish slavery to the Indians. As you travel on Route 41 to the coast, you see more of the unsullied California. The hills are golden and rolling and filled with oak trees, and the farms are really estates made up of vineyards. Vast undeveloped tracts of land still belong to the Hearst family, and thinking of William Randolph and the Hearsts that came after him will give you some understanding about the primal motives that drive the state and how changes actually occur.
Real estate is the ultimate story. It is the dance between the public lands and the private interests. Where there’s money to be made, the real estate boys will eucher the public interest, and when the boys are facing financial ruin or excessive taxation, the private interests pretend to be magnanimous and turn all or part of their holdings back to the state with varying degrees of lemon socialism. But by all means, the story of California is the privatization of public space. Take your virgin wilderness land, pure and pristine. Survey it. Do an inventory on the water and mineral rights – all the better reason to exploit those natural resources. Get the government to subdivide it, and bid on the parcels. Take a forbidding fence and surround your property, then do with it what you will. Sell it to the public as their own private, personal version of Shangri-La or Disneyland. Even if the land happens to be classified as public, that makes very little difference. Your attorneys will still argue about your private property rights – just ask the beachfront property owners of Malibu.
Once you get to the ocean and onto Route 101, you encounter little communities that have maxed out their growth capacity for water. Cayucos, Pismo Beach, Nipomo, and other towns preserve their small town character by having water hook-up fees of as much as $1,000,000. There is something of a two-class system comprised of the rich second homeowners from San Francisco or Los Angeles, and the year round inhabitants (most of whom make little more than minimum wage), but most of them are white – there is almost no Mexico here. The small city of Santa Maria is a hive of defense contractors, and after that is Vandenburg Air Force Base. In Vandenburg, the majestic oak hills shelter the ICBM missile launch complexes, and the beachfront property is shared by the Southern Pacific railroad and the spy satellite launchers. The rest of the land is a mixture of the national security state and strawberry fields. After Vandenburg is the last portion of golden hills edging down to a beautiful part of the Pacific. This is country much like around Malibu, and then you come to Santa Barbara – a city of old money and Mediterranean sophistication. Its buildings are the color of cream and cafe au lait, but it is the start of the Empire.
The aforementioned Empire is Los Angeles, a six county area of more than 16,000,000 people. From downtown LA, you can go 70 miles in every direction and encounter major real estate development. While downtown LA is impressive, it is nothing more than the back office for the greater city. Hollywood is the spiritual core of the empire. It is, after all, the factory of our dreams, fashions, and culture. Because Hollywood imitates everything – it is America. Burbank is where the real business of Hollywood gets done. At one point I-5 cuts between the skyscraper of MCA-Universal on one side, and the more modest office building of Vivid Entertainment (the porn kings) on the other side of the road. Studio City and parts of Santa Monica are also working parts, and passing by the TV studios where Judge Judy or Jeopardy are made, you see that from the outside there is no glamor there. They’re just concrete cinder block buildings edged by dreary apartment buildings, liquor stores, and dry cleaners. To be sure, real estate has created various oases of glamor — places like Santa Barbara and Beverly Hills. But this “real” Hollywood is no more than 5% of the total – the other 95% is the facade, the places where the tourists never go. The dreary apartments and strip malls, the grocery store chains, and the barrios seem endless, and as you go down the limitless miles of main drags off the freeways you can sense that the border is not a line on a map, but a very gradual gradation, like seeing a color chart merge one color into another in a million steps.
The barrios tell you that Mexico is beginning to creep into the frame. At one level, Los Angeles practices dollar democracy. Anyone is welcome in Pacific Palisades if you have the bank account, but the different classes inhabit parallel universes. Everyone wants to do better for their family and move up in the world, but the horizons are lowered and more constrained for poorer people in general. And different races tend to follow their own kind in their geographical aspirations for betterment. For the Hispanics, perhaps the bottom of the pecking order is in what remains of South Central Los Angeles’ poorer areas. Cohabitating uneasily with their black neighbors, life here is very unpleasant with probably better than 50% unemployment (with jobs limited to hamburger stands or the drug trade), and in some ways very similar to the horror stories that you hear about in Ciudad Juarez. Gang violence, drugs, and criminality are like breathing the air. People get shot through apartment walls while they’re sleeping. If someone can escape from South Central, the next step up is a neighborhood like Tweedy, still lower class but with neater buildings and tidier lots. From Tweedy, one may ascend somewhere like Pico Rivera where there are more superstores and large shopping centers. And if you can do really well as a Hispanic, you can move to Whittier, where one cigar club has a humidor marked for Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the band Los Lobos lives in the well appointed homes of Whittier Hills.
Out in the fringes of the empire, the browns become almost invisible. Santa Barbara and San Clemente are rich, white enclaves. But even here the suburbs cannot operate if there are no brown faces blowing leaves, taking care of children and old people, or working in the other service industries. And of course, these enclaves advertise their debt to Mexico in their false Spanish architecture with its stucco and orange tile roofs.
Mexico makes a quantum leap in announcing itself at the Orange County line. Suddenly after San Clemente, you’re in open space. There are the rolling hills, but they’re drier and more sere. There are no oak trees here, only brush. Off to your right are the giant twin domes of the now defunct San Onofore Nuclear Power Plant, and the butt of many Dolly Parton jokes. Then there is a 200 square mile wild preserve originally known as the O’Neill-Baumgarden Ranch, but it’s for the US Marine Corps and it’s called Camp Pendleton. The day we drove through, they were practicing their amphibious invasions with tenders at sea, helicopters in the air, large military encampments onshore -complete with porta-potties- and isolated intelligence outposts. Perhaps they were doing contingency planning for an invasion of Yemen or Iran. The twenty story barracks of Oceanside tell you that you’re in San Diego County, and you’re reminded that you’re now in the far southwest corner of the map. It’s not too far to go. There is a Chang and Eng quality to San Diego and Tijuana, not unlike the pairing between San Francisco and Oakland. Just as the two cities of the Bay Area are inseparable, the same symbiosis is there between San Diego and Tijauna.
You drive through the Santa Barbara microcosms of Carlsbad-by-the Sea and La Jolla. You pass by the racetrack that Bing Crosby used to own, Del Mar and Legoland, too. You get to Mission Bay where the crazed Mormons settled the place to begin with, and you pass by the US Navy for an extended period of time. If you’re lucky, you get to watch a 757 look like it’s trying to land on I-5 on its way to Lindbergh Field, one of the most challenging approach patterns in the United States. You will certainly pass by the rocket and military parts factory that Lockheed has put so much of our money into, and then you will be passing through San Diego proper, and you will be on your way to Mexico.
The best time to approach is at night. During the day, the sky is too gray and smog-laden. You’ll see too much of the blight and poverty. Porfiiro Diaz, an ancient Mexican dictator once said, “Poor Mexico, so far from God, and so close to the United States.” And you know that it’s true. On your way to National City and Chula Vista, you’ll pass through real barrios with people who have just crossed the border. Perhaps they live in Tijuana. Perhaps they’re illegal. It makes no difference. There is a Mexicanist intensity to the poorer parts of these southern San Diego suburbs that exists in few other parts of the United States.
Tijuana announces itself shyly and subtly at night; a row of hills, all covered with ten thousand lights, but it doesn’t look like Los Angeles in the evenings. Maybe it’s the lack of neon. It’s certainly a cultural distance, as profound as the difference between the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate. There are very few parts of the world where the First World abrupts suddenly against the Third World. But the border is it. It is one of the most profound cultural barriers that has ever existed, and if you spend time in Tijuana, you’ll never have a problem in experiencing Bangladesh or Sarajevo. The United States side is almost totally taken with natural preserves and estuaries. The Mexicans build right up against the wall, and it was not uncommon a few years ago to see the illegals at night loitering on the Mexican side of the fence to make a break for it, but not any more.
The first signs that something deeply significant is happening is looking at the freeway signs. They tell you how many minutes it is to the border on their amber alert signs. And the green signs start giving mileage to the International Border. A few years ago, you’d see the running family sign cautioning you about people trying to cross the freeway, but this sign has been taken down as a cultural stigmata. And besides, from the Mexican perspective, this would be the very place to try to dash across the freeway. Other signs quickly reassert themselves. The freeway begins to be separated by a 15′ high fine stainless steel mesh fence, which supposedly foils anyone trying to climb it. Then with more warning signs (NO GUNS OR DRUGS IN MEXICO), you get closer to the concrete cattle pens that control your access to the line. Mexico is friendly in its border. There is a toll booth area on the freeway that has metal spikes to flatten your tires if you try to back out, but the migracion man just waves you through.
Once upon a time, Tijuana was a fun town. Avenida Revolucion was a schlocky tourist zone, hawking everything from vastly overpriced Cuban cigars to Viagra. Not any more. In the worst of the days, Tijuana was a very lawless place where over 400 people were killed in the first three months from narco-violence. But this has been brought under control to a certain extent. We knew that Tijuana was no longer a place that we wanted to visit one year when our Ford Escort wagon gave up the ghost on the steepest part of the hill — a hill that gives as good as it gets, and which can be stacked up against the worst hill in San Francisco. We obtained the services of the TJ Police Department and a towing truck, and we were led to the Hotel America, which has a locked parking lot. My wife woke me up at 5:00 AM about a noise down below, but I paid no attention. Our car with everything in it had been stolen. That is one way to learn that one should no longer put Tijuana on a tourist itinerary. Now we just drive through, getting to the autopista as quickly as possible. And we continue onward, at least until we get to Ensenada. There were times when it felt like we were the only people on the highway. Things must have been really bad then, but this year we got to town in rush hour. There was a terrific bottleneck at the top of the steepest hill. It seems that the Mexican highway repair people decided to do some work, restricting the two-lane to a single-lane just because they could. In some respects, that is the Mexican way.
As you pass by the fascistic looking concrete columns that the United States has erected for border control, looking at the military helicopters and ICE vehicles prowling on the United States side, you might be fooled into thinking that you’ve entered a realm radically different than any part of the United States that you’ve ever been in, and you’d be right. But at the same time, Tijuana is more a victim of American cultural imperialism than almost every other part of the world. They don’t have the access to the American government, but they can experience the governmental and cultural impacts of American society any time they want to; in a Third World setting that can create strange feelings indeed.
One of the things that you immediately notice is that Tijuana is much more internationally influenced in its design sensibility than it is American. The mansions of the business and narco-class are European in every sense. Some of them give into wild Latin colors. And the autopista or toll road might as well have been built as the freeway between Marseilles and Nice, hugging the cliffs with racetrack curves. To some extent, the road between Tijuana and Ensenada is one of the most fascinating parts of the entire border crossing experience but you need to know a little background. The narcotraffickers have billions of dollars, and their influence on the Mexican economy is roughly proportional to all of the oil and energy companies in the United States combined. In their money laundering activities, they’ve found it profitable to build skyscrapers similar to plush Las Vegas style residential units, except that in a land where 50% of the population lives in substandard housing, there’s actually very little demand for such tony digs. So the narcotraffickers build one skyscraper that sits empty; and if they make enough money, they’ll build another skyscraper right next to it. I was actually surprised to see evidence of perhaps a 4% occupancy rate. I wondered to myself whether the narco-lords had taken it upon themselves to ensconce middle-level management in one of their units.
Since the military guards the autopista toll booths at Rosarito Beach, one can only assume that this is not a place to go to except if perhaps, you are a very foolish college boy intent on cocaine and hookers. Finally, you get to Ensenada, which is an anodyne for Santa Barbara. Julia XXX, architect of the Ensenda City Hall, also designed Hearst Castle in the 1920s. Ensenada is civilized enough for American cruise ships to dock at, and it has many nice restaurants. But unless we’re tired and we want to stop at the Hotel California, we just continue onward. We get to the southern suburban environs of Ensenada, and we see America in a losing battle with Mexico. There are Wal-Marts and Costcos and Home Depots and Burger Kings, but they’re overwhelmed by the llanteras, joyerias, tiendas, and street-side food carts. Metropolitan areas of Mexico have an overly high density, gimcrack anarchy about them. In a place where government and infrastructure are incomplete, an actual libertarian society emerges where everyone is an entrepreneur. Everyone is trying to get rich, but very few are succeeding. What we in America would take for a middle class is almost non-existent in Mexico. It is in short, a very disturbing picture of what the United States would eventually look like when the Empire ends and the free market theorists finally succeed in working their will on the American society.
Just as in the United States, Mexico teases you with glimpses of the way things used to look before humankind screwed it all up. The oak covered hills are taller and steeper, and they get more rain. There are vast grape fields of the Mexican Napa, and there are formidable mountains over which a two lane blacktop makes a feeble effort to wind its way through. If you are unlucky, you will follow a hopelessly overladen semi-truck as it belches black diesel smoke through the whole thing. If you are lucky, you will be able to whiz through the mountain pass like a Grand Prix driver if you have the skills, and no traffic is lurking around the blind curves. Just as in the US, the nature preserves happen more than once. But there is no military, except at the military checkpoints.
For an American, military checkpoints are a frightening thing. We associate such things with martial law and military dictatorships. But these are nothing more than young men who’ve been conscripted into the Army as every male of a certain age is in Mexico, and you will not get too much attention unless you’re a beautiful woman. And the more beautiful you are, the more they will inspect your things. The militar is nothing but Latin males, after all. After five hours in the daytime, or two hours at night, you’ll eventually come to the greater San Quintin area. This is where you get most of your tomatoes and strawberries from. Agribusiness is king, but it’s not American unless it’s owned under minority interest status. Mexico rules the sensibilities here, even as it ships our food north to us. Like the little towns sharing tiny straws and sipping off of the same acquifer in California, the flat land at the base of the hills provides enough water to grow any variety of crops.
Mexico goes through more profound economic cycles than America does, because Mexico is more at the mercy of American economic imperialism. And in periods like this, labor exploitation reaches peaks that have been rarely experienced in the United States, except if such management activity is done to an illegal alien work force. So the agricultural workers live in their little one room concrete block houses without heat, and sometimes running water. But this is an improvement from the times that they had only rude shacks with dirt floors. Unlike the United States, Mexico has had a progressive history in the last thirty years. Roads that were once mudpaths, are now four lane paved highways, even if they’re not up to American standards. And it’s been some years since traffic on Mexico 1 was interrupted by a march of peasants demanding social justice from the agribusiness owners. There have been more stores and shops lining the single highway that has lanes branching off from it right and left leading nowhere.
But as we continue southward, we get the realization that the cycle is coming to an end. The 100% American spirit of Parkfield and Cayucos has yielded up to a 1% American influence. We get the first taste of this south of San Quintin. Prime California coastal land is lying fallow in its natural state. Here and there, there are real estate signs advertising their lots in Spanish and English. But there have been few buyers. We enter the first curve of what is truly the Baja when the telephone and electrical poles disappear. The road is nothing but a narrow snake of asphalt barely cut out of the rugged and hilly land. A driver who has never experienced this kind of landscape before will be slightly terrified, as you truly are alone. Or you may feel that for the first time, you’re actually in an iconic car commercial, the one that stuck itself in your mind. After El Rosaria, sitting on the dry riverbed equivalent of the Columbia River, the telephone poles and electric poles will disappear again. The land is truly a desert, and there are no people or even animals that show themselves here.
Goodbye, America. Hello, Baja.