I was washing the morning dishes last Friday when I heard gunshots from the beach below my balcony. Fireworks are blasted around here, as they are throughout Mexico, morning, noon, and night. But these were not the concussive booms I’ve grown accustomed to, but instead the “pop, pop, pop” you hear about in witness accounts of shootings. By the time I reached my deck, a small crowd had gathered near a lifeguard tower at the tide line. A red haired woman appeared to be cradling the head of a man who was lying in the sand.
Within a couple of minutes, a lifeguard truck appeared at the scene and sirens could be heard from the Bomberos station two blocks up the street. After about five agonizing minutes, an ambulance finally arrived at the locked gate to the parking lot that fronts the beach. The woman in the sand below was now bellowing hysterically for help. Unable to get past the gate, the ambulance waited outside the parking lot while lifeguards lifted the body onto the bed of their pickup and hauled him close enough to the ambulance where he could then be safely transferred. Unfortunately by now, two police cars blocked the ambulance’s retreat. Rosarito cops were wandering around listlessly, seemingly in no hurry to move their cars. The red-headed woman was beseeching the police to hurry up and get the fuck out of the way. Another couple of minutes passed before the ambulance was finally allowed to speed away. As more police officers arrived, I could hear the woman below screaming “Why didn’t you do more? What is wrong with you?!” At first she was ignored, but as she became increasingly agitated and confrontational the cops had had enough. She was then physically restrained, handcuffed, and hauled away. Out by the waterline, a small pool of blood was soaking into the sand.
The victim of the shooting was named Mar Tejeda, a local lifeguard/fireman and surfer. He lived next door to my building in a small house adjacent to the beach. Mar Tejeda died that morning from gunshot wounds, shortly after arriving at a local hospital. I did not know him, but he and I would occasionally exchange pleasantries in one of my many walks around the neighborhood.
The red haired woman’s name is Gretchen Smith. A few days later she posted her account of what happened on her Facebook page:
I now know what it feels like to hold a man while he is dying from gunshot wounds while the police just don’t quite make it to the crime scene in time to save him. I also know what it is like to spend 76 hours wearing clothes soaked with his blood and no shoes in a Mexican jail without the right of a phone call to anyone including my embassy or even water for over 36 hours. I also know what it is like to hear my friends and neighbors come to my defense in a very kind way even though I could barely hear them and could not see them. Thank you. I am home safe now but need to go wash the blood off of me. I am so sorry to the family of the Bombadier whose name I do not even know. Please know myself and others tried to save him and he fought hard to stay alive for you. If someone has the story of his passing please share it here in his honor.
After watching that scene unfold from my 10th floor ivory tower, I wandered down to street level to see what I could find out. Alberto, the day watch security guard in my building had just been questioned by the police. He and I are friends, but on this day he wasn’t sharing anything with me. A dozen police cars were canvassing the neighborhood. My friend Ismael, who had just opened a small taco cart on the next corner, was out washing down his sidewalk with a bucket of soap water and a scrub brush. A few minutes before, I had watched as a motorcycle cop stopped to question him. Ismael told me that he had seen a man running up the street from the beach. He assumed it was the shooter. Ismael then got uncharacteristically tight-lipped, but added that in his experience it was simply best to get things like this behind you, like a soccer loss or a flat tire. He continued swabbing down his sidewalk and I eventually wandered off.
Over the next couple of days, I bumped into several gringo neighbors from my building, and we would speculate what might have happened. The original theory was that the murder was the result of a surfing territorial dispute the day before the shooting that resulted in a beat down, the beaten man vowing to return with a gun. Later, a theory emerged from my Mexican friends that the original dispute involved disrespect shown to Mar Tejeda’s wife.
Much has been made of Mexican’s attitude toward death. The bizarre rituals during the annual Day of the Dead ceremonies, where loved ones bring the deceased’s favorite foods and personal items to the cemetery seem from the outside like a joyous, not somber, celebration. Mexicans are said to show bravado when confronting death, to except its inevitability more readily then their northern neighbors, to laugh in the face of death. Shops all over Mexico specialize in hand crafted figurines of skeletal figures, the riotous and hilarious calaveras, posed in everyday situations, dead wedding parties, dead mariachi bands, dead dogs being walked by dead masters. I even saw a collection once that depicted a dead baby being delivered from a dead mother by a dead doctor.
As the Nobel prize-winning Mexican writer Octavio Paz explained in his seminal work Labyrinth of Solitude:
“The Mexican … is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. True, there is as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: he looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony.”
I’m not in a position to say that any or all of that is true and maybe it’s just another cultural stereotype, a fancier way of saying “life is cheap”. But I do know that as the week ground on, Mar Tejeda seemed more like an abstraction, a conversation starter, and less like a local kid who was gunned down on the beach within a hundred yards of his home. People laughed and joked as they discussed the latest theories. One gringa I know told me, her eyes widening, an excited smile on her face, that she had seen the whole thing from her 7th floor balcony. Tejeda’s was actually the fourth murder in Rosarito Beach over a 3 day period. Maybe folks down here just get used to it after a while.
The evening of the murder a shrine was set up on the beach near where Mar Tejeda had lain bleeding to death. It started as a handful of lillies then grew over the next several days as more and more people somberly made their way through the sand and added to it. I decided to walk down and take a photo of the shrine. Fittingly, a storm had moved in during the night and the sky was gray and the sea was heavy, nearly as heavy as my thoughts. Then on Saturday, the day after the murder, a group of fellow lifeguards and firemen took to the water for a final tribute. The following day, the Tijuana newspaper La Frontera announced that the alleged shooter was being detained by the police up in Tijuana. Josue Pacheco Campos, the suspect, was described as a “quarrelsome” man.
Mar Tejeda, named for the sea where he worked, lived, and played, was 34. He leaves a wife and a 7-year-old son. May his spirit take to the waves and play among the dolphins.
I’d been waiting for an opportunity to write about the demise of talk radio in America, and not just the usual “this guy sucks”, “this guy’s a moron” screed that I routinely crank out when the mood hits me. No, something more substantial , an in depth look at the declining ratings, causes and effects, the changing demographics, some good inside-the-industry analysis, etc. In other words, a blog you might read and go away thinking something other than “wow is this guy still that bitter?”
But it turns out that while I was napping, a whole bunch of other guys have beaten me to the punch. Here’s a column I read the other day by a guy named Perry Michael Simon who edits a radio industry website called All Access. Simon strikes a “balanced” point-of-view, essentially saying that talk radio may in fact be dead, but hey! Zombies are dead too, and they’re still walking around, aren’t they? In fact, I defy you to read that column without agreeing with about half of it and disagreeing with the other half. (That’s either the mark of a truly great writer or an industry hack who doesn’t want to offend his radio subscribers .)
I found Simon’s piece on a Facebook page devoted to “the former listeners of KGO” radio. This is a page that was started by disgruntled listeners of the once hallowed Bay Area talker right after Cumulus Broadcasting acquired the station, abruptly changed format to “all news”, and shit-canned a bunch of legendary broadcasters in the process. At one time, KGO held a record for the longest sustained stretch of #1 ratings in the history of radio. Now it’s just another middle-of-the-pack news station, monotonously jamming superficial news fluff in and around endless traffic and weather reporting. I’m sure when the former listeners of KGO started their Facebook page, there was, in their minds at least, a glimmer of hope that the whole thing would be reversed and that KGO would magically revert to its former self, as if waking from a bad dream.
After reading the Simon column, I checked the ratings at some of the big talk stations in the big cities around the country, and sure enough, poof! Many of them could not have sunk as quickly and precipitously had they been swallowed by an Orlando sink hole. Once great stations like WLS in Chicago, KFI in Los Angeles, WABC in New York, and KOGO in San Diego have lost a third of their audience, or more, in just a matter of months. KABC in Los Angeles, as legendary in its day as KGO had been in its, has sunk so far in the ratings that it barely now registers, to a 0.7 share. To put that into perspective for you non-radio types, that means that at any given time, on the average, 99.3% of radio listeners in Los Angeles are listening to something other than KABC. (Former listeners of KLSD in San Diego, where I hosted the morning show for 3 years, will take scant satisfaction from the fact that the all-sports format that replaced us is barely registering at all with a 0.3 share,as close to flat-lining as you can get in radio.)
But, after reading the Simon piece and a couple of other similar internet posts, then verifying the numbers for myself, I stumbled onto a podcast called “Radio Stuff” where former nationally syndicated talk host Tom Leykis spent a half hour drawing similar conclusions from crunching the same numbers. At least Leykis had the guts to dispense with Simon’s half-filled-glass-of-water bullshit and call it like it is: talk radio has become a festering dung pile with the same gaseous stench bubbling up from its depths on hundreds of stations across the country. Hannity. Limbaugh. Mark Levin. Michael Savage. Dennis Miller. Bob Grant. Glenn Beck. Neil Boortz. What do they all have in common aside from being professional liars? They’re boring. It appears that America, finally, is losing its collective appetite for listening to paranoid gun nuts, birther’s, end-of-the-world bible thumpers, racists, and assorted neo-McCarthyites clogging up the AM dial.
See, the fun thing about talk radio in the past was that it was entertaining. There was some wit, some humor, some irony, some playfulness, along with the controversy and political advocacy. It’s what made stations like KGO and KABC great…and popular. And stations then had yet to adapt to the single political point of view theory. When I arrived at KSDO in San Diego in the 1980′s, the on-air line-up consisted of this: Ernie Myers, a former music jock at top-40 KGB, politics unknown; Roger Hedgecock, center-to-right former mayor of San Diego; Stacy Taylor, libertarian-progressive satirist; Ron Reina, a sports guy with local cred; and Ken Kramer, thoughtful, NPR-style liberal. But the point wasn’t even about politics really. Shit, I spent half my airtime then talking about motorcycles, music, and over-the-line. Kramer did a segment in his show on the history of San Diego place-names (which eventually morphed into his popular KPBS show “About San Diego”). Ernie Myers would spend hours dryly cracking wise about how much money he was losing at Del Mar on any given afternoon, while dishing out “news maker” interviews. Sure, politics would naturally creep into any serious on-air discussions ( and there was plenty of that going on in the midst of Iran-Contra, El Salvador, etc.) , and there was plenty of advocacy, but at least it was honest and personal (sometimes too personal), and it was not targeted to a single audience of ditto-heads. And we all lived in town, and talked about where we lived.
(And there’s another thing about KSDO in the 80′s: we had a news department, dozens of reporters, editors, and anchors, providing hosts with local stories and ideas. )
Back then, no one I knew at the management level of radio ever thought, for even a moment, that all that variety was going to be confusing to an audience or appear to be politically “inconsistent”. When I left KSDO in 1989, we had a 13.0 percent share of San Diego’s listening audience. Today, politically consistent right wing propaganda machine KOGO, KSDO’s successor as San Diego prime talk station, has a 2.6 percent share of the audience. But if you bring any of this up to any of today’s local radio “programmers”, they give you the ol’ “Yeah, but that was then…” excuse, while failing to site any examples of why things are so different now. One thing I can think of that’s different is that each of these ass-kissers takes his marching orders from some green visor guy at corporate headquarters. But what case, exactly , can be made that these corporate clock-watchers know what the fuck they’re doing? Heavily leveraged Clear Channel and Cumulus, the biggest of today’s radio corporate raiders, are losing hundreds of millions of dollar annually, and their audiences are shriveling up like raisins. Hell, the only people making any real money off this mess are the leveraged buyout guys who make their profit from someone else’s failure. But,as the expression goes, “success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan”. Never has that been more true than in today’s radio, where accountability is a corporate dodge and success equals lowered expectations and reduced payrolls.
The irony here is that radio today is “market driven”, targeted at segments of the market, not “broadcast” like in the old days. In talk radio, the problem is that the target is only one tiny segment of the market: narrow-minded ideologues who think the teacher’s union is a nest of anti-christ communists and who privately think “Martin Luther Coon” is still funny.
The one reality radio management does cite when questioned about talk radio’s demise is the new methodology used in measuring today’s radio audience, the so-called “people meter”, a devise designed to more effectively translate actual listenership into ratings. Their argument is that PPM’s over-represent more youthful listeners and more minority listeners, to the detriment of old fogey formats like news/talk. What they’re really saying is that they have been living off a false measurement methodology for so many years, that they got suckered into thinking they were good. But now that it must be dawning on at least a few of these numb skulls that the formula no longer works, what’s the next move? If history is a teacher, the reaction will be retrenchment, more panicky cut-backs, more consolidation, more syndication, more vertical integration, more sucky radio. The action now, supposedly, is podcasting and streaming. But so what? Comparing podcasting to radio is like comparing karaoke to a jam session.
Sad how the captains are the last to acknowledge the iceberg.
Just finished reading a book, Mexico Days by Tony Cohan. It was similar to his “classic” On Mexican Time in that it was evocative and lyrical, an attempt, largely successful, to “capture” in words the mood and spirit of Mexico and Mexicans. On Mexican Time tells the story of Cohan’s temporary escape from the Los Angeles rat race to the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende, and then his ultimate decision to live there permanently. The latest book, written five years later, is a emotional travelogue of sorts, chronicling a magazine writing assignment through the Mexican hinterland in a post 9-11 world. A little cynicism had crept into Cohan’s new narrative, as if some of the magic had worn off his Mexican experience and as if life for him had reverted to a routine of eat-sleep-work-drink, albeit in more exotic locales. It helps that Cohan was a successful publicist in the music industry before launching his writing career, and that his wife is a successful author/photographer. Lyrical evocation is always more fun when you’re not worrying about the ol’ dinero.
But this is Rosarito Beach, not San Miguel, so it’s more difficult to be evocative and lyrical, and easier to just be descriptive. See, we don’t have any 16th century cathedrals here, or quaint cobblestone streets, but we do have tuba bands on the beach. Yeah, tuba bands. They usually consist of a tuba, a bass drum, a snare drum, and a clarinet, but I saw one today that featured an accordion and guitar. The music is oom pa pa, oom pa pa, ratatatatatatatatat , accompanied by a shrill snake-charmer riff from the clarinet. From a distance, it sounds like halftime at a high school football game, only worse. I don’t know why tuba combos on the beach are big down here and I don’t know if they exist on any other beaches, but I think they are popular because they’re loud.
Loud is big here. On the beach after sunset the obnoxious tuba music is replaced by the sound of firecrackers, the big loud ones like M-80′s that sound like gunfire. That noise may come from 15 or 20 different directions at one time and continue for hours, not stopping on the weekends until as late as 3 or 4 in the morning. Most nights, the concussive blasts of the firecrackers compete with loud screaming coming from the kids who camp on the beach at night. This is not the enthusiastic caterwauling associated with high spirited revelry. The girls unleash blood curdling screams, as if they were in imminent danger. The guys chant loudly and in unison, almost ritualistically. This is all followed by hysterical laughter and wild animal calls. Followed by more blood curdling screams. It can be fucking loud and sometimes I’m driven to violent thoughts when I hear too much of it. The tuba, the snare, the firecrackers, the screaming, the car alarms. All of it.
Did I mention the commercials blasting from loudspeakers attached to the roofs of cars?
By the way, Mexico does have laws and regulations on the beach concerning fireworks, bonfires, drinking, and dog leashes. But the laws are not enforced because the beach is the state’s jurisdiction, not the city’s, and even a minor infraction would warrant prison time, at least until the matter is straightened out. So, instead, to save trouble, the authorities choose to ignore the whole thing altogether. The result is a beach DMZ, a libertarian’s wet dream, where dogs are free to roam the beach eating garbage, where herds of horses shit in the sand, where guys smash their brandy bottles into the campfire, and small sticks of dynamite and car alarms go off under your window at 5 AM.
Will someone please get those loud Mexicans off my lawn?!
It’s my anglo-protestant cultural hang-ups, I’m sure, which also explain why I’m bothered by the garbage, broken glass and abandoned dogs in the streets. Mexicans pay very few taxes and in return receive virtually no government services. Every shopkeeper in town is out with brooms and mops each morning cleaning off the sidewalks in front of their businesses, while the “city-maintained” streets are littered with beer cans, broken bottles, dog shit, and styrofoam.
Of course, latinos have their own cultural stereotype to live down to. Supposedly, they’re loud because they’re prideful and excessively emotional and it’s all tied up in that macho thing, which has something to do with being a conquered people.
Who knows? Maybe there’s a lot of truth to both stereotypes. The sense of boundaries, both physical and psychological, was drilled into me while growing up. If my ball accidently rolled onto a neighbor’s lawn, I was expected to ring his doorbell and ask his permission first before I could walk on his grass to retrieve it. My father was especially hung up on the concept of personal acoustic space. Summer afternoons when I was a kid, I’d listen to baseball games on a portable radio in our backyard. My father, if he happened to be around, would walk to the nearest neighbor’s house to do a sound check. If my radio was even slightly audible there, I’d have to turn it down. My old man would have gone bat shit had he survived into the car stereo sub-woofer era.
So, yeah, it’s messy and boisterous down here, especially on big weekends on the beach. Here’s a stereotype that has some truth to it: Mexicans love to enjoy public spaces with their families and friends. Hell, even in the states, it’s latinos , mostly, who arrive early at the beaches and parks on big weekends, to stake out their spaces for cook-outs and parties. They pay their taxes, so more power to ‘em. I think the average gringo is more inclined to enjoy the cozy and less messy confines of patio, backyard pool, and a few close friends, rather than commingling with the hordes. Maybe fewer latinos in Southern California have patios and backyard pools. But there I go, stereotyping again.
They say that the blood of two races course through the veins of the mexicano, the Spanish and the aboriginal indian, the Conquistador and the Aztec. This is supposed to explain things. But why just stop at two bloods? Spain was occupied by Muslim Arabs for centuries before the conquest of the New World, and Arabia over the previous centuries had been conquered and occupied by Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Macedonians, and Persians. That’s a lot of blood mixing. So whether you’re cold and detached or hot-blooded and emotional, whether you like to curl up on the couch with a good book or blow up jelly fish with cherry bombs , it probably has a lot more to do with your social conditioning and upbringing than your bloodlines. Let’s face it, we’re all mongrels.
And, besides, none of this explains the tubas.
So the conversation at the spring lamb and suckling pig party had me thinking about “culture” in these parts, and culture in general. A two-week-long event called “Mexicali en la Playa” just wrapped up this past weekend, an annual escape for the people of that city from the 100 degree July days in the desert. It featured Italian opera (Opera frente al Mar) presented Saturday evening on the stage in Parque Abelardo Rodriguez across the street. Meanwhile, Papas and Beer, the original boogie-til-you-puke establishment down the street, was simultaneously celebrating its 25 anniversary.
This culture shit is confusing. If Baja is a little schizoid, where and what exactly is California’s culture? Disneyland? The Beach Boys? The gold rush? The Pomona drag strip? John Muir? City Lights bookstore? All of the above?
Actually California culture, especially Southern California culture has been regarded since the 1930′s as a commodity, part of a concerted public relations effort to lure Iowans and Kansans to the Golden State with the promise of health, sunshine, and cheap land. Conspire to steal all the water from Owens Valley and throw in a million defense industry related jobs and places like Torrance, Hawthorn, and Huntington Beach sprung up overnight.
And, indeed, this recent push to recognize the “new Baja”, with its fine wines, gourmet food trucks, and Baja-Med cuisine turns out to be the result of a million dollar P.R. campaign as well, staged by a San Diego outfit called Allison + Partners and sponsored by the Mexican Board of Tourism. I’d been wondering why Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmern, Rick Bayless, and all the other TV foodies seemed to have discovered Baja at the same time. They were paid to come here, eat some lobster, drink some wine, and ride a dirt bike on the beach. Nice work if you can get it!
But is this image any more real or false then the image of Baja as a redneck Riviera, or a threatening, murderous drug corridor? Despite the efforts, the latter image seems to be winning out. Property values here have never recovered from the Narco mayhem of the past decade and the coastline from Tijuana to Ensenada is dotted with vacant, half-constructed high rise complexes. Even Donald Trump failed in his recent attempt to construct a 500 unit condo-hotel called Trump Ocean Resort, leaving individual investors holding the bag for the $32 million dollar loss. The project now sits abandoned. The asshole Trump then claimed that he had merely lent his name to the project and had little to do with the construction or marketing. So as long as Baja remains tied to douchbags like Trump, the Arrellano- Felix brothers, and former Tijuana mayor Jorge Hank Rhon, it will remain a cultural backwater and a thousand visits by Anthony Bourdain will have little impact.
Besides, I know how to find the 16th century gothic cathederals, the cottowood- lined Alamedas, and the bougainvillea festooned gazebos if I need them. They are in that place called The Real Mexico and I’ll be on my way there one day soon. But first, I think I’ll be in search of a cold margarita and a good fish taco. You might call it a cultural priority.