I struck up a conversation last weekend with a couple of gringos, Matt and Steve, who were down here from Northern California for the weekend. They both lived in the Alexander Valley north of Santa Rosa, and were down to eat and drink. Steve once ran a semi-famous saloon in the Haight called Mad Dog in the Fog, but sold it a couple years back to seek tranquility in wine country. I don’t know what Matt does for money but it must be working because he owns one of the penthouses on the 14th floor of my building, in addition to his home in NorCal. When I bumped into them at a spring lamb and suckling pig party here at the Riviera, they were chatting it up with a food blogger from L.A. named Bill Esparza. Why he was here, I have no clue.
Steve, the pot-bellied and bearded Brit, was the least pretentious of the three and the two of us shared a couple smokes and had a few chuckles at the expense of some of the other guests. The other two eventually joined in and the conversation veered from topic to topic: the movie The Motorcycle Diaries, the Joe Montana-led Forty Niners of the 80’s, gourmet street food in Tijuana, and the surf break at kilometer 38. It was good to have a conversation in English and it was good to talk about something other than health issues, drive-by shooting, and the value of the peso.
I bring all this up by way of saying that this week marks my one year anniversary living in Mexico. That I would commemorate it in writing by describing a relatively mundane conversation about sports, food, and movies speaks to the isolation that gradually settles in when a serious language barrier separates you from any conversation that doesn’t involve the weather or whether or not you want your margarita on the rocks or blended. Abstraction is purely a product of language, and without abstraction, reality becomes even more concrete.
Turns out barkeep Steve had never been to Mexico before. His friend Matt had brought him down from Santa Rosa for the weekend as a part of a shake-down cruise; Steve was to stay in Matt’s penthouse for a week in late October.
“So where’s the Mexican culture here?” he ask me.
“Right there,” I said, pointing to the swarm of people, mostly Mexican families, on the beach.
“I mean, where’s the, you know, the Old Mexico part of town?”
“The Old Mexico part of Rosarito?” I laughed. Steve was sure that the Alameda, the cottonwoods, the gazebo, and the 16th century baroque cathedral must be just a short walk away. I didn’t want to be the one that had to tell him. “There is no Old Mexico here,” I said., “This is Baja.”
Steve must have figured out that much on the ride down from Lindbergh. He looked around, rubbed his goatee, and nodded. “So it is,” he said.
This is not to say there’s no culture here, just not the kind Steve was conjuring up. His burros didn’t have zebra stripes. The culture in this part of Baja is inevitably tied together with Gringolandia to the north. Rosarito has grown up around a hotel, the Rosarito Beach Hotel, that has historically catered to Americans. In the same way, Tijuana grew up around saloons and a prohibition-era racetrack that appealed to Americans. The Margarita and the Cesar’s Salad, two of Baja’s more significant contributions to world culture, kept the gringos coming back, as later did surfing, dirt bike riding, fishing, marijuana, and binge drinking. Even the burgeoning vineyard scene today in Valle de Guadalupe, northeast of Ensenada, is commonly referred to as “just like Napa in the 70’s”, and the cuisine that it has inspired is called “Baja Med”. Baja can’t have anything all to itself apparently.
But, then again, what exactly is culture? In the final days of World War II, when the Allies were planning the final bombing assault on Germany, a committee was formed in Washington to determine exactly what of European heritage could ethically be destroyed and what should be spared . After weeks of diliberation, the committee determined that “culture” was old buildings, art work, and churches, not people. That gave the green light for the Allies to rain mega-tons of terror down on German factories and factory workers as long as the cathederals and museums were largely spared. And that criteria comports with the view of most travelers today; the locals only get in the way when you’re trying to snap a picture of the quaint cobbled alley way.
But applying that criteria to Baja would be difficult. There are no old buildings, museums, or churches north of La Paz, and even there the oldest building (a Catholic church, of course) only goes back to 1861. Sure, there’s plenty of folkloric dancing going on around here, and the accordian-driven polka beat of Nortena music can be heard just about everywhere. And, of course, there’s the fish taco, possibly the highest expression of Baja culinary art, and its biggest export. And one thing is definitely true here as in all parts of Mexico: there is a shitload of talented artesans. South of Rosarito along Popotla Blvd. is a 2 mile long “design district” where anything and everything is hand made and fabricated: ceramics, pottery, rustic furniture, Zapateca rugs and tapestries, hand-woven baskets, and massive iron work sculptures of T-Rex, rearing stallions, panthers, and elephants. Yesterday I popped into a newly opened shop operated by a man who’s talent was converting tequila aging barrels into fine furniture. Ingenious! Unlike the U.S., it can truly be said that they still make stuff in Mexico.
Maybe that all adds up to “culture” or maybe it doesn’t. And does it really matter? The 300-year-old buildings of the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende, home to tens of thousands of American and Canadian ex-pats, are still intact, but today they house trendy boutiques, Argentinian steak houses, and jazz clubs, unaffordable to the average Mexican citizen. And the original site of ancient Aztec culture, the magnificent fabled city of Tinochtitlan disappeared forever, first sliced up by Spanish steel, then rendered to oblivion by disease and forced labor. In 1559, forty years after the invasion of the Conquistadors, Cortes’s chronicler Bernal Diaz wrote “Now all that I saw then has vanished. Strewn, lifeless, destroyed forever.”
Is it possible that culture as we think of it is a fungible commodity, a interchangeable asset, easily replaced? Here in northern Baja, and in all of Mexico, a strong wind, or earthquake, or fire could reduce to shards all of material culture in a hour. But the people would remain, and within their collective memory, I suppose “Mexico’ would endure as well. In fact, it is said that the history of Mexico, and its culture, exists in the soul of each Mexican. Or in the words of the Mexican poet Juan Ramon Jiminez:
and my garden will stay, with its green tree,
with its water well.
Many afternoons the skies will be blue and placid,
and the bells in the belfry will chime,
as they are chiming this very afternoon.
The people who have loved me will pass away,
and the town will burst anew every year.
But my spirit will always wander nostalgic
in the same recondite corner of my flowery garden.