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.