I lived in Calexico off of Highway 98, on 708 Linda Street from the time I arrived home swaddled in blue ( the parents where hoping for a boy) in 1974 and throughout the decade of the 1980’s. My mother and I moved away to San Diego in 1990 when she finally convinced me that we were better off leaving the Valley as her divorce from my father was final and he hadn’t exhibited a consistent interest in keeping a relationship with me.
My bedroom in Calexico was a point of pride for me as a teenager. In there, A green light illuminated a haven of hanging Smiths posters, newspaper covered ceilings, and taped Detail magazine pictures of New York club life before the publication became more Esquire-esque. During one particular boiling summer where we didn’t have any money to rent a place at the beach in San Diego as we were accustomed to every summer, I remember falling asleep one afternoon to hum of our potent air conditioner and “Your the best thing” by the Style Council as it was being played on my Sylvania stereo, the last gift my father picked out for me. As the daughter of a working mom, I had the run of the house during the summer with school being out but my room was always a place where I fantasized about being transported to a different location courtesy of the new wave, alternative, punk and ska music I listened to. During that summer, my friends and I cruised Calexico’s desolate streets in my mothers chevy citation. I still can hear The Special’s “Ghost town” being played over the New Wave Mexican radio station, 88.3 as my 15 year old friend Angela manned the wheel, having successfully convinced my mother she could drive despite not having a driver’s licence. “Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town? We danced and sang as the music played in any boomtown” This was the summer of 1989 and back then I had no idea Ghost town by The Specials had been released in 1981.
To quote Wikipedia it ” Addressed (sic) themes of urban decay, deindustrialisation, unemployment and violence in inner cities, the song is remembered for being a hit at the same time as riots were occurring in British cities” Calexico was neither an inner city nor were there riots occurring down Second Street that I knew of. But it was especially empty during summer nights and similar to The Specials in their music video, we cruised around trying to find some form of life.
I just visited Calexico a few weeks ago. My last two trips where for funerals. I have no relatives who live in the city but I do have an Aunt across the border in Mexicali and a few friends who still reside in my hometown. I attended a charity event to support a friend who had a hand in its organization. The drive originating from Studio City where I currently reside is a pain in the ass when it’s just an overnight trip. I stopped in San Diego and picked up one of my nieces who I invited to the event. We took the 8 east driving past the mountains, the Cleveland National Forest, and a few Indian reservations. As we descended into the Imperial Valley’s proximity, we boldly took highway 98 which my mother always warns me not to take as it is too bumpy, curvy and dangerous. In my mind, it always reminded me of the elation I felt knowing that we were getting close to home as my father drove us back from spending the summer on the San Diego Coast. Highway 98 seemed better paved and wider than the last time I came through it. It had been several years as my Mom was with me the last few times and I always caved into staying on the 8 east. It was late October and the desert foliage seemed oddly greener. Reaching the Calexico City Limits sign, the memory of calling City Hall to ask how many people lived in our town in 1981 never escapes me. It was a homework assignment given to me by my first grade teacher. All I really had to do was guess how many people lived in Calexico but my mother insisted that I call in order to be precise and told me to be sure to write “I called City Hall” on my sheet of blank paper. I don’t think she realized that at 6, I could only write a few letters. The person on the other end of the line informed me that there were a little over 14,000 Calexican’s accounted for. Thirty one years later that number has since more than doubled but the elevation is still minus one.
In the last decade, I no longer have had my grandmother’s house to stay at, so like many people who visit Calexico, I’ve retreated to the new part of town and the Holiday Inn Express on the other side of Cole Road. A good portion of my 16 years in Calexico was spent at the De Anza hotel on fourth street as it was in close proximity to my catholic elementary school, my church, my mother’s bank and my father’s liquor store a block away. I was never a hotel guest when it still functioned as a hotel and not as its current incarnation, apartments for the elderly. I don’t believe I ever even saw the rooms that once lay above its now mummified Spanish tiled stairs but its coffeshop, Alicia’s Supper room and event lobby are all singed into my childhood. On the same street, just a block away from the De Anza, I do recall my Mother once taking me and my older sister swimming to the El Rancho Motel. The rooms where nothing special- small, white walled and bare but comfortably ice cold on a exceptionally hot day during Easter break. Across the street at the Don Juan Motel, I knew of many local guys who would rent rooms to play poker and watch stag films because they usually still lived with their parents. My father even lived out the motel’s cliched name by conducting his extramarital affair there around 1986. As for the Villa Sur Motel that is on he same block, I never had a desire to check in but its post war space age meets caveman outer architecture serves as the quintessential early 60’s backdrop to the photos taken of my Mother when she modeled clothing for the Sam Ellis department store in her late teens. Across town, on the Casa de Cambio and fast food littered thoroughfare of Imperial Avenue, I did get to see the inside of a Hollie’s Motel room in my early 20’s but it was dark, I was tipsy and well, I”ll move on.
I hated Mexican food as a kid. But I realize now that it was probably because I had it constantly at home. I can remember when we just had a Mcdonalds and Jack in box across the street from each other on Imperial Avenue . In contrast, there are now six Jack in the Box restaurants in Calexico alone and my friend Angela informed me that what helps them stay in business is that they now accept food stamps as do other fast food franchises in California. In the past, if we wanted Italian we went to Pizza Hut, Tony’s Garden on the outskirts of El Centro or across the border to Mexicali where there were many more sophisticated restaurants. I was telling the owner of Taco mex when I had lunch there with my neice that I remembered its first incarnation on Calexico’s original commercial business district, Second street in what was once a laundramat and then when it moved to Imperial Avenue where it took over the old Burgers and Beer location and how it was my first time at their current location here on Cole Road. Hell, at least it still existed. Soon after stuffing our faces with tacos and taquis with melted cheese, I washed it down with a bohemia and dragged Sofia over to the De Anza so I could show her where the old hotel’s coffeeshop used to be. Aside from having lunch at least once a week, I lived there every Sunday as my mother held her own tertulia for hours after mass with her friends. Entering the lobby, there was a profoundly pungent death smell. We immediately suspected a man who was splattered on an antique crimson sofa that probably predated my a parents nuptials there in 1967. Upon further investigation, he looked to be breathing and harmless so we whisked passed him so I could begin complaining to her that while they turned the coffeeshop into a very useful cultural arts center, they architectually ruined the space. The high ceilings of my youth with grandiose mission style chandeliers where evicerated in favor of low business office insulation. Through the dirty window pane, I showed Sofia the old mural depicting Mexican folkloric dancing that now looked awkward because of its stunted wall and wondered out loud why they didn’t keep the coffeeshop’s kitchen as many of the events required catering. My neice didn’t remember eating machaca off her mother’s plate there as a 2 year old. Nor could she recall clutching her naked barbie as she ran in front of us when we exited the restaurant through the lobby, storming the mini wooden stage to stomp her feet and tease us. I remember it perfectly. It was the spring of 1997.
The problem with not visiting Calexico is that I get nostalgic. Nostalgia has this ability to bewitch you and as the polished memories pulsate through your neuro circuitry, you forget the real shit that actually happened. In my youth, certainly any foreign experience was far superior to a mundane existence in a small town. But now that I’ve grown older, have children of my own, visited and lived in many places; I suddenly long to recapture familarity. Specific visions, smells and sounds are all welcome as long as they pull me into yesteryear’s narrative and help me escape the sometimes hard to admit monotony of being a stay at home Mom. Calexico reminds me of holding a torch for someone. And then over the years being away from them but obssesively keeping them on a pedestal, holding on to how they made you feel when you were with them or picturing the way they looked at you. Then, the day comes when you are reunited with your “beloved” and you come to realize that time mercilessly marched all over their faces, bodies and even worse-their soul. Subsequently, you are forced to ask yourself if it was the memory that you created that made you lovesick or was it the actual person? Because when you finally get to see them,you wonder if it had been a mirage all along. No experience can ever be replicated or no person’s experience can be the same-this is true. My memories of my grandmother living right on second street are far different than what my mother experienced growing up in close proximity to Calexico’s business district. I think my mother’s youth ran parallel to the town’s golden age, as there were no K-marts, Wal-marts, Food for less, Price Centers, or a massive influx of Chinese imports that are cheap as dirt but are either flimsy, hazerdous to your health, or just another piece of needless plastic crap.
I took Sofia to see the department store my mother used to model for. Sam Ellis department store on First Street is around 100 years old. A dear friend of mine who passed away in 2008 told me that the owner, Sam Ellis immigrated through Ellis island. As many immigrants at the time acquired different last names, he changed his last name to Ellis and successfully pushed forward to pursue his American dream. My grandmother worked for Mr. Ellis for several years. She was a very knowledgable saleswoman who had a good eye for clothing as she was also a seamstress. When Sofia and I entered the bulding, it was obvious that there was much less inventory than I remembered. There was a specific area that catered to fuller figured women but interestingly enough, the main entrance that used to greet you with several racks of diverse ladieswear had now been overtaken by mens clothing. Gone where the days of a superb selection, hand picked for its female clientele in the Valley and across the border. I have so many photos of my mother modeling for their spring and fall collections. My sister still has newspaper clippings of modeling for them in the eighties as well. The age of inexpensive poorly made clothing has been in style for years especially with the younger female demographic. It was apparent that Sam Ellis still sold quality but not as much as their clients where obviously older men and women. This would probably be a good time to mention that a very large Forever 21 stands in close proximity to where Fed Mart used to be years ago and is by far one of the most successful of all its franchises in the country. And its Sofia’s favorite store. My neice listened intently to my continued ranting. Calexico’s former downtown was worn down, dirty, scary and seemingly forgotten in my perception so of course I felt justified. A former Calexican and friend, P.J Padilla has some of the most beautiful photo’s of vintage downtown Calexico. If you stacked them in Chronological order and created a flip book, you’d see the beginnings of deserted outpost embodying the last stages of manifest destiny and speed through an exquisite formation of what politicians and Walt Disney have refered to as “main street USA” uniquely infused with its own Mexican charisma.
I witnessed the nascent stages of second street’s decline. I remember a couple of decades ago my mother telling me she heard that at one of the city council meetings they were discussing the future construction of the indoor Price Center that now stands on what used to be the edge of Calexico. It is a building that is basically an indoor swap meet. A retail store owner that sold high end women’s apparel on Second Street was upset and chose to address the government officials. She wanted to know how she would be able to compete as she would never be able to display her costly dresses outside her establishment on a rack or lower her prices in the manner that these merchants pushed their sub par merchandise. A council member retorted that perhaps she shouldn’t sell such expensive items. The last film I ever saw at the Fox Theatre on Second Street was Superman. Soon after, the theatre became a porn house and when the earthquake of 1987 came, it was condemed. Ruben’s Hacienda, a wonderful warm Mexican food restaurant owned by our neighbors, became fortune teller Hermana Ana’s home and office, Womack Chevrolet drove off into the sunset and no one wanted to buy their school supplies at Stationers when Kmart was cheaper. This phenomena that is not only privy to Calexico. Walk down Broadway in downtown Los Angeles and witness how many extravagant theatres have turned into oversized trashy clothing stores or hubs for new revivalist churches. If you google the Los Angeles Conservancy, you’ll see how many historical locations they are fighting to save. But I find it curious that while gone are some buildings that could of been preserved in Calexico, the J.C Penney on Second and Heffernan still stands.
“This is what people want to buy when they walk across the border into Calexico. What you see on second street is what the walking traffic is seeking. Many of the buildings are a mess because many of the owners who have no desire in spending money to improve their property.” I was fortunate enough to have coffee at the first Starbucks in Calexico with my friend Angela, my old cruising chauffer and a current Calexico resident. She informed me that another Starbucks did open next to the Walmart but was now out of business. Interesting, one economically competitive franchise did not automatically declare another popular franchise a financial success even though were both beyond Cole Road, Calexico’s new commercial center. I was lamenting the old part of town’s existence and reminscing about our adventures up and down the street, ordering and waiting weeks for cassette tapes from a hole in the wall record shop knowing that it would be easy to find it at Slash and Crash records in San Diego, getting breakfast at Calexico’s second Jack in the Box and spraying perfume on ourselves at Selwicks. After all these years, she and still have a good deal in common. Like me, she is fortunate to live in an area that has one of the better elementary schools in the city. We live for shuttling our kids around and she recognizes my plight with my developmentally delayed kids as she works in special education. We also both have chosen not to educate our children in Catholic school despite being felllow alumni. I liked talking to someone my age on what it’s like living here. As I previously stated, I can get carried away in my nostalgia and rhetoric. There is still a use for downtown in her mind. She buys at the 99 cent stores that was once everyone’s grocery store go-to, Super Shopping. But her agrument is how do you install big franchise stores like Forever 21 downtown when there’s room to lay asphalt for an oversized parking lot?
Sofia and I drove past the many housing tracks that used to be fields of alphalfa where years ago we took a photo as a storm was coming our way. When I showed her the house where her mother and I grew up in, she vaguely remembered it. She briefly lived a block away while my grandmother lived there after her Second Street house burnt to the ground and a little before her dementia got out of control. Apparently a few families now live there and on one side of the house, they added another entrance where the wall to my father’s bedroom closet used to be. As you drive past you can stop and attempt to grab a cold one from the refrigerator sitting outside. As a newlywed, I brought my husband to Calexico to bury my grandmother. As I was getting married, she was on her last stretch and had appropriately managed to die two days after I came back from my honeymoon. I chose to be very drunk before I showed him what was once my “home”. He grew up in Brentwood in an upper class neighborhood that hasn’t changed much. His parents still live in the home he grew up in. My home was unrecognizable and that saddened me. I think I was drunk more for my lament as I already knew he would be nonchalant.
The final stop of my phantom history tour for Sofia ended at the former Norms liquor. My father bought it around the time I was born. When he fell into debt he sold the store to another Calexican who couldn’t keep it afloat either. It turned into a pawn shop thereafter and as we drove onto the parking lot on Heffernan and Third, the building looked deserted. The stucco and brick remodel done outside twenty years ago was probably its last. We gathered Linda Real Estate was trying to rent it as a couple of her banners draped the building. There were many for rent signs in Calexico’s former downtown district and aside from the current economic disparity, I am sure the massive earthquake two ago didin’t help their aged foundation either. Sofia and I peered through the window and saw the open empty space. It still had the same red squared tile that used to lay along the path leading to the front door of our house. My Mom must of finagled away to get some extra tile for our place. The store sign above that featured a Mexican leprachaun smoking a pipe and sitting on a mushroom (yeah, I didn’t get it either) was white washed,waiting the next business to lay its letters on it. As we got back into the car, it felt like I had paid my last respects.
As a child, I was always curious as to where highway 98 went after it moved past Calexico. Little did I realize that it reconnected with the 8 east. Calexico can’t get away from the Interstate 8. As I headed home via the 8 west the next day, I took highway 111 so I could stop over at Mount View Cemetery, the place where my grandparents, my great grandparents, relatives and friends are buried. One of my favorite holidays in Calexico used to be All Souls Day. I enjoyed heading to the cemetery after school and listening to mass performed outdoors while I looked out as far as I could past the agricultural fields, the desert, towards Mt Signal and the surrounding mountains. It was a beautiful time in Calexico as early November displayed cooler almost winter like weather down. I used to make sure that I visited my great-grandfather Armendariz who I died even before my mother in the early 1940’s. He lays to rest in the soft dirt area where all the tombstones are located. Many years have now passed and many more that I loved are in that cemetery, including my great grandmother who outlived my great grandfather by 50 years and my father figure grandmother ( you’d have to have known her) who outlived my grandfather by 25 years. Getting out of my car, I looked up into the trees that loomed over my families burial area and saw great deal of birds chirping loudly, making it feel as if they were the souls I was visiting. As I let the wind sway me around the cemetery. I couldn’t help but wonder if successfully moving away from Calexico was what they wished for their children or did our ancestors hope we could be prosperous in the place they pioneered and make it better?