Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Auntie Jane's TJ

Tijuana. I had been invited to join the couple for whom I was to housesit for 13 days for a day on the Baja.  I had driven to their place in Coronado the night before and after dinner, while soaking in the hot tub under a crescent moon in a walled garden aglow with blue solar lanterns Cally shared a brief history of her life.  Although you would never have known it to look at her, hers had been a nightmare that made mine a fairytale come true in comparison.  We all have our stories to tell, to be sure, but there are those of us whose stories silence all others.  Hers was one of these.

Brilliant student though she was, she very typically could only focus on how to get away from her rural hobunk hometown and as graduation loomed just a month away, this urge became over powering.  She ran away from home with an ex soldier to his hometown of Texas City, Texas thinking she had found her true love and a one way ride out of Dodge. Well, she got the one way ride that's for sure, and a baby boy, too.  Eighteen years later, when her son wanted to meet his father, she discovered that the he had died an early death at 45 as so many refinery workers do.

An active port town on the west coast of Galveston Bay, petro-chemical refinery employees in Texas City can have a life-expectancy of as low as 50 years due to daily exposure to airborne asbestos and other toxins that leaves them susceptible to contracting pleural mesothelioma and cancer.  BP Oil has its third largest refinery in this town of just over 40,000 people, employing more than 2,000. This refinery alone produces about 4 percent of the nation’s daily fuel consumption.

The Texas City Disaster, 1947In what had been--until recently--referred to as the country’s worse industrial accident, almost 600 people lost their lives in 1947 due to two ships carrying ammonium nitrate fertilizer exploding while at dock. The explosion killed school children and residents in the surrounding communities that had gone outdoors to look at the smoke. It is said to have also ignited nearby refineries as well as several docked tankers filled with oil and other chemicals.  The explosion was felt as far as Galveston 14 miles away where it apparently knocked people off their feet.

Drowning in Oil: BP & the Reckless Pursuit of ProfitAlthough this event served as the basis for disaster plans throughout the U.S., Texas City is known as “the town that would not die” since it has survived numerous repeat performances over the years. (Given all the abandoned ‘ghost towns’ and all the thriving refineries that I had seen earlier in the year while driving through Texas, I found this moniker ironic.)  A 1987 accident released 36,000 pounds of hydrogen fluoride gas into the atmosphere when a crane at an oil refinery accidentally dumped its load on a tank of liquid hydrogen fluoride. Upon contact with skin, this gas immediately converts to a highly corrosive and toxic acid, thus 3,000 people were evacuated that day.  A 2005 refinery explosion killing 15 and injuring 170 people resulted in millions of dollars in penalties being slammed against BP for criminal corporate negligence. That, however, failed to improve things for the workers, or for the environment for that matter. Lastly and most recently, the infamous Deepwater Horizon platform explosion killed 11 workers and resulted in approximately 4.9 billion barrels of crude oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico over a three month period between April and July of 2010.  Prior that though, this same plant was responsible for emitting 538,000 pounds of toxins, some of which are known carcinogens, into the air for forty days.

No doubt about it; country girls live longer.  Cally had been raised on a ranch, breaking horses breathing in good clean air.  Although a petite framed five foot tall woman, the strength of her can be seen in her hands.  She would go on to  become an incredibly savvy and deeply compassionate woman who takes in neglected, abused or abandoned animals.  It is for this menagerie that I would be providing care in her 13 day absence.  I had come a few days before their departure to review irrigation systems, feedings, and most importantly, how to turn on the DVD player and hot tub.  And, to tag along with them to Tijuana.

Tia Juana

It is estimated that approximately 300,000 people cross the border daily at Tijuana.  TJ is hardly hospitable by today’s cosmopolitan standards, although legend has it that its name reflects the hospitality Tía Juana, (or, Aunt Jane), offered to the many travelers that she fed and sheltered at her 40 square mile land granted cattle.  Visually, TJ is dirty and unappealing with no immediate outstanding characteristics.  The streets are lined with what appear to be haphazardly constructed multistory buildings that beg the question as to whether there is even an adopted building code governing the industry in this burgeoning metropolis thereby ensuring public safety.  The electrical lines still exposed throughout the city appear to be a tangled mess of wires, some of which have been randomly clipped and capped and left to dangle.  Although graffiti is discouraged by the government, colorful wheatpaste murals can be seen throughout the city.

Looking past first impressions, however, there are signs that TJ was built on tourism.  Beginning in the late 19th century, American "excursionists" came down from California to trade.  By the twentieth century, they were also coming for entertainment.  The two year Panama-California Exposition held in the Spanish Colonial Baroque Revival Style buildings constructed for the event that consequently developed what is now Balboa Park was meant to illustrate the “progress and possibility of the human race.”  The Expo brought tourists to San Diego, the first port of call north from the then newly constructed Panama Canal.  Anticipation of the influx of visitors spurred the San Diego Electric Railway Company to begin laying the infrastructure for its streetcars.  Tijuana lured these same tourists south of the border with a Mexican Fair that included curio shops, ethnic food stalls, thermal bath houses, as well as very lucrative horse races and boxing matches.  The first race track opened up just south of the boarder in 1916 and along with the numerous nightclubs, restaurants and casinos that appeared along Avenida Revolución, TJ was able to benefit from and thrive during the prohibition years.  Along with The Hotel Caesar built by Caesar Cardini, a Mexican born Italian who has been attributed to having invented the Caesar salad, the beachfront city with its subtropical Mediterranean climate attracted Hollywood stars and Chicago gangsters alike until gambling was outlawed in 1935 in a futile effort to polish its hedonistic image. Although gambling was outlawed, prostitution is ironically still legal in this Catholic country.

Today, it is the busiest land-border crossing in the world, processing more than forty million people each year.  Although tourism is still a large economic draw, manufacturing has grown since the adoption of the 1995 North American Free Trade Agreement.  There are now more than 700 operating factories that employ most of the city’s working class.  Cliché jokes about cheap labor aside, TJ supports the largest Asian population in Mexico.  Although many Americans come south for affordable medical procedures and pharmaceuticals, we were there to load up on tequila, Cally’s manna.  It was apparently going to take more than an increase in violence attributed to drug and people trafficking to deter this little dynamo.

Passing El Foro, a jai alai and concert venue, we proceeded towards Revolución where we were planning to take their friend, a local dentist, to lunch had we been on time.  Cally had forgotten that it was the Mexican Independence Day which explained why roads had been closed off and we had been redirected.  Late as we were when we finally arrived at his second story office, we only had time to say hello and pop back a cordially poured tequila before his next American patient arrived.  We then walked the Avenue, solicited by storekeepers and barkeeps, up to Ricardo’s liquor shop where we sampled a variety of tequila as if we would taste wine in a vineyard’s tasting room.  With the annual tequila distributors’ convention approaching, everyone was in the pouring mood.

Sans Sentri

With Cally’s third liter carefully stowed in my bag, I stood in the mile long line to get through customs with my passport.  They rode through on their Sentri Pass and waited the hour and a half it took me to make it through the gates.  Behind me in line, a retired marine pilot and his wife of 60 years leaned on their respective canes.  They apparently had done this before.  They had come across the border to have dental work done.  While he chewed churro purchased from one of the many vendors set up along the sidewalk and chatted with me, I could see that he had bitten himself as his mouth was still numb from the Novocain.  He dabbed the blood nonchalantly as we continued talking. 

Besides us stood a jovial Mexican born legal immigrant who had come back for the festivities, and to visit his father who lived in the house he now owned at 33years old.  The very father who had been left behind by the entire family as they immigrated one by one to the U.S. because no one could stand to be around him, the dad who loved karaoke and Motown. Good son, I thought.

Waiting for me outside the gates, Cally hugged me when she saw me finally come through the gates, apologizing profusely for the long wait and handed me a quesadilla she had bought for me from the nearby Jack in the Box.  I forgave her and inhaled the quesadilla and gulped the contents of my water bottle that I had absentmindedly left in the car.  She promised me that when we returned in a few weeks for the Tequila Expo there shouldn’t be such a line to get into the U.S. because we’d be returning at night.  Great, I thought.  My Marine son-in-law and protective daughters won’t have any worries at all with me standing in line alone at night weaving slowly along the streets of Tijuana, a city with more murders and kidnappings than New Orleans. The wrath of the Warrior aside, I will no doubt be back if for no other reason than to push on past TJ to smaller, quainter towns further on down the Baja. 

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