I spent much of my life between 1972 and 1980 in Calexico. It is right on the border, with the much larger Mexicali, Baja California, Mexico, butting up against the fence.
I wasn’t normally there in July and August, but the lettuce harvest in the winter and melons in the summer kept me there a lot of the rest of the year.
The legal department office was in Salinas, my home was in San Juan Bautista, but I was in Calexico a lot.
And I sure knew the 600-ish miles from Point A to Point B very well.
I drove a 1964 Dodge Dart. No air conditioning. AM radio. I wrecked the engine on it – negligence. A shade tree mechanic friend of Chino Vasquez in Hollister rebuilt the engine. It didn’t last long.
My friend Gabby, who I met in Philadelphia in 1969, was in Calexico a lot too. Maybe even more than I was. I became a lawyer, he did not. He was really fond of the Hotel De Anza.
Here are three passages from his memoir describing moments at the De Anza.
First, he wrote about mornings at the UFW office a few blocks north of the border, and the chaotic mornings there as workers stopped in on their way from the border crossing to the pick-up spots around the city. This was in 1972:
Things would quiet down in the office by seven as even the latest crews got to work – time for Spanish Johnny who slept in the office nights to get out the foul-smelling chemically-treated sawdust to sweep and completley disrupt the office, time for several of the laides to straighten up the pictures and candles and little flags and plastic flowers making a shrine on top of a stand-up piano that didn’t work, and time for Gabby to find company to walk the four blocks through the now-bright morning to breakfast at the De Anza Hotel which with its soaring white stucco tiled roof in its heyday in the 1930s with Mexicali still a wide-open casino town had attracted the wild and rich and famous of California, but which since then had been on something of a slide down. Air cooling and ice water in the faucets was a big draw in 1931, but things had changed. Still there – incredibly – and still wonderful was a ton of mission-style furniture by Karpen. Incredible stuff.
Breakfast was not much more than a slice of melon and tea owing to the fact that for the last three hours workers had been showering us with burritos, hot Mexican chocolate, avena (thing, cinnamon-laced oatmeal), pan dulce, and fruit, so that at the hotel we mostly just enjoyed the quiet and relative calm here in the hotel’s old high ceilings, decorative tile floor, windows from floor to ceiling looking out to palms and bright flowers, the rich from Mexicali and merchants from Calexico enjoying a leisurely breakfast and gossip as everywhere in Calexico in Spanish. And then back to the office, stopping perhaps to admire the Villa Sur Motel on the corner opposite the De Anza. Holy mackerel it was 1950s cool!
A year later, in 1973, Gabby was reunited with Young Emily. To say that they fell in love in Philadelphia in 1970 would be one of the great understatements in the history of the world. To say that he was an idiot to walk away from that and endure three years of silence as she finished high school would be another great understatement.
In the middle of the grape strike in Coachella in June 1973, Emily showed up. She was done with high school and figured that it was time to end three years of silence. Gabby had scored himself staying rights in a wonderful 1959 Airstream Trade Wind 23′ Travel Trailer in the 100 Palmas trailer park south of Coachella, buried in a date grove.
He and Emily holed up in the Air Stream for a couple days and emerged on a Sunday to drive 100 miles down to Mexicali to visit the cathedral.
It was a great drive. As they passed Valerie Jean’s date stand south of Thermal, Gabby’s friend Esperanza Sauceda was parking – she worked there – and she waved, smiling, knowing that Young Emily was in town.
It is about an hour to get past the Salton Sea, an engineering mistake of staggering beauty at the time.
As they made their way south along the shores of the Salton Sea, Gabby prattled on – which he did and still does – about Mexicali, the image of Mexicali, about Mexicali Beer and the Mexicali Brass and especially the term “Mexicali Rose.”
Driving through El Centro, now only 12 miles from the border, Gabby slowed in front of the courthouse and the Owl, a bar with hundreds of owl figures. Gabby favored the Owl during the World Series, because the mountain of a man bartender with a glass eye and a different vest every night brought out his collection of Hartland baseball figurines, including Gabby’s boyhood hero, Warren Spahn.
In Calexico, they stopped at the De Anza for breakfast.
We got to Calexico at about 8:00 and before crossing into Mexicali went to the Hotel De Anza for breakfast. What a morning! The doors to the garden were open, warm air not yet hot, bright flowers, the hotel feeling a little of its past grandeur this morning, back to the days when it and the Planter’s Hotel in Brawley drew the Hollywood elite – the winter garden of America!
We hadn’t really eaten in two days and our hunger was further fueled by our romantic excesses and, so, we had something quite abit more substantial than my usual melon and tea.
As we walked to the car, I stopped. “Smell the valley.”
“Manure. Dairies? Feedlots?”
“Bingo! The farmers laugh and say that it is the smell of money.”
“Is it always in the air?”
“Yes. You get fond of it.”
And then he wrote of a visit to the De Anza with Emily in January, 1976. The United Farm Workers was in a to-the-death struggle with the Teamsters in an organizing drive at Bruce Church, a very large lettuce grower. A lot was riding on this election. A big huge lot.
Emily had come to California from college for the election and vote count. We won the election, and it was a glorious night. Gabby was inclined to socialize with our mortal enemies, and so he and Emily met two Teamsers for breakfast the next morning. At the De Anza.
We met for breakfast as planned in the lobby of the De Anza.
What a sight we were. Teamster Roy in his serape and pointed snakeskin boots and cowboy hat looked like he walked off the set of The Treasure of Sierra Madre.
Tucker was hung-over (“I’ve got a headache that would kill three lesser men” and was in his full mountain-man, fur trapper, mule-skinner mode but eloquent and intelligent even beyond what i had seen because of the female company.
Young Emily was in her full transcental young beauty enhanced by her pursuit of pleasure several hour earlier (the waiters remembered her from our breakfast here in 1973!).
I was clean-cut, chipper if drained, wearing my Grateful Dead victory tee-shirt under my dress shirt for the second (and last) time. A good time was had by all.
I showed this post to my friend. When he got to the part about Tucker the Teamster (Mountain Man), he paused. “That dude always worried me. I never thought that Teamster Roy would hurt us but Tucker, man, I think he was one thought away from mayhem all the time. He had “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles like Robert Mitchum playing Reverend Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter.”
I knew that this movie disturbed him. I asked him what he thought of Gabby’s stories of the Hotel De Anza.
“Well, I’m kind of disappointed that there was no mention of Nathaniel West.”
On December 22, 1940, West and his wife Eileen McKenney had just left the De Anza. He ran a stop sign in El Centro. Both dead.
So – there is the mention of Nathaniel West. What about the rest?