July 23 2004

Letter From Puertecitos: Gauging The Next Gringoland Rush

By John Fleming

PUERTECITOS, Mexico —Down from the big cities of coastal California, across the green floor of the Imperial Valley, through the traffic-choked border town of Mexicali and beyond the pan-fired desert of the upper Baja lies the Sea of Cortez, a sometimes torrid, always turquoise arm of water that reaches up from the Pacific almost to scratch the belly of Arizona.

The peninsula between the sea and the ocean meanders south for 800 miles, exhausting itself at Cabo San Lucas, the place of condos and glamour, a destination for Hollywood heavies and New York’s high flying. The rest of Baja, including this tiny fishing town, is a vertical chart of varying degrees of poverty. And with every passing day, more from north of the border descend upon this arid place, not to visit, but to purchase and often to stay.

The Baja land rush is on, and has been on for several years now. Ever since President Vicente Fox and a couple of predecessors monkeyed around with the Mexican constitution to allow foreigners to own coastal property, the “For Sale” signs have started lining the roads.

And buy they (or we, as in my countrymen) have. From Bakersfield, from Fresno, from Flagstaff, from Denver, Americans have come to forgotten, barren, hot-as-the-hinges-of-Hades Baja to snag what can only be had in the United States for high dollar: a house on or near the beach.

They come to buy a lot at Rancho El Dorado — just shy of the city of San Felipe on the Sea — a bit back from the beach with an excellent view for $35,000. Or a four-bedroom home, adobe-style, brimming with electric primary colors for about $150,000.

And for the basement bargains, they buy outside the walled communities, on spits of sandy beach like Santa Maria, off dusty, pothole-filled roads.

Californian Madeline Clark lives here, in a comfortable two-bedroom home 10 yards from the crystal-sugar beach. But bothering downsides persist. There are no electric power lines, hence the preponderance of generators. There are no water pipes, hence the preponderance of tanks on the roof.

Madeline’s generator is busted, and she paces around muttering about the two-day late water truck driver, whose job it is to fill her and her neighbors’ tanks.

Down the road a piece, I look across the way, toward the sea, where I sit in the shade of a shack’s awning. Here, on the fringe of Puertecitos, is Campo Octavio, a cluster of hovels snuggled between the water and the Santa Lucia Mountains. Before me: the carcasses of two wrecked vehicles, three decrepit fishing boats, an evil smelling pair of outhouses, more old tires than I care to count and the full skeletal remains of three beached gray whales.

Still, the non-Mexican residents of these infrastructure-challenged communities have helped bring a measure of prosperity of sorts to a dirt- poor region. More food sits upon the supper table of Poncho Vargas and his 5-year-old son Jose, because there is work for him here at this foreigner- dominated beach. Up the road at the little store Abarrotes Las Palmas comes news that proprietor Carmen Leon has managed to send her daughter to university in Mexicali, thanks to the pickup in commerce.

Advances, though, come at a price. The face of the place, the culture, can be felt to be changing, like the shifting sand underneath your feet in the surf.

English is spoken. The greenback isn’t just accepted; it circulates and dominates in some communities. The red-faced, angry man from San Diego nearby scolds an abstract, collective laziness, an outburst that either offends or embarrasses all who comprehend it. But most important, scores of families around coves just like this one have sold their land for what was thought to be enormous amounts only a few years ago, amounts that floated them out of poverty before evaporating and sinking them back into it.

Baja is not lost culturally or politically to the United States, of course. It is most solidly Mexico. But among a few here, and likely in the rear of the collective Mexican mind there dwells the thought that there is precedent for all of this.

It is Texas.

After all, it was only after Stephen F. Austin managed to get enough settlers on his land in the 1820s that trouble started brewing. By 1835, a year before the Alamo, some 30,000 people from the United States lived in Texas, while the number of Mexicans was only 8,000.

We all know where the Lone Star State came from. And so, it turns out, do the people of Baja.

Fleming (johnfleming21@comcast.net) is a former editor of the Anniston (Ala.) Star and a freelance writer. He lives in Monterey, Calif.

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