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Perhaps the most important letter was the one from the director of the Cultural Institute of Baja California, Professor Patricio Bayardo Gómez. He wrote Ensenada's mayor, Daniel Quintero Peña, that he was invoking article 72-D in Ruffo's Law of Cultural Patrimony, ordering a three-month moratorium on any activity related to the Bodegas from March 29. This would allow time for the parties to make their case. It was the first time the five-year-old law had been used.

That didn't stop the rumors, but when Holy Week came, people started to relax, figuring nothing would happen before Easter.

They were wrong. At 9:00 on Wednesday night, April 19, three heavy-equipment operators and seven workers started tearing down the building. Julieta Hernández de Martínez, who lives nearby, says she called the police, like everybody else, but nobody came. By the time the operators packed up, around 3:00 in the morning, they had damaged 30 percent of the complex around the Sala de Tintos building.

The workers told police and El Mexicano newspaper that David Acosta Ormart, Bodegas de Santo Tomás's legal representative, had hired them. By morning the site was buzzing with angry citizens. "We were all shocked, though not surprised," says Marianne de Ramírez. Mayor Quintero, on the basis of Mexicali's order of a three-month moratorium, sent the police to collect the heavy equipment keys from the workers and lock the gates. Then he issued a stern press release. "Early this morning, the municipal government stopped the furtive demolition of the Sala de Tintos, which proprietors of a self-service business had initiated, disobeying a municipal order." State deputy Sergio Loperena Nuñez was quoted in Frontera newspaper accusing the Bodegas owners of acting in "bad faith." Local public-security officials questioned whether a felony had been committed. The Mexican press arrived in droves, both local and national. Suddenly, this was a story.

* * *

Marianne de Ramírez and Martha Edna Castillo Sarabia are nervous. They say hello to the municipal cop outside the gate where the destruction occurred, on Riveroll Avenue. Since that night, Mayor Quintero has ordered a 24-hour watch to make sure it doesn't happen again. Castillo and Ramírez's organization, the crisis-born Committee for the Conservation of the Santo Tomás Cultural Center, has volunteers cruising the area day and night to make sure the cops do their job. Ramírez and Castillo want to show photos of the damage the workers did.

We walk around the mud-colored adobe wall at Miramar and Sixth Street. It's the oldest part of the Bodegas, built in 1913 as stables and housing for infantry troops brought north to protect Ensenada after the 1911 revolution. Ramírez and Castillo hesitate. "We don't want to go with you around the front," says Ramírez. "People from the Bodegas have already recognized us. We don't want to cause a confrontation." She proposes getting in her car and looking at the pictures as she drives.

We end up in the Pueblo Café with others in the group. "What has been amazing," says Castillo, a teacher in Hispano-American language, "is the people who have come forward to defend this building. The other day we formed a human chain around the building to demonstrate our love and determination. Ensenada is not like Tijuana. It has a much more stable population. We have roots. We have started teaching our children their Baja Californian history. It might not be as ancient as Mexico City, but it is ours. And people are responding. They feel the Bodegas is part of their birthright, their identity as Baja Californians, Ensenadans. We've passed the time when absentee owners could just destroy things that are part of our history."

"Something is definitely happening," says Roberto Sánchez, a professor of environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz. "I believe Mexico is changing. People are realizing they can influence events. They can be part of the process. Some people accuse us of being a small elite trying to create problems for the business community. But we're not elite, and now, we're not small."

"I was born here in 1933," says Mireya San Juan, a retired kindergarten teacher. "When I was a child, this whole valley was barley fields, going all the way to the bay. The only thing you saw above them was the Bodegas. The Bodegas have always been here."

"We should support this effort because it is Baja California, where so little is preserved," says Alfredo Alvarez Cárdenas, talking later from Tijuana's ball-shaped Cultural Center, which he directs. "This action will definitely set a precedent. The law will be seen to work. Or not. We have lost so many buildings because this precedent wasn't there. How did we lose the casino at Agua Caliente? Or the Riviera -- the 'Jack Dempsey' casino in Ensenada? The old Riviera was mutilated because it wasn't defended. I could give you a whole list of places that have been lost because of unchecked development in Baja California."

Javier Ramírez, speaking for the company from Bodegas Santo Tomás, says there's been a misunderstanding. "The cultural center is not being changed to anything."

Ramírez says stories and press photos purportedly showing holes punched through walls into the Sala de Tintos are not true. He laughs. "No! Tell them they are lying to you."

The whole preservation campaign is hypocritical, says Ramírez. "The Sala de Tintos has been available to the people of Ensenada for the last four years, and I don't think, besides weddings, the town has [organized] four events in that time. If [events] were not organized by Bodegas Santo Tomás, nothing cultural here [happened]. And whatever cultural event we bring, if they have to pay more than $2, the [town] won't come. I don't see what their problem is."

In his office ten blocks from the Bodegas, Mayor Quintero says he's uniquely qualified to deal with these struggles. "I am an architect. I am an urbanist. I know what a historical patrimony is. I spent five years in Paris. I'm not a stranger to these problems. But this issue is not over government land. It relates to private property. It must be resolved according to the law."

The mayor's staying neutral for now, but D-Day, he says, will be June 29. "At the end of these 90 days, it will be decided whether to declare some or all of the complex a patrimonio cultural."

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