At the time, my dad was picking tomatoes and odd-jobbing after being fired from a job as a machinist. It didn’t matter what job he had, the outcome was always the same. On mornings after paydays, I recall going through the sweat- and tobacco-scented pockets of his khaki pants searching for money that would buy milk and bread at the corner store. Too often just a few coins or nothing at all; the bills had been left on a bar somewhere. Drinking got him fired from every job he ever had, and the result for us was constant evictions and new schools.
After first grade at Lillian J. Rice Elementary School in Chula Vista, I returned to Montgomery for second grade, where I met Mark. Next was a stint at Castle Park Elementary, but most of third and fourth grades I spent at the new Lauderbach Elementary. Fifth grade found me at Imperial Beach Elementary, in the neighboring town where we had migrated.
My particular remembrance of the second-grade class was the ethnic mix of kids. It typified Otay — the impoverished town on the outskirts of Chula Vista — a crossroads of Mexicans, blacks, and white trailer trash like me. School was the one public place where children of different colors, with different languages, cultures, and income levels, could mix with a minimum of self-consciousness. I recall Montgomery school like that. And then the bell rang, and we returned to our respective abodes, where once more we became more white, more Mexican, or more black. Yet each morning we could shake off anew some of the taint of the homes we were leaving.
As Carlos Hernandez, a second-grade classmate, today remembers, “We were all poor. Some more than others, of course, but maybe we just didn’t know it. Just like what race you were. Of course, we knew that distinction, but with us kids it rarely made a difference.”
Today the little community of Otay is inside a vortex of change, even as it struggles to retain some old houses and a few remnants of the past. The Coors Amphitheatre, within sight of the former farm where I lived, regularly brings thousands of fans and the resultant traffic jams to its concerts. Up on Otay Mesa, the U.S.-Mexican border teems with product-exchange; plane traffic at Brown Field Municipal Airport increases almost daily; Donovan state prison quietly bespeaks change and expansion too. Above all, the soft, undulating hills of the old Otay Ranch are rapidly being shaved and diced into streets, houses, schools, and shopping malls. The sage and cottontail rabbits are disappearing, while the largest single subdivision in California history, some 50,000 homes, rises up.
Even the Hill has undergone a profound metamorphosis. Only a dozen or so black residents — almost all over 60 — have stayed to live out the end of their lives in comfortable, rebuilt houses. The majority of the denizens are Hispanic. Not that the have/have-not dichotomy has gone away: it’s only that the boundary has shifted, making the 805 freeway the new line of demarcation. The two divided territories are now referred to as the “East Side” and “West Side.” Today if you reside east of the freeway, in Bonita, EastLake, or Otay Ranch, you’ve passed the socioeconomic test. If your house, apartment, or mobile home is west of the line — and certainly the wealth quotient decreases southward — your address more and more suggests a blue-collar salary, retirement, or possibly welfare assistance.
In my eyes, the transformation of Otay during the past 50 years is a weather vane pointing to where America has gone and is going — like it or not. Fifty years of living involves change in an individual’s life too. That twin optic, I suppose, is what made me chase down people who were seven years old the last time I saw them a half-century ago. A few pals to help me crawl back down a wormhole of space time and emerge on the other side. On the edge of what’s ahead.
DAYS OF ZORRO
In late 2003 I walked a quarter mile from the Lower Otay Dam in the direction of Mexico. I turned and looked down the long Otay River Valley, which slopes all the way to the San Diego Bay, about a dozen miles away. The river is now an imaginary one, at best a geographical line that meanders toward the ocean allowing only an idea of where it used to drain the adjacent hills of water and nutrients, providing drink and food for the early Kumeyaay Indians. Where the river flowed into the southern end of the bay — where the fish and shells were bigger and more plentiful — a large band of natives dwelt. Reportedly they were called the “Otats,” or at least one of their words, otay, provided the community’s eventual name. The word meant “wide and level knoll” or “a brushy place.”
One wonders what thoughts filled the minds of those primitive inhabitants when Father Junípero Serra, astride a donkey, crossed the Otay River one day in 1769 on his long, northbound journey. The small party of Spaniards continued only a dozen miles farther before founding California’s first mission in Old Town, and the indigenous people’s way of life soon surrendered to the Spanish cross and musket. Under God’s order, naturally, the surrounding land and its commerce were controlled by the mission fathers, and soon the coastal grasslands fattened not only the grazing livestock but the presidio’s coffers too. Not for long. The Mexican Revolution erupted in 1810, and the new government grabbed California from Spain and the Catholic Church, splintering the state into large land grants that were awarded to favored individuals, often military commanders. In 1846, the last Mexican governor, Pío Pico, reaffirmed that the children of Captain José María Estudillo owned the Rancho Otay and the smaller, neighboring Rancho Janal.
That was the romanticized era of adobe haciendas, immaculate white walls punctuated by magenta blossoms of bougainvillea. Hollywood would later depict a land where Zorro — the dashing Mexican version of the Lone Ranger — with rapier in hand, safeguarded the virtuous land-owning doñas of dark eyes, who languorously fanned the torrid summer air with precious Sevillan fans while the cattle went on chewing under the vigilant eyes of vaqueros.