In 1964, the U.S. State Department recruited Vanderwood for a visit to Latin America to help figure out why so many early Peace Corps volunteers were returning home in the middle of their assignments. Afterward, he decided he wanted to teach Latin American history and went to the University of Texas, where the history department strongly encouraged him to become a “Mexicanist.” In 1969, with a Ph.D. in hand, Vanderwood landed a job teaching mainly Mexican history at SDSU. San Diego was a good fit for the new teacher, since during his graduate work, he had focused on the U.S.-Mexico border region.
Vanderwood retired from teaching in 1989 to focus again on writing, this time books on the border region addressed to a wider audience than his former colleagues in the teaching profession. Despite the popularization, he confesses to being tugged back toward academic standards. It shows up in Satan’s Playground’s extensive use of documentation. Fortunately for the general reader, Vanderwood uses endnotes rather than the page-bottom footnotes that can distract scrupulous readers into checking every reference.
I ask Vanderwood what made him want to spend so much time on Satan’s Playground. The period from the start of his research to the book’s publication lasted four years. “While teaching at San Diego State,” he tells me, “I always had a core of students who came up from Tijuana to take courses.” The students had often gone to Catholic schools on the American side of the border, such as St. Augustine High. “They would be in my history class,” Vanderwood continues, “and I’d talk to them informally about Tijuana. Right from the beginning, they’d give me interesting historical data about their city. One of the things they kept mentioning was Agua Caliente. They said, ‘We used to have this fabulous resort and spa, but nobody’s ever looked into the history of it.’”
What happened to Agua Caliente? Vanderwood tells me that Lázaro Cárdenas, president of Mexico from 1934 to 1940, closed only the casino in late 1935. By 1938, he had expropriated all the property at the resort, except the racetrack, which continued to operate. “But Tijuana was dependent on Agua Caliente,” says Vanderwood. “Almost everybody worked at Agua Caliente or in jobs that were ancillary, such as at gas stations and other businesses that served the resort’s visitors. So when it closed, all these people were put out of work. There were riots on the street over that, and people were killed.
“One of the things that Cárdenas did in response was to establish on the old Agua Caliente grounds a technical institute for young boys, the sons of former workers, to go and learn a trade. This was in 1939. It was a government school, and the boys’ education was all government financed. In fact, they had some extraordinary teachers right at the beginning because the Spanish Civil War had occurred and Spanish Republicans, the liberals in that fight with [Generalissimo Francisco] Franco, came to Mexico as refugees. Many of them were university teachers. The president of Mexico sent those teachers to that school. It was very good for the boys.”
Today, there are several junior high schools and a high school near the site. A racetrack called Caliente still operates. The races are all dog races.
But the luxurious resort of the 1920s and 1930s is not entirely forgotten. Vanderwood tells me that a New York broker of the old casino’s poker chips contacted him recently. “The guy wanted me to verify whether a particular chip really came from Agua Caliente. I said, ‘Well, it’s got AC on it.’ Then he said my book was helping him make a lot of money.” ■