4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs

Adventures in Tijuana dental care

Promise me you won't have a Mexican dentist

"They come here because they like our work, and it’s cheaper than the United States." - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
"They come here because they like our work, and it’s cheaper than the United States."

It was October of 1992 when I was walking north on 30th Street in North Park, approaching Upas, chewing gum and humming the theme to Three’s Company, that my lower-left fake molars crumbled into powdery shards of porcelain. I stood in front of an abandoned auto-repair garage spitting into my palm what looked like pieces of plaster set in Trident spearmint gum. With my tongue, I worked at my back teeth and dislodged what felt like a huge section of my mouth. I reached in with thumb and forefinger, removing $600 worth of four-year-old bridge-work. I must have looked like a street psycho with Tourette’s syndrome as I lifted my head to the overcast sky and shouted, “Shit!”

I had to assess the situation: Was this a dental emergency? Was I in pain? Should I walk across the street to that dental clinic with the waiting room full of families and see what could be done? The answers I came up with were no, no, and I don’t have the money anyway. What I did do was get a napkin from Jack In The Box, wrap the two metal-bonded crowns, and stuff the little structure into my shirt pocket. Later that day I put the crumpled napkin enfolding the bridge into a plastic box in my medicine cabinet and forgot about it. It remained there for six years, and I’ve been chewing with whittled nubs on that side of my mouth ever since.

The lack of pain and dental coverage made the decision for me. It wasn’t until I met a Mexican dentist at the Hotel Nelson bar in Tijuana that I learned I might correct the problem cheaply and easily. Still, I procrastinated. When I bought a new wallet and cleaned out the old one, I came across the dentist’s card: Dr. Jaime Guevara, Grupo Dental Familiar, with an address on Juarez Street. At the time it didn’t occur to me that it might not be a stroke of genius to seek out a guy I met in a bar to work on my mouth with sharp implements, but as my father constantly reminded me, I learn everything the hard way.

I called the number on the card and got a man who spoke Spanish. He told me there was no one there by the name of Guevara, no dentists at all. They had moved, and the man on the phone had no idea where. Again I forgot about it. When I found myself in TJ the next time, I stopped in to see my friend, the day bartender at the Hotel Nelson. I asked him what happened to Jaime, and he told me he was practicing out of his mother’s house in Colonia Libertad. I got directions and drove east.

Guevara’s new practice is announced by a sign, “Dr. J. Guevara, Dentista Familiar.” It is hand-painted on a rusted-out 1972 Lincoln town car propped up on its wheel wells by wooden blocks. A mongrel dog makes its home in the car when it is not harassing the neighbor’s chickens around the dusty yard. The front door was open, and Jorge’s kids were in front of a brand-new 19-inch television set watching cartoons. Two boys, one about 12, the other maybe 6 or 7, ignored me. A pretty 5-year-old girl, face smeared with dirt and what looked like custard, greeted me with Spanish baby talk. She raised her voice, turned her head, and shouted, “Abuelita!” into the recesses of the small house. From a bedroom, a small woman in her 70s or 80s emerged, patting her black-dyed hair pinned up on her head. She wore heavy

makeup, and her lips were painted bright red. I told her I was there to see Jaime, and she nodded and pointed to the couch. “Tome asiento, ” she said and then shouted like the little girl, “Jaime!”

When Jaime emerged from another bedroom, I should have turned around and driven away immediately, but I was raised to be polite.

“Yes, yes. Can I help you?” Guevara ran his fingers through a disheveled shock of straight black hair and tugged at the waist of his pants. He wore bedroom slippers and his untucked imitation LaCoste shirt clung to his beer belly.

The front door was open and Jorge’s kids were in front of a brand-new 19-inch television set watching cartoons.

He looked as if he was five months pregnant and hadn’t shaved in days. He smelled like cerveza. It was about 3:30 in the afternoon.

“Remember me, uh, Doctor Guevara? I met you last October at the Hotel Nelson. You gave me your card about my bridgework? I couldn’t find you at the old address.”

“Oh, yes,” he scratched beneath his arms. “You need a bridge?”

I showed him my old one. “Maybe this is still good, I don’t know.”

“I can put it back in,” he said eyeing the thing, squinting. He looked up at me. “You got $15?” On the television screen, three little doglike creatures were dropping safes, anvils,, and pianos on other little creatures.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Open your mouth.” I did, and he peered in and grunted. “It might be a little more,” he said. “You want a beer?”

“No, that’s okay.”

“Araceli! Get me a beer. Come on in here,” he gestured to his room. I followed him. In the middle of the room sat a reclining dentist’s chair with leaking upholstery, one of those giant dental klieg lights, and a stand with tools for oral spelunking. A cabinet with paraphernalia from cotton balls to syringes to a set of ghastly looking pliers was set against one wall, next to a poster of some swimsuit model, the kind of poster you’d expect in an auto mechanic’s garage. The only other features in the room were an unmade single bed, a dirty plate on the floor from breakfast — looked like eggs, tortillas, and beans — and five empty Carta Blanca bottles situated around the room like hollow sentinels. Other than the poster, the walls were bare. “Bonita, no?” he winked at me as though I was staring at the babe. Actually, I was looking for diplomas. “Sit down,” he said. “Sit down.”

“Actually...” I began, thinking as quickly as I could — I had to get out of there without offending him, if possible. “I just wanted to find you and make an appointment for next week. It took me all afternoon to track you down, and I have an appointment on the other side in an hour and a half with a convicted felon now spearheading a project in Otay Lakes for Habitat for Humanity, you see? Have you heard of it? Well, what with the wait at the border and everything....” He asked me a convenient time. I said something, and he wrote it down with a fading felt-tip pen in a child’s composition book. I left and thanked him. Of course, I never went back.

When I told this story to my girlfriend sometime later, she got that look on her face— like when her drunken friend came over for a barbecue and peed in the hibachi. “What’s the matter with you?” She’s not given much to screaming, but she was close as I told her about Jorge. “You can get AIDS down there! Don’t you know that?”

“Well, I figure I can get it in Del Mar too, you know...”

“This isn’t funny. You’ve got to promise me never to go to a Mexican dentist again.” This sounded vaguely racist to me, and she is anything but racist. You look up liberal Jew in the dictionary, there’s her picture. Once an Asian woman almost rear-ended her Volvo at high speed; the old woman was totally oblivious to where she was going and how fast. When she came to a stop within centimeters of the Volvo, she leaned on the horn and screamed at my girlfriend. “You stupid bitch! You very stupid! You drive your car! Drive you goddamned car! Light is green!” My good-natured sidekick-o’-love merely shook her head and said, “Poor thing. Did I cut her off? It must be hard for elderly drivers, can you imagine?” She then signaled to the old maniac that she was sorry. I mean, an albino, gay, homeless, crack-dealing, Nazi wino Arab could, while trying to wash her windshield, puke all over it, and her reaction, I guarantee, would be, “Poor thing.”

I digress here only to point out how unusual it was to hear what my bundle of babe-osity said next about Mexican dentists. “They don’t have the equipment to sterilize properly. They have to have these things to kill the viral spores. Not even all American dentists have this equipment. It’s very expensive. My dentist, Marvin, told me all about it.” “Am I hearing you correctly? Deadly Mexican AIDS spores?”

“Just promise me you won’t have a Mexican dentist work on your mouth or even examine you.”

I promised, but I was disconcerted by this attitude, prevalent among San Diegans and Los Angelenos, Zonies, and corroborated by finger-and head-shaking members of the American Dental Association. Don’t go to dentists in Mexico, especially Tijuana! This is the conventional wisdom. I wanted to see how much truth there was to it — without having to sleep on the couch.

I was in no position to fund and pursue a scientific canvassing and study on the subject. I just figured I could cart around my little bridged crowns as an entree, check out various facilities, and interview a few dentists. English-speaking ones, preferably. If it appears I am bagging on the handful of dentistas I visited, I assure you, I have nothing against them — that is, not any more so than American dentists who alternately terrified and entertained me as a child. (It seemed to me that many dentists were failed comedians with a terrible need to be loved via balloon animals, bad puns, and incomprehensible “funny voices” intended as celebrity imitations. Later in life I heard that dentists have an inordinately high suicide rate. It’s not hard to see why, when many are viewed with a combination of fear and disdain. In a rock band I was in many years ago, if the audience did not respond favorably to our music, we would say, “Forget it. They’re a bunch of dentists, man.”)

The first stop in TJ was the office or offices of Doctor Javier Nevarez on Calle 3a. Open seven days a week, the doctor has an office on each side of the street. Both are very small. One is a few doors from a great little dive seafood joint called El Marinero — I recommend the shrimp burrito. The girl in the office on that side of the street directed me to the other side of the street and informed me the doc would be about an hour. I waited, watching a guy in a nearby shoe-shine stand do absolutely no business while I ate camarones and rice, sweating profusely from the July heat and excellent salsa.

As I waited for Nevarez, I recalled another experience I had with a Mexican dentist. It was 1974 or ’75 in Puerto Vallarta. My then-wife and I had dinner in a highly recommended place; in fact, we sat at a table next to James Earl Jones, who was filming a movie called Swashbuckler. I ordered Carne Veracruz or something like that. It was supposed to be steak smothered in green salsa. It tasted fine, but it was extremely tough. Later that night, I woke up with the right side of my jaw swelling. I was in incredible pain and assumed it was a toothache. It took 40 years for the sun to come up and for my wife to seek out a dentist. I told the first guy we found just to pull the fucker out, and he asked me, why? The tooth was perfectly good. Instead he reached in with a hooked instrument and yanked out a three-inch piece of animal tendon. “You’ve been eating horsemeat,” he said, and looked at me as if wondering why I would do such a thing. The pain subsided shortly after that.

When Dr. Nevarez showed up, he struck me as a dapper, gentle man with light blue-green eyes. I showed him my bridge and explained that I would like to discuss dentistry in Tijuana for a San Diego paper. He didn’t seem to understand why I would want to interview him, but he studied the bridge and said he could cement it back in for $25. His office, at least on that side of the street, is neat but very small. If you are claustrophobic you would have a problem in there.

I saw one dental chair (though he might have had another in another room) and an overhead surgical light. The room has no windows and is separated from Third Avenue by a tiny waiting room. He could construct another bridge for $300, $150 for each crown. Cleanings and fillings are both $25 each. When I asked him if we could talk about his training, background, misconceptions Americans might have about professional Mexican oral care, he said he had an appointment but that I could make an appointment with him for the following day at 3:00 p.m. 1 agreed. That was the last I saw of him: he never showed up the following day — in itself not a great recommendation. For all I know, though, he is the Mozart, the Picasso, the Willie Mays of Tijuana dentistas.

Next was a guy who also had a cramped office. It is set back from Third Avenue by a long tiled foyer. Dr. Avalos was seated behind a small desk looking like a bored customs official with no one to detain. He had no patients in the office. Car exhaust wafted in from the street as I whipped out my ruined mouth work. He looked at it without expression, turned it over in his palm, then told me to open my mouth. I did and pointed at the long-eroded, filed rear molars (I was across the desk from him, honey; he never touched me). He peered in and nodded, handed the bridgework back, and pronounced, “Twenty-five dollars.” It was a take-it-or-leave-it tone of voice. He then leaned back in his chair with his palms on the surface of the desk. He studied the backs of his hands, then looked at his watch. A busy man. I looked at some diplomas on a wall across the room. I bet none of them were from charm school. I could not picture the stone-faced doctor making balloon animals or wearing a lampshade on his head at parties. Still, he may well be a genius with laughing gas.

The next several dental offices had filled waiting rooms or the practitioners spoke so little English that conversation was limited. Some didn’t understand what I wanted, bridgework or conversation. Others did not want to be interviewed, either because of the cost of their time or reasons they didn’t explain.

Walking back to the border along First Avenue, I decided to make another stop for the day. The sign on the door read, “Dra. Deyadira Guerrero Ruiz: Cirujano Dentista.” What the hell. I walked up the stairs — nicely tiled — to a Dutch door, closed on the bottom. I peered in. “Hola!” A very attractive woman in a lab coat was leaning over a patient in the reclined chair. An aquamarine plastic dam was draped over his face, sunken where an arsenal of dental tools rested against his jaw. The office had three chairs divided by partitions, plants, an X-ray machine, sinks, desks. Because of the three other business cards on the door, I assumed the office was shared by three women dentists. I introduced myself to the doctor and indicated I could see she was busy. Her English was excellent, and she agreed to be interviewed the following day. Doctora Deyadira Guerrero Ruiz kept her appointment.

The 38-year-old doctora was alone in the office when I returned, so I did not meet her colleagues: 30-year-old Dra. Elida Becker, 37-year-old Dra. Romana M. Lopez R., and 29-year-old Dra. Ana Gabriela Serrano M. The temperature was in the mid-80s, yet none of the standing fans were in use. I sat down with Guerrero and asked her, first of all, why she became a dentist. Attractive, hair pulled back from her face, hazel eyes, and high cheekbones, she exuded an air of competence and profession-ality. She might have been a lawyer or college professor. “I wanted to relieve people’s pain,” she said simply. “I knew in high school what I wanted to do. My own dentist was my model.”

Born and raised a Tijuanense, Guerrero attended high school at Preparatoria Federal Lazaro Cardenas. She was a “good student” and went on to attend Universidad Autonoma de Baja California. A wall of diplomas, or reconocimientos, from, among other places, the Association of Mexican Dentists and certificates acknowledging her completion of courses and conferences were arranged on a partition opposite the X-ray machine, an autoclave, and a chemoclave. Between them was the reclining patient’s chair. I imagined the diplomas and sterilization equipment was reassuring in line of sight of some nervous root-canal case. In fact, after post-graduate work in 1997, root canal, or endodoncia, is Dra. Guerrero’s area of expertise.

Doctora G. has practiced for 15 years and opened her present office 3 years ago. She was joined by her three colleagues in February of 1998.

The doctora showed me how the chemoclave works — I’d never seen one, having avoided dentists whenever possible until recently. As you may know, it is a box in which you place instruments on a vibrating panel in a pool of blue chemicals that should dissolve even the emulsifiers in a Twinkie. The vibrating action removes any dried blood, tissue, or debris—such as, I suppose, deadly Mexican AIDS spores. Guerrero pointed out the autoclave, similar to a microwave oven, and I resisted a crack about heating up burritos. The general cleanliness of the relatively large office is comparable to any U.S. facility.

“We are very near to San Diego, of course,” she says. “We buy our equipment there. You will find the same equipment in this office as anywhere up there.” As for the AIDS/TJ/dentist question, she says, “That’s not true. I know of no cases.” Well, naturally, she’ll say that, but I haven’t heard of any cases either — or anyone I know who can point to a specific example. If something of that nature came to light, you can bet the Union-Tribune and the L.A. Times, among other papers, would be all over it. For this question, even with the possibility of un reported or undiagnosed cases, denial is plausible.

Deyadira Guerrero Ruiz pronounces the first half of her first name as in deja vu, the second half, like dee-ahda. She is unmarried but has a boyfriend, and she lives nearby with her parents and her brother. She hopes to open another clinic in the Plaza Rio section before too long.

“In high school,” Guerrero returns to the subject of her professional origins, “we had a laboratory where I made crowns and dentures. I was very good, and that’s when I knew.” I absently registered that the low music in the background was Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind.” This as opposed to manic norteno polkas in other offices I’d visited.

The office does not treat women exclusively, but men and children too. “Not so many children,” she allows. “I have patients from San Diego, Pomona, Los Angeles, from near to San Francisco, from Las Vegas, and Colorado. They come here because they like our work, and it’s cheaper than the United States. My patients tell other people, and then they tell other people. If they have no insurance, it is best for them to come here. A root canal is $150.” Her other prices are identical to the good-humor man over on Third and the phantom Dr. Nevarez.

Is there a type of work she will not perform? “I don’t like doing wisdom teeth,” she shakes her head and smiles. “Too much blood,” she laughs. “I will refer patients to a wisdom-tooth specialist.”

It is time for her next appointment, another root canal, so I thank her and take her card. Walking past barking jewelry salesmen and guys urging me to have a Corona for a buck and a free shot of cheap tequila watered down with 7-Up, I think, Yeah, I’d go to her. It’s clean, modern, she really seems to know what she’s doing, and she’s really good looking.

I won’t though. It would give my girlfriend two more reasons to kill me.

Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all

Previous article

San Diego in books - the Joy Fielding mention, Englishmen snap up city blocks in 1885

Errol Flynn decks Adolph Spreckels for calling him a fairy, why no railroad to San Diego
"They come here because they like our work, and it’s cheaper than the United States." - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
"They come here because they like our work, and it’s cheaper than the United States."

It was October of 1992 when I was walking north on 30th Street in North Park, approaching Upas, chewing gum and humming the theme to Three’s Company, that my lower-left fake molars crumbled into powdery shards of porcelain. I stood in front of an abandoned auto-repair garage spitting into my palm what looked like pieces of plaster set in Trident spearmint gum. With my tongue, I worked at my back teeth and dislodged what felt like a huge section of my mouth. I reached in with thumb and forefinger, removing $600 worth of four-year-old bridge-work. I must have looked like a street psycho with Tourette’s syndrome as I lifted my head to the overcast sky and shouted, “Shit!”

I had to assess the situation: Was this a dental emergency? Was I in pain? Should I walk across the street to that dental clinic with the waiting room full of families and see what could be done? The answers I came up with were no, no, and I don’t have the money anyway. What I did do was get a napkin from Jack In The Box, wrap the two metal-bonded crowns, and stuff the little structure into my shirt pocket. Later that day I put the crumpled napkin enfolding the bridge into a plastic box in my medicine cabinet and forgot about it. It remained there for six years, and I’ve been chewing with whittled nubs on that side of my mouth ever since.

The lack of pain and dental coverage made the decision for me. It wasn’t until I met a Mexican dentist at the Hotel Nelson bar in Tijuana that I learned I might correct the problem cheaply and easily. Still, I procrastinated. When I bought a new wallet and cleaned out the old one, I came across the dentist’s card: Dr. Jaime Guevara, Grupo Dental Familiar, with an address on Juarez Street. At the time it didn’t occur to me that it might not be a stroke of genius to seek out a guy I met in a bar to work on my mouth with sharp implements, but as my father constantly reminded me, I learn everything the hard way.

I called the number on the card and got a man who spoke Spanish. He told me there was no one there by the name of Guevara, no dentists at all. They had moved, and the man on the phone had no idea where. Again I forgot about it. When I found myself in TJ the next time, I stopped in to see my friend, the day bartender at the Hotel Nelson. I asked him what happened to Jaime, and he told me he was practicing out of his mother’s house in Colonia Libertad. I got directions and drove east.

Guevara’s new practice is announced by a sign, “Dr. J. Guevara, Dentista Familiar.” It is hand-painted on a rusted-out 1972 Lincoln town car propped up on its wheel wells by wooden blocks. A mongrel dog makes its home in the car when it is not harassing the neighbor’s chickens around the dusty yard. The front door was open, and Jorge’s kids were in front of a brand-new 19-inch television set watching cartoons. Two boys, one about 12, the other maybe 6 or 7, ignored me. A pretty 5-year-old girl, face smeared with dirt and what looked like custard, greeted me with Spanish baby talk. She raised her voice, turned her head, and shouted, “Abuelita!” into the recesses of the small house. From a bedroom, a small woman in her 70s or 80s emerged, patting her black-dyed hair pinned up on her head. She wore heavy

makeup, and her lips were painted bright red. I told her I was there to see Jaime, and she nodded and pointed to the couch. “Tome asiento, ” she said and then shouted like the little girl, “Jaime!”

When Jaime emerged from another bedroom, I should have turned around and driven away immediately, but I was raised to be polite.

“Yes, yes. Can I help you?” Guevara ran his fingers through a disheveled shock of straight black hair and tugged at the waist of his pants. He wore bedroom slippers and his untucked imitation LaCoste shirt clung to his beer belly.

The front door was open and Jorge’s kids were in front of a brand-new 19-inch television set watching cartoons.

He looked as if he was five months pregnant and hadn’t shaved in days. He smelled like cerveza. It was about 3:30 in the afternoon.

“Remember me, uh, Doctor Guevara? I met you last October at the Hotel Nelson. You gave me your card about my bridgework? I couldn’t find you at the old address.”

“Oh, yes,” he scratched beneath his arms. “You need a bridge?”

I showed him my old one. “Maybe this is still good, I don’t know.”

“I can put it back in,” he said eyeing the thing, squinting. He looked up at me. “You got $15?” On the television screen, three little doglike creatures were dropping safes, anvils,, and pianos on other little creatures.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Open your mouth.” I did, and he peered in and grunted. “It might be a little more,” he said. “You want a beer?”

“No, that’s okay.”

“Araceli! Get me a beer. Come on in here,” he gestured to his room. I followed him. In the middle of the room sat a reclining dentist’s chair with leaking upholstery, one of those giant dental klieg lights, and a stand with tools for oral spelunking. A cabinet with paraphernalia from cotton balls to syringes to a set of ghastly looking pliers was set against one wall, next to a poster of some swimsuit model, the kind of poster you’d expect in an auto mechanic’s garage. The only other features in the room were an unmade single bed, a dirty plate on the floor from breakfast — looked like eggs, tortillas, and beans — and five empty Carta Blanca bottles situated around the room like hollow sentinels. Other than the poster, the walls were bare. “Bonita, no?” he winked at me as though I was staring at the babe. Actually, I was looking for diplomas. “Sit down,” he said. “Sit down.”

“Actually...” I began, thinking as quickly as I could — I had to get out of there without offending him, if possible. “I just wanted to find you and make an appointment for next week. It took me all afternoon to track you down, and I have an appointment on the other side in an hour and a half with a convicted felon now spearheading a project in Otay Lakes for Habitat for Humanity, you see? Have you heard of it? Well, what with the wait at the border and everything....” He asked me a convenient time. I said something, and he wrote it down with a fading felt-tip pen in a child’s composition book. I left and thanked him. Of course, I never went back.

When I told this story to my girlfriend sometime later, she got that look on her face— like when her drunken friend came over for a barbecue and peed in the hibachi. “What’s the matter with you?” She’s not given much to screaming, but she was close as I told her about Jorge. “You can get AIDS down there! Don’t you know that?”

“Well, I figure I can get it in Del Mar too, you know...”

“This isn’t funny. You’ve got to promise me never to go to a Mexican dentist again.” This sounded vaguely racist to me, and she is anything but racist. You look up liberal Jew in the dictionary, there’s her picture. Once an Asian woman almost rear-ended her Volvo at high speed; the old woman was totally oblivious to where she was going and how fast. When she came to a stop within centimeters of the Volvo, she leaned on the horn and screamed at my girlfriend. “You stupid bitch! You very stupid! You drive your car! Drive you goddamned car! Light is green!” My good-natured sidekick-o’-love merely shook her head and said, “Poor thing. Did I cut her off? It must be hard for elderly drivers, can you imagine?” She then signaled to the old maniac that she was sorry. I mean, an albino, gay, homeless, crack-dealing, Nazi wino Arab could, while trying to wash her windshield, puke all over it, and her reaction, I guarantee, would be, “Poor thing.”

I digress here only to point out how unusual it was to hear what my bundle of babe-osity said next about Mexican dentists. “They don’t have the equipment to sterilize properly. They have to have these things to kill the viral spores. Not even all American dentists have this equipment. It’s very expensive. My dentist, Marvin, told me all about it.” “Am I hearing you correctly? Deadly Mexican AIDS spores?”

“Just promise me you won’t have a Mexican dentist work on your mouth or even examine you.”

I promised, but I was disconcerted by this attitude, prevalent among San Diegans and Los Angelenos, Zonies, and corroborated by finger-and head-shaking members of the American Dental Association. Don’t go to dentists in Mexico, especially Tijuana! This is the conventional wisdom. I wanted to see how much truth there was to it — without having to sleep on the couch.

I was in no position to fund and pursue a scientific canvassing and study on the subject. I just figured I could cart around my little bridged crowns as an entree, check out various facilities, and interview a few dentists. English-speaking ones, preferably. If it appears I am bagging on the handful of dentistas I visited, I assure you, I have nothing against them — that is, not any more so than American dentists who alternately terrified and entertained me as a child. (It seemed to me that many dentists were failed comedians with a terrible need to be loved via balloon animals, bad puns, and incomprehensible “funny voices” intended as celebrity imitations. Later in life I heard that dentists have an inordinately high suicide rate. It’s not hard to see why, when many are viewed with a combination of fear and disdain. In a rock band I was in many years ago, if the audience did not respond favorably to our music, we would say, “Forget it. They’re a bunch of dentists, man.”)

The first stop in TJ was the office or offices of Doctor Javier Nevarez on Calle 3a. Open seven days a week, the doctor has an office on each side of the street. Both are very small. One is a few doors from a great little dive seafood joint called El Marinero — I recommend the shrimp burrito. The girl in the office on that side of the street directed me to the other side of the street and informed me the doc would be about an hour. I waited, watching a guy in a nearby shoe-shine stand do absolutely no business while I ate camarones and rice, sweating profusely from the July heat and excellent salsa.

As I waited for Nevarez, I recalled another experience I had with a Mexican dentist. It was 1974 or ’75 in Puerto Vallarta. My then-wife and I had dinner in a highly recommended place; in fact, we sat at a table next to James Earl Jones, who was filming a movie called Swashbuckler. I ordered Carne Veracruz or something like that. It was supposed to be steak smothered in green salsa. It tasted fine, but it was extremely tough. Later that night, I woke up with the right side of my jaw swelling. I was in incredible pain and assumed it was a toothache. It took 40 years for the sun to come up and for my wife to seek out a dentist. I told the first guy we found just to pull the fucker out, and he asked me, why? The tooth was perfectly good. Instead he reached in with a hooked instrument and yanked out a three-inch piece of animal tendon. “You’ve been eating horsemeat,” he said, and looked at me as if wondering why I would do such a thing. The pain subsided shortly after that.

When Dr. Nevarez showed up, he struck me as a dapper, gentle man with light blue-green eyes. I showed him my bridge and explained that I would like to discuss dentistry in Tijuana for a San Diego paper. He didn’t seem to understand why I would want to interview him, but he studied the bridge and said he could cement it back in for $25. His office, at least on that side of the street, is neat but very small. If you are claustrophobic you would have a problem in there.

I saw one dental chair (though he might have had another in another room) and an overhead surgical light. The room has no windows and is separated from Third Avenue by a tiny waiting room. He could construct another bridge for $300, $150 for each crown. Cleanings and fillings are both $25 each. When I asked him if we could talk about his training, background, misconceptions Americans might have about professional Mexican oral care, he said he had an appointment but that I could make an appointment with him for the following day at 3:00 p.m. 1 agreed. That was the last I saw of him: he never showed up the following day — in itself not a great recommendation. For all I know, though, he is the Mozart, the Picasso, the Willie Mays of Tijuana dentistas.

Next was a guy who also had a cramped office. It is set back from Third Avenue by a long tiled foyer. Dr. Avalos was seated behind a small desk looking like a bored customs official with no one to detain. He had no patients in the office. Car exhaust wafted in from the street as I whipped out my ruined mouth work. He looked at it without expression, turned it over in his palm, then told me to open my mouth. I did and pointed at the long-eroded, filed rear molars (I was across the desk from him, honey; he never touched me). He peered in and nodded, handed the bridgework back, and pronounced, “Twenty-five dollars.” It was a take-it-or-leave-it tone of voice. He then leaned back in his chair with his palms on the surface of the desk. He studied the backs of his hands, then looked at his watch. A busy man. I looked at some diplomas on a wall across the room. I bet none of them were from charm school. I could not picture the stone-faced doctor making balloon animals or wearing a lampshade on his head at parties. Still, he may well be a genius with laughing gas.

The next several dental offices had filled waiting rooms or the practitioners spoke so little English that conversation was limited. Some didn’t understand what I wanted, bridgework or conversation. Others did not want to be interviewed, either because of the cost of their time or reasons they didn’t explain.

Walking back to the border along First Avenue, I decided to make another stop for the day. The sign on the door read, “Dra. Deyadira Guerrero Ruiz: Cirujano Dentista.” What the hell. I walked up the stairs — nicely tiled — to a Dutch door, closed on the bottom. I peered in. “Hola!” A very attractive woman in a lab coat was leaning over a patient in the reclined chair. An aquamarine plastic dam was draped over his face, sunken where an arsenal of dental tools rested against his jaw. The office had three chairs divided by partitions, plants, an X-ray machine, sinks, desks. Because of the three other business cards on the door, I assumed the office was shared by three women dentists. I introduced myself to the doctor and indicated I could see she was busy. Her English was excellent, and she agreed to be interviewed the following day. Doctora Deyadira Guerrero Ruiz kept her appointment.

The 38-year-old doctora was alone in the office when I returned, so I did not meet her colleagues: 30-year-old Dra. Elida Becker, 37-year-old Dra. Romana M. Lopez R., and 29-year-old Dra. Ana Gabriela Serrano M. The temperature was in the mid-80s, yet none of the standing fans were in use. I sat down with Guerrero and asked her, first of all, why she became a dentist. Attractive, hair pulled back from her face, hazel eyes, and high cheekbones, she exuded an air of competence and profession-ality. She might have been a lawyer or college professor. “I wanted to relieve people’s pain,” she said simply. “I knew in high school what I wanted to do. My own dentist was my model.”

Born and raised a Tijuanense, Guerrero attended high school at Preparatoria Federal Lazaro Cardenas. She was a “good student” and went on to attend Universidad Autonoma de Baja California. A wall of diplomas, or reconocimientos, from, among other places, the Association of Mexican Dentists and certificates acknowledging her completion of courses and conferences were arranged on a partition opposite the X-ray machine, an autoclave, and a chemoclave. Between them was the reclining patient’s chair. I imagined the diplomas and sterilization equipment was reassuring in line of sight of some nervous root-canal case. In fact, after post-graduate work in 1997, root canal, or endodoncia, is Dra. Guerrero’s area of expertise.

Doctora G. has practiced for 15 years and opened her present office 3 years ago. She was joined by her three colleagues in February of 1998.

The doctora showed me how the chemoclave works — I’d never seen one, having avoided dentists whenever possible until recently. As you may know, it is a box in which you place instruments on a vibrating panel in a pool of blue chemicals that should dissolve even the emulsifiers in a Twinkie. The vibrating action removes any dried blood, tissue, or debris—such as, I suppose, deadly Mexican AIDS spores. Guerrero pointed out the autoclave, similar to a microwave oven, and I resisted a crack about heating up burritos. The general cleanliness of the relatively large office is comparable to any U.S. facility.

“We are very near to San Diego, of course,” she says. “We buy our equipment there. You will find the same equipment in this office as anywhere up there.” As for the AIDS/TJ/dentist question, she says, “That’s not true. I know of no cases.” Well, naturally, she’ll say that, but I haven’t heard of any cases either — or anyone I know who can point to a specific example. If something of that nature came to light, you can bet the Union-Tribune and the L.A. Times, among other papers, would be all over it. For this question, even with the possibility of un reported or undiagnosed cases, denial is plausible.

Deyadira Guerrero Ruiz pronounces the first half of her first name as in deja vu, the second half, like dee-ahda. She is unmarried but has a boyfriend, and she lives nearby with her parents and her brother. She hopes to open another clinic in the Plaza Rio section before too long.

“In high school,” Guerrero returns to the subject of her professional origins, “we had a laboratory where I made crowns and dentures. I was very good, and that’s when I knew.” I absently registered that the low music in the background was Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind.” This as opposed to manic norteno polkas in other offices I’d visited.

The office does not treat women exclusively, but men and children too. “Not so many children,” she allows. “I have patients from San Diego, Pomona, Los Angeles, from near to San Francisco, from Las Vegas, and Colorado. They come here because they like our work, and it’s cheaper than the United States. My patients tell other people, and then they tell other people. If they have no insurance, it is best for them to come here. A root canal is $150.” Her other prices are identical to the good-humor man over on Third and the phantom Dr. Nevarez.

Is there a type of work she will not perform? “I don’t like doing wisdom teeth,” she shakes her head and smiles. “Too much blood,” she laughs. “I will refer patients to a wisdom-tooth specialist.”

It is time for her next appointment, another root canal, so I thank her and take her card. Walking past barking jewelry salesmen and guys urging me to have a Corona for a buck and a free shot of cheap tequila watered down with 7-Up, I think, Yeah, I’d go to her. It’s clean, modern, she really seems to know what she’s doing, and she’s really good looking.

I won’t though. It would give my girlfriend two more reasons to kill me.

Sponsored
Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

Endless Summer Opening Reception, La Mesa Oktoberfest, Scorpions and Whitesnake

Events September 29-October 1, 2022
Next Article

Fat Fast Leonard

Mastermind behind Navy bribery scandal pulls a fast one, escapes from house arrest just before sentencing
Comments
0

Be the first to leave a comment.

Sign in to comment

Sign in

Ask a Hipster — Advice you didn't know you needed Big Screen — Movie commentary Blurt — Music's inside track Booze News — San Diego spirits Classical Music — Immortal beauty Classifieds — Free and easy Cover Stories — Front-page features Drinks All Around — Bartenders' drink recipes Excerpts — Literary and spiritual excerpts Feast! — Food & drink reviews Feature Stories — Local news & stories Fishing Report — What’s getting hooked from ship and shore From the Archives — Spotlight on the past Golden Dreams — Talk of the town The Gonzo Report — Making the musical scene, or at least reporting from it Letters — Our inbox [email protected] — Local movie buffs share favorites Movie Reviews — Our critics' picks and pans Musician Interviews — Up close with local artists Neighborhood News from Stringers — Hyperlocal news News Ticker — News & politics Obermeyer — San Diego politics illustrated Outdoors — Weekly changes in flora and fauna Overheard in San Diego — Eavesdropping illustrated Poetry — The old and the new Reader Travel — Travel section built by travelers Reading — The hunt for intellectuals Roam-O-Rama — SoCal's best hiking/biking trails San Diego Beer — Inside San Diego suds SD on the QT — Almost factual news Sheep and Goats — Places of worship Special Issues — The best of Street Style — San Diego streets have style Surf Diego — Real stories from those braving the waves Theater — On stage in San Diego this week Tin Fork — Silver spoon alternative Under the Radar — Matt Potter's undercover work Unforgettable — Long-ago San Diego Unreal Estate — San Diego's priciest pads Your Week — Daily event picks
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
Close