• Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

The brown-robed monk leads the way down into the crypt. "In 1791 the Mission of Santo Tomás de Aquino was founded by Dominican friars, south of Ensenada. Along with the mission, they brought grape vines...."

It's just another of the five daily tours through the wine cellars of Bodegas Santo Tomás, at its wine-processing plant in downtown Ensenada. The underground arched-brick cellars are stacked with bottles of sparkling wines. The "monk" is an employee dressed up to provide atmosphere and recount the history of the oldest active vineyard in the state, some say in all of Mexico. But when the group reaches the far end, where giant 100-year-old barrels still mature ports and sherries, someone asks to see the "Sala de Tintos." There's a silence. The guide looks nervous.

"Uh, no. We can't go in there," he says. "We have a little problem with this place. There are many policemen there. We can't enter. Please come back. In two months, I'm sure everything will be fine."

But an Ensenada citizens' group is not so sure everything will be fine. In two months, they say, the Sala de Tintos could be razed and turned into a parking lot for a supermarket. And one of the great landmarks of Ensenada could be destroyed. In what could prove to be a milestone "coming-of-age" case for Baja preservationists, the battle lines have been drawn between an owner who claims his right to do as he sees fit with his property and citizens who claim that property as a part of their cultural heritage.

It has been a dramatic couple of months since Ensenada citizens got a whiff of a rumor that Santo Tomás's absentee owner, Antonio Cossío Ariño, intended to allow supermarket titan José Fimbres to build one of his Calimax supermarkets on the historic site. Fimbres wants to compete with a nearby -- and successful -- Gigante supermarket. Both locations are near bus stations that take people to outlying areas of Ensenada. So far, Mexico City-based Cossío couldn't see any reason to refuse.

Since his winery has essentially moved 70 percent of its operation back to where the Dominican monks began it all -- 25 miles south, in the fields and mountainside caves of Santo Tomás -- this place has been turned into a tourist draw and cultural center. In the last ten years it has become most famous for its verbena popular -- its popular wine-harvest-inspired street festival of concerts, impromptu performances, and dancing.

But the beautiful Sala de Tintos -- red wine hall -- has always been the star turn. "Oh, it's wonderful!" gushes Jane Zwerneman, who has often appeared there as a French-horn player with the Orchestra of Baja California. "It's a big bodega -- warehouse. There's a large enough space that you can probably seat 300 people on the floor, they have great beams, rows of kegs and half-kegs along the walls. Five of the half-kegs are used as dressing rooms -- that's how large they are: probably 12 feet in diameter and 15 feet high. There's also a balcony at the back. We have done concerts so crowded they have seated eight or ten people on chairs on top of some of these kegs. Plus, the room has a wonderful acoustic. It's very 'live,' a wonderful ambience. You can smell the wine in these old kegs. It permeates them. You'll never lose that smell. It is very Ensenada. You feel like you're in a wine cellar. Everything is shadowy. So evocative to make music in. It just kills me what they're doing, because it's unique."

What's also unique is the preservationists may finally have a chance in their battle against developers. Five years ago Baja state governor Ernesto Ruffo Appel approved a state law, La Ley del Patrimonio Cultural, which, among other protections, made it possible for the state government to order a three-month delay to any changes affecting "eligible" buildings, not just buildings already designated as historic. It marked a sea change in the way Baja California approached its patrimonio. Time after time developers had gone in and wrecked buildings and asked questions later. "Developers know how [the government] works," says Maria Castillo Curry, a researcher at Colegio de la Frontera Norte's Department of Urban Studies and the Environment. "The saying is 'It's better to ask perdón than permission.' "

Castillo, who has 15 years' experience in preservation in Mexico, 5 in Europe, and is currently completing a Ph.D. at Cornell, says Baja has been slow at taking its own history seriously, partly because, in Mexico City, cultural guardians don't consider brash, "violent," Americanized Baja California to be worth saving. The national law protecting historically significant sites was conceived in central Mexico, which bristles with millennia-old pyramids and 500-year-old colonial cities. The law states that only buildings at least 100 years old can be protected. "All 20th-century buildings are left to the state and local authorities," says Castillo.

Which means that besides the missions, just about everything in Baja doesn't qualify. That includes the Bodegas Santo Tomás, which didn't open in downtown Ensenada until 1934, though parts of the building had been up since 1913. "And yet we lack people qualified to assess such buildings," Castillo adds. "The governor [Alejandro González Alcocer] must sign any ordinance ordering special status for the bodegas, yet he doesn't have a single preservationist in his office."

* * *

A group of Ensenada's citizens, mainly artists and academics, started getting worried about the Sala de Tintos around the beginning of the year. Rumors circulated that after a "final concert" on March 31, much of the winery was going to be demolished and a supermarket built in its place. And its most beautiful room, the Sala de Tintos, was going to be leveled to become a parking lot.

"We started a letter campaign," says Marianne de Ramírez, an ex-French teacher who's been trying to stop the demolition. "We started calling everybody we could think of. We wrote to the mayor, the governor, even the president of the republic. We had never done this before. We collected signatures. One letter had more than 1500. Organizations signed on. A thousand schoolchildren wrote to the governor. Alfredo Alvarez, the director of Tijuana's Cultural Center, came out publicly in support of us. It was wonderful."

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."

  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Sign in to comment

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader