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Lifelike Tijuana

Border wax museum started with Mexican figures - but customers ask for Britney Spears.

Ricardo Parra Montes holding Carlos Santana wax head.  "He's going to go over there, by the Ayatollah Khomeini." - Image by Joe Klein
Ricardo Parra Montes holding Carlos Santana wax head. "He's going to go over there, by the Ayatollah Khomeini."

There are three wax-figure museums in all of Mexico. Two of them, Mexico City's and Tijuana's, owe their existence to Ricardo Parra Montes. "I was the director of tourism for the Mexico City government in 1978 and 1979," he says. "That was my job. One of my projects then was to build the Mexico City wax museum. That was my first experience in wax figures. I developed a relationship with many wax sculptors. Later I came to Tijuana with the dream to start this museum. I was living in Mexicali, working in the real estate business over there. But I wanted to be in Tijuana for this reason."

On a stone altar lies a bloody wax cadaver, an offering to the gods whom a diminutive priest invokes nearby.

Eleven years ago, Parra realized his dream when he opened the museum at the corner of First Street and Madero, a block east of the stainless steel arch at the north end of Avenida Revolución. The location is along the corridor used by most of the foot traffic between the border port and Revolución. The municipal government of Tijuana recently spruced up this portion of First Street, cutting off car access, pouring new concrete with a stamped-stone effect, and erecting wrought-iron light poles.

Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe, Julia Roberts. "Princess Diana is very difficult. Marilyn Monroe, for some reason, is very difficult. They are both very beautiful, but the form of their faces isn't well defined."

From these surroundings, anywhere from 180 to 850 people a day — some tourists on their way to shops and clubs on Revolución, some students from Tijuana and San Diego — climb a short flight of steps into the darkened museum foyer. After paying $1.50 at the ticket window, they walk down a short hall to the right that transports them 500 years back in time and 2500 miles to the southeast to Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital upon which Mexico City was built. On a stone altar lies a bloody wax cadaver, an offering to the gods whom a diminutive priest invokes nearby. To the left are the taller figures of Moctezuma and Cuauhtémoc, the last two Aztec emperors, and Hernán Cortés, the conquistador who defeated them. "These figures are similar in size to the originals," says Parra, who is tall and neatly dressed with square, frameless glasses that match his square jawline. "We did some historical research, and we found out the sizes. You can see that Mocteczuma and Cuauhtémoc are taller than the average Aztec," he points to the priest and victim, "because they ate better and they got a lot of exercise."

Though Parra buys some figures from wax sculptors in the United States, Moctezuma and company were made in their hometown of Mexico City. "We have maybe 15 wax sculptors in Mexico," Parra says as he walks toward the next exhibit, "and all of them are in Mexico City. There are a few in the U.S. and some in Europe. But wax sculptors are not common."

Because each wax figure costs $4000 to $6000, "and we have 85 figures," Parra explains, "the initial investment was half a million dollars. There were hard times for me for the first few years because this kind of business is slow to be accepted by the people, particularly in a town like Tijuana where people are coming to have a drink, to see shows, to party. And after September 11, it was very hard. But now everyone knows about my museum, and I get lots of school groups."

"Here we have the missionaries," Parra says, continuing his tour. "Padre Kino here built many missions such as the mission of Loreto in the south of Baja." There is a major boulevard in the Rio Zone of Tijuana named after Padre Kino.

"Padre Serra over here built nine missions in the state of California, starting with the San Diego Mission. These padres were very great men. They knew astronomy, they knew agriculture, they taught the people to read. They were both from very rich families in Spain."

Beyond the padres are two Tijuana legends in wax. One is a little old lady set in an alcove. "This is Tia Juana," Parra says, "the founder of the city. The historical society of Baja doesn't want to certify it. They say she was a legend. But maybe she was real. She's in many books. Anyway, she was probably in this figure of face: lighter skinned and European looking, like Spanish people. Because in those days there was a Spanish colony here."

The other legendary figure is Juan Castillo, better known as Juan Soldado. He was a private in the Mexican army who, while stationed in Tijuana in 1938, was executed for the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl that many believed had been committed by an officer of his regiment. "Some people say you can pray to him for a miracle," Parra explains.

Past Queen Isabella, King Ferdinand, and the man they sent across the Atlantic, Christopher Columbus, a room crammed full of post-independence Mexican political figures opens on the right. First on the right is Miguel Hidalgo, "who was our George Washington. The bell he is ringing is the independence bell. This scene recalls the first time he called the people together. He was a priest, and he rang the bell to gather the people in the church where he told them, 'Come out and follow me. We're going to fight against the Spanish government.' "

Continuing counterclockwise around the room, Parra beams as he narrates the tour. "This is Morelos, father of our independence movement. Benito Juarez was one of the greatest heroes of Mexico. He is our Abraham Lincoln. In fact, they wrote each other and were friends. We call the time of his presidency La Reforma because he consolidated many Mexican laws for agriculture, for social rights, for civil rights. Many of the legal principles we have now came from Benito Juarez. That's why all over my country you will see statues in bronze of Juarez, and you'll see many Benito Juarez boulevards and schools. And there's a big city on the border, Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas."

"Porfirio Diaz," Parra says, continuing his tour, "was a dictator at the turn of the 20th Century who was defeated by the revolution. He was defeated by Zapata and Pancho Villa here, the most popular leaders of the revolution. Venustiano Carranza, he gave us the same constitution we're using nowadays."

The museum's emphasis on history reflects Parra's own personal interest. "And," he says, "I want the people to be always reminded of their history. We live in a border town, so it would be easy to be influenced by the culture of another country. So I started this museum with Mexican historic figures to remind the people that this is the country where we live, and these were the people that gave us this country. Otherwise, it's easy for the Mexican people who live on the border to forget that."

The historical emphasis also accounts for a large portion of Parra's customers: school kids on field trips. "Even from San Diego and from Chula Vista," he says. "They come over on buses from the U.S. Not only Mexican-Americans but many schools of Anglo people -- blond hair and blue eyes. Sometimes, when I get here in the morning, there are 10 or 12 school buses full of kids already here."

In the hall outside the political room, the Ayatollah Khomeini sits alone in his own alcove facing a mediocre likeness of Pope John Paul II, who shares his space with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and a blond, blue-eyed David. "A few times I've seen people kneel here to pray," Parra says. "Maybe it's because of the Pope's cross. It's a replica of the one the Pope carries made by the same artisan."

Past the Pope is a room full of mid- and late-20th-century international political figures. Gandhi, Vicente Fox, and Fidel Castro figures are very good likenesses. The Mother Teresa is not. Nor is the John F. Kennedy. Mikhail Gorbachev is a B-grade effort, but the grinning Bill Clinton gets a C to D, depending on what angle you view it from. "Sometimes, you place a figure," Parra says, "and you move it a tiny bit and you lose some of the parecido, the likeness. Light from a certain angle might bring out the likeness. Light from a different angle might take it away. Even from the same angle, light of a strong intensity might bring out more likeness than low-intensity light. It's my job to figure that out. It's an artistic job. Sometimes you put in a light bulb, take a look and say, 'It's okay, but it could be better.' Then you change it for another, and maybe you like the first one better. And everybody around has an opinion: 'That one looks great....' 'No, the other one was better....' 'The light is fine, but move it a quarter turn to the left.' Many opinions. So I have to be alone with the figure. If I still can't get it right, I put a black hood over it and forget about it. A week later I'll come back and try again."

And some faces, Parra says, are not easy to copy in wax. "Princess Diana is very difficult. Marilyn Monroe, for some reason, is very difficult. They are both very beautiful, but the form of their faces isn't well defined."

Faces that are easy to memorialize in wax, Parra says, "are well-defined with distinctive marks. Whoopi Goldberg is easy because her face is muy marcado, very defined."

Down the hall in the Hollywood room, Goldberg -- in her nun costume from Sister Act -- looks very real. In the same room, a caricature-like Stallone figure -- clad in a Planet Hollywood sweatshirt -- stands behind a seated Wesley Snipes who looks something like Buckwheat from The Little Rascals. He is accompanied by Mel Gibson, Eddie Murphy, and Bill Cosby. Across the room, a passable Marilyn Monroe, shares an alcove with a near-miss Princess Diana and a figure of Julia Roberts that is very lifelike, albeit with a frizzy hairstyle and pantsuit she hasn't worn since the late 1980s. With the exception of the late princess, Marilyn Monroe, and Laurel and Hardy — El Gordo y El Flaco in Spanish — the room is full of stars who peaked between 1988 and 1993. Parra says immortalizing figures of fleeting fame in wax is a perpetual problem. "I survey my customers," he explains, "about who they'd like to see in the museum. The problem is, many times they say, 'We want to see Britney Spears,' for example. But Britney Spears is not established enough as a star. She's famous right now, but next year she might not be interesting. So I try to make it a requirement that the star is consolidated, someone like Frank Sinatra."

Parra's historical/cultural bent is evident even in the squeaky-floored House of Horrors section of the museum. Along with Freddy Krueger, a werewolf, and Jack the Ripper -- El Distripador -- the area also has an exhibit of a curandera or medicine woman, brewing an elixir in a big kettle. "You still find them in small towns all over Mexico," Parra says. "And here is La Llorona." He stops in front of a haggard woman in a tattered nightgown. "This is a legend from Mexico City. She's a lady who appears to you at night. The story comes from a real fact. She was not home, and two or three of her children died because the house burned up. Ever after, she has appeared at night crying and shouting, 'Oh, my children, my children!' "

In a room full of famous Mexican artists and performers are painter Frida Kahlo, pop singer Luis Miguel, and Pedro Infante, who was the Gene Autry of Mexico. Down the hall is an exhibit of international performers. The Elvis Presley is a dead ringer for actor Ray Liotta.

In his office after the tour, Parra holds the head of his latest acquisition, rock guitarist Carlos Santana. It's a good likeness of Santana when he was younger and had fewer wrinkles. "He's going to go over there," Parra says, "by the Ayatollah Khomeini."

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Ricardo Parra Montes holding Carlos Santana wax head.  "He's going to go over there, by the Ayatollah Khomeini." - Image by Joe Klein
Ricardo Parra Montes holding Carlos Santana wax head. "He's going to go over there, by the Ayatollah Khomeini."

There are three wax-figure museums in all of Mexico. Two of them, Mexico City's and Tijuana's, owe their existence to Ricardo Parra Montes. "I was the director of tourism for the Mexico City government in 1978 and 1979," he says. "That was my job. One of my projects then was to build the Mexico City wax museum. That was my first experience in wax figures. I developed a relationship with many wax sculptors. Later I came to Tijuana with the dream to start this museum. I was living in Mexicali, working in the real estate business over there. But I wanted to be in Tijuana for this reason."

On a stone altar lies a bloody wax cadaver, an offering to the gods whom a diminutive priest invokes nearby.

Eleven years ago, Parra realized his dream when he opened the museum at the corner of First Street and Madero, a block east of the stainless steel arch at the north end of Avenida Revolución. The location is along the corridor used by most of the foot traffic between the border port and Revolución. The municipal government of Tijuana recently spruced up this portion of First Street, cutting off car access, pouring new concrete with a stamped-stone effect, and erecting wrought-iron light poles.

Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe, Julia Roberts. "Princess Diana is very difficult. Marilyn Monroe, for some reason, is very difficult. They are both very beautiful, but the form of their faces isn't well defined."

From these surroundings, anywhere from 180 to 850 people a day — some tourists on their way to shops and clubs on Revolución, some students from Tijuana and San Diego — climb a short flight of steps into the darkened museum foyer. After paying $1.50 at the ticket window, they walk down a short hall to the right that transports them 500 years back in time and 2500 miles to the southeast to Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital upon which Mexico City was built. On a stone altar lies a bloody wax cadaver, an offering to the gods whom a diminutive priest invokes nearby. To the left are the taller figures of Moctezuma and Cuauhtémoc, the last two Aztec emperors, and Hernán Cortés, the conquistador who defeated them. "These figures are similar in size to the originals," says Parra, who is tall and neatly dressed with square, frameless glasses that match his square jawline. "We did some historical research, and we found out the sizes. You can see that Mocteczuma and Cuauhtémoc are taller than the average Aztec," he points to the priest and victim, "because they ate better and they got a lot of exercise."

Though Parra buys some figures from wax sculptors in the United States, Moctezuma and company were made in their hometown of Mexico City. "We have maybe 15 wax sculptors in Mexico," Parra says as he walks toward the next exhibit, "and all of them are in Mexico City. There are a few in the U.S. and some in Europe. But wax sculptors are not common."

Because each wax figure costs $4000 to $6000, "and we have 85 figures," Parra explains, "the initial investment was half a million dollars. There were hard times for me for the first few years because this kind of business is slow to be accepted by the people, particularly in a town like Tijuana where people are coming to have a drink, to see shows, to party. And after September 11, it was very hard. But now everyone knows about my museum, and I get lots of school groups."

"Here we have the missionaries," Parra says, continuing his tour. "Padre Kino here built many missions such as the mission of Loreto in the south of Baja." There is a major boulevard in the Rio Zone of Tijuana named after Padre Kino.

"Padre Serra over here built nine missions in the state of California, starting with the San Diego Mission. These padres were very great men. They knew astronomy, they knew agriculture, they taught the people to read. They were both from very rich families in Spain."

Beyond the padres are two Tijuana legends in wax. One is a little old lady set in an alcove. "This is Tia Juana," Parra says, "the founder of the city. The historical society of Baja doesn't want to certify it. They say she was a legend. But maybe she was real. She's in many books. Anyway, she was probably in this figure of face: lighter skinned and European looking, like Spanish people. Because in those days there was a Spanish colony here."

The other legendary figure is Juan Castillo, better known as Juan Soldado. He was a private in the Mexican army who, while stationed in Tijuana in 1938, was executed for the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl that many believed had been committed by an officer of his regiment. "Some people say you can pray to him for a miracle," Parra explains.

Past Queen Isabella, King Ferdinand, and the man they sent across the Atlantic, Christopher Columbus, a room crammed full of post-independence Mexican political figures opens on the right. First on the right is Miguel Hidalgo, "who was our George Washington. The bell he is ringing is the independence bell. This scene recalls the first time he called the people together. He was a priest, and he rang the bell to gather the people in the church where he told them, 'Come out and follow me. We're going to fight against the Spanish government.' "

Continuing counterclockwise around the room, Parra beams as he narrates the tour. "This is Morelos, father of our independence movement. Benito Juarez was one of the greatest heroes of Mexico. He is our Abraham Lincoln. In fact, they wrote each other and were friends. We call the time of his presidency La Reforma because he consolidated many Mexican laws for agriculture, for social rights, for civil rights. Many of the legal principles we have now came from Benito Juarez. That's why all over my country you will see statues in bronze of Juarez, and you'll see many Benito Juarez boulevards and schools. And there's a big city on the border, Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas."

"Porfirio Diaz," Parra says, continuing his tour, "was a dictator at the turn of the 20th Century who was defeated by the revolution. He was defeated by Zapata and Pancho Villa here, the most popular leaders of the revolution. Venustiano Carranza, he gave us the same constitution we're using nowadays."

The museum's emphasis on history reflects Parra's own personal interest. "And," he says, "I want the people to be always reminded of their history. We live in a border town, so it would be easy to be influenced by the culture of another country. So I started this museum with Mexican historic figures to remind the people that this is the country where we live, and these were the people that gave us this country. Otherwise, it's easy for the Mexican people who live on the border to forget that."

The historical emphasis also accounts for a large portion of Parra's customers: school kids on field trips. "Even from San Diego and from Chula Vista," he says. "They come over on buses from the U.S. Not only Mexican-Americans but many schools of Anglo people -- blond hair and blue eyes. Sometimes, when I get here in the morning, there are 10 or 12 school buses full of kids already here."

In the hall outside the political room, the Ayatollah Khomeini sits alone in his own alcove facing a mediocre likeness of Pope John Paul II, who shares his space with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and a blond, blue-eyed David. "A few times I've seen people kneel here to pray," Parra says. "Maybe it's because of the Pope's cross. It's a replica of the one the Pope carries made by the same artisan."

Past the Pope is a room full of mid- and late-20th-century international political figures. Gandhi, Vicente Fox, and Fidel Castro figures are very good likenesses. The Mother Teresa is not. Nor is the John F. Kennedy. Mikhail Gorbachev is a B-grade effort, but the grinning Bill Clinton gets a C to D, depending on what angle you view it from. "Sometimes, you place a figure," Parra says, "and you move it a tiny bit and you lose some of the parecido, the likeness. Light from a certain angle might bring out the likeness. Light from a different angle might take it away. Even from the same angle, light of a strong intensity might bring out more likeness than low-intensity light. It's my job to figure that out. It's an artistic job. Sometimes you put in a light bulb, take a look and say, 'It's okay, but it could be better.' Then you change it for another, and maybe you like the first one better. And everybody around has an opinion: 'That one looks great....' 'No, the other one was better....' 'The light is fine, but move it a quarter turn to the left.' Many opinions. So I have to be alone with the figure. If I still can't get it right, I put a black hood over it and forget about it. A week later I'll come back and try again."

And some faces, Parra says, are not easy to copy in wax. "Princess Diana is very difficult. Marilyn Monroe, for some reason, is very difficult. They are both very beautiful, but the form of their faces isn't well defined."

Faces that are easy to memorialize in wax, Parra says, "are well-defined with distinctive marks. Whoopi Goldberg is easy because her face is muy marcado, very defined."

Down the hall in the Hollywood room, Goldberg -- in her nun costume from Sister Act -- looks very real. In the same room, a caricature-like Stallone figure -- clad in a Planet Hollywood sweatshirt -- stands behind a seated Wesley Snipes who looks something like Buckwheat from The Little Rascals. He is accompanied by Mel Gibson, Eddie Murphy, and Bill Cosby. Across the room, a passable Marilyn Monroe, shares an alcove with a near-miss Princess Diana and a figure of Julia Roberts that is very lifelike, albeit with a frizzy hairstyle and pantsuit she hasn't worn since the late 1980s. With the exception of the late princess, Marilyn Monroe, and Laurel and Hardy — El Gordo y El Flaco in Spanish — the room is full of stars who peaked between 1988 and 1993. Parra says immortalizing figures of fleeting fame in wax is a perpetual problem. "I survey my customers," he explains, "about who they'd like to see in the museum. The problem is, many times they say, 'We want to see Britney Spears,' for example. But Britney Spears is not established enough as a star. She's famous right now, but next year she might not be interesting. So I try to make it a requirement that the star is consolidated, someone like Frank Sinatra."

Parra's historical/cultural bent is evident even in the squeaky-floored House of Horrors section of the museum. Along with Freddy Krueger, a werewolf, and Jack the Ripper -- El Distripador -- the area also has an exhibit of a curandera or medicine woman, brewing an elixir in a big kettle. "You still find them in small towns all over Mexico," Parra says. "And here is La Llorona." He stops in front of a haggard woman in a tattered nightgown. "This is a legend from Mexico City. She's a lady who appears to you at night. The story comes from a real fact. She was not home, and two or three of her children died because the house burned up. Ever after, she has appeared at night crying and shouting, 'Oh, my children, my children!' "

In a room full of famous Mexican artists and performers are painter Frida Kahlo, pop singer Luis Miguel, and Pedro Infante, who was the Gene Autry of Mexico. Down the hall is an exhibit of international performers. The Elvis Presley is a dead ringer for actor Ray Liotta.

In his office after the tour, Parra holds the head of his latest acquisition, rock guitarist Carlos Santana. It's a good likeness of Santana when he was younger and had fewer wrinkles. "He's going to go over there," Parra says, "by the Ayatollah Khomeini."

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