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How a Trip to Tijuana Changed My Heart

Your Dad Has Lost His Mind

Last November Conrad, my father-in-law, sent me an email, a long one, stating that he was in love. Considering that his studio apartment was situated in Point Loma, a short 15-minute drive from our home, and that we had just shared dinner with him last weekend, I was perplexed. He hadn’t even mentioned that he was dating anyone.

From reading his novel-length email I learned her name was Eunice. They had met four weeks earlier at a singles’ party across the border, in Tijuana. He had seen it advertised on craigslist.

“I was supposed to hook up with a different lady who had sent me her photo, but she never showed. Eunice was very aggressive.”

That was a detail I could’ve done without. I tried not to imagine what he meant.

He attached pictures, glossy ones featuring Eunice in a cluttered kitchen. She was wearing a yellow halter dress and smiling at the camera. There was another one in which she was sitting in a wooden chair, Conrad’s massive foot situated on her knees. She is holding a toenail file. I give her props for touching his toes. There are more photos, the other ones filled with the smiling faces of three children, a girl and two little boys around the same age as my own kids.

She is 31, he writes — my age — but wise beyond her years.

“Your dad has lost his mind,” I yell to Aaron, my husband, who is in the other room watching a documentary on a family of surfers.

He shouts back, “Tell me something I don’t already know.”

I read him the message. His capacity to be shocked is nonexistent. Nothing the old guy does rattles my husband anymore. Conrad comes over the following Sunday. He seems preoccupied.

“I’m getting married,” he blurts out.

“First, we have to wait for her to get divorced,” he adds.

I see that as a red flag, that and the fact that neither of them has a clue what the other is saying. She speaks Spanish and he only understands English.

Who needs conversation when you have love? She wants to have his babies, he tells us. I am alarmed. Mostly over the thought of my father-in-law having sex but also the concept that a woman he’s only known for a month has mentioned children. I wonder if Conrad is mistaken. Possibly he messed up the translation and she said something much more average. “Pass me the coffee” or “I like to read romantic novels.”

It only takes me a few days to begin teasing my husband about his new 31-year-old mommy.

“Will it be weird if and when you have an infant sibling?” I ask.

He tells me to shut up.

“I cannot wait until your mom starts dating again!” he says.

I doubt her foray into love will be nearly as comical.

“We’re going to be like the cast of Modern Family, only I don’t have a cool gay brother-in-law,” I tell him. “I guess we can pretend your youngest brother is gay.”

We laugh. All we can do is laugh. We don’t want to worry about Conrad. We need the old guy to be happy. I am cool with any of his choices as long as he doesn’t end up on our couch.

We try not to think of his last ill-fated relationship that was also sparked over craigslist, a woman with shifty eyes and leathery skin who talked more with our Labrador retriever than anyone else in the family. The same lady would call me at odd hours to discuss the intimate details of her love life with Conrad, the mental images of which I may never be able to burn from my mind.

By the end of November, Conrad has moved Eunice into a bigger and nicer apartment closer to the border. Aaron doesn’t comment; neither do Conrad’s two other sons. Everyone seems to think that it’s normal that their 63-year-old father is spending all of his free time in Mexico with a woman he met on craigslist with whom he can only communicate via Google translate.

Finally, I voice my concerns to Conrad. “I worry that you’re rushing into things,” I mention, trying my best not to sound judgmental. “You’re paying for her rent and food now. You’re supporting her children. You don’t speak the same language. She’s still married. Do you see how it looks from the outside? I worry that she loves you because you are willing to rescue her, and frankly that’s not good enough. You are amazing and deserve to be loved for the person you are, not what you can provide.”

He sighs and gives me a look that says, “Clearly you don’t get it.”

In December, he finds a large rental home near Rosarito in a place called San Antonio. He packs up his apartment and moves there with her and the kids. He is tired of going back and forth across the border. He is fully consumed with love. It’s all he talks about. I will mention to him that my kids have a recital at school. He will say to me, “Did I tell you how beautiful her eyes are?” He’s like a 14-year-old boy.

When Christmas rolls around, Conrad assumes we will spend it in TJ. I tell him absolutely not. I put my foot down on this one. “I am not spending Christmas in TJ with a woman you haven’t even been dating for two months.” He is hurt. I don’t care. I refuse to drink the Kool-Aid.

“Do you realize how many murders there were in TJ last month? Do you really want your grandkids to be part of that statistic?” I am being dramatic. I don’t care.

Conrad spends Christmas Eve with his new family and Christmas Day with ours. While my kids are opening their presents, Conrad explains how he and Eunice didn’t focus on the material side of Christmas and how Eunice doesn’t let them watch TV or play video games and how well behaved they are. For the rest of the day, he makes me feel like a consumerist shell of a person and a terrible parent. Before he leaves, he urges the kids to fill up a bag with some of their toys for Eunice’s children. Five-year-old Amelia cries and tells him, “Mommy made me get rid of some toys already.” We had a hefty Goodwill donation right before Christmas. He reminds her how much she has and how little they have. He has a point, but still, I am annoyed.

Aaron’s middle brother and his fiancée Lauren come over for Christmas dinner. When pressed as to whether or not they will go to TJ to meet Eunice and the kids, Lauren looks at Conrad as if he is completely insane.

“That’s not happening, never, not even if you get married.”

Lauren’s parents are in town, visiting for the holidays from Manhattan. She makes me a martini with two fat olives on a toothpick.

“It’s what all the bluebloods drink,” Lauren tells me in a way to stress that I am not of that lineage.

Lauren hates Conrad. She won’t even allow her parents to meet him. “If they ever met him, they would insist Jesse and I call off our engagement.”

I wish she would lighten up.

When they leave, I tell Aaron that I will go to Mexico to meet his new family.

“Anything to make Lauren look bad,” he says.

He’s probably right. I am only going because I want to prove that I am not as uptight as she is.

“I hate how she treats your dad!” I tell him.

“You are just as terrible to him.”

“I am not.”

“A few hours ago, you told him you were going to kill him because he was drinking wine out of one of your crystal glasses. You asked him to drink out of a red plastic cup!”

“He’s clumsy! Those goblets aren’t cheap!”

I can be a little mean. There was a time in my life that I detested Conrad. I thought he was completely insane. I can remember having a full-on panic attack over the prospect of my family meeting him. But I have gotten over it.

Nearly eight months later, we cross the border.

We almost didn’t make it down to Mexico. On Thursday evening, Conrad frantically explained that Eunice had been incarcerated for the last two days. Her offense? Driving his car with U.S. plates to drop her children off at school. They wanted over $1000 to get her out. Conrad wasn’t about to play the role of the American idiot. He left her there for two days, until they agreed to accept $500. She shared a cell with five men. The fact that she is still speaking to him might be proof of their true love. Sadly, Conrad lost his shiny convertible to the federales.

When we arrive — we being my husband, his two younger brothers, the kids, and I — Eunice has only been out of the slammer for a total of three hours. Her children are following her everywhere she goes.

Eunice is pretty; she has a wide nose and nice smile. She is short and robust. She wears a beautiful floral dress that she made herself. Her hair is curled, and it rests just above her shoulders. She laughs constantly, and her gentle kindness eases everyone around her. I like her immediately. We go to a nearby park and watch the kids and Conrad play soccer. He chases them around the park; Eunice laughs so loud that it echoes. She adores him, I am convinced of that. Her children are just as enamored. I am happy that he appears to be so fully loved.

For lunch Eunice makes homemade empanadas with rice and beans. She teaches me how to fold the carne asada and pork delicately into the dough before placing them into the oil. Her English is much better than my Spanish. She has learned quickly and speaks with ease. While setting the table, Conrad asks, “Donde la spoons?”

She laughs, “Do you hear his Spanglish?”

Eunice has a factory in their garage. She is making aprons featuring the thickly eyebrowed artist Frida Kahlo, and others showing Día de los Muertos scenes, the November 1 holiday when deceased loved ones are prayed for and remembered. Tulle ruffles and cute bows adorn the aprons. An American woman pays Eunice $6 per apron. The woman sells them wholesale to vendors for $15–$20, who then sell them at places like Little Italy’s farmers’ market for around $40. Eunice has hired two chicas to help with the labor. She wants me to go into business with her. She wants to make the uniforms for my children’s school. I try to explain that we already have an online company to order from, but it is lost in translation, and she is now eagerly awaiting the outcome of my negotiations with the school board.

On Saturday afternoon, we pile into the car they are borrowing from the church (since a federale now has Conrad’s PT Cruiser). We head to La Roca Orphanage, where Conrad and Eunice often help out. It is Eunice’s son David’s fifth birthday. We are taking a large cake to the orphanage to celebrate. On the way we stop for a piñata. Across the street is a caged tiger hitched to a truck. He is pacing back and forth in his cage and looks menacing. I make the mistake of pointing the tiger out to the kids. Amelia is terrified. She clutches my leg. “Is it going to get out?” Her eyes are wide.

Behind the tiger is a small clown car with speakers blaring something about the circus in español.

“My mom doesn’t let us go to the circus because of the way they treat the animals,” my nine-year-old tells Alonso, Eunice’s eight-year-old. “Circuses are evil.”

The boy shrugs. No comprende.

La Roca Orphanage is located at the tip of a hill near Avenida Revolución. It is a gated house with a large secure lock. When Eunice rings the bell, a group of children rush outside onto the concrete patio. A woman with a jangle of keys opens the gate. We are ushered in. The children flock to Eunice. A small child, no older than two, hugs my leg. Inside it is sparse; the decorations remind me of my grandparents’ apartment in the Bronx, tidy and 1970s inspired. On a large couch four teenaged girls are talking amongst themselves. They peer up at us suspiciously.

While there, I become obsessed with the idea of adopting a little boy. He has a round face and enormous brown eyes and the chubbiest little hands I have ever seen. I gave him more candy than he could possibly stomach and a small bag of Cheetos that he finished in nearly one gulp. I kept handing him food, which he took out of politeness. Clearly, he is stuffed.

The children are obsessed with my daughter’s hair. The girls run their fingers through it and place braids and rubber bands in it. The tips of her white blonde hair are green from a summer spent in swim lessons. The little girls are amazed. I hear them say verde over and over again.

My kids fit right in amongst the others and are soon laughing and playing basketball with a group of ten children. My nine-year-old son Jake has shared his Silly Bandz with a tall, lanky boy in exchange for candy. The two spend the rest of the day attached at the hip. Language doesn’t get in the way.

After being chased around by a group of giggling preteen girls intent on putting his curly hair in pigtails, Andrew, my 11-year-old, asks if I can get him some water. We head inside and down a flight of stairs to the kitchen. A young woman with shiny black hair is washing dishes.

“¿Podemos tener agua, por favor?” I say, hoping that I have just asked for water.

“Over there,” she says pointing to a large pitcher.

“Oh, you speak English. My Spanish is horrendous. Did I ask for water correctly?”

She rolls her eyes, unimpressed, and continues scrubbing the dishes. I consider offering to help, but it is clear she wants nothing to do with me.

In the courtyard of the orphanage, Conrad and I toss a ball around with Sophia, a young girl around the same age as my oldest son, who is in the sixth grade. She is a tough kid and has spent a large portion of the day tackling other girls and giving menacing looks. She smiles a toothy grin at Conrad as he passes the ball in her direction. It is in that moment, with Sophia sitting between me and my father-in-law, that I realize that he is an extraordinary man. I’d never noticed before. He is something of an eccentric Uncle Sam. He has come to Mexico looking for acceptance, love, and a fresh start.

He’s loud and beer bellied. He’s crude and makes inappropriate Mexican-American jokes. But he is filled with a deep love of Mexico. He has no plans of ever living in the U.S. again. He’s a quasi-patriot run amok in Baja, and the outcome, oddly, isn’t terrifying.

Back home he is dismissed. Conrad is the ex-con with the studio apartment over someone else’s garage. No one will hire him, and as a result he has started up his own successful telemarketing company specializing in pesky political robocalls. Back in the States, the plump lady who works the midnight shift at the gas station wouldn’t even consider dating him.

In Mexico it is different. People don’t view him as a tragedy. He is not trying to take advantage of anyone. He is looking for love. On weekends, the house is filled with children from the orphanage. He bought the fabric for their quinceañera dresses, and Eunice made them. They are stunning. They show me the photos. All of the girls are smiling brightly in their beautiful gowns.

They are starting a program for the orphans, the older ones, to find job placement when they are too old to live at La Roca. They are considering adopting a 16-year-old girl who has a deep affection for Eunice, only the girl is hesitant because Conrad is a gringo.

I have done a 180. Before, I believed Conrad had lost his mind. It is quirky, some would say outlandish, that my kids will have a five-year-old step-uncle and that we regularly visit one of the most dangerous areas in Mexico. But I am happy that Conrad has gathered up his life. I am learning to love Tijuana as much as he does. I relish the idea of my children seeing a part of the world outside of the U.S.

Midafternoon, Eunice asks if I want to go shopping with her. I’d rather not; the children at the orphanage are so sweet that I could spend days there. She insists, so I agree. We leave Aaron and his two brothers, along with my kids, behind at La Roca. Conrad tags along.

We shuffle in and out of dozens of stores. Eunice lingers in the racks trying on item after item. Conrad often joins her in the fitting room. At the last store I witness them shop together for lingerie.

On the drive home, Conrad casually mentions that Eunice used to work at a beauty shop doing the nails and hair of the transgendered prostitutes who work in Tijuana’s red-light district. “The women used to fall asleep while I did their nails because they are up all night pleasing men,” Eunice tells me.

Conrad takes it upon himself to drive through the transsexual red-light district, an alarmingly short distance from the orphanage. Conrad wants me to see “just how much they look like women.” Hordes of tall, masculine ladies are lined up under street lights.

On Sunday, we attend their church. We arrive late and everyone is staring at us. They set up seats for us in the front row. I feel awkward and self-conscious. People are glancing suspiciously in our direction. The children from the orphanage are three rows behind us. When I look back, they wave at me. I spot the little boy with the big brown eyes. “There’s our soon-to-be son,” I say to my husband, who in turn rolls his eyes at me. The service lasts two hours. At the end, people come to the front to be prayed for. There is a great amount of sobbing and choking back of tears. It makes me uncomfortable. Public displays of emotions are too much. A woman in a black dress sobs so loudly and so terribly that she is shaking.

Outside, they have a shallow inflatable pool for baptisms. Two are performed after the service.

A bulletin board features pictures of the Pakistan flood and the men and women affected. A sign asks for donations.

Afterwards, we go out to lunch with a man named Carlo, who tells us that he was incarcerated at the age of 13 for murdering someone. His first stabbing was over a basketball game. He was once a gang leader, and a judge told him he had no future. “By the grace of God, I am standing here today, free from the violence, free from addiction, and ready to serve Jesus.”

He is covered in tattoos, including his face. His little girl is holding my daughter’s hand. She whispers something to Amelia in Spanish, and they both laugh, even though I am certain Amelia has no idea what has been said. It doesn’t matter. They are now best friends.

That night over beers, while the children are sleeping, Conrad mentions that he has never in his entire life been so happy. He has a woman who loves him and three kids who look forward to seeing him. Adam, my brother-in-law, Conrad’s youngest son, chimes in with “Unlike the three of us, who have always been terrible sons.”

He says it jokingly, but I can tell that he is hurt.

Aaron asks Eunice what most Mexican people think of Americans. She hesitates, unsure of how to answer. It is clear she doesn’t feel she can be completely open.

“Growing up in Encinitas, many Americans paid for my food, my groceries.” I can tell she wants to say more but is unsure if she’ll offend.

Then she says, “The Mexican people are just as scared to go to the United States as you are about coming here. We are scared about the killings of Mexican workers in the United States and your laws. I would never live there. I love Mexico too much.”

The next day it is time to leave. Eunice’s son David begs that we take him with us. I don’t know how to explain that we are free to visit him, but he isn’t allowed to come see us. It breaks my heart. Before we drive off, Eunice tells us, “You have animals.”

I don’t get it. I look to Conrad. “You probably have lice,” he says. “We get them every time we go to the orphanage.”

I remember the single baseball hat that my kids all wore on Saturday. They passed it around with the orphans. We make a stop at Walmart on Aero Drive to buy Rid. All of my kids shampoo on our porch before coming inside.

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San Diego in books - Henry Miller, Rick DeMarinis, Max Miller, Alfred Alcorn

Don Bauder, World Almanac, Louisiana Purchase Exposition Commission

Last November Conrad, my father-in-law, sent me an email, a long one, stating that he was in love. Considering that his studio apartment was situated in Point Loma, a short 15-minute drive from our home, and that we had just shared dinner with him last weekend, I was perplexed. He hadn’t even mentioned that he was dating anyone.

From reading his novel-length email I learned her name was Eunice. They had met four weeks earlier at a singles’ party across the border, in Tijuana. He had seen it advertised on craigslist.

“I was supposed to hook up with a different lady who had sent me her photo, but she never showed. Eunice was very aggressive.”

That was a detail I could’ve done without. I tried not to imagine what he meant.

He attached pictures, glossy ones featuring Eunice in a cluttered kitchen. She was wearing a yellow halter dress and smiling at the camera. There was another one in which she was sitting in a wooden chair, Conrad’s massive foot situated on her knees. She is holding a toenail file. I give her props for touching his toes. There are more photos, the other ones filled with the smiling faces of three children, a girl and two little boys around the same age as my own kids.

She is 31, he writes — my age — but wise beyond her years.

“Your dad has lost his mind,” I yell to Aaron, my husband, who is in the other room watching a documentary on a family of surfers.

He shouts back, “Tell me something I don’t already know.”

I read him the message. His capacity to be shocked is nonexistent. Nothing the old guy does rattles my husband anymore. Conrad comes over the following Sunday. He seems preoccupied.

“I’m getting married,” he blurts out.

“First, we have to wait for her to get divorced,” he adds.

I see that as a red flag, that and the fact that neither of them has a clue what the other is saying. She speaks Spanish and he only understands English.

Who needs conversation when you have love? She wants to have his babies, he tells us. I am alarmed. Mostly over the thought of my father-in-law having sex but also the concept that a woman he’s only known for a month has mentioned children. I wonder if Conrad is mistaken. Possibly he messed up the translation and she said something much more average. “Pass me the coffee” or “I like to read romantic novels.”

It only takes me a few days to begin teasing my husband about his new 31-year-old mommy.

“Will it be weird if and when you have an infant sibling?” I ask.

He tells me to shut up.

“I cannot wait until your mom starts dating again!” he says.

I doubt her foray into love will be nearly as comical.

“We’re going to be like the cast of Modern Family, only I don’t have a cool gay brother-in-law,” I tell him. “I guess we can pretend your youngest brother is gay.”

We laugh. All we can do is laugh. We don’t want to worry about Conrad. We need the old guy to be happy. I am cool with any of his choices as long as he doesn’t end up on our couch.

We try not to think of his last ill-fated relationship that was also sparked over craigslist, a woman with shifty eyes and leathery skin who talked more with our Labrador retriever than anyone else in the family. The same lady would call me at odd hours to discuss the intimate details of her love life with Conrad, the mental images of which I may never be able to burn from my mind.

By the end of November, Conrad has moved Eunice into a bigger and nicer apartment closer to the border. Aaron doesn’t comment; neither do Conrad’s two other sons. Everyone seems to think that it’s normal that their 63-year-old father is spending all of his free time in Mexico with a woman he met on craigslist with whom he can only communicate via Google translate.

Finally, I voice my concerns to Conrad. “I worry that you’re rushing into things,” I mention, trying my best not to sound judgmental. “You’re paying for her rent and food now. You’re supporting her children. You don’t speak the same language. She’s still married. Do you see how it looks from the outside? I worry that she loves you because you are willing to rescue her, and frankly that’s not good enough. You are amazing and deserve to be loved for the person you are, not what you can provide.”

He sighs and gives me a look that says, “Clearly you don’t get it.”

In December, he finds a large rental home near Rosarito in a place called San Antonio. He packs up his apartment and moves there with her and the kids. He is tired of going back and forth across the border. He is fully consumed with love. It’s all he talks about. I will mention to him that my kids have a recital at school. He will say to me, “Did I tell you how beautiful her eyes are?” He’s like a 14-year-old boy.

When Christmas rolls around, Conrad assumes we will spend it in TJ. I tell him absolutely not. I put my foot down on this one. “I am not spending Christmas in TJ with a woman you haven’t even been dating for two months.” He is hurt. I don’t care. I refuse to drink the Kool-Aid.

“Do you realize how many murders there were in TJ last month? Do you really want your grandkids to be part of that statistic?” I am being dramatic. I don’t care.

Conrad spends Christmas Eve with his new family and Christmas Day with ours. While my kids are opening their presents, Conrad explains how he and Eunice didn’t focus on the material side of Christmas and how Eunice doesn’t let them watch TV or play video games and how well behaved they are. For the rest of the day, he makes me feel like a consumerist shell of a person and a terrible parent. Before he leaves, he urges the kids to fill up a bag with some of their toys for Eunice’s children. Five-year-old Amelia cries and tells him, “Mommy made me get rid of some toys already.” We had a hefty Goodwill donation right before Christmas. He reminds her how much she has and how little they have. He has a point, but still, I am annoyed.

Aaron’s middle brother and his fiancée Lauren come over for Christmas dinner. When pressed as to whether or not they will go to TJ to meet Eunice and the kids, Lauren looks at Conrad as if he is completely insane.

“That’s not happening, never, not even if you get married.”

Lauren’s parents are in town, visiting for the holidays from Manhattan. She makes me a martini with two fat olives on a toothpick.

“It’s what all the bluebloods drink,” Lauren tells me in a way to stress that I am not of that lineage.

Lauren hates Conrad. She won’t even allow her parents to meet him. “If they ever met him, they would insist Jesse and I call off our engagement.”

I wish she would lighten up.

When they leave, I tell Aaron that I will go to Mexico to meet his new family.

“Anything to make Lauren look bad,” he says.

He’s probably right. I am only going because I want to prove that I am not as uptight as she is.

“I hate how she treats your dad!” I tell him.

“You are just as terrible to him.”

“I am not.”

“A few hours ago, you told him you were going to kill him because he was drinking wine out of one of your crystal glasses. You asked him to drink out of a red plastic cup!”

“He’s clumsy! Those goblets aren’t cheap!”

I can be a little mean. There was a time in my life that I detested Conrad. I thought he was completely insane. I can remember having a full-on panic attack over the prospect of my family meeting him. But I have gotten over it.

Nearly eight months later, we cross the border.

We almost didn’t make it down to Mexico. On Thursday evening, Conrad frantically explained that Eunice had been incarcerated for the last two days. Her offense? Driving his car with U.S. plates to drop her children off at school. They wanted over $1000 to get her out. Conrad wasn’t about to play the role of the American idiot. He left her there for two days, until they agreed to accept $500. She shared a cell with five men. The fact that she is still speaking to him might be proof of their true love. Sadly, Conrad lost his shiny convertible to the federales.

When we arrive — we being my husband, his two younger brothers, the kids, and I — Eunice has only been out of the slammer for a total of three hours. Her children are following her everywhere she goes.

Eunice is pretty; she has a wide nose and nice smile. She is short and robust. She wears a beautiful floral dress that she made herself. Her hair is curled, and it rests just above her shoulders. She laughs constantly, and her gentle kindness eases everyone around her. I like her immediately. We go to a nearby park and watch the kids and Conrad play soccer. He chases them around the park; Eunice laughs so loud that it echoes. She adores him, I am convinced of that. Her children are just as enamored. I am happy that he appears to be so fully loved.

For lunch Eunice makes homemade empanadas with rice and beans. She teaches me how to fold the carne asada and pork delicately into the dough before placing them into the oil. Her English is much better than my Spanish. She has learned quickly and speaks with ease. While setting the table, Conrad asks, “Donde la spoons?”

She laughs, “Do you hear his Spanglish?”

Eunice has a factory in their garage. She is making aprons featuring the thickly eyebrowed artist Frida Kahlo, and others showing Día de los Muertos scenes, the November 1 holiday when deceased loved ones are prayed for and remembered. Tulle ruffles and cute bows adorn the aprons. An American woman pays Eunice $6 per apron. The woman sells them wholesale to vendors for $15–$20, who then sell them at places like Little Italy’s farmers’ market for around $40. Eunice has hired two chicas to help with the labor. She wants me to go into business with her. She wants to make the uniforms for my children’s school. I try to explain that we already have an online company to order from, but it is lost in translation, and she is now eagerly awaiting the outcome of my negotiations with the school board.

On Saturday afternoon, we pile into the car they are borrowing from the church (since a federale now has Conrad’s PT Cruiser). We head to La Roca Orphanage, where Conrad and Eunice often help out. It is Eunice’s son David’s fifth birthday. We are taking a large cake to the orphanage to celebrate. On the way we stop for a piñata. Across the street is a caged tiger hitched to a truck. He is pacing back and forth in his cage and looks menacing. I make the mistake of pointing the tiger out to the kids. Amelia is terrified. She clutches my leg. “Is it going to get out?” Her eyes are wide.

Behind the tiger is a small clown car with speakers blaring something about the circus in español.

“My mom doesn’t let us go to the circus because of the way they treat the animals,” my nine-year-old tells Alonso, Eunice’s eight-year-old. “Circuses are evil.”

The boy shrugs. No comprende.

La Roca Orphanage is located at the tip of a hill near Avenida Revolución. It is a gated house with a large secure lock. When Eunice rings the bell, a group of children rush outside onto the concrete patio. A woman with a jangle of keys opens the gate. We are ushered in. The children flock to Eunice. A small child, no older than two, hugs my leg. Inside it is sparse; the decorations remind me of my grandparents’ apartment in the Bronx, tidy and 1970s inspired. On a large couch four teenaged girls are talking amongst themselves. They peer up at us suspiciously.

While there, I become obsessed with the idea of adopting a little boy. He has a round face and enormous brown eyes and the chubbiest little hands I have ever seen. I gave him more candy than he could possibly stomach and a small bag of Cheetos that he finished in nearly one gulp. I kept handing him food, which he took out of politeness. Clearly, he is stuffed.

The children are obsessed with my daughter’s hair. The girls run their fingers through it and place braids and rubber bands in it. The tips of her white blonde hair are green from a summer spent in swim lessons. The little girls are amazed. I hear them say verde over and over again.

My kids fit right in amongst the others and are soon laughing and playing basketball with a group of ten children. My nine-year-old son Jake has shared his Silly Bandz with a tall, lanky boy in exchange for candy. The two spend the rest of the day attached at the hip. Language doesn’t get in the way.

After being chased around by a group of giggling preteen girls intent on putting his curly hair in pigtails, Andrew, my 11-year-old, asks if I can get him some water. We head inside and down a flight of stairs to the kitchen. A young woman with shiny black hair is washing dishes.

“¿Podemos tener agua, por favor?” I say, hoping that I have just asked for water.

“Over there,” she says pointing to a large pitcher.

“Oh, you speak English. My Spanish is horrendous. Did I ask for water correctly?”

She rolls her eyes, unimpressed, and continues scrubbing the dishes. I consider offering to help, but it is clear she wants nothing to do with me.

In the courtyard of the orphanage, Conrad and I toss a ball around with Sophia, a young girl around the same age as my oldest son, who is in the sixth grade. She is a tough kid and has spent a large portion of the day tackling other girls and giving menacing looks. She smiles a toothy grin at Conrad as he passes the ball in her direction. It is in that moment, with Sophia sitting between me and my father-in-law, that I realize that he is an extraordinary man. I’d never noticed before. He is something of an eccentric Uncle Sam. He has come to Mexico looking for acceptance, love, and a fresh start.

He’s loud and beer bellied. He’s crude and makes inappropriate Mexican-American jokes. But he is filled with a deep love of Mexico. He has no plans of ever living in the U.S. again. He’s a quasi-patriot run amok in Baja, and the outcome, oddly, isn’t terrifying.

Back home he is dismissed. Conrad is the ex-con with the studio apartment over someone else’s garage. No one will hire him, and as a result he has started up his own successful telemarketing company specializing in pesky political robocalls. Back in the States, the plump lady who works the midnight shift at the gas station wouldn’t even consider dating him.

In Mexico it is different. People don’t view him as a tragedy. He is not trying to take advantage of anyone. He is looking for love. On weekends, the house is filled with children from the orphanage. He bought the fabric for their quinceañera dresses, and Eunice made them. They are stunning. They show me the photos. All of the girls are smiling brightly in their beautiful gowns.

They are starting a program for the orphans, the older ones, to find job placement when they are too old to live at La Roca. They are considering adopting a 16-year-old girl who has a deep affection for Eunice, only the girl is hesitant because Conrad is a gringo.

I have done a 180. Before, I believed Conrad had lost his mind. It is quirky, some would say outlandish, that my kids will have a five-year-old step-uncle and that we regularly visit one of the most dangerous areas in Mexico. But I am happy that Conrad has gathered up his life. I am learning to love Tijuana as much as he does. I relish the idea of my children seeing a part of the world outside of the U.S.

Midafternoon, Eunice asks if I want to go shopping with her. I’d rather not; the children at the orphanage are so sweet that I could spend days there. She insists, so I agree. We leave Aaron and his two brothers, along with my kids, behind at La Roca. Conrad tags along.

We shuffle in and out of dozens of stores. Eunice lingers in the racks trying on item after item. Conrad often joins her in the fitting room. At the last store I witness them shop together for lingerie.

On the drive home, Conrad casually mentions that Eunice used to work at a beauty shop doing the nails and hair of the transgendered prostitutes who work in Tijuana’s red-light district. “The women used to fall asleep while I did their nails because they are up all night pleasing men,” Eunice tells me.

Conrad takes it upon himself to drive through the transsexual red-light district, an alarmingly short distance from the orphanage. Conrad wants me to see “just how much they look like women.” Hordes of tall, masculine ladies are lined up under street lights.

On Sunday, we attend their church. We arrive late and everyone is staring at us. They set up seats for us in the front row. I feel awkward and self-conscious. People are glancing suspiciously in our direction. The children from the orphanage are three rows behind us. When I look back, they wave at me. I spot the little boy with the big brown eyes. “There’s our soon-to-be son,” I say to my husband, who in turn rolls his eyes at me. The service lasts two hours. At the end, people come to the front to be prayed for. There is a great amount of sobbing and choking back of tears. It makes me uncomfortable. Public displays of emotions are too much. A woman in a black dress sobs so loudly and so terribly that she is shaking.

Outside, they have a shallow inflatable pool for baptisms. Two are performed after the service.

A bulletin board features pictures of the Pakistan flood and the men and women affected. A sign asks for donations.

Afterwards, we go out to lunch with a man named Carlo, who tells us that he was incarcerated at the age of 13 for murdering someone. His first stabbing was over a basketball game. He was once a gang leader, and a judge told him he had no future. “By the grace of God, I am standing here today, free from the violence, free from addiction, and ready to serve Jesus.”

He is covered in tattoos, including his face. His little girl is holding my daughter’s hand. She whispers something to Amelia in Spanish, and they both laugh, even though I am certain Amelia has no idea what has been said. It doesn’t matter. They are now best friends.

That night over beers, while the children are sleeping, Conrad mentions that he has never in his entire life been so happy. He has a woman who loves him and three kids who look forward to seeing him. Adam, my brother-in-law, Conrad’s youngest son, chimes in with “Unlike the three of us, who have always been terrible sons.”

He says it jokingly, but I can tell that he is hurt.

Aaron asks Eunice what most Mexican people think of Americans. She hesitates, unsure of how to answer. It is clear she doesn’t feel she can be completely open.

“Growing up in Encinitas, many Americans paid for my food, my groceries.” I can tell she wants to say more but is unsure if she’ll offend.

Then she says, “The Mexican people are just as scared to go to the United States as you are about coming here. We are scared about the killings of Mexican workers in the United States and your laws. I would never live there. I love Mexico too much.”

The next day it is time to leave. Eunice’s son David begs that we take him with us. I don’t know how to explain that we are free to visit him, but he isn’t allowed to come see us. It breaks my heart. Before we drive off, Eunice tells us, “You have animals.”

I don’t get it. I look to Conrad. “You probably have lice,” he says. “We get them every time we go to the orphanage.”

I remember the single baseball hat that my kids all wore on Saturday. They passed it around with the orphans. We make a stop at Walmart on Aero Drive to buy Rid. All of my kids shampoo on our porch before coming inside.

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Comments
13

Great Story. I live in TJ. Will look up "La Roca" and see what I can donate. TJ & Mexico has much to offer. Do visit. Crime and violence is also widely prevelent in the USA as well as MX. This should not keep you from living your dreams.

Nov. 23, 2010

Siobhan is quite the writer.

Every other sentence carries the possibility of a hideous occurrence that never materializes and repressed dark feelings. We're not sure if the guy with tattoos on his face is a member of the Salva Trucha or if the family actually got lice. The message for Bajajulio is about "living your dreams." For me, well, it's open-ended, but it feels as ominous as it does larky.

Nov. 26, 2010

Craig's List, Tijuana, Singles Party, and "In-Love"...

All you need to add is lice and transgendered prostitutes. And of course, two days in jail for a traffic infraction. Because what Tijuana story doesn't include two days in jail and a $1,000 dollar fine? I must be the luckiest man on Earth, and certainly the luckiest person in Mexico. In almost two decades here, I've never had lice, have gotten out of several infractions with a twenty-dollar bill tucked neatly underneath my identification, managed to raise three children without having to rely on a Craig's List Singles Party, and have been lucky enough to have never been accosted by wiener-gifted chicks in short skirts.

And my advice, take it or leave it, is to avoid people with tattoos on their faces, I can't recall anything good coming from anyone that didn't have the good sense to politely decline the invitation to permanently write on a portion of their skin that cannot be easily covered up during a job interview. But you know, that's just me. Everyone else's mileage may vary.

Nov. 26, 2010

What is the point of telling us your personal experiences, as if what happened to you is somehow representative of the entire population of visitors to Tijuana?

If you took 5 bullets out of a 6-shot revolver, spun the cylinder, pointed it at your head, pulled the trigger and the gun did not fire, would you believe you are justified in telling everyone that playing Russian Roulette is perfectly safe?

Are you trying to deny that Eunice did not spend 2 days in jail for what is a simple moving violation, even in Mexico? Are you trying to deny that Conrad's car is not in the hands of some Mexican cop?

You admit to bribing Mexican police with $20 bills, which is a felony in Mexico. Why don't you also admit that you do not speak for everyone else?

Nov. 28, 2010

and have been lucky enough to have never been accosted by wiener-gifted chicks in short skirts.

refriedgringo = +1

VERY FUNNY!

Jan. 15, 2011

Siobhan is quite the writer.

============ She sure is!

Jan. 15, 2011

i perceive this as satire...and ur trying out ur script for an "in poor taste" Saturday Night Live skit

next week u can put up a sweet and sour rants when some other unloved family member falls in love with a Muslim

and discuss how much fun it is to be fully enveloped and sweating in a 100% Egyptian cotton burka in 100+ degree summers and learning to make falafels with ones eyes peering thru a cloth cage

u will of course quickly learn Farsi...and find the beauty in poems by Rumi reading them in the original Persian

if this isn't a "tongue in cheek" piece shame on u

JMO

Nov. 26, 2010

Great story about Tijuana that the average person never knows about. OK, you mention that Eunice is still married. Where is her husband and how does he fit into this scene? Keep up the great work!

Nov. 28, 2010

Siobhan, Excellent writing,honest,touching,human.Your style totally engaged me and the people I turned the article on to, several being Mexican nationals...and in response to a few above comments that felt that you were slamming Mexico, go back and read the story, perhaps you have missed something (like your heart? brain?) because I so get the car being taken away scenario, it happens all the time down here, you just can't let nationals drive your car with U.S.plates. Also "got" the lice thing and had to chuckle as I and my children have had the same experience of passing that hat around with smiling giggling children. I loved the story. It should be a movie. Best wishes and more power to You, Conrad, Eunice and your families. From a gringa who lives in Baja

Dec. 1, 2010

I loved how the author's attitude towards this man changed and became much more compassionate and understanding. Who could blame him for living in TJ? May he find the love he needs.

Dec. 3, 2010

Twenty years later, he is an alcoholic and drug user, they have a passle of kids, and they have to live with his mother because he doesn't work.

20%+ of CA is unemployed or under employed.

Employment is not entirely in the control of the one who is looking for work. Drug problems won't help.

Jan. 14, 2011

The point is, Eunice may one day see Conrad as the rest of us do--when she gets her head out of the clouds.

Except the writer also had your view>> in the begining. As the story unfolded she changed her view and really came to admire Conrad.

I was expecting this to turn out really bad at the end, like Eunice played Conrad like a cheap fiddle, but that was not the case...... in any event it was interesting-gave a multi dimiensional look to the people which I did enjoy.

Jan. 15, 2011

True!!!!

Jan. 16, 2011

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