San Ysidro feels very much like a place without a present. There’s little there that lends itself to now. The was is represented by the smattering of shops that have been family owned for generations and are inseparable from their own histories. It’s here that black-and-white photographs adorn the walls alongside portraits of the town’s founders and prominent citizens, and an anecdote full of used-to-bes is never more than a prod away. Alternately, signs announcing construction projects, playgrounds, art corridors, and cultural spaces are slapped up in front of weed-ridden vacant lots and buildings buckling under the weight of time. These signs promise that the San Ysidro of tomorrow is only as far away as the bureaucratic cooperation necessary to actualize the future. But as for right now, it’s hard to imagine anyone outside of the residents who live here having much of a reason to stop in.
The great irony in this is that so very many people pass through on a daily basis; the first handful of exits just north of the border wall often nothing more than an opportunity to mash the gas after an hour(s) of inching along car length by car length to show one’s papers and enter the promised land. To the pedestrians, it’s little more than a trolley stop on the way to work. I’m guilty of this myself. My stops in San Ysidro are almost exclusively to solve emergency bathroom situations or refill empty gas tanks.
It’s not too difficult to imagine San Ysidro as a side-effect or a symptom or an outgrowth of the orgiastic monolith to America’s military might that forms the hard edge of its southern border. To stand on the spot where E. San Ysidro Boulevard becomes W. San Ysidro Blvd is to find oneself nestled in a tourniquet of highways, surrounded by gas stations, money exchange shacks, and gridlock. To breathe the air is to choke on the exhaust of the thousands upon thousands of idling cars slogging their way back and forth across the fence. But San Ysidro is not a shrewd border outpost capitalizing on the commuter funnel like an impulse-buy aisle at any given retail shop. San Ysidro was there first. If anything, in relation to the militarized border, San Ysidro is a victim.
San Ysidro started out in the first decade of the 20th century as The Little Landers Community — one of America’s first communes. Some fellow named Smythe — memorialized along with many of the town’s other patrons with a street named after him — handed out land an acre or two at a time along with a slogan more or less synonymous with “a bird in hand is better than two in the bush.” The community pooled their crops, sold them in the city of San Diego to the north, and shared in the fruits of their collective labor until the powers that be destroyed their utopia with a flood.
Armed with nothing more than this flimsy bit of historical trivia courtesy of Wikipedia, I thought a good place to begin my quest for the ticking tock of San Ysidro was the fertile soil of Suzie’s Farm. (Given its location west of the 5, Suzie’s Farm is technically in the Tijuana River Valley. Or maybe it’s Nestor. Look, outside of a district map or the brain of someone with intimate knowledge of the boundaries, most people are hard pressed to explain exactly where San Ysidro begins and ends. Some say 5 forms the western boundary, but that would exclude Plaza Americas mall, which is unanimously considered to be part of San Ysidro, so please forgive my traipsing and this wandering digression.)
Suzie’s organic farm lies just south of Tocayo Avenue in a place where the blacktop crumbles away to dirt and the speed limit signs are replaced with warnings of the comings-and-goings of tractors and horses. It would be easy to imagine this place as the middle-of-nowhere. But the helicopters from the Naval yard to the west and the hills of Tijuana crowded with houses insist that you are sandwiched right between two countries.
I meet Fe, the farm’s official tour guide, in a grove of eucalyptus trees around which are carved the acres and acres of rows and rows of beautiful produce. Fe’s is an effortless and contagious friendliness, and when she tells me that she taught young children in a previous life, I can’t help but think that those were some lucky kids. We sashay through the kohlrabi, turnips, radishes, broccoli, and sunflowers, plucking them right out of the ground, wiping off the dirt on our jeans, and popping them into our mouths. Everything is delicious. Fe tells me how the land is government-owned, and that the farm is there in lieu of any sort of commercial development or housing as a stipulation to minimize the casualty potential if and when one of those helicopters were to come tumbling down. Food for thought as I depart with my bags of produce to smuggle home to Tijuana.
Back east, back in the sprawl, back in San Ysidro proper, I meet Thomas Cuen — esteemed long-time San Ysidran and proprietor of San Ysidro Feed & Supply. His mother bought the place back in 1934, As far as local landmarks go, this red barn on San Ysidro Boulevard has got to be one of the most recognizable. It lies deep in the V created by Interstates 5 and 805 merging a mile north of Mexico. Cuen is an undeniable character, a pleasure to shoot the shit with, and a man who harbors little doubt as to the source of the unnecessary squeeze on his well-being — elected officials. He tells me that his business is suffering thanks to Mexico’s revised (as of September 2014) custom laws. Between 90 and 95 percent of his business comes from south of the border, and as of late, his customers are getting turned away as they try to cross back into Mexico. They return to the shop, armed with a slip of paper from the Mexican government rejecting the import of their goods, and he’s left with no choice but to return their money and restock his wares.