Nelson decided to remove songs in Spanish. “My brother and I had a 600-record collection of classic rock.”
"After my death, I don't know what will happen with the business," Roberto Nelson says about the future of the oldest bar in Tijuana, part of the first “skyscraper” in the city, the Hotel Nelson. The structure took four years to build during WWII. In 1947 it became a hotel with six floors and with the first elevator in northern Mexico.
“That administration wanted to get rid of the Art Deco style buildings because Tijuana didn’t look like Mexico."
Roberto Nelson's grandfather came from Syria and reached Tijuana when the city looked like the Wild West. He grew up with the first boom during Prohibition. The present Nelson's father, after serving two years in the Korean War, came back and began working in the hotel, which was left to his brother because the grandfather died while he was fighting.
In 1953, “after serving in the war he had a shift as cashier in the hotel, and there, next to the lobby he set up a tiny table with five benches, that’s how he started up [the bar],” Roberto explains. According to him, Tijuana has had peaks of development that matched the wars and crises in the U.S., some of which helped the hotel and bar grow.
During the last peak of tourism in Tijuana, Jose Antonio Vazquez, current hotel manager, began to work at Hotel Nelson. “In my times, between 1960 and 1980, hotels were always packed; it was incredible. People had it to walk on the street because sidewalks were packed with U.S. tourists.”
The Nelson had the first FM station in Mexico due to the location and height of the building.
According to Vazquez, rumors of Marilyn Monroe staying in the hotel attracted people. The Nelson was a symbol of the city. The Nelson had the first FM station in Mexico due to the location and height of the building.
After 1976 the influence of central Mexico made U.S. businesses in Tijuana withdraw to the other side of the border. Plus the city government tried to turn Tijuana into a colonial town.
“That administration wanted to get rid of the Art Deco style buildings because Tijuana didn’t look like Mexico. Bullshit. Tijuana is Tijuana,” he adds. Then the age of rock revived downtown Tijuana, and the club scene exploded.
"We always thought being an old-fashioned building was a disadvantage."
In the 80s the Mexican syndicate of song writers wanted to charge a fee to Tijuana places that were playing their songs. That’s when Nelson decided to remove songs in Spanish. “It wasn’t too hard to decide it because I always loved and listened to rock in English, and my brother and I had a 600-record collection of classic rock,” he says.
John Demsey, 62, confirms, “This is the best jukebox anywhere; Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who, Elton John, King Crimson. I used to come to the hotel and visit the bar. I don’t speak any Spanish, but people here speak good English. I just fell in love with the bar. It reminds me of a pub in Ireland. In any bar in San Diego, people won’t talk to you if you don’t know them. I just love it.”
For locals, people like Raymundo Cocido, 54, keep coming to the bar. “I have been coming 35 years; people here are like a family.”
The hotel manager Vazquez: “We get offers to buy the building from local businessman and even from Mexico City. We always thought being an old-fashioned building was a disadvantage, but there are people, especially from the U.S., who love that.”
Nelson says he has no sons interested in taking care of the business. “One son of mine just ended his studies of medicine, and my daughter got married and now lives in Texas.”