The last two weeks the Town Crier has been looking at states in Mexico where many of our neighbors or their families hail from. I always like finding out interesting things about others and one of them is where their roots are.
In high school, one of my best friends was from New York and another from Kansas. Pretty exotic for a kid from Dalton. Now we have folks from all over the world here and that makes for many interesting stories.
The last two weeks the Town Crier learned about states like Durango and Guanajuato, for example, where I know people here who are from there. But this week, in conclusion, I get to look (back) at three Mexican states that I’ve been fortunate to visit myself. They are Chihuahua, Baja California and Guerrero.
Not much of a horse trader
I’ll start with Chihuahua (same name as the little dog) as it’s Mexico’s biggest state. It shares a border with Texas that is one of our biggest states.
Chihuahua is known as a major apple producer as well as home to thousands of Canadian Mennonites who immigrated there in the early 1900s.
Chihuahua has a lot of dramatic desert country like west Texas, but it also is the state where the Rocky Mountains continue south, called there the Sierra Madre Occidental. With the mountains there are plenty of alpine forests with lots of pine trees. And one major geographic feature of the state is Copper Canyon, a system of six canyons that come together, and their combined size and depth actually exceed our Grand Canyon!
When the Spanish came to the state, the local indigenous people fought back so fiercely it took the Spanish 100 years to control the area. The Spanish discovered gold and silver so they were there to stay. This is where the Spanish launched their exploration and conquest of present-day New Mexico.
While looking for a better route north they found the “northern pass” and El Paso del Norte, one city eventually split in two, with Texas getting El Paso and the Mexican city on the southern side renamed Ciudad Juarez, frequently just called Juarez. The name comes from the president of Mexico who resisted the invasion of European forces in the 1860s.
The American Civil War was on, so the U.S. was in no position to utilize the Monroe Doctrine. European forces were sent to take over Mexico, including the French Foreign Legion, and a European nobleman, Maximillian, was named as emperor of Mexico. The whole deal was to get Mexico to pay loans to Europe, but Juarez fought back and so the city was named for him. Juarez is now the largest city in Chihuahua, with about 1.5 million people. It’s El Paso’s sister city on the other side of the river and Juarez is where I visited.
Just out of college, I took a road trip cross-country with some friends. We stopped in El Paso to visit Juarez and spent hardly any time in El Paso. We parked the car and made our way to the bridge over the river. This was back in the mid-1980s and I don’t even remember what we had to do for immigration to cross in either direction. I think we probably just flashed our driver’s licenses and they waved us across.
There were chain link fences along the riverbank but nothing very substantial. And the bridge was busy with car and pedestrian traffic in both directions. Mexican citizens were crossing into America as easily as we were heading south. I don’t know so much about now, but then people on both sides of the border might have a job on the other side. And there were plenty of families with members on both sides of the river and they would go back and forth without even thinking about it. It seemed almost like it was one big city.
One thing that struck me was how small the Rio Grande was. You’d think it would be like the Tennessee River, but it was smaller than the Conasauga, easily wadeable. I’m sure it swells when a big rain comes, but it’s a desert so that doesn’t happen often.
We walked for several blocks checking out the restaurants and shops. I was determined to get something as a memento of my visit. I’m not much of a bargainer but they had told me not to accept the first price given to me as wheeling and dealing is what was expected.
As we walked the streets, everyone was busily on their way and pretty much took no notice of us, just one of many weekday tourists in the city. Once we got into the shopping district we became very noticed. I ended up buying a sky blue poncho. The poncho is a rectangular piece of woven cloth with a hole in the middle to stick your head through so you can wear it like a type of cloak. A serape, on the other hand, doesn’t have the hole in the middle and is worn over the shoulder. I still have it today and it will keep you warm outside on a chilly night. Price wise, it turns out I’m not much of a horse trader.
A great place to whale watch
Several years later I was actually working on a project in Los Angeles and one weekend we drove down to San Diego and then walked across the border to Tijuana in the state of Baja California.
Baja California is the northern portion of the big peninsula, almost 800 miles long, that sticks down into the Pacific. This state borders California and is a great tourist place with cities like Ensenada and Cabo San Lucas further down the coast. Baja is a great place to whale watch as it’s a breeding ground for them in the winter months.
Baja is mostly desert-like and fairly sparsely populated. Ensenada, about an hour south of Tijuana, is a major fishing port and a docking site for cruise ships.
The city was a minor bay for the Spanish until gold was discovered inland. And then the city had another boom when Prohibition in America sent many Californians south looking for legal booze and gambling.
Baja California didn’t become a Mexican state until 1952, one of the last territories to gain statehood. And since 1967 the epic off-road race, the Baja 1000, is run annually.
My visit was started at a pedestrian border crossing where we showed ID and then went across a big, empty lot that was kind of dark. But once we got to the main street it was bright and loud and lots of fun. Think of a Mexican-themed Gatlinburg in Tennessee. Restaurants and bars and nightclubs lined the streets and there were plenty of street vendors and sidewalk performers. We stayed long enough to get a great meal and take in the sights. Like Juarez, it’s just across the border but seems a world away.
A tropical paradise
The last state we’ll visit is Guerrero, and it was actually my first trip to Mexico. I was about 10 or 12 and we went to Acapulco. I’m guessing my parents chose this as our first vacation out of the country because they had seen Elvis’ “Fun In Acapulco," which is ironic since Elvis never went there for the filming. He stayed in Hollywood and a body double got the wide shots actually filmed in Acapulco.
We stayed at the Acapulco Princess that was owned then by millionaire recluse Howard Hughes, who I believe was actually hiding out there in a penthouse at the time avoiding a subpoena.
Acapulco is a tropical paradise with long beaches, a beautiful bay and dramatic cliffs and mountains. At the beach they had horses for rent to ride along the surf. And even though I was pretty young, I took a quick scuba course in the hotel pool and got to go scuba diving in the bay.
The highlight of that adventure was when we found an octopus and took turns petting it gently while one of the divers let it rest on his hand. Then it bit him … and shot off in a cloud of dark ink.
We drove the back way to the main part of the city through the countryside and got to see some of the dramatic rivers and rock formations and jungles most tourists don’t get to see.
And speaking of jungles, it was pointed out to me that a section of jungle right next to the hotel grounds had been the filming site of a Tarzan movie. The movie was “Tarzan and the Mermaids” from 1948 and it was the most expensive Tarzan movie made up to that time, with a budget of $1 million. It was also the last time Johnny Weissmuller played Tarzan.
Back in Acapulco there are the famous cliff divers. We went for one of the sessions and it truly is amazing. Divers leap into a narrow sea gorge from a height of 135 feet, timing their dive with an incoming wave so the water will be deep enough for them to land. And yes, it’s dangerous: Weissmuller’s stunt double for the Tarzan movie died while trying it.
This first trip to Mexico is also where I got to first try Mexican food. And now, after all those years, with my Mexican memories, I can dine on great Mexican food right here in my hometown with friends from the states of Mexico!
Mark Hannah, a Dalton native, works in video and film production.