Expatriates, but Not by Much : 2 Find Haven From Rat Race Within Holler of U.S. Border


Richard Spencer and Kirk Gilliam remember that first fine fall in Jacume when Tormenta the pig led them on an epic chase across the tiny Mexican town just south of the border.

The year was 1985, and the sassy pig had bolted during a heavy rain, scrambling along the muddied dirt roads, past curious onlookers, with the two American expatriates in tow.

When Tormenta dashed through a neighbor's garden, they wallowed in after her--with the surprised neighbor right along with them. But the animal was too quick, and they all laughed when they slipped and fell in the muddy field.

Finally, a young man on horseback came to their rescue, darting through a barbed-wire fence to grab the squealing animal, handing it back over with a shy smile.

"What these people must have thought," Spencer, now 67, recalls with a laugh, "to see this foolish old American diving and crawling after a pig, calling it baby."

But for Spencer and Gilliam, the incident signaled the townsfolk's growing acceptance of these outsiders who lived among them--two cultural oddities seeking a simpler way than the spirit-crushing 9-to-5 world they had left behind north of the border.

Four years ago, the two family friends abandoned Orange County's suburban sprawl and moved to the Mexican village--situated just south of Jacumba near the Imperial County line--where 50 families live in neatly kept adobes without telephones or hot water.

Since then, they've made a lasting impression on the residents of Jacume (pronounced HAH-coo-may), these two Americans who went to Mexico not just for a cheaper existence, but because they loved the land and its people.

They have become role models to several of the town's teen-agers, and have bought bicycles and a truck for needy residents--all on the theory that becoming good neighbors can help span the widest linguistic and cultural differences.

But Mexico has offered the two men important moments of solitude as well.

Spencer, a former entrepreneur, newspaper critic and mental hospital operater, has spent the past few years writing a book on mental health.

Together with Gilliam, 34, a photographer and metals artist, he paid $2,800 for a simple adobe house on the outskirts of town where the two spend hours at work each day.

Inside, Gilliam has a workroom to create his small sculptures made of glass, metal, wood and plastic. Spencer has a reading and writing room with shelves full of books on psychoanalysis, his favorite subject.

With a few real-estate investments north of the border in Jacumba, the friends make enough to live comfortably. After all, with no mortgage, no insurance or car payments, it's easy to live well on little money.

"I never wanted to be a millionaire, I just wanted to live like one," said Spencer, a small man with intelligent blue eyes whose sentences are accented with quotes from Freud, Picasso and W.C. Fields. "Well, we've got it right here--even if we have to use an outhouse."

As forays into the Third World go, Spencer and Gilliam have made a rather short one. Jacume is just 2 miles south of the international border, and many residents go to San Diego County for work each day.

But in many ways, the town couldn't be farther from the city grind. The town sits in the middle of an expansive valley that stretches south to the horizon. On weekends, fruit and vegetable vendors from nearby Tecate rumble along the dirt roads into town to peddle their wares.

Just before sunset, children pull stunts on their bicycles while the men gather outside one of the two mercados , leaning on the back end of their pickup trucks, trading stories about their jobs and lives.

In the middle of town, not far from the church, an elementary school flies a Mexican flag that snaps furiously in the stiff autumn winds.

"People always ask me why I live here," Spencer said. "I say because it's the prettiest place I know. The house I live in is beautiful, and the people are wonderful. The Mexicans are more friendly, more kindly and gentle than anyone you'll find north of the border."

Their life in Jacume, Spencer and Gilliam say, is both a rebellion and an experiment. They are two artists looking for work space that is unfettered by materialism and big city demands. They are also two friends of vastly different ages in search of the common ground between old age and youth.

Their decision to move to Mexico, however, has caused some hard feelings among both their families.

"Is my father a crazy person or just someone who has found an alternative life style? I don't know," said Nelsie Spencer, a 33-year-old actress and playwright who lives in New York City.

"I describe him as eccentric when I tell my friends about him. Frankly, I think he's still searching for himself."

Both men have heard that description before.

"We've been called eccentric, but it's something more than that," Gilliam said. "The word I like is esoteric. It means being understood by only a few."

Most days, instead of fighting rush-hour traffic, the two artists walk the streets and wave to the old women hanging clothes in the morning sun and to the men on their way to jobs across the border.

The town's slow pace, they say, is adding years to their lives, replacing the stress of seeking success with sunset-watching and long-winded afternoons.

But if the residents of Jacume have left a mark on these two men, they have responded with one of their own. Today, the locals are no longer as confused by their presence as they are amazed by their generosity.

Gilliam has returned from the States with dozens of old bicycles for the poorer children in town. Last year, the pair bought a used flatbed truck in Julian for a rancher who couldn't afford one and wired another man's home so his family could have electricity.

And each night, when they sit down to dinner, a group of children show up at their table--not only for a dinner of home-cooked meat and beans but also to absorb the wisdom offered by two of the town's most worldly residents.

The artists' attitude hasn't gone unnoticed in Jacume. For one thing, people like the fact that, unlike many Americans living in Mexico, these two don't smugly colonize with their own kind.

Rather, they seek out conversations with their Mexican neighbors. Their Spanish is flawed. But, if they don't know a word, they go home and look it up.

"Americans have come here to live in the past, people who didn't even like Mexico--I don't understand it," said Maria Mercado, a friend and neighbor. "I guess they came here because Mexico is cheap.

"But not Richard and Kirk. They love this place. You can tell by the way they treat the people. It's in the eyes. And the eyes don't lie."

Spencer first fell in love with Mexico during visits there in the 1940s, a romance with the land that was rekindled when he and Kirk, the son of an old family friend, took a vacation to Baja in the early 1970s.

They vowed to return to Mexico. Ten years later, however, the two found themselves working jobs in suburban Southern California, running in succession two locked mental health facilities in Anaheim and Santa Ana.

When the second facility closed in 1980, they stayed together, working a series of temporary jobs that more resembled comedy gigs for Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz on the old "I Love Lucy" show.

They counted cars at an intersection, shoveled ice for the Ice Capades, counted votes for a Latino union election, worked in a circuitry board factory, ran a bar in San Francisco.

And then, in 1985, while on a camping trip to the back country of San Diego County, they saw the steeple of Jacume's only chapel sitting just across the border, pointing to the sky like a beacon.

Gilliam recalls stepping back in time 100 years when he first saw the town's well-kept adobe homes and the church that had no priest--only a part-time pastor who paid infrequent visits like the traveling U.S. marshals of the old American West.

Although they spoke little Spanish at first, they soon learned about the spirit of Jacume's people.

Jesus Garcia, one of the town's founding fathers, offered them an old ranch house just outside town--one without electricity or running water--if they agreed to build a new roof on the place.

"He said it wasn't going to any use just sitting there, and he and his wife had moved to a new house nearer to the border," Spencer recalled. "So he gave it to us. Just like that."

The two men rebuilt the roof on the house, which Gilliam still uses as a second residence and a place of solitude. They also throw their annual July 4th party and cultural mixer there, last year attended by 100 people--50 Mexicans from Jacume and 50 Americans from nearby Jacumba.

Gilliam, a bespectacled man with an artist's gentleness, says there is a precious simplicity to his life in Jacume.

He likes the sound of the squawking chickens and lowing cows outside his window--even though he often has to chase the beasts away from eating the leaves off trees in his back yard.

And he enjoys driving the dirt roads on his bicycle or the red 1957 Chevrolet Apache pickup, past the endless lines of grotesquely crooked tree limbs that serve as a nearby rancher's fence posts.

On Saturday nights, he likes to lie in bed and listen to the sound of drunken men squealing the tires of their pickup trucks, kicking up a dust storm that covers the town.

Even after four years, Spencer remains infatuated by the character of the Mexican people he has met in the tiny town.

Like Jesus Garcia who, with his wife Estefana, walked more than 2,500 miles from central Mexico to settle in Jacume in the 1940s.

Or Maria Mercado, a strong-willed woman who has fought the male dominance inherent to her culture to become a powerful voice in Jacume, starting the town's first market.

Like others in town, she carefully sweeps the footsteps from the dirt yard outside her home each day.

And there are the scores of residents who fill the tiny church for Christmas Eve services, often in below-freezing temperatures and without a priest, playing out their faith without the smallest complaint about the cold.

"There's a stoicism to these people that helps shape your own life," Spencer said. "They don't complain about their lives, they just live them."

But there are changes coming to Jacume. What is considered progress in the eyes of many residents is just another step toward the world the Americans thought they had left behind.

These days, many families have satellite dishes outside their homes. And many children are becoming bored with their bicycles, asking for motorized bikes and three-wheelers.

And not long ago, fulfilling a political campaign promise, Baja officials installed street lights in the town--bright lights that block out the brilliant masses of stars overhead.

But the most troubling development has been the graffiti, Gilliam says. Watching too much American television perhaps inspired a group of girls to deface several huge boulders just outside town with hand-painted sayings such as "Maria y Carlos."

So Gilliam organized several groups of girls to go out and repaint the rocks. "And, boy, did they respond," Spencer said. "I think it's one of the first times anyone paid any attention to these girls for something creative.

"In some respects this town is still in the Dark Ages, such as people's attitudes toward women. They're treated as sex objects at a certain age. And then they're expected to clean."

It is with the children that Spencer and Gilliam have made the biggest impression in Jacume--especially the group of boys who show up at their house each night for dinner and conversation.

"They liked coming by because they could come and go as they pleased," Spencer said. "And we found them fascinating. We really talked with them, which is something that doesn't always happen with adults here."

The only house rule forbids the children to hit each other. But there were no restrictions on profanity. "At first, they used every filthy word in the book, in both languages," Spencer said.

"But soon they got bored with that because there was no response. That's when the real communication started."

Today, several of the boys are outgrowing their peers, a fact that Spencer and Gilliam attribute to their improved diet. But all of them have overcome their shyness to ask questions about things they see on the globe and in the encyclopedias that sit in the living room.

"Kirk provides a good role model as an artist and a thinker," Spencer said. "They look up to him."

The two admit there was some reserve among the locals when they first arrived, questioning looks about why two Americans would move to a tiny Mexican town.

Although they are now included in most social events, some tension remains. "I know that some people are laughing behind our backs," Gilliam said, referring to his mistakes with the language and the gaps in his knowledge of the culture.

"But it's their sense of humor. Whoever is the outsider is the butt of the joke. I don't take it personally."

There have been lots of cultural lessons, cooking tips, hand tools and insights exchanged between the Americans and their new-found neighbors. Mimicking an old adage, Gilliam says, for example, that the beer is always colder on the other side of the border.

"They go crazy for Budweiser down here, he said, "while we'll drink Tecate whenever we can get it."

Although they drive the 2 miles to Jacumba most every day, the two men keep their contact across the border to a minimum. And, if they ever get lonely for the lives they left behind, all they have to do is switch on the radio.

At night, they can listen to the radio talk programs, to the often-lonely voices describing the emotional problems that evolve from big city life. And that's when the little town of Jacume looks better than ever.

"Sometimes, we listen to the traffic reports from Los Angeles and marvel at all the craziness," Gilliam said. "Then you look out your window at the dirt road that goes by, and you know that maybe five cars are going to pass all day.

"And it gives you a kind of peace."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World