The Last Days of Rancho De Los Diablos : The Largest Migrant Camp in Southern California Was Bulldozed This Month--One More Twist in a History and Fable in Progress
No morning at Rancho de los Diablos really begins until Don Trino descends into the canyon at a few minutes past 4 in his red-and-silver lunch truck. Before any light, before the roosters crow on the eastern side of the camp, don Trino parks near two eucalyptus trees and waits silently in the cab. Until it was razed this fall, Rancho de los Diablos, which stretched for seven-tenths of a mile along the bottom of Mc Gonigle Canyon in the northwest corner of the city of San Diego, was the largest-and perhaps oldest migrant camp in Southern California. At its height, in the late ‘70s, the camp had as many as 2,000 residents. By this summer, the population stood at 600. As a 20 year-old squatters camp located on private property, it was always a center of controversy. City officials called it a health hazard. Nearby homeowners targeted it as a drag on property values and a magnet for crime. Advocacy groups rallied around it as a glaring example of San Diego’s failure to provide adequate housing for immigrant laborers-the backbone of the area’s $800-million agricultural industry. This spring, after years of task forces and resolution, the city finally decided to relocate 39 families and level the camp.
Unlike the 200 or so other encampments that account for 15,000 migrants throughout San Diego county, Rancho de los Diablos evolved from a bachelors society to an organized community that included not just field hands, gardeners and day laborers but also women and children. Several years ago, as advocacy groups improved living conditions and promised the construction of better housing, the men, most of whom are legal residents, brought their families up from Mexico. By the end, services included weekly check cashing, a credit system, trash pickup, toilets, colar- and generator-powered electricity, Avon delivery, a water system, student carpools, and elected town council, a brothel under the stars, a local marijuana patch, fake green cards, a vibrant trade in crystal methaphetamine and daily patrols by the San Diego Police Department.
“There’s bit of everything here,” one resident told me with a smile, betraying amusement and amazement bordering on outrage. she wasn’t just rendering to her fellow residents, but to the baptisms and quincianeras, first Communions wand weddings, deaths and fires that have marked the camp’s history.
By the time the last bulldozers came in late October and cleared away 401 cardboard, plywood, plastic and metal-sided shacks, a medical clinic, six restaurants, two soccer fields, four basketball courts and a volleyball court, the communal bathhouse and general store, the men had already erected a new camp less than a mile away. It’s happened this way for 20 years. The city or the growers tear down a camp and another sprouts up. So, the destruction of Rancho de los Diablos this fall was really only a twist in the plot of a story that spans three decades. It is a verdadera historia, truly a story, because it is history and fable in progress that begins with a low point for Cesar Chavez and turns on the feudal living conditions of most farm workers in San diego County.
Just Down The Road From Don Trino’s lunch truck, Dona Adelina rises from the wooden pallet that she shares with her husband, Don Cidronio, slides her feet into worn black flats and turns on a flashlight. Quietly, so as not to wake her 16-year-old son, who sleeps on the other side of a partition, she removes the chain from the door of her family’s three-room canton, shack. Once outside , she dips water from a metal drum to wash her hands and face, slicks the excess water into her medium-length black hair and brushes her teeth.
Forty-six years old, Dona Adelina has a wide, stern face and a down-turned mouth. Shen she meets you for the first time, she looks at you from the corner of her eyes, like a farmer sizing up a stranger. She arrived at Rancho de los Diablos in 1992 from Zacatetan, in the state of Guerrero, to join her husband, who had become a legal resident under amnesty. With her eldest daughters married, there was no reason to remain separated from Don Cidronio nine months of the year. “After so many years of hearing about America,” She says, “I wanted to see what people were talking about.”
Inside the low-slung canton, she lights a white candle and clicks on the pocket transistor radio to a local banda station. Wrappping a towel around her head to keep from catching cold, she returns outside to kindle a fire in the horno, the squat clay oven she made when she first arrived at the camp. She feeds more wood into the mouth of the oven, which is covered with a round metal griddle cut from the top of the nearby drum, and the smell of burning wood mingles with the crip morning air. when the first man stumbles form his canton don Trino walks to the back of the truck. “How’s it going?” he asks absently as he lifts the back section. “Well, I’m here,” replies a slightly built man who stands above the ashes of a long dead bonfire and hugs himself from the morning cold. Trino opens the long side of the ruck and, without a word, throws out empty cartons into the pile of ashes. The haggard man tears the boxes, pulls a lighter from his shirt pocket and starts a fire. to keep it going, don Trino piles on grocery bags and plastic foam cups as the man stoops at the edge of the flames, his shining face partially obscured by the stings of black smoke rising from the burning plastic.
At 5, Son Cidronio emerges from the doorway and mumbles “Buenos dias” to Dona Adelina. A short, wide man, with a stomach that juts out just below his chest and hangs over his belt, he sits down to eat the oatmeal his wife has spooned into a Campbell’s soup mug. The men of the camp often confuse Don Cidronios generosity and good nature for comical stupidity. but those have been precisely the qualities that have sustained him during his 20 years at the camp-he is one of its two earliest residents.
Up and down the road, men who cannot endure the face-twisting stench of the portable toilet follow footpaths into high weeds to relieve themselves. They carry handfuls of toilet paper, old newspaper and crumpled brown paper bags to use when the squat, their hats dipping below the top of the weeds.
When Don Cidronio finishes his breakfast, Dona Adelina hands him a jar of pink Jergens There Way All Purpose Face and Beauty Cream that he rubs on his face, neck and arms for protection from the sun. she then pours a stew of eggs, chile and tomatoes into his thermos and packs it into a nylon backpack. Don Cidronio pulls a flannel shirt over a blue T-shirt. “Do you have everything father?” she asks. “he answers, walking toward the road. Dona Adelina, with arms folded, watches the procession of men converge on Don Trino’s fiyuqua, lunch truck.
Around the truck, men make instant Necafe and dip maria cookies into their cups. They greet each other with nicknames and nods. Some fill plastic bags with sweet bread, soda and burritos. Few pay. son Trino stands nearby with a notebook in hand and enters the merchandise brought. When a man his just cruzado la Linea, crossed the border, he can open a line of credit with Don Trino if he has work with los diablos, the devils, the Ukegawa family, who run tomato strawberry, cucumber and bean fields from Del Mar to San Luis Rey.
Clumps of men start to walk toward the Carmel Valley cucumber fields. Others ride bikes up Black Mountain Road, Climb onto the backs of pickups and cram themselves into aging cars. And so they spread out to the east and west and north. Don Trino calculates the morning sales in his spiral notebook. Dona’ Adelina returns to sleep until 8 and Don Cidronio looks out the back of a brown Chevy pickup on his way to the fields. Only later will his wife remind him that it is his 60th birthday.
In Carmel Valley, a mile and a half west of the camp, the workday begins at about 6:40. Under straw hats and baseball caps, the men pick cucumbers strung along three-foot vines. The small spines, removed before the cucumbers reach the stores, can cut through cotton gloves and pierce a man’s fingers, numbing his hands by day’s end.
They load the cucumbers into square wooden boxes and the boxes onto metal-framed wheel barrows. The loaded carts are then taken to a woman in a straw hat, who counts the boxes and inspects the Vegetables. If she is satisfied with the produce, she punches a paper card that the men keep in their front pockets. But if a box contains too many yellow cucumbers, it will be discarded and noted as shoddy work. The men then unload their small crates into larger boxes. A forlift carries the larger boxes to a nearby flatbed truck, and the men return with the empty carts to refill the boxes. they bend below the top of the rows and do not rise again until they’ve filled a crate. In other fields, men weed, moving up and down until sweat falls from their noses and chins, until their backs tingle, until the pain has rhythm.
Other men ride into newly powered fields on flatbeds loaded with stakes. One crew plants the stakes in shallow holes. Another crew follows with a device called el nino, the baby. A man lifts the 10-pound hollow-metal nino over his head, holding two curved handles that look like the bent arms of an infant, and brings it down over the top of the stake, driving it into the ground. Relatively easy, this chore can also be tricky and dangerous. If a man tires and loses his concentration, he can hit the edge of a stake and send splinters flying into his face.
Except for the short of “Apurate!” - Hurry up!-from the crew chiefs who march up and down the rows, the men work un silence. The only other sounds are the hum of the forklift and the thud of the cucumbers tumbling from box to box. Drinking water comes form the irrigation pipes. Many fields have no bathrooms, and the men are expected to relieve themselves, quickly, in the dirt. There are no breaks. Lunch is for 30 minutes, starting at 11, when Don Trino or another man from El Burrito Catering arrives. Sitting on the ground, the men tear into stiff burritos and tortas. With a watchful efficiency. Don Trino calculates the lunch sales into neat columns under each man’s name. When the foremen call out, the day continues until 4. By then, it will take some of the older men almost the entire walk back ot the rancho to stand up straight. Every man and adolescent sleeps with rubbing alcohol by his bed.
Back At The Camp, with two speakers, a 300-watt amplifier and a CD player powered by a buzzing generator, Ramiro straddles a microphone stand and croons a string of rancheras, nortenas and American standards. He practices from 9 until noon under the blue tarp next to El Restaurante del Chivo. With a round face, curly brown hair, a small scar on the right side of his chin and a plump little nose, Ramiro had been at the camp off and on for 19 years. He is now 34 years old and goes by the nickname la gringa and, in the cosmos of Rancho de los Diablos, he is the mobile entrepreneur.
Because Rancho Penasquitos, the nearest school district, won’t send buses up dirt roads, Ramiro shuttles about 30 of the camp’s school-aged children in his 1966 Dodges Monaco every morning. He charges $2 a day for each child; he also drives men to the fields, charging them $4 round-trip. His most clever venture, though, is the afternoon football game that he runs at the dusty field on the western side of the camp. He is the game’s concessionaire as well as its announcer.
To play, each man must hand Ramiro $2. In exchange, the winning players get two free beers. “Here we are at the Devil’s Cup,” he intones at the start of every game, “brought to you by Budweiser, the King of Beers...” The game consists of only one period; the first team to score two goals wins, and there are no boundaries except when the ball is totally unplayable. The game usually attracts about 40 onlookers-a tough, rowdy crowd that rarely has a good word for the players. When a goal is scored, Ramiro booms, “Gooaaallll!!!!!mimicking well-known TV announcer Andres Cantor.
But this morning, Ramiro isn’t concerned with commerce. He bends his knees and closes his eyes, and his baritone sails across the camp. Leaning against a nearby trailer, sitting on dusty plastic chairs, onlookers come and go. Ruben, a crackly-voiced 13-year-old, stays to taunt Ramiro. Their exchangers begin when Ramiro calls him a little female quail, a reference to Ruben’s wet, slicked hair. When Ramiro sings, “Lo hice hado a mimanera,” the Spanish-language version of “My Way,” Ruben shouts, “Come on, maricon. Let’s go, you faggot. Come on, Gloria Trevi, throw out your calzones. Throw out your panties.”
Just across the creed from Don Trino;s truck, Ruben’s 7-year-old sister, Angelica, wearing a red dress and high black boots, twirls from a yellow rope that hangs from a tree branch. Her older sister, Rubicelia, sits on a shaky wooden chair and reads mail from her grandparents in Arcelia, Guerrero. “I miss hem,” she says. “I want to go back.”
Rubicelia and her mother, Angelita, have pored over the letter a dozen times. A quiet, watchful woman with a broad red face and and even line of white teeth, Angelita came north with her children two years ago. Her husband had been living in the camp since 1977, and she only saw him during the winter. he was sleeping with other women, Angelita says, leaning her face onto the side of her hands. He was drinking, she says, gesturing with her hands a if lifting a bottle to her lips. “There were months and months when we didn’t get any money, when there was no food in the house. As an adult I could bear it, but the children suffered. There was on day, i remember, when we didn’t even have salt. it was then i decided to come with the children. i figured at least they would eat.”
Ramiro, who has been overhearing the conversation, shakes his head and arches his eyes. “Ves. Estas mujeres son muy sufridas,” he says. “You see. These women are sufferers.”
With His Permed black hair, red Wet’n Wild lipstick, Stetson cologne, gold chains and bracelets and zirconia earring studs, Felipe is the reigning queen of Rancho de los Diablos. At 24, he looks middle-aged, with slight bags under his eyes. Everyone calls him La Morena, the Black Woman. Midmorning, he walks through the camp in tight ash-blue Guess? shorts and a T-shirt reading Surf Fruit. The men whistle and jeer, saying “Hola bonita, ven aqui.” Not answering, he sashays into the largest restaurant in the camp.
The eldest of seven children, Felipe came to the ranch in 1989 from a pueblo outside Veracruz. He used to work as an Ukegawa field hand but now cleans houses on Poway and Mira Mesa, towns east of the camp. His rambling canton, which sits on an embankment behind the soccer field, is the nearest thing to luxurious living at Rancho de los Diablos. Christmas streamers hang from the plywood ceiling. A black scalop-shaped couch dominates the living area; in one corner, a plywood table, covered with a tartan blanket, hold a black-and-white stuffed dog, a brown teddy bear, a brown stuffed pup and a ceramic blue-and white praying Virgin.
Like a Hobbit hole, Felipe’s canton extends into the side of the canyon. One of the back rooms is a sleeping porch for the five other gay men who live there. His tiny bedroom is burrowed farthest into the hillside. he has carefully painted the walls canary yellow and the ceiling white; a bamboo parasol hangs over the bed. The effect is one of stately colonial decay. four shelves to the left of the bedroom door hold a makeup sponge, One-A Day Vitamins for Women, foaming Face Wash, a white candle, assorted hose (knee-high length), rosary beads, tasseled loafers and two pairs of black patent-leather pumps. The small plastic window over the bed does not open, so by midday the rooms is like a sauna.
At Dona Rosa’s restaurant, Felipe sits on a long wooden bench with his lover, Salvador. Waiting for their lunch, they are joined by Armando, a tall, gaunt, bearded man who wears a dusty black cap that read “Chihuahua,” his home state.
“Oh, God,” Felipe says in a high-pitched voice when Armando sits next to him.
“Ahi! Here’s my pretty morena,” Armando says leaning against Felipe’s shoulder. “She’s my girlfriend.”
“No, I’m not,” Felipe says. “How are you going to maintain me?”
There are 10 openly gay men at the rancho. One is HIV positive. Their partners come from the gray area of Mexican machismo-that is, from the large number of men who are straight by day and gay by night. It takes a conversation with Cristobal to understand the unspoken rules of a camp that prides itself on sheltering the identity of its “heterosexual brothers.” A short, frail, mocha-skinned man with Indian features and a head of thick black hair, Cristobal is slightly pigeon-toed and speaks with a lisp. He came to America in 1989 and lost half of his right ring finger in a lawn-mower accident. Cristobal now picks beefsteak tomatoes in the fields. in the evenings, he cooks on a propane stove for a group of six men. he is 27 and, like all the men, looks 19 years older.
Cristobal points out the bruises on his chest and ribs where he was beaten by an angry lover the week before. “He was drunk, and he hit me and kicked me on the ground. i ran through the camp and hid. he did it because I got tired. he’s not gay. El is hombre. he was doing it to me. i’m gay, and he’s the man. he has a wife and kids. he’s not a homosexual.”
Until 1990, the rancho, then located half a mile northeast of its current location, was exclusively a male domain, where boys became prison girlfriends. A lawless place where $5 prostitutes swarmed the hills on payday, where bandits roamed the fields in ski masks, robbing their victims at gunpoint and leaving them in fields miles away. As many as seven residents were killed in the course of a year. Back then, as now, a drunken argument could erupt into a gun or knife fight, and the next day the body would be found in the dust. Makeshift shrines with Guadalupe candles still mark the spot where many of the men fell. Collections were taken and the bodies sent to their pueblos for their viudas, hijos, padres y parientes-widows, children, parents and relatives to give them a proper Catholic burial.
Don Cidronio came During those years. he left Zacatetan in March, 1974, crossed the border in May and was working in the Ukegawa strawberry fields by June. he was 40 years old and a mason by trade. That year, Rancho de los Diablos was a nameless encampment scattered throughout a section of McGonigle Canyon known locally as Devil’s Canyon. Don Cidronio lived in a hole covered by sticks and brush to avoid detection by the Border Patrol. Other men simply pulled plastic or tarps over sticks, hung their food in bags from trees and slept on the open under flea-and tick-infested blankets. Every Friday, they bathed in the stream where the chapel to the Virgen de Guadalupe now stands or washed themselves from the irrigation pip(es. they stripped down only to their underwear, not out of modesty but from fear of snakes. They coded crude meals on open fires or bought moldy burritos from Don Trino and other fiyuqueros who catered to the thousands of men living in the hill tips and valleys. After a week of training without pay, Don Cidronio worked a horse and plow, earning 70 cents an hour. The horses were given an hour’s rest, the men 30 minutes for lunch. When work ran behind schedule, men were harnessed and made to pull the plows.
The following year, 1975, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law the Agricultural labor Relations Act, giving farm workers, for the first time in American history, the right to bargain collectively. On paper, the act gave undocumented workers who were too fearful of deportation the right to report abuses, to vote on union representation, file complaints and testify at Agricultural labor Relations Board hearings. “The law is a godsend,” Cesar Chavez said. “Without question the best law for workers-any workers in the entire country.”
The same year. United Farm Workers organizers came to Mc Gonigle Canyon. Chavez himself toured the canyon to organize against the Ukegawas. “I’ve seen a lot” he said. “But these conditions were among the worst. Disgusting. Inhumane.” On their first visit, organizers brought food, potable water (an unheard of luxury) and clothes. On their second visit, they brought a large color television and a generator for the men to watch soccer games. Slowly, the men began to sign union cards.
But not all of them were moved by the promises of a better life.” “I remember when the great Chavez came,” says Don Costodio, a tractor operator who has been with the Ukegawas for 22 years and loves in a canton at the edge of the creek. With gray hair, gold-capped teeth and eyes always red from the dust the tractor kicks up, don Custodio has seen “do gooders” came and go. He is Don Cidronio’s friend and often visits in the evening. By the time Adelina is absorbed in the radio, Don Custodio his teeth glinting in the candlelight-launches into his deatribe.
His father fought for one of Zapata’s generals. the revolution promised to bring land reform. Instead, his father ended up with eight hectares of hilly, rocky soil that was nearly impossible to farm. The Catholic church is no good. They’re just interested in your money. You’ve got to pay for everything. To get married. to get buried. The priests cant be trusted. The priests can’t be trusted. They spy on peasants around the world. They say they’re helping you, but they bring us green bread on Saturdays.
The monologue goes into the night. don Cidronio snores. Dona Adelina, a devout Catholic, nods absently, not wanting to argue. don Costodio strikes the final chords on the moral. “the poor people who do the fighting, who suffer, end up fighting, who suffer end up with nothing in the end. That’s the way it is.”
For Don Costodio, it all leads back to the UFW’s 1975 organizing campaign. ‘they passed papers out. told us they; were going to help us. but I didn’t have time. i had to work to feed my wife and children in Guerrero.”
By August, 1975, Joe and Hiroshi Ukegawa had fired 57 UFW supporters, many of whom were “green-carders,” legal workers and U.S. residents. In November, a union organizer woke up with a gun to his face. in 1975, two union supporters, Arnaldo Zavala and Jose Sandoval, tried to speak to workers. Jose Morrotte, a Ukegawa foreman told them to leave. As Azvala and Sandoval walked away, Morrotte fired a file in their direction. Morrotte later testified he was “target practicing.”
Fearing serious injury to his organizers, Chavez curtailed the organizing drive and decided to fight his case before the newly formed Agriculture Labor Relations Board. The UFW charged that Ukegawa illegally fired and intimidated workers to hamper unionizing efforts. it took two years for the case to reach a hearing. in December, 1977, Joe and Hisroshi Ukegawa and their foremen took the stand and denied all charges. After almost a year of testimony and six months of deliberation, the ALRB found that “the company had engaged in such egregious and widespread conduct as to demonstrate a general disregard for its employees fundamental statutory rights.” The board ordered that the Ukegawa Brothers Inc. reinstate 62 workers with back pay and interest.
But what appeared to be UFW triumph turned out to be a hollow victory. The Ukegawas appealed the decision and quickly won a stay. Waiting for the court ruling, UFW organizers returned to the fields in 1980. By then, many workers from the initial drive had moved on. Like Don Costodio, the now wary men only remembered that the UFW hadn’t delivered. And this time, the Ukegawas were better prepared. they bulldozed roads to keep organizers out; they threatened field hands who picked up their lunch from the UFW co-op. By the end of the summer, Chavez pulled out. “I didn’t want our guys in there,” Chavez said. “We should not risk our organizers lives. it’s too isolated in there, and anything can happen,”
Today, 19 years later, the Ukegawa family-which, the ALRB suspects, has operated under the names golden Bear and Del Mar Produce and now operates Leslie farms Inc. is still tied up in court with the ALRB, and the Ukegawas owe the state at least $2,532,241 in back wages and interest from the original case. “It is not uncommon to see a case last this long when you see the number of appeals available,” says kerry Donnell, regional director of the ALRB El centro office. “We have a big judgement....but we don’t have priority. we’re not a secured creditor like a bank.” In 193, San diego tomato growers, which includes the Ukegwas, reported $37 million in sales. That same year, son cidronio earned $8,825.
Brothers Hiroshi and Joe Ukegawa were born in 1921 and 1926, respectively, in Santo Ana. When they were 21 and 16, they were interned at the Colorado River Relocation Center in Poston, Ariz. Hiroshi was released in 1944, Joe in 1945. Shortly after World War II, they began planting strawberries and tomatoes in northern San Diego County. their experience as internees invariably surfaces when they are accused of labor abuses. “I have known them since 1969,” said William N. Sauer Jr., a Carlsbad attorney who has represented the family on several occasions. “These individuals suffered so much abuse.
“That’s why I’m so shocked by the allegations,” he told reporters a few years ago. “I find them incredible.” Cousins Jon, James and Joe Ukegawa, sons of the founders now oversee the business. (The family and its attorneys did not respond to any phone calls.)
Fourteen years after the decision, Ukegawa workers earn the minimum wage cuatro veinticinco, $4.25 an hour. That’s for a field hand, a crew chief, a tractor operator, a new arrival or a 20 year veteran. Before taxes, that adds up to $170, with take-home about $144. This salary does not cover strawberry picking in the Carlsbad fields. there, the men earn $1.15 a flat. It is rare for a man to pick more than 11 flats a day without marring the strawberries. that means, on average, the men earn $75.90 a week before taxes. The exceptional and they young can bring in as much as $90 a week. “now that we’re picking strawberries, i can’t save anything,” says Alejandro flores, a four-year resident at the camp, holding a $75 check in his hands.
“Sometimes I don’t even have money to call, only to eat. It cost $55 to $60 to eat a week. Breakfast is $2 a burrito, a drink.
Then the fiyuqua arrives, and you eat away $4 at midday. And dinner cost about $15, $18, $21 a week. the fiyuqua people are great. They give us credit. they change our checks for a dollar, $1.25. That’s not bad. If you don’t have a car, you have to pay $24 a week for a ride. We’re left with simply nothing. Only for eating.
Cuatro Veinticinco also sheds light on the financial intricacies of the camp, where credit is an elegant system of kindness that begins with Don Trino and his fiyuqua and can affect any transaction in which money trades hands. Son Trino had been a lettuce picker outside of Phoenix when he came to San Diego around 1974 to help his friend with the fledgling El Burrito lunch-truck business. he is a large, taciturn man with curly, graying black hair, ham hands, a bushy mustache and a face that is frozen into a squint even on a cloudy day. his favorite expression is cabron, son of a bitch, which either can be an insult or a compliment, but punctuates almost every sentence. On the hottest day of summer, he wears a blue flannel shirt over a white V-neck undershirt. known as el bigote, the mustache, or simply ElTrino, he is a looming, silent presence at any impromptu gathering in the camp. Hunched over a picnic table, barely acknowledging the conversation around him, he eats sunflower sees, loudly spits the shells out, and swigs down the vinegar from a small jar of jalapenos.
One afternoon, Jimmy Ukegawa, in frameless glasses, khaki shirt and pants, descended into the camp in a white pickup truck. Every man, woman and child froze momentarily and fell silent. Ukegawa stopped near the picnic table, walked over to Don Trino and handed his a sheet from a yellow notepad. After he left and people began to breathe normally again, Trino explained that the note only contained the name of a man who had been overpaid.
The Ukegawa and El Burrito catering interests are in tertwined. Only men who work for the Ukegawas get credit. If a man does not square his account on Friday, his credit line is cut and the balance taken out of his check. if a man is going to be fired by the Ukegawas, the balance he owes Don Trino is subtracted from his check. “When I die,” Don Trino likes to say, tapping his head, “everything is going with me.”
Don Arnulfo Duarte is a Tractor operator who came to el rancho in 1977. A native of Arcelia, in the state of Guerrero, he is a slow-moving man with an ample belly whose love for watermelons has earned him the nickname la sandia, the watemelon. Son Arnulfo’s sleepy brown eyes and deadpan delivery undercut the most startling utterances that fly from his mouth. His wife, Dona Asuncion, came with their children, Perla and Osvaldo, in 1992. Ruddy-faced with graying curly hair and a considerable paunch, Mrs. Watermelon, as she is sometimes called, runs the family restaurant, a rambling wooden structure of makeshift additions that can seat 15 people. On a Friday night, though, El Restaurante del Chivo, the goat restaurant, serves as many as 50 customers who have come for the house specialty, the 45 roasted goat dinner.
Don Arnulfo’s family occupies the camp’s thin bourgeois strata-longtime residents with regular incomes and small businesses. Like the other natives of Guerrero, they live close to the camp’s center and look down upon the Mixtec Indians from Oaxaca and the handful of recently arrive Guatemalans. operating without health permits, restaurant owners like Don Arnulfo generally clear at least $300 a week. In addition to selling goat meat to the other restaurants, he also charges 50 cents for the use of his blender. With the camp closing, Don Arnulfo sees the end of a captive market. “You can’t just open a restaurant in the city. you need permission. You have to pay rent. It’s expensive.” Thursday is goat-killing day, and a preoccupied Don Arnulfo sits on a faded green and gold couch on the restaurant’s cooking porch. A chicken pace the dirt floor, and a transistor radio plays rancheras and corridas. Dona Asuncion pushes wood into the side of the drum to start fire. The goat bucks against the wall of an adjacent shack. The butcher hasn’t arrived yet and Don Arnulfo, with an agitated expression on his large round face, needs to talk.
“People say the world is going to end this Saturday,” he announces.
Dona Asuncion, dressed in a white knee-length skirt and a yellow T-shirt that reads “Released. but not Free” around the likeness of Nelson Mandela, keeps a worried eye on the conversation as she throws the gutted and cleaned carcass of a quail on the drum stove. “Something is going to crash into the earth, and there will be floods and earthquakes.” Arnuflfo continues. Dona Asuncion nods her head almost imperceptibly to support her husband’s statement. “No.” I explain. “That’s another planet. A comet is going to collide with Jupiter.” Don Arnulfo remains perplexed. Dona Asuncion flips the quail with her bare hand. “Jupiter,” he asks, “is that far?” “Yes, it’s hundreds of millions of miles away.” “That far. So, there won’t be any earthquakes or floods here?”
“No.” “Jupiter. Do people live there?”
“No” “Gracias a Dios.” Thank God. Dona Ascuncion removes the quail, places it on a plastic plate and begins heating tortillas. As she flips them with her hands, Christauria Welland Akon enters, wearing jeans, sandals and a pink T-shirt. “Come in, come in,” Arnulfo says, rising from the couch. “It’s hot in here,” says Christauria, her round beatific face red from the heat and the sun. As the liaison for Our Lady of Mt. Carmel parish in Rancho Penasquitos, Christauria, a cheerful, energetic woman, has the daunting task of serving as friend, religious counselor and social worker to the camp. Each summer she and her husband take children to the beach and the zoo. “Some of them have never seen the ocean.” she says, her blue eyes widening. Christauria coordinates the weekly chapel services every Saturday morning, organizes the church volunteers who serve donated food after mass, schedules baptisms and leads preparation classes for First Communions.
Christauria has come to the goat restaurant to help Dona Asuncion and Don Arnulfo plan for the First Communion of their godchild. As padrinos, godparents, it is their responsibility to buy the girl’s white First Communion dress and to make arrangements for the Mass. To consider cost for any of these events is bad taste, a cultural sin. A family, compadres and comadres must spend lavishly on the celebration so everyone will talk about it for years. “We don’t know where to get a dress for her.” Dona Asuncion says. “It costs more here,” Christauria replies. “It would be better for you to go to Tijuana, where you can find something inexpensive. But if you don’t want to go all the way to Tijuana, you can go to Escondido. i don’t know where they go, but I know they go and buy and spend thousands of dollars.”
“We want the best,” Dona Asuncion insists. “We want the prettiest dress, not just any dress.”
“Ah, so you want something that’s worth a lot, right? Christauria shakes her head. “But why do you spend your money on these things? I just don’t understand it.”
‘Well, it’s because we’re used to it, it’s our custom,” Dona Asuncion says. “You barely have food and almost no place to live and you all spend hundreds of dollars on the dresses for these girls. Explain it to me Perla,” Christauria says to Dona Asuncion’s shy, chubby 16-year-old daughter, who responds with a giggle. “Can you explain that to me? For me its a mystery to this very day. I don’t under stand why a man here hits his wife, and I don’t understand why you spend so much money for a dress the you’ll use for just a little while.”
“Well, it’s for people not to say..” Dona Asuncion hesitates. “Well, you see, we Mexicans are very nosy, and we gossip a ot. We do it because we do not want anyone to say que somos bien codos, that we’re stingy.”
“Andale, that’s it,” Christauria says triumphantly, as if she’d finally cornered Dona Asuncion into making the point for her. “Well, these things I really don’t know about because, although I have more money than you all have, I don’t spend hundreds of dollars on such things. I don’t spend my money that way. That’s why I have money.” “Well, that means you’re very stingy then,” don Arnulfo says, and the family laughs.
On Friday Afternoons, the patch of dirt east of Don Arnulfo restaurant turns into a town plaza and business district. Don Jose arrives first, around 3, his Chevy Custom pickup weighted down with swap meet goods. He sets up three tables and displays ratchet handles, ashtrays from the Ritz-Carlton, garden Gloves, bags of marbles, back-support work belts, sued boots, back issue of TV y Novela magazines, Spanish-English dictionaries, synthetic silk Partee shirts, bicycle patch kits, Palmolive de Lujo, patches, thread, eight-track tapes, aspirin, Virgen de Guadalupe T-shirts, porn magazines and key rings that read “I’m in no hurry. I’m on my way to work.”
Men trickle in from the fields, their hands red or green from strawberries and tomatoes. They line up at Don Trino’s truck to cash their checks, which costs a dollar on every $100 (the change remains with the cashier). It was not until around 1989 that any of them received check stubs, and it was not until then that men who were “legal,” like Don Cidronio, began to file tax returns. Most of the men are illiterate, and they nut around for a stranger to help them sign their names on the backs of their names on the backs of their checks. At Rancho de los Diablos, when you ask a man his age, he often tells you his age, he often tells you his birth year and asks you to figure the rest. At the footbridge, Ramiro sells beer from the trunk of car. “Come on, come and get them. They’re cold. Freshly killed. The beer is dead cold. All you have to do is ask for them. i know you’re thirsty. come and get em.” Across the way, men who don’t have socks put plastic shopping bags over their feet to try on boots. A baby-faced teen buys a green cap that reads “My summer began at Sarah’s Bat Mitzvah.”
Young men cruise the main strip of the camp in bicycles, pickups and motorcycles. An 8-year-old boy sits at the edge of the crowds of drinking men and collects their empty cans. When a bag is full, he runs home across the creek and returns with an empty bag. A white van that’s been converted to an ice cream truck chimes “The Entertainer.” Half a mile from the camp, las viejas, prostitutes from Tijuana, escondido and San Diego, descend in skin-tight miniskirts and high hells that puncture the dust. Wobbling down an embankment to a stand of eucalyptus tress, they carry their tools in white plastic grocery bags: cloth towels and rolls of toile paper.
With The White Homes of Rancho Penasquitos in the distance, Tlva Medina looks like a misplaced angel riding on a clud of dust on her way to her quincianera. No one would call her beautiful, and no one would say she was ugly, but in this void of plainness, she captures you attention: She is pretty because she has grace. Today, the 10th grades at Mount Carmel High School and reads Bambi books to practice her English will be the center of the world. she wears a $300 three tiered white satin dress with puffed-out sleeves, pink earrings and long satin gloves. She lifts her dress so it won’t drag through the dust. There, in the shade of eucalyptus trees, surrounded by her four escorts, she sits on a carpet-covered bench facing a small chapel. built two years ago by Don Cidronio, the cement-block sanctuary frames the blue-and white figure of the Virgen de Guadalupe.
A balding priest in a green robe with a round face named Father Fawcett celebrates mass. his altar, holding the cruet and hosts, is an overturned washing machine covered by a rainbow-colored blanket. Nearby, the stream rushes from a small waterfall. As the service continues, little boys throw rocks in the water; others run into the woods to pee. Elva’s father leans on a tree and beams. near the end of the service, her mother, a short woman in a blue and with dress, rises from her bench and asks God to protect her daughter as the family prepares to leave the camp for the city. Dona Asuncion and Cristobal, among the 50 parishioners present, solemly nod their heads. After the aleluya and Communion and the presentation of the gold signet ring with ?? number 15 on top, a ???? a volunteer invites everyone to stay: “Today we have spaghetti.” As Elva’s father takes pictures of his daughter and friends and people line up for food, a white van passes and someone shouts
“Migra, migra, Border Patrol, Border Patrol.” Mouths and forks jerk to a stop. False alarm. Everything returns to normal.
Later in the afternoon, the entire camp comes to the party in the clearing outside the Carbajal canton and restaurant, a pink structure with a roof made from cardboard vegetable boxes and plastic sheets. A blue tarp shades the dirt dance floor that’s been hosed to keep the dust down. Ramiro sets up speakers, microphone and amplifier near the front door.
Slugging back beers, their heels sinking in the damp dirt, the men form a wall around the dance floor. Roughly 12 men for every eligible woman, dozens cue up to dance. Some will wait as long as half an hour before they get their chance to ask Elva or the others to dance and, when they do, it is with a dash of country formality-hat in hand and a brief bow. Elva’s uncle asks Ramiro to sing a favorite song:
I wander through life traveling and if you must know, I’ll tell you that I’m a free spirit, A soul without an owner. I let nothing bother me. for me, life is a dream. I drink when I want to-I don’t deny it for I am an honest man. I go like the seagulls, flying from port to port. I know life is short and that I’m in debt. But the day I die, I can’t take anything with me. Yes, one has to enjoy this life that ends all too soon. Whatever happens in this world, only our memories remain. When I’m dead, I can take nothing more than a fistful of dirt.
The children break a pinata with a broom handle, scattering hard candy on the ground. Elva’s mother calls groups of men into the kitchen to enjoy the pig that was killed for the occasion. Dona Asuncion and the older married women sit in a row on the edge of the dance floor near a three tiered cake and a few boxed of presents. The back of the cake has melted from the sun.
That afternoon, Don Cidronio, Dona Adelina and their son had packed their belonging and moved into a rent-subsidized, two-bedroom duplex in Linda vista, 30 minutes away. The apartment has a flush toilet and a gas range the first that any of them have ever had. halfway through the party, Don Cidronio returns and stands at the edge of the crowd, belonging yet somehow gone. It is not that he misses the rancho. He returns because it is all he returns because it is all he knows of America, so out of whack from the dream. Perhaps he has to return before he can accept another version of el norte.
Princess for a day, Elva medina smiles at the crowd of men who sing “Happy Birthday” as she slices into the sagging cake. to the west, blocking the falling sun, a rainbow-colored hot air balloon lands in a field. One side reads, “Another Beautiful Day in San Diego.”
The First Bulldozers started coming in September. By the first week of November, all of Rancho de los Diablos had been razed. Elva and her family now live in a new apartment complex in Escondido. Don Arnulfo, Dona Asuncion and their family moved to San Diego. Don Cidronio’s family continues to live in Linda Vista. Felipe, like many of the younger men, went to Alabama to look for work in the poultry packing plants where, at $5 an hour, the pay is a little better. Ramiro continues to sleep in the back of his car. The other single men, who qualified under the relocation program for only one month’s rental assistance, have decided to take their chances in the hills and valleys. With scrap wood from the old camp, they’ve erected a new camp to the west, closer to the Ukegawa fields. They’ve named it Rancho de los Diablos.