Rocque De La Fuente Sr., a pioneering Latino businessman who built a family fortune in car dealerships and land on both sides of the Mexican border, has died in La Jolla. He was 78.
De La Fuente, who created the 312-acre Border Business Park at Otay Mesa south of San Diego, died Sunday of a heart attack at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla.
He had largely turned over control of the family enterprises to his son, Rocque De La Fuente Jr., after suffering a stroke in 1990.
Born in Tuxpan, Veracruz, Mexico, the son of an import-export businessman, De La Fuente dropped out of medical school in Mexico City to become a car dealer.
He bought surplus U.S. Navy vehicles for $25 at auctions and resold them in Tijuana for $50. By 1950, he had Porsche and Volkswagen franchises in Tijuana and Ensenada.
In an unusual sideline, De La Fuente built a pontoon toll bridge at San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico, to avoid tedious ferry crossings of the Colorado River. During the five-year duration of his contract with the Mexican government, he realized a $3,000 daily profit on his bridge.
When Mexico banned auto imports in 1964, De La Fuente moved north and obtained San Diego franchises to sell Volkswagens, Porsches, Cadillacs and Dodges.
He began his vast land acquisitions in the 1960s, when he bought automobile dealerships in Kearny Mesa. In 1979, he and his son, a land developer, bought 133 acres in nearby Otay Mesa, and in 1982 bought 4,000 more.
San Diego County condemned 524 acres of the land in 1987 to build a jail, but 10 years later had to pay Rocque De La Fuente Jr. $38.7 million to settle his litigation over the transaction. Last year, he won an additional $94.5 million from the city of San Diego in litigation over development of the family's Border Business Park.
The senior De La Fuente was considered a visionary three decades ago for beginning an industrial business park to provide an environment for companies too small to afford their own real estate. Such complexes are now commonplace.
A cosmopolitan bon vivant who courted politicians in both major U.S. parties, De La Fuente until 1996 maintained a 7,000-square-foot, ocean-view mansion in La Jolla, where he hosted political and charitable fund-raisers. He spoke fluent French as well as Spanish and English, and enjoyed French wine, Cuban cigars, and quick trips to France and Italy.
But De La Fuente, known to business associates from Japan to Germany as "Mr. D.," also enjoyed handing out $20 bills to homeless people he encountered on the streets of downtown San Diego.
In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife, Bertha; his daughter, Bertha De La Fuente; and six grandchildren.
Services are scheduled Wednesday at The Immaculata, on the University of San Diego campus.