After piling into a friend’s car somewhere in the drab Anaheim suburbs we make it through the San Ysidro Crossing by sunrise and enter into the northern state of “Lower California.” Having been invited on this particular excursion by native Spanish-speakers we are endowed with a kind of cultural authority that comes only from traveling with locals. My wife and I had spent the past few weeks bumbling around India guided only by my ambitious itinerary-making and a few words of pidgin Hindi, so this trip brings a welcome sense of linguistic ease. Suffice it to say the vicissitudes of travel in the Subcontinent are enough to necessitate a after-trip vacation. Los Angeles, for all its flaws, feels surprisingly “first world” when arriving from Mumbai where the air is choked with haze all day and all night. And but for the beauty of its people India would seem a maelstrom of poverty and bureaucracy and over-population to the careless Westerner who dips in and out to see the Taj and other such attractions; but to the careful student of travel she is a mystical land where man has yet to develop a fear of photography and the local gods spill out of their temples onto every street corner; acolytes ushering passersby to make offerings on their way to work. There the religious impulse is never hidden or viewed as a source of cultural shame.
We are now halfway to Ensenada on the rambling Baja coastal highway several hundred meters above the Pacific that glistens below like mercury in the late morning light. It reminds me of Big Sur, I think. I had no idea of the geographic grandeur existent in my home state’s “lower” counterpart. The Spanish-speaking world remains a place that I have not done my due-diligence on, but I hear that Mexico is in some sense still a deeply Catholic nation. Such metaphysical gifts as exist in a traditionally religious society are apparently lost to us north of the border, perhaps because they remain confined to the predominantly Latino neighborhoods of Los Angeles east of the LA river, and the Westlake area near downtown where shrines to the Virgin can still be found on the street corners like the mini-temples of Hindu Kolkata. The Baja California peninsula and its links to the Spanish “Island of California” mythology can be felt deeply while passing the threshold of the US border into the land of Mexico, where people seem to retain a kindly sense of optimism reflected in their hearty smiles – a cultural lightness and neighborliness that Americans long ago traded for worry and materialism and accruement of wealth.
Baja is a near-800-mile peninsula protruding from the American Alta California like the phallus of our continent, or perhaps the tail, and on the East coast we find its twin or its head – Florida – geographically and historically something like the parent of California. Baja and the Western lands of New Spain were suspected to be very close to an earthly paradise of 16th century lore. Whether or not the modern state can uphold such paradisiacal underpinnings is the battle being fought before our very eyes now. The reasons for migration are obvious, but Baja Norte’s dramatic geography leaves me wondering why more don’t choose to stay.
The car is pulling into an informal suburb of Ensenada on bumpy dirt roads high in the foothills and away from the Pacific. I am again reminded that when man is allowed to build settlements without the help of bureaucratic urban planners he is in fact capable of apprehending one of the virtues of his state of nature – freedom. Children are running in the streets and careening through the dust on their bicycles and toy cars without supervision and the locals smile and wave as we disembark. Behind us are the higher peaks of the Peninsular Ranges that are shrouded in mist and smoke and below are humble houses dispersed among the cacti and chaparral with cars parked outside and no garages. Next to a church we meet Juan who is 38 years old and lives in his friend’s one-room house where there is no running water or electricity. The household appliances run on a car battery and the down payment was apparently a mere five hundred dollars. Juan and his wife and children have just arrived from a neighboring state and are crashing there to “save money.” He insists that the fifteen years he spent living in Phoenix were better than their present circumstances, and that Mexicans are “unprintably racist against their own people.”
After spending the day assisting in a medical clinic at the church on the hill, we are free to head into town and partake in tacos, a favorite across both Californias. The tortillas are larger than Los Angeles street tacos and the combination of meat, guac, and salsa is yet another hint that there are many travel discoveries to be made in this land of Baja Norte.
While abroad I always desire to visit the beach – it helps to delimit the land in which I find myself and aids me in my attempts to imagine exactly how far I am from home – so all day I’m picturing the glittering waters of Bahía de Todos Santos somewhere down below us and the mysteries that it might contain; and exactly what direction I might look in order to say, “over there is Santa Monica.” Much to my dismay it is dark by the time we reach Centro Ensenada and from a hilltop we gaze upon the city lights that abruptly end at the malecón and the black expanse of this unknown sea remains veiled. Perhaps, to me, this “other” California is the island of Spanish lore, an undiscovered promised land, adumbrated by the many similar climes in which I have travelled, but still waiting to be fully seen to the point that I can construct an accurate mise-en-scene representative of Las Californias. If the vitality of migrants from the South could be shared by wise American travelers seeking to understand this land that we have inherited, maybe the noise of politics could be subsumed by a mutual understanding between the two peoples who share our California “island.” Outside of the Westernized resorts is the boon that awaits the patient traveller from the North who seeks to learn about his land’s origins. I can only travel in the way that I know how, as an outcast from my homeland, among ordinary people and away from the luster of expensive hotels and restaurants. Or maybe it is just my delusion as a photographer who desires to work in the documentary tradition that leads me to think such thoughts. ☗
Brian Wertheim is a photographer and filmmaker in Los Angeles, California.