By Nat Krieger
Late at night in Old Town it’s not hard to time travel. The cars lining the narrow streets have turned out their lights and gone to sleep. Human activity is reduced to three women walking together. They are wearing white blouses with multicolored skirts synced by a red sash.
If you don’t see the cars or buses or trolleys the women are heading for, San Diego’s past clings to their rapid steps. With straight black hair and features that cover the distance between Cortez and the Kumeyaay the women are actors leaving a set where they have been playing the sartorial and biological roots of San Diego as imagined a century and a half later.
Along the eastern side of La Plaza de Las Armas in the heart of Old Town the thick adobe walls of Casa Estudillo release the heat of the day into the night, as they have for 185 years. The casa’s tall wooden doors are shut and the courtyard garden within, visible only through a skeleton key shaped hole, dreams again of the corn and beef flavored smoke that once poured from the outdoor clay oven.
Out in the deserted plaza time’s spiral arm interrupts the breezy conversation of the Oak tree’s branches: a radio voice transports you from San Diego, 1840, to San Diego, Alta California, 2014–an alternate city that stands at the northern frontier of the Mexican Republic.
The Federal Government in distant Mexico City has granted linguistic autonomy to the northern states in recognition of the large Anglo minority, and although the public service announcements are in English the words seem to be literal translations from Spanish making for unintentional humor as you listen to an announcer boasting that the Federal agency sponsoring the spot “does not admit corruption.”
But poor translations aren’t the only reason the time traveler knows these announcements don’t come from the U.S.
The next spot warns of the dangers of gambling: “it’s no joke, it’s illegal and addictive”. In the daytime reality of San Diego, U.S.A., casinos sponsor baseball teams and American advertisements show nothing but happy winners spinning roulette wheels.
The disembodied voices in the night get weirder: “Mexico is among the top ten nations in the world for number of languages spoken; come hear our constitution read in 23 indigenous languages.”
Actually celebrating linguistic diversity instead of making it a political football? No, we’re definitely not in the U.S. anymore.
Oak trees can live well over 200 years and the time traveler wants to ask the oak in the plaza what happened.
Did General Kearny and his dragoons get swallowed whole by the Sonoran desert? Did Chief Juan Antonio lead a combined Cahuilla-Californio force down from Cowles Mountain and drive Commodore Stockton’s men out of Old Town and into the sea, saving San Diego for Mexico? Is there a monument to the battle at the harbor where the dignitaries of Mexico’s northernmost metropolis gather every year on the battle’s anniversary to raise the tri color and lay wreaths?
Traffic and consensual reality ride to the rescue on the rays of dawn. No longer a wanderer through time you’re back in America’s Finest trying to remember who the Padres signed to play catcher, and wondering if the blouses of indigenous working women in the middle of the 19th Century were really so spotless as they navigated streets paved with dust and manure?
Was every day really an eternal fiesta of good food and mariachi music, bereft of horse flies, desperation, and disease? Is it the same San Diego that celebrates its Mexican forbearers while denying the right of their descendants to determine the future of their own barrio?
Turns out the radio voices in the night came from border blasters—radio stations whose call letters begin with X and broadcast from Mexico. In exchange for high watts and low fees Mexican law obligates the stations to broadcast various Mexican government public service spots, and campaign ads when they’re in season; it’s up to each station to translate the spots into English.
A web search shows local reactions to these spots ranging from befuddlement to suspicion. The Voice of San Diego wonders if “we crossed into Mexico without realizing?” and a fan on X1090 sports radio wants to know “what’s with those horrible Mexican ads?”
Funny how ambiguities of translation and meaning also lurk within a single language: Flowing through the spaces between these words, as silent and real as the sound frequencies beyond our radios, is the question of why Americans would want to know anything about Mexico that is not first filtered through the U.S. media? And why should we be exposed to radio stations that dare broadcast anything that is not music, titillation, poorly veiled hate speech, or sports? And anyway, by what right does Mexico dare to enforce its own laws within its own borders?
Perhaps it’s not the specter of the airwaves transmitting items that are occasionally educational or even possibly enlightening that is so threatening–after all NPR is frequently guilty of that, but the ‘foreign’ perspective, including the assumption that one of government’s primary duties is to promote the welfare of all the people it has been elected to serve.
The oak tree in Old Town plaza has roots. People do not. We cross frontiers and languages riding trade winds and radio waves, forever moving, transforming ourselves and our environment by the minute. Long before an Anglo or a Spaniard ever set eyes on this place, before there was a
San Diego for anyone to remember or recreate, the Kumeyaay arrived, and with them came the Eeyahpoo–wee folk born to mischief, who tantalize, trick, and generally make fools of humans.
Nocturnal creatures, the Eeyahpoo are rarely spotted in daylight but for thousands of years they’ve been turning our star filled canyons, fields, and plazas into smithies, forging two-way mirrors for us to find in the morning. We believe these looking glasses to be our own creations and peering into them we proclaim History, mistaking our reflections for the objects of our gaze.
Nat Krieger works for San Diego Unified where, on good days, he fixes computers. Nights spent wandering though 10th Century Andalusia resulted in a recently completed work of historical fiction.