Sundays in Laguna
Superbowl Sunday 2006
I've been going to Laguna Beach every Sunday morning for breakfast for almost seven years now. This particular Superbowl Sunday marks the 5th anniversary of when I started writing about my adventures there and sharing these letters with friends. But there's another anniversary here too. It was 23 years ago this month that I first discovered Laguna Beach after moving to Hollywood with my ex-wife and two year old daughter Aurelia. We'd been living in Italy and chose to return to the states so that I could pursue my dream of being a photographer. Hollywood felt like the best place to do that and it didn't take me long after moving there to find Laguna Beach.
It's been quite a love affair...
The guys who cook my breakfast every Sunday morning at the Heidelberg Bistro are all Mexican, as are the busboys who never get a chance to bus my table because I always bus it myself. My housekeeper Silvia is Mexican too and although I can probably clean my place better than she does, the fact is, Silvia at least cleans it, which is something I don't do. When I had to move out of my apartment over the Christmas holidays so that they could recarpet and repaint the place, it was Silvia who came to my rescue and helped me throw all my stuff into boxes and bags so that I could get it out of here. Bless her heart, the day after Christmas I had her hard at work.
The crews who came in to paint the walls and carpet the floors of my apartment were all Mexican, every last one of them including the foremen. It was kind of fun really, to walk into my place and hear salsa music coming from their little portable, paint-splashed boom boxes. The crew of ten or fifteen men that asphalted the roofs of several of the buildings here in my complex last week were all Mexican as well.
As my Miata exits the fancy car wash cave it's immediately surrounded by a half dozen Mexican guys who dry it and buff it up to a shining, sparkling, fire-engine red. I always tip them generously and say gracias, even though I sometimes wonder if they think the gringo is being patronizing by speaking to them in Spanish. (If only they knew how much that isn't so.) I have my favorite car wash I always go to but virtually all of them in Southern California are manned exclusively by swarms of dark-skinned Mexicans, more often than not wearing Hawaiian shirts or some other outfit provided them by their employers so that they'll all look alike. Somehow I think that even without the matching shirts it wouldn't be too hard to tell who's washing the cars and who's driving them. On occasion I look into one of these guy's eyes as he's handing me my keys in exchange for the tip and I see a world of tiredness there - a guy my age, probably here under the radar, working hard washing cars to make a few bucks to send back to his family in Mexico. I don't know, maybe he finds washing cars a nice break from being bent over all day in a strawberry field up in Ventura.
Behind the deli counter at the market where I buy most of my food are Victor, Noel, Miguel, Jose` and a host of other young Mexican guys who come and go. For years now they've been serving up my lunches and dinners - they all know my name and I know theirs. Hidden back in the kitchen are two or three Mexican women who do all the cooking. I don't know their names but I know their faces. At the front counter are a number of young Mexican gals, Ana and Maria among them, who ring me up and take my money. And over in the bakery is Pedro, who prefers to be called Peter; a buffed up love of a guy with a huge smile who's putting himself through college by working part-time at the market. He sits on his lunchbreak outside with his French tutor and smiles and waves at me as I walk by - occasionally flexing his bicep to let me know that he's still working out. They're all such a part of my life now that it makes me kind of sad when I notice one of them isn't there anymore; something about the continuity of seeing the same people day after day is comforting.
The sumptuous display of fruits and vegetables near the front of the market leads off with perfectly arranged baskets of strawberries and huge mounds of grapes, all of which are hand-picked by the friends and relatives of all these young Mexican guys and gals who work at the market.
For several years now when I've looked out my bedroom window in the morning I've seen a middle-aged Mexican woman pushing a double stroller down the sidewalk. Somehow I don't think those blonde, blue-eyed children in the stroller are hers. I've seen her occasionally at the market as well - she speaks to the children in Spanish and they answer her in English. I think it's safe to say she's their nanny.
Along with the ocean breezes that come wafting in through my open windows on Thursday morning is the din of leaf blowers and the whirring of lawn mowers, courtesy of a small army of Mexican gardeners who in my opinion cut things back too far and rake things just a little too clean. But there you have it, the guys who keep most of our Southern California yards, gardens, parks and boulevards looking neat and manicured and like they're ready for a Home & Garden competition.
Close your eyes, turn yourself around and around in circles till you're dizzy and then stop, point a finger in any direction, open your eyes and standing there in front of you will be a Mexican. They clean our homes, wash our cars, cook our meals, bus our tables, mow our lawns, tend our children, pick our fruits and vegetables, haul away our trash, build our homes, carpet our floors and drive the big Sears trucks that our refrigerators are delivered to us in.
All of that and so much more...
Laguna Beach, like all of the rest of California, was once home to the Indians who had lived here for some thirty thousands years before the arrival of the Spanish Padres in 1769. The Indian's shelter and sustenance was provided by the land and because of their isolation from the rest of the indigenous cultures on the other side of the deserts and mountains, their ways remained quite primitive. The women wore something akin to a loin cloth and the men for the most part were always naked. They didn't grow crops, they gathered them. They didn't raise animals, they hunted them. In some ways they were an easy people to subdue and press into servitude. But while their lack of cultural development proved to be their undoing, their understanding of the land and their ability to work hard became the means by which the early colonizers in California began building the extraordinary agricultural industry we have in the state today.
Through the introduction of European diseases against which the Indians had no natural immunity, countless thousands of them perished while many thousands more of them died at the hands of the Spanish, Mexican and Anglo colonizers. The end result was more than 90% of the native California Indian population decimated in the space of 131 years. While the Indians were disappearing from the land though, the agriculture industry, which was wholly dependant on their cheap labor, was thriving and growing. When there were no more Indians to do the work the Mexicans started crossing the border and picking up the slack.
To the one side of me is the wealthy city of Newport Beach which, according to the most recent census data is the whitest city in California. To the other side of me about a mile away is the city of Santa Ana that sits directly on the site of an ancient Indian settlement. Those same census figures that name Newport the whitest city in California, also indicate that Santa Ana is one of the brownest cities in California, with a Mexican or Latino population of roughly 77%. The juxtapositioning of these two white and brown cities isn't suprising at all since one of them supports the privileged lifestyle of the other, with their proximity making it easier for everyone involved.
As I drive in and out of Laguna every Sunday morning I see Mexicans standing at the bus stops waiting for their rides in and out of the town where dozens of restaurants and hotels keep them employed. I see them in Laguna Canyon; twenty or thirty Mexican day laborers waiting at an organized pick-up spot across the road from a lumber yard. When a truck or car pulls in they swarm against its windows with their arms waving in the air: "Pick me, pick me." I see them in the laundromat and occasionally I see them walking on the beach.
But whether I can see them or not I always know they're there, mostly behind the scenes doing so much to keep this way of life of I enjoy going. I'm glad they're here - I honestly can't imagine my life in Southern California without my Mexican brothers and sisters in it. It's not just the work they do though - far from it. It's who they are and how much richer I feel for their presence. Their names are Silvia, Miguel, Jose`, Ana, Maria, Consuela, Victor, Noel and Pedro.
When I drive up over the crest of the hill in Laguna every Sunday morning and see the Pacific Ocean sparkling out there below me, I say "Hola` Pacifico." I don't know why I speak to the ocean in Spanish, but I do.
From the water's edge...
P.S. If you're interested you can read more about the history of California Indians on my blog. I'm in the process of writing a series of essays about their relationship to today's migrant Mexican workers and posting the essays on my blog as I finish them. My blog is here.