A few years back, I found myself smoking a cigarette and holding a sun-warmed can of cerveza on Estero Beach just south of Ensenada on the Fourth of July.
Standing on the sand, I was surprised when one of those lawnmower- powered planes buzzed a few feet over my head before its pilot touched down amid the beach towels and sunbathers.
Later on in the day, I cruised Ensenada’s main drag, Avenida Mateos Lopez, in search of fireworks. We celebrated Independence Day on the beach, firing off as many rockets and noisemakers as we had. Passers-by and (perhaps more importantly) the cops completely ignored us. It was a blast.
I tried to imagine what the reaction to similar events on a Southern California beach would be. No doubt the cops would be called. As for the personal airplane, the FAA or Homeland Security would find a way to get involved.
Mexico, for all its flaws, seemed to have a lot more freedom than the United States. At least before the drug wars began in earnest last year.
The next day we followed a dry riverbed that doubled as a road out to the Guadalupe Valley. The huge vineyards that have been there since the days of the Spanish missions are everywhere.
We ate barbecued borrego and sipped port right out of the barrel. For dessert, the vineyard owner had me skim flies off the top of a vat of muscatel.
“You know the word for fly in Spanish?” he said. “It’s mosca – as in muscatel.”
It’s much funnier after a couple of drinks, but you get the picture.
I got to thinking about this trip and our seeming loss of personal freedom after reading a book about a guy that author Nat B. Read claims basically founded Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley. It’s titled “From Mountain Man to Mayor: Don Benito Wilson, Los Angeles 1841 to 1878.”
Read’s description of a pastoral and fiercely free Alta California full of Spanish-speaking natives, dangerous wildlife and beautiful vineyards got me thinking of how the interior of Baja California is probably a lot like the San Gabriel Valley of a century ago.
Although the vineyards, orange groves and other vestiges of Don Benito’s time have pretty much vanished, traces of him and the Valley’s past remain. I always point to San Gabriel as the link. It’s an interesting place to visit on Independence Day.
At the San Gabriel Mission, there’s a plaque commemorating 1776, the year the padres moved from Montebello to San Gabriel. The adobe wall it’s mounted on is as old as the founding of our country.
Then there’s the Church of Our Saviour on Roses Road. There’s a statue of Don Benito there. But even more impressive is a stained glass window depicting Wilson’s grandson slaying a dragon covered with swastikas.
His grandson? Gen. George S. Patton.
We may not have the freedom we used to have, but thankfully our history can’t be as easily taken away.