Mussolini and has fascists had been in power in Italy for a decade and were busy invading Ethiopia, Japan had perpetrated the Mukden incident four years earlier and two years later would complete its conquest of Manchuria with the rape of Nanking, Hitler was in his second year in power and the Nuremberg race laws were being passed and Franklin Roosevelt was still trying to engineer an economic recovery with an alphabet soup of new government agencies that would never accomplish anything worthwhile, whose additional financial burden would prohibit recovery and eventually require that we join the world war to achieve full employment. All of these things were happening but none were on the horizon so far as the Class of 1935 of the New Mexico School of Mines were concerned.
There was a large contingent of students from the north-east United States in school there, Bill and Steve Leach among them, and rather than go home over the Christmas holidays these young mining engineers took a geological field trip. Travelling south from Socorro to Silver City and then further south to Lordsburg they would clip the southeast corner of Arizona and pick up the Mexican Highway 2 to transit the Sonoran desert and wind up at Tijuana before starting back north. The samples collected, sketches made and notebooks filled are nowhere in evidence. We do however have a substantial number of photographs that attest to part of the trip.
The border was fairly informal in those days – if you were on this side, or that side, it was assumed you had business there – and it would not be until the beginning of the 21st century that a passport was needed to cross between the two countries. Not quite as formal as the class picture the trip participants peer out happily at us over three-quarters of a century.
And they had reason to be happy since even larger than the sign at the border that said “Mexico” was a sign that offered the chance to wash the dust of the desert at popular prices.
And this was no hole in the wall beer joint but since Tijuana was then only 31 miles west of the town of Tecate where Cerveceria [the brewery] Tecate was located this establishment was advertised as the longest bar in the world.
Although Terry’s Guide noted that tourists attractions, savory and unsavory, were dependent on American visitors it credited Avenida Revolucion as being the Great White Way although most of the curios are frankly geared to North American purses and the so-called native crafts-arts are debased.
There were other attractions and principal among them were a palatial jai alai fronton where games were played Thursday through Sunday with parimutuel betting allowed as it was at the Hipodromo de Tijuana located at Agua Caliente on Saturday and Sunday and the dog races offered Wednesday through Sunday. Of course there was the Plaza de Torros with regular bullfights but the best ones being reserved for holidays.
Just east is the town of Mexicali which was more wide open than Tijuana. During prohibition in the United States the town was so vice-ridden that the local government licensed gambling, prostitution and opium refining in order to finance public works and the first automobile road across the mountains to Tijuana. By the time the miners arrived gambling had been outlawed and prostitution and drug-peddling had been curtailed waiting for their next renaissance.
Not every hotel was a flea bag full of women of easy virtue and not every cantina was a tequilla mill were the only options were leaving diseased, drunk or dead. There was too much money flowing south and most of the towns hosted a “foreigner’s club” like the Monte Carlo where the guests were catered to in a congenial fashion and protected from both the native malefactors and their own worst instincts.
Part of the protection took the form of a garrison of troops stationed in every town that acted as police. The consequences of having such a national police force – run by the army and answerable to the executive authority – are bleakly told in Mexican history. Venustiano Carranza, Plutarco Elías Calles and Lázaro Cárdenas inflicted more damage and for a longer period of time than the Spanish and French combined. Starting with Carranza and continuing through Calles the principal effort was the suppression of the Church. Laws were passed requiring:
- Educational services shall be secular and, therefore, free of any religious orientation.
- The educational services shall be based on scientific progress and shall fight against ignorance, ignorance’s effects, servitude, fanaticism and prejudice.
- All religious associations organized shall be authorized to acquire, possess or manage just the necessary assets to achieve their objectives.
- Churches and religious congregations shall be organized under the law.
- Religious ceremonies of public nature shall be ordinarily performed at the temples. Those performed outdoors shall be regulated under the law.
Ignored by the United States – interested in Mexican oil – the Christians rose up in rebellion with the Christo Rey movement in which nearly 1,000,000 were martyred. The net result was that Cárdenas would expropriate the oil industry into Pemex in 1938 and form what J. Paul Getty would refer to as the only oil monopoly in the world that does not show a profit.
Even though Americans in Mexico witnessed the suppression, even though there was no secret made of the state atheism being enforced with openly violent and oppressive tactics, just like with the beginnings of the holocaust in Germany America stood by and did nothing. What waited for the young men from the School of Mines was the familiar protection of our border.
Along with a return to the safety of their own world. Unaware that the world would arrive on their doorstep at Pearl Harbor in six short years when tons of the scrap metal we had sold the Japanese would be sent hurtling back at our fleet. Unaware that their children and grandchildren would have to fight for their faith when their own government decided to impose its social agenda as superior to the principles of faith. We leave them happily lounging while we wonder how things might have been different and worrying about how bad things might become.